Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Another trainer's perspective on the CM show

This is a long response, just to warn you. If you don't want to read a book, just read the next paragraph, then skip down to the end. :)

I have to agree with Anonymous and Denise -- there was almost no content in CM's presentation whatsoever. Certainly, there was little to learn from it, even if one wanted to practice the sort of "training" that he does.

CM had lots of jokes of questionable taste. He also was not clear in his explanations, and some of the diagrams he used were confusing at best. Okay, on to the play by play.

To start, I would like to just say that I find that people are more receptive to what I have to say about CM when I begin my remarks with something like "I think he's quite charismatic and I agree with X and Y." Then I say "But I don't agree with A, B, and C, and here's why." People
seem much more willing to entertain the points I disagree about once I've done the conciliatory thing. Starting out a conversation with "He's abusive and I can't stand him" usually means that people close their ears to everything else that follows.

Having said that, I went to the presentation with the goal of finding something to agree with, something to start my conversation with. In the past, I have been saying that I agree that dogs need exercise, boundaries and leadership, and affection. But I don't agree with what CM says about any of them, so I've found it problematic -- my definitions of reasonable exercise and leadership, for instance, are not the same as his.

I agree that to effectively train or rehabilitate a dog, one should be calm and confident (his new word for assertive). Dogs do pick up on our emotions, and if we are upset, or anxious, or hyper, I think that emotion can transfer down the leash. Confident is something I think of in terms of not being afraid -- being afraid of a dog is not going to be helpful, I don't think.

One of CM's little anecdotes ending with the dog telling CM, "Tell my people that (dog training) is not about me." I agree with that, mostly dog training is about training the people. What I want to teach them though, is different from what he would teach.

He also said that to prevent problems from developing, training needs to start in puppyhood. I agree. However, my methods of prevention differ greatly from his.

He pointed out that when meeting a new (stranger) dog, one should respect the dog's space and give the dog distance. I agree.

He also mentioned that it is not as effective to use verbal communication. I agree; often, dogs are responding to our body language and not our words.

One of his points was that the mealtime ritual can represent excitement to the dog if we set it up that way by riling up the dog and creating a situation where we ramp up their excitement. I think we can do this inadvertently.

Dogs need rules, boundaries, limitations. I agree.

CM also talked about the biggest challenge being to help clients not focus on the past or the future. (I took this to mean, if the dog always barks and lunges when he sees another dog, we tend to "live in the past" and then "anticipate" and "project into the future" (my restatements of what I got, not exactly what he said). Therefore, we are tense and anxious, and that translates to the dog. Agreed.

Dogs live in the present. Probably true, up to a point. But don't tell me that my dog doesn't remember what happens when the nail clippers come out, or that he doesn't remember that a dog lives in the house on the corner. And don't try to tell me that he doesn't remember bad or stressful experiences -- I think we've all seen that our dogs do have memories of the past.

Emotion leads to energy/pheromones, which leads to changes in body language, which leads to changes in behaviour. Okay, I can buy that, too. When I get tense and tighten up on the lead (emotion and body language), this leads to a change in my dog's behaviour. He senses my tension and goes on alert.

One thing that he repeated several times is that he drew parallels between leadership of dogs and his leadership to his son. I find that this is a bit contrary to his also repeated opinion that we should not treat dogs like children, so I was a bit confused. I often liken leadership to the
parental role, but it wasn't clear to me what CM was saying, because he seemed to say yes and no at different times.

Dogs today don't have jobs. Mostly true. Dogs with jobs, even if it's just scavenging food from a tricky treat ball, are generally better off than dogs that don't have anything to do. That's why we say to do a bit of training every day, to give your dog mental exercise and "a job" to do.

Dogs learn by steps. Agreed -- we have to break things into small pieces to teach them to the dog, just like we have to do when we're teaching another person.

Communication creates partnership. Yep, I agree with this, too. I just communicate differently, and I suggest that his type of communication doesn't create partnership, but rather fear and intimidation.

Dogs communicate all the time, we just don't listen. I've said much the same thing to my puppy classes. Dogs have to shout when humans don't pay attention -- very true. That's why dogs escalate to bites, because people don't see their communications prior to the bite (or have punished out those communications).

Use your tools before a dog's behaviour problem escalates / work at a 2 and not a 10. I would suggest that working at an even lower level than a 2 is more effective -- working under threshold is MUCH more effective than working at threshold or over.

So there were points I agreed with, at least sort of. Again, I agree with the principles, but not what he does about them in most cases.

There were also many disturbing things said and done. The demo dogs were all stressed out. Some of that is no doubt due to the crowd, the noise, the lights, etc. But as CM interacted with them, the calming signals were flying like crazy, and one dog almost hyperventilated, he was so stressed. Every single dog with the possible exception of the two puppies was clearly stressed out, if you know what you're looking at when you see a dog licking it's lips, panting, yawning, licking, blinking, scratching, putting ears back, and repeating them all over and over again.

He talked about the dog needing to learn the rules of the pack, and that a dog's first responsibility is to the pack before itself. Dogs DO need to learn the rules of the family/household, but I think most dogs aren't thinking about the collective before themselves. I think they're thinking about what they want and how to get it.

He had a strange segment about separation anxiety -- my notes are that dogs need to learn detachment. I'm not quite sure what he means by that.

There was a "wolf hybrid" on stage, and CM and the owner kept marvelling about how "calm" the dog was. Only to the uneducated eye - the calming signals were clearly communicating that the dog was NOT calm.

He used the slip lead around the top of the dog's throat, like Anonymous mentioned. I noted that each time he used it on a demo dog, there was almost constant tension on the lead (so that the dog would be fully aware that they were in jeopardy of the "corrections" or the jerks on the leash), and then he did some subtle jerks and kicks. Like Anonymous said, he's so good at them, it's hard to notice unless you're watching for them. Most of the audience was not watching and did not see it.

With the dog that came on stage pulling his owner around the stage, my note is "the dog is still pulling, it's just that the collar is pressing on the sensitive spot", and then CM did his jerks and kicks and the dog started to suppress behaviour to try to avoid the jerks and the kicks. Everyone around us clapped and commented about how wonderful it was that CM could do
that so fast. I could do the same thing with a handful of treats, and not risk hurting the dog or damaging my relationship with him. And I'd have focus, rather than the almost desperate "please don't notice me" that the dog was projecting.

There was also a dog that was scared of clapping. So the audience clapped repeatedly. That poor dog. And when she showed her fear, the audience laughed. It was alarming and appalling. He kept getting the audience to clap, and the poor dog started to shut down.

My note here is "the reason it works so fast is that it uses suppression of behaviour and aversives". Truth. Not because the dog is learning what TO do, but because the dog is learning that doing X is dangerous.

He worked with a dog with toy drive -- sure, it needed an off switch, but he continued to "correct" her every time she noticed or moved toward the ball. So the dog started ignoring the ball -- a quick learner for sure. His comment was that she was in a relaxed state. Her body language showed anything but that -- panting, lip licking, ears back -- my note is "totally
stressed dog".

At one point, he talked about why he kicks the dogs instead of doing the "sssssttt" and poking it in the neck. He said he does it because the dog's neck is numb. I don't think I need to say why I find that disturbing.

He also said he wants dogs to surrender. I would rather have my dog eager to learn, wanting to play the game, rather than shutting down.

He talked about how he's only ever seen a few dogs he would call truly aggressive. One of them is Holly, a yellow lab. You may have seen the video -- he gets bitten. He commented that "he didn't see it coming" -- the video he showed was nicely edited, so that all the warning signs weren't shown. If you've seen the video, you could see that the dog was indeed shouting -- the fact that he "didn't see it coming" is a true reflection of his knowledge.

There was also a demo dog that was an explosive detection dog. It was rewarded by a toy, and the handler even said, "it's all about the toy" for this dog. Obviously this dog was trained using positive reinforcement! It was rather misleading, since that dog was clearly not trained using his methods.

In short, I found that his performance reinforced my beliefs about his methods and his lack of education and knowledge about dog behaviour, when it wasn't full of tasteless jokes and incomprehensible "explanations". Although it looks like I found plenty to agree with, I have to say again that although I might agree with the principles of what he says, I definitely do NOT agree with what he does about them.

Even if a person was a CM fan, I think it would have been a waste of money. I am glad I went, because when people ask me about it, I can now speak knowledgeably about his show and my opinion about what he says. It wasn't a pleasant experience, by any stretch, but it could also have been much worse.

All in all, for the average pet owner, I think that the show was just that -- a performance by CM and a commercial for his new show and his son's new show (God help us, Puppy Whisperer). There was very little content, and what there was to see just reinforced how abusive his methods are. Most of the people there didn't even see the things that the dogs were saying, and just accepted at face value that CM is "magical". Only to the uneducated eye, is what I have to say.

Rant over. Thanks for reading, if anyone did! :)


  1. I'm so grateful for this play-by-play of the Cesar Millan performance. Just excellent!

  2. Hi! Thank you for sharing. Personally I have not been to any of his shows, therefere not able to write such a review. Would you mind if I quoted you on my blog?

  3. A brief quote with a link to this page would be great! :) There are other review posts here too..

  4. I haven;t read all of what you said but I gotta write this down while I remember by learn detachment I'm almost positive he means learn how to survive without us. Bc in the case of separation anxiety the dog doesn't know how to cope while alone so they need to learn how to survive without the owners being there 24/7

  5. I haven;t read all of what you said but I gotta write this down while I remember by learn detachment I'm almost positive he means learn how to survive without us. Bc in the case of separation anxiety the dog doesn't know how to cope while alone so they need to learn how to survive without the owners being there 24/7