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Thursday, August 31, 2006
In Defense of the Dog Whisperer
Surprised to find a scathing critique of Cesar Millan in the New York Times op-ed section this morning by Mark Derr, "the author of Dog’s History of America: How Our Best Friend Explored, Conquered and Settled a Continent. I'm no dog expert -- I'm not even a dog owner -- but I call bullshit on the following claims:

Mr. Millan brings his pastiche of animal behaviorism and pop psychology into millions of homes a week. He’s a charming, one-man wrecking ball directed at 40 years of progress in understanding and shaping dog behavior and in developing nonpunitive, reward-based training programs, which have led to seeing each dog as an individual, to understand what motivates it, what frightens it and what its talents and limitations are. Building on strengths and working around and through weaknesses, these trainers and specialists in animal behavior often work wonders with their dogs, but it takes time.

Read: 40 years of extending the Standard Social Science Model to dogs. It is this humanizing ideology that has led to most the problem Cesar solves. Tell the average dog-owner to treat her dog as an individual full of motivations, fears, talents, and limitations, and she's going to treat it like her child. Result: aggressive and/or neurotic dog. (I've always felt the Cesar could do a lot for the state of child-rearing in the country -- a proposition since explored by South Park.) The pop psychology, incidentally, is for his clients, the owners. As he says, he rehabilitates dogs, it's people he trains. That's what they respond to.

The notion of the "alpha pack leader" dominating all other pack members is derived from studies of captive packs of unrelated wolves and thus bears no relationship to the social structure of natural packs, according to L. David Mech, one of the world’s leading wolf experts. In the wild, the alpha wolves are merely the breeding pair, and the pack is generally comprised of their juvenile offspring and pups.

A "captive pack of unrelated wolves" -- sounds like the perfect description for a suburban dog-owning family to me.

More important, aggression often has underlying medical causes that might not be readily apparent — hip dysplasia or some other hidden physical ailment that causes the dog to bite out of pain; hereditary forms of sudden rage that require a medical history and genealogy to diagnose; inadequate blood flow to the brain or a congenital brain malformation that produces aggression and can only be uncovered through a medical examination. Veterinary behaviorists, having found that many aggressive dogs suffer from low levels of serotonin, have had success in treating such dogs with fluoxetine (the drug better known as Prozac).

In other words, let's boost America's annual spending on health care for its dogs above that which it spends on its people.

Serotonin is an interesting socially responsive neurochemical and the veterinary behaviorists' claim seems entirely consistent with Cesar's philosophy and methods. That is, I suspect putting a dog in its place will regulate its serotonin levels much more effectively than an expensive drug habit.

Maybe the Dog Whisperer's methods are a quick fix for a more complicated problem in some instances. But let me make the case that that is all dogs deserve. After all, they're not people, they're dogs.