Exercise, discipline, affection.
In that order.
One Saturday night a few years ago Joe and I went to the beautiful Midland Center for the Arts to see and hear Cesar Millan talk about his life with dogs. Cesar, the world-famous dog whisperer, is incredibly wise about how to approach, understand and train them- and rehabilitate their owners.
“There is no such thing as a problem breed. However, there is no shortage of problem owners. With a dog, people are not disciplined. They think that by spoiling a dog, it will love them more. But the dog misbehaves more because people [involved with them] give affection at the wrong time.”
“Dogs in America get more affection than most women in third world countries.”
-But not exercise, or discipline, which should always happen before affection is offered.
Here was the auditorium scene that greeted us:
On a large, deep stage with muted lighting sat a sofa, an end table, and a small rug with a coffee table on it, all set well back from the stage’s edge.
It portrayed a typical living room.
(Oh- and there were three huge screens set in a high triangle so that folks up in the highest balcony- like us- wouldn’t miss a thing.)
Cesar popped onto the stage, his famous grin lighting up the big (sold out) auditorium. He was dressed casually in jeans and a long-sleeved gray tee shirt- simple attire designed to focus our attention on what he came to teach, rather than on him.
Straightaway he commented that humans are the hardest to rehabilitate. They can be stubborn, or blind to why their pet’s objectionable behavior occurs. It can be humbling- and embarrassing- for owners to realize- and accept- that they, not their pet, are the problem.
In his TV series (lasting nine years) desperate clients would come to him highly motivated to understand and change their enabling behavior. Viewers would watch the liberating changes with deep interest, hope, and not a little chagrin.
First, Cesar would listen to the owners’ complaint, and while they talked he’d size them up. And their dog, too.
The challenge? To coax the folks to see themselves as their dog did.
A Bad Thing.
Didn’t matter if their beastie was gigantic or teeny. His message was always the same.
Dogs, to be balanced, require a Pack Leader.
No pack leader around? Then the human will find him/herself with a willful, disobedient, confused, irritating, obnoxious, dominant dog.
That final descriptive adjective is another Bad Thing.
Dominant (‘alpha’) dogs have free rein to do whatever they please to their submissive humans- for up to fifteen years! Exasperated, frustrated, baffled owners might dump the dog, or have it euthanized, or give it away ruined. Then they’ll buy another, ‘better’ dog and repeat the same submissive behavior, expecting a different result.
Or, resigned to their situation, they’ll submit to their out-of-control dog until it finally dies. How awful for both parties.
Joe and I saw a lot of bobbing heads out there.
Cesar asked us to move into our dog’s moment. “Dogs learn mostly with their noses. ‘I’ll believe it if I see it’ for dogs translates to ‘I’ll believe it if I smell it.’ So don’t bother yelling at them: it’s the energy and scent of calm confidence they pay attention to, not your words.”
Humans, he mused, need to know how dogs sort out the world.
Now came part 2- demonstrations. The three dogs brought to him had never laid eyes on him.
A local humane society handler trotted out a big, handsome, shorthaired dog obsessed with balls. He’d been returned to the humane society over and over by frustrated families because of this infuriating obsession. The staff was despairing. Charley-dog had an impossible-to-cure problem. Could they ever get him successfully adopted?
After Cesar pulled these few scraps of information from the handler he asked her to bring out the ball she’d been hiding behind her back. “Please set it down some distance away.” She did.
Ohhh...it was a lovely big red one. Charley-dog came alive with a fearsome, laser intensity. His eyes gleamed!
Ball was All.
Cesar picked it up, ‘owning’ it. Charley, released by the handler at his direction, rushed toward Cesar, ignoring everything else.
Cesar slipped on a simple collar/leash (one looped line) and continued to hold the ball while the dog visually devoured it.
Then, he set it down in a spot he chose.
When the animal went for it he made a noise:
Startled, Charley’s focus broke. He looked up at Cesar for an instant before shifting his laser-gaze back to the Ball again. At that exact instant, the sound came again.
Translation: That. Ball. Is. Mine.
This time the dog stared at him, uncertain. Cesar moved the slim collar/leash high up on his neck (to achieve excellent control with minimal effort) and led him away about ten paces. Charley went willingly, but kept glancing back toward his beloved Ball. Cesar asked the dog to sit while pulling the lead straight up as his left foot tapped Charley’s hind end.
Plop. Charley sat immediately and stared up at Cesar, totally attentive now, to this interesting human.
Charley-dog instinctively knew he faced a Pack Leader. Happily absorbing Cesar’s calm, assertive energy and quiet confidence, he relinquished ball-thoughts without fuss.
No problem, Boss. You own that ball.
Cesar walked him toward his property, and a millisecond after Charley glanced at the ball, Cesar tapped his hindquarters gently with his left foot and made that noise. A reminder.
Charley snapped to attention and looked up at Cesar intently.
Ohh, right! That’s your ball, Boss.
Redirection- and a new focus, Cesar- at precisely the right moment, was the key to Charley’s successful behavior modification. We watched the animal mentally switch to obedient, submissive respect. I could almost hear a ‘Click.’
Again, Cesar led him toward the ball. They padded around it and past it. Charley-dog, watching Cesar for cues while heeling, ignored it. Why?
It wasn’t his.
Satisfied, Cesar freed him. He wandered around to sniff the furniture and explore the whole stage, nose working busily. But he completely, permanently ignored the big red ball that sat before us.
The handler and audience were gob-smacked. Dead still. Stunned. Blown away. After a long, dead silence, fierce applause.
Punkin, weighing about 35 pounds, had a food obsession. The owner, a pleasant older lady, was going nuts. All her dog thought about was FOOD. Countertop food. Table food. Her granddaughter’s food. She always found a way to snatch it. Her owner couldn’t shame/scold/scream her out of her bad behavior. She felt helpless. Arghhhh!
Cesar attached his slim collar/lead high up behind her dog’s ears and got its full attention by offering a delicious chicken morsel from one of three chicken-filled, cereal-sized bowls an attendant had quietly placed on the end table.
Punkin scarfed the gift down. (Cesar had demonstrated, by hand-feeding her, that he owned the food.)
He asked the owner to keep her (leashed) dog from following him while he walked away to set his three meaty bowls of chicken bits on the stage floor close to the audience, leaving perhaps five feet between each bowl. Punkin watched every move. Then he led the eager, wide-eyed, straining, salivating dog toward them. Ohboyohboyohboy....Her nose worked frantically. As she lurched toward the bowls he made ‘the sound’ and touched her flank with his sneaker, which came up behind his other leg, very fast.
Translation: ‘No. Mine.’
No exclamation point necessary. It was a simple fact.
Startled, she looked up at Cesar. He re-adjusted the slim collar/leash toward the top of her neck again and maneuvered her into the ‘heel’ position. (Remember, he’d never seen this dog before.) Each time she microscopically tilted her body or eyes toward the food he got her attention with ‘that sound’ while keeping the collar situated high on her neck behind her ears and straight, but not taut. One minute later they began deliberately walking past the bowls.
Around the bowls.
Between the bowls.
Back and forth.
In and out.
Round and round.
Punkin never once looked at them.
Your food. Understood, Boss.
Cesar removed the lead right there by the bowls. Punkin wandered off to entertain herself while he chatted with us. She went deeper into the set to sniff the couch, end table and little rug. But. When she sneaked a furtive glance toward the food bowls from that long distance away, testing, Cesar was instantly ready. ‘Ssst!’
(He’d been waiting for that long-distance glance, and had seized the moment to reinforce the lesson.)
Punkin was startled!
Oops! This Alpha sees all...
Snapping to attention, she looked over at him. He held her gaze quietly. She dropped her eyes, a submissive gesture, and continued to explore the big stage.
Just checkin’, Boss.
The aromatic chicken was never acknowledged again.
The dog’s owner stood there flatfooted, open-mouthed. The audience was too stunned to clap. It was pretty darn quiet in there for a long time, as we absorbed this.
Finally, once again, the applause was thunderous.
These two demonstrations were, in a word, Sensational.
Last- a male handler from a local rescue group brought in a super-timid cream and white Labrador puppy about seven months old, who seemed glued to the fellow’s legs. The little guy wound apologetically around them, twisting the leash every which way as he hunched and fawned and crept about while being slooowly coaxed and tugged out onto the stage. The puppy looked thoroughly intimidated by life.
The sad journey took awhile.
Cesar went to him, knelt and patted him calmly, and then encouraged him to sniff his hand. He quietly positioned the slim collar/lead correctly, got the pup’s attention with a tiny tug, and began to walk steadily forward across the stage, radiating confidence.
He owned that moment.
He. Was. Alpha.
An Alpha human represents Safety. Power.
As they strode along the puppy’s confidence grew by the second. The little guy began to prance and gambol by Cesar’s side. He’d tapped into Cesar’s energy and made it his own.
Life was good!
There were gasps, then huge, sustained applause!
What stellar demonstrations of ‘Own the ball,’ ‘Own the food,’ ‘Own the moment!’
How could such effective training be. so. simple?
He’d never laid a cross hand on the animals, never raised his voice. He did command their full attention by radiating calm, assertive energy, and by living in their moment. For Cesar, the dog in front of him was all there was.
There was no mystery or magic here- only a man with a simple plan. By offering calm, assertive energy directed absolutely toward the dog he was working with, along with a deep understanding of how they worked, he offered them, their handlers, and his audience- a new way of operating.
Everyone, he reminded us, has the power do this.
He told us: “Never beg, never plead with your dog- ‘Sit! Sit! sitsitsit-sit! I said sit....’ or... ‘Stay, oh, please staaaay? Staaaaaay? staaaaaaaaaaaay...?’” Cesar, half-stooped, palms out, backed away from an invisible dog, pantomiming this all-too-familiar behavior, to great laughter. (He’s a fine comedian.) We ruefully recognized ourselves, all right. No decent dog would be motivated to obey a pleading human victim who would shrug sadly and sigh-but never take command when his pet routinely ignored his timid requests.
Cesar demonstrated, over and over, that being The Pack Leader is essential for developing a balanced dog.
And a balanced owner.
It really is that simple.
It was a pleasure to witness Cesar’s ability to change a dog’s life, just like that. His books, found in libraries and bookstores, are packed with insight and information.
Joe and I understand how to be pack leaders.
We deeply love our Bryn.
She is our pet, not our child.
We’ve set clear boundaries and defined the behaviors she’s had to master to enjoy a happy, balanced life.
A few examples:
Human furniture is for humans. Always.
Never jump on humans.
Chew only what is permitted.
Pee and poo outside.
Never beg at dinner tables.
Be gentle to any smaller dog or child.
Obey our commands immediately.
And on and on.
One other important note: make sure your dog is paying attention before you issue a command. Make sure it is looking at you and listening. Eliminate distractions.
Bryn’s life-lessons are taught with a minimum of fuss and a maximum of quiet confidence.
She is so pleased when she gets it right.
Bryn-dog is respectful, knows her place, and loves us right back, in full measure, largely because we’ve accepted, and used, brilliant Cesar Millan’s simple, profound gift.