National Geographic is screening the last ever series of the Dog Whisperer and the trailers are now hitting TV screens. One of these is a trailer showing Holly – a Labrador Retriever – who is showing resource guarding around food. This trailer has already caused quite a stir (no doubt what the TV producers wanted) and has been blogged about very eloquently and succinctly by Nicole Wilde on her blog Wilde About Dogs. Nicole is a great dog trainer and author, her methods are humane and her books are easy to read, practical and grounded in fact and the science behind reward based training methods.
There’s no doubt that Cesar has great communication skills but they’re definitely not with dogs – he often seems to be blind to what dogs are very clearly communicating to him. The video trailer shows Cesar working with Holly to ‘cure’ her of her food guarding…the result? Extremely uncomfortable and upsetting viewing and a bite to Cesar himself. One more dog with a bite history…one more dog labelled as dangerous due to out-dated, ill-informed and downright unnecessary training methods.
After 20+ years of working in the PR/media/marketing world, I should know better. TV programmes are edited a certain way, journalistic bias does exist and in TV land it’s all about ratings. With the Dog Whisperer programmes, strip away the veneer, editing, emotive music and voice overs and what I’m now left with is a bitter taste in my mouth and tears in my eyes when I see his ‘rehabilitation’ methods in action.
What amazes me most is that Cesar is heard saying “I didn’t see that coming.” Really? I think most pet dog owners could see how upset the dog was and that a bite WAS likely to happen. Rather than give Holly the space she was asking for, Cesar continued to posture, intimidate, threaten and invade her space. Any other person would have backed off. Holly was so clearly showing every warning sign and communication signal in a dog’s repertoire to say ‘leave me alone’… ‘I’m uncomfortable’ … until - in Cesar’s eyes and without warning – she had no choice left but to bite.
Fear, intimidation, coercion and the causing of pain have no place in dog training – ever. When Cesar says a dog is ‘calm submissive,’ it is really Dog Whisperer code for a dog that has shut down and cannot function. Cesar often uses flooding techniques when he’s working with reactive/problem dogs. He continually exposes them to the very thing they are afraid of, with no let out until, in his words, ‘they’re calm submissive.’ I’m pretty sure if you trapped me in a room with my worst fear, with no escape route, and kept exposing me to more and more of the very thing I’m afraid of, I too would become ‘calm submissive’. I would shut down both mentally and physically to block it out.
In Holly’s video he’s dealing with food guarding. Let’s look at a human analogy…I like my food, I don’t mind sharing it (most of the time) if I’m asked. However, if I’d just ordered my favourite pizza, taken a bite and then the waiter came and whipped it away, I’d be a tad confused and somewhat miffed. If he brought it back and say, I had another few bites, then he took it away again – with no warning – I’d start to feel a little angry (and be making a mental note never to go that pizza restaurant again). I’d probably be trying to ask him why, or covering my plate/holding onto it whenever he walked by. If this scenario was repeated over and over again during the course of the evening, I would reach the end of my tether and make a scene, or resort to physical abuse as a last resort. So why would a dog react differently?
Holly's food guarding issues could have been dealt with through a behaviour modification programme, using counter conditioning and desensitisation techniques. It may not make for the most exciting TV viewing but it would certainly not push Holly over her threshold to bite and, given time, it would make approaches to her food bowl non-threatening and therefore eventually eliminate the need to act aggressively.
If there’s any time that the ‘please don’t try these techniques at home’ warning is needed, it’s with this show. These techniques won’t make the problem go away. They may seem to work but more often than not they will just suppress the unwanted behaviour, and another unwanted behaviour will take its place.
There are plenty of organisations within the UK that have qualified dog trainers and behaviour experts who can help with training and behaviour problems. If you have a problem with your dog and you’re not sure what to do, please don’t try to ‘fix it’ yourself. Both the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors and the Association of Pet Dog Trainers have accredited behaviour counsellors and trainers who can help.
Addendum - Slow motion break down of the video
Watching the video footage of Holly's 'rehabilitation' in real time is upsetting enough but watching it in slow motion, even more so. So, you may ask, why am I sharing slow motion footage? Well if there was ever any doubt in your mind about the techniques being used or what Holly was communicating to Cesar, this slowed down video with captions cannot leave you with any doubt.
If you have a dog with a behaviour issue such as food or resource guarding I implore you not to follow misguided advice or attempt to 'cure it' using techniques you've seen on the TV. Please contact a qualified and accredited dog trainer or behaviour counsellor.