Almost every dog-training book has something to offer the discerning reader, and Cesar’s Way is no exception. The book’s strength is as an autobiography of National Geographic’s TV dog-trainer star, Cesar Millan. If you’re curious about how Millan got where he is today, this book will tell you. If you’re looking for significant help training your dog, however, look elsewhere.
Many in the behavioral science community view the tenets—and consequences—of Cesar’s “way” with trepidation. In an interview published in the New York Times in February of this year, Dr. Nicolas Dodman, director of the Animal Behavior Clinic at Tufts University’s Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, observed, “My college thinks it is a travesty. We’ve written to National Geographic Channel and told them they have put dog training back 20 years.”
Millan provides little in terms of concrete training information, offering instead broad generalizations about projecting “calm-assertive energy”—a Millan catch phrase—and instilling “calm, submissive energy” in your dog. For example, in Chapter 8, he offers “Simple Tips for Living Happily with Your Dog.” His “Rules of the House” include:
Good advice, perhaps, but nowhere in the book does he explain how to accomplish these things, other than by using calm-assertive energy.
Millan is nothing if not confident. He admits to his “politically incorrect” reliance on old-fashioned dominance theory, stating, “To dogs, there are only two positions in a relationship: leader and follower. Dominant and submissive. It’s either black or white.” He even has the hubris to bemoan the unwillingness of authorities to allow him to rehabilitate Hera, one of the two notorious Presa Canario dogs who killed Diane Whipple in the hallway of her San Francisco apartment building.
In Millan’s world, every behavior problem is addressed in terms of dominance and submission. He even uses the alpha roll as part of his “dominance ritual”; this technique—forcibly rolling a dog on his side or back and holding him there—is considered by many to be a dangerous practice based on faulty interpretation of wolf behavior. It long ago fell into disfavor with trainers whose methods are based on the science of behavior and learning.
Where Millan talks about “energy,” science-based trainers talk about behavior, and generally agree that status in social groups is fluid and contextual, not black or white. Truly effective and long-term success in behavior modification requires a far more studied and complex approach than simply asserting dominance.
Interpretation of dog body language diverges just as widely. Millan refers in his book to Kane, a Great Dane who appeared on his TV show who was afraid of slick linoleum floors. Millan claims that with less than 30 minutes of his calm, assertive influence, Kane was striding confidently down the slick hallway. Every trainer I know who has watched that segment notes the dog’s post-Millan, obvious and ongoing stress signals: head and tail lowered, hugging the wall, panting.
Millan touts the benefits of exercise in modifying dog behavior, a concept I heartily endorse. However, his book starts with a description of the four-hour exercise session he engages in with his pack of dogs every morning in the Santa Monica Mountains of Southern California, followed by afternoons spent rollerblading with those same dogs, 10 at a time, on the streets around his training center.
One of the tenets of a successful training program is that it gives the dog owner tools he or she can apply. How many dog owners can spend six hours a day exercising their dogs? How many can project “calm-assertive energy”? The danger of Cesar’s Way is that it assures owners that quick fixes and easy answers lie in the hands of a smiling man with the elusive calm-assertive energy.
In fact, answers are better found in the beautiful complexity of life, where solutions are often not quick and easy, but are solidly built on a sturdy foundation and an understanding of how behavior really works.