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26 June 2010
Recently the APBC joined with national and international behaviour and welfare organisations in condemning some of the techniques used by Cesar Millan, the self-styled “Dog Whisperer”.
The reason for us taking a stand on this issue is because as dog behaviourists we often pick up the pieces when well-meaning but misguided attempts to “establish dominance” through force backfires on our clients and their dogs. Rather than revisiting criticisms of the dominance myth and the risks of punishment-based training, I thought I would offer a real-world example of how attempts to replicate “dog whispering” can backfire.
One of my clients Steve was so pleased to be back on the right track with his beloved Shepweiler Mylo that he was keen to warn others of the dangers of “dog whispering”:
“Samantha and I rescued Mylo when he was 8 weeks old back in March '09 not knowing exactly what he was. It turned out he's a German Shepherd/Rottie X - a 'Shepweiler'. It soon became apparent that he was going to be BIG, and shortly after we got Mylo we discovered we were going to be parents to twin girls before the end of the year. So with the new knowledge that we were going to become parents and own a dog that would grow into a giant, I took it upon myself to be the best dog owner possible so that he would do what he was told and everyone would be 'safe'.
I soon discovered 'The Dog Whisperer' on TV and started watching religiously, copying the techniques and making sure my dog knew the 'pack order' and that we were the 'dominant' ones in the household. I was never cruel to Mylo, but I picked up a number of techniques on that TV show. For example, if he became over-zealous or misbehaved I would put him on his side and hold him there until he calmed down and realised who was boss.
Mylo grew increasing bigger and started to develop aggressive behaviour towards Sam. He would growl when she came into the room in the evening, then get up and walk away. If she followed him and tried to pet him to tell him it was OK, he would growl louder and start to bare his teeth. This was very worrying. He even snapped at her a couple of times. Understandably Sam became very nervous around Mylo and feared for her safety and that of our soon to arrive twin girls.
I couldn't understand it, I'd been feeding him the best food and exercising him twice a day, getting up at 6am to take him a run with our other dog, to try and minimise any behaviour problems. I'd even been taking Mylo to weekly training sessions at a local dog club, who also encouraged the training techniques championed on the 'Dog Whisperer' TV show, i.e. 'corrections' using the leash and the use of a prong/pinch collar.
I was faced with having to re-home Mylo for the sake of my family. This was hard to take as I loved him after raising him from a pup and spending so much time and effort training him. I started seeking help from other avenues and spoke to my vet who recommended the APBC.
I called Mat Ward (the nearest APBC member to me) and arranged a consultation, this was our last hope. I took some video footage of Mylo's behaviour and showed it to Mat when he came to our house. We also discussed at great length everything we'd been doing. Mat explained what the likely problem was - Mylo was scared and was trying to get some breathing space by using aggression. It seemed Mylo had started to associate interaction with Sam with getting told off and put on his side. He was only trying to avoid the domineering behaviour we were imparting on him.
We instantly did what Mat recommended, stopped what we were doing and started with the positive reinforcement techniques as well as banishing the prong collar. Within a day or two we had noticed a big difference. Mylo only demonstrated the negative behaviour a few times more. It was really night and day and in and incredibly short period of time Mylo was back to his happy self. Mylo has never been aggressive towards Sam since and is very well behaved around our two beautiful daughters too. Mylo is the perfect dog!
I can't thank Mat enough for saving us from the heartache of having to re-home Mylo, and now we have a very happy, if a little crazy, household.”
Mat Ward BSc MVS CCAB
APBC Full Member
Mat has a first class Masters degree in animal behaviour, is a Certified Clinical Animal Behaviourist, and has trained animals for feature films and commercials.