Cesar Millan’s Calm Submissive / Assertive Baloney

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Sam Basso
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So, do you want to know my opinion of Cesar Millan’s methodology? Here it is:

One of the major problems experienced behaviorists have with Cesar Millan is his invention and misuse of dog terminology. His approach is based upon two assumptions. First, that you, as pack leader of your dog, should project “calm-assertive energy”, compassionate but in control. Second, that your dog should project “calm-submissive energy”, relaxed posture, ears back, and “nearly instinctual” response to commands. All of this terminology, to the best of my knowledge, is made up out of thin air. There is no scientific study to back it up. It isn’t supported by peer reviews, by experts in the field of behavior. You won’t find this stuff in the writings of, say, Skinner, Pavlov, or others that are considered behavioral pioneers.

If you and I are going to have a conversation, we need to establish common definitions of words and concepts.

Energy: What is energy? In behavioral terms, we’d be talking about an active assertion of power. We would be referring to something that stimulates behavior in our dogs as a result of something that we are doing in the presence of our dogs.

Calm: If something is calm, we are referring to a state of tranquility. It would mean being free from excitement, emotional problems, confusion or excitement.

Assertive: If you are being assertive, you are choosing to be bold. You are fearless, resolute and determined.

The Dog Owner: If you apply this method, you are supposed to therefore act fearless, resolute and determined, and demonstrate that all the time around your dog by actively asserting your power.

The Dog: If you apply this method, your dog is supposed to remain calm, clear headed, not excited. And you can tell because your dog’s ears are laid back, body language is relaxed, and your dog is so in tune with your assertion of power that your dog is almost automatic in responding to commands.

Now, compare this to how the AKC (American Kennel Club) defines the ideal way a dog and handler should ideally look as a team:

“Standard of Perfection. The judge must carry a mental picture of the theoretically perfect performance for each exercise and score each dog and handler against this standard. This “perfect picture” must comply with these regulations and shall combine the utmost in willingness, enjoyment and precision on the part of the dog with naturalness, gentleness and smoothness on the part of the handler. Speed alone does not necessarily indicate willingness and enjoyment. Lack of willingness and enjoyment on the part of the dog must be penalized, as must lack of precision in the dog’s performance. Roughness in handling, military precision or harsh commands by the handler must also be penalized.”

These are two completely different pictures of performance.

What is a dog supposed to look like in Schutzhund competition?

“Pronounced” is given to a dog that displays a strong willingness to work, clear instinctive behaviour, goal-oriented determination in the exercises, self-confident manner, unrestricted attention and exceptional ability to handle stress”

This is also not the picture we get with the calm-submissive energy promoted by Mr. Millan.

Obedience competitions are TESTS of the competence of dog handlers and dogs under tough conditions, as tough as anything you’ll experience in the real world. So, it is valid to consider what is considered ideal by those who set up these tests. Dogs are ultimately tested in such manner to determine if they are suitable for breeding or for service work (hunting, protection, service dogs, therapy dogs, and so forth).

Let’s now talk about the real world of dogs. When a dog’s ears are laid back, it typically means the following: the dog isn’t feeling well; is avoiding confrontation, is worried; or the dog is scared. Read any book on dog body language and see what that posture signals. That is NOT a goal you should be seeking. That is not the type of relationship you want from your dog. Cesar talks a lot about the pack. Go look at books on wolf packs. Look at their ear positions in all of those photos, and then tell me what is happening when the ears are laid back.

Next, it is impossible for dogs to be calm all the time. I see people “shhh-ing” their dogs all the time, trying to emulate what they have seen on TV. Sorry folks, dogs get excited, and that is normal. Dogs are happy to greet; eat; explore; play; hunt or copulate. Dogs are agitated when afraid or feeling aggressive. Fear isn’t abnormal in many situations. You can’t expect all dogs to be fearless in all situations. Aggression also isn’t abnormal, and plays an important part in the behavior set of all dogs, from protecting territory, to protecting their puppies, to protecting other dogs in their pack, to protecting kids, to protecting you, to protecting themselves. No dog is going to be calm in ANY OF THESE SITUATIONS. And that is going to be about 90% of the time you are with your dog. About 10% of the time they will be lying around the house. And the rest of the time, they will be asleep.

It is also abnormal for dogs to be submissive all the time. Watch dogs play some time. Watch dogs live together. The assertion of dominance or submission isn’t absolute. Dogs that totally dominate other dogs are bullies. They often provoke fights because they are overbearing to the extreme. Often times, those types of dogs need behavioral modification because something is wrong.

Regarding your posture with your dog. Note the ideal in the AKC rules: “naturalness, gentleness and smoothness.” Does that sound like someone with “calm-assertive energy”? Have you ever gone to a obedience, Schutzhund, agility, flyball, or hunt test? Go look at what the high scoring handlers look like. Watch how they are with their dogs. They modulate their attitudes depending upon the situation. There are times they fire their dogs up. There are times with they are focusing their dogs. There are times when they calm their dogs. And there are times when they lead, and even dominate their dogs. But, when it is all combined, it looks natural, gentle, and smooth. And look at the dogs with their handlers. The ears aren’t laid back. The dogs are not “calm-submissive”. Then, go watch a guide dog work some time. They aren’t “calm-submissive”, either. In fact, a guide dog has to be able to OVERRULE the handler’s commands. That isn’t being submissive, it is being responsible over the handler. Guide dogs are selected and trained for their ability to look out for the handler.

So, in my opinion… all this mumbo-jumbo isn’t good for you or your dog; it is a foolish marketing gimmick that is causing more harm than good.

I have told my students to stop watching this stuff and to stop practicing it. I have had to work with a lot of dogs and owners trying this stuff. And have met a number of people who have been bitten by their dogs. I remember a woman that had a bandage all up and down her left arm, from her hand all the way up to the middle of her bicep, trying this stuff with her Chow Chow.

Now, go find a professional dog trainer and behaviorist that doesn’t practice this stuff. If I saw that stuff in their marketing materials… I’d run. I don’t think they know what they are doing.

Do your own research, and make your own decision.

I say it is baloney.

PLEASE ALSO READ:

Basic Obedience
Behavior Modification
Being A Dog’s Pack Leader
Dog Aggression In The Red Zone
What Is Dog Whispering?
Dog Aggression In The Red Zone

Sam Basso is a professional dog trainer and behaviorist, in the Phoenix/ Scottsdale metropolitan area. He’s known for being fun, kind, intelligent, and humane. Sam Basso has a unique personal touch. He has appeared on his own TV show, been a guest radio expert, gives seminars, publishes a dog related blog, does rescue volunteering, and is active in promoting animal welfare and fair dog laws.