Dominate or Positivate?

Posted by jlubans on January 28, 2014

20140128-Baby Bridger.JPG
Caption: Bridger, age 7 mos. Photo by Mara Lubans-Othic.

Recently, a reader e-admonished me for quoting Cesar Millan in my book: “Millan is so wrong about behavior, you just can't have him in future articles and books or speeches.”
Of course, we are talking about the dog trainer, aka The Dog Whisperer (DW).
My correspondent included a fatwa (2006) from the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior. In it, without naming Mr. Millan, AVSAB advises against using those trainers who practice dominance theory (a form of Theory X) vs. some other approach like “lure and reward” (aka positive reinforcement, me thinks), perhaps a form of Theory Y. However, let’s not forget that positive reinforcement can be a form of manipulation, akin to Herzberg’s KITA, with minimal respect for the innate abilities of the dog or the worker.
In the critiques, Mr. Millan is cast as a practitioner of dominance theory and a brutish, rolled-up newspaper type of dog disciplinarian. Since I am an infrequent viewer, I cannot say if this is accurate – the little I have seen, suggests a different type of trainer.
While I do quote the DW, in “Bridger and Me”, I do so with tongue in cheek and as points of departure for my own views on leading and following, in my case who was leading whom, Bridger or me?
Perhaps the Dog Whisperer – still going strong in 2014 - has heard the criticism; most of the citations come from 2006/07. Perhaps he has modified his techniques. Quien sabe?
But the critics are not shy about extrapolating their dog advice to leadership of people, albeit making the same mistake many theorists do that a person can be motivated externally, either thru fear or bribery. They claim that dominating and punishing workers is not a good idea. Who would disagree? But is that what Mr. Millan is advocating? I don’t think so.
One opponent of Mr. Millan, in fairness, concedes that there are a few “Good Points (to be) Gained from Viewing” the DW series. Mr. Millan repeatedly – in my viewing experience - models these behaviors essential to dog ownership:
1. Exercise. (Mr. Millan advises daily exercise (in most cases equally important for the hefty owner as for the overweight pup. When the DW runs with the dogs, he is not running a few blocks, he’s in it for miles and the dogs, as one would expect, love it. If your dog wimps out, maybe YOU need to get on a treadmill!)
2. Rules and Limits. (Most of us like to know what the rules are and what the limits are. We may choose to break the rules, but at least we are not fuzzy as to the boundaries. If we bust through the invisible fence, we do so knowing we are breaking the rules, but so be it. If your less-than-lovable boss’ behavior is erratic and unpredictable then welcome to a miserable office.)
3. Be calm and assertive. (If you want your dog to be calm, be calm yourself. A hysterical boss achieves little in communicating with workers.)
4. Training is About the Owners (I have been impressed with Mr. Millan’s insistence on role clarity: “You,” he insists to the owner, “are the grownup, the leader of the ‘pack’. Your dog is not your child!” Good advice there, no? Likewise, as a leader you need to lead in constructive and trusting ways and not treat your followers as if they were children in need of minding.
5. But, for some reason – perhaps because it goes against the stereotype of the dog-kicking trainer – the critics fail to mention Mr. Millan’s insistence on affection as a condition of owning and working with a dog. In the office, a supervisor can be friends with the staff, but must still, when necessary, apply guidance and discipline.)

Weakness in any of these five elements probably will lead to a less than happy dog and owner. Indeed my critical correspondent added: “Extensive, high-quality surveys done by a British charity called PDSA (People's Dispensary for Sick Animals) found kept animals are fat, bored, and poorly socialized. And this is in England!” Imagine the state of the dog in a New York City populated by Woody Allen owners? Would not applying the five elements above make a difference for these canines and their owners?
Now, I do not like the DW’s relentless marketing or the Hollywood-inspired psychobabble that Mr. Millan occasionally lapses into, nor do I like the implication that Mr. Millan works miracles in 10-minute segments, like a “Father Knows Best” sitcom. (I note that now the show adds time frames to each case, often days and weeks before the dog and owners get back on solid footing.)
But, I am impressed that Mr. Millan, with zero academic credentials, has followed his heart and achieved his dream. He appears to have some innate quality, something shamanesque, that resonates with man’s best friend. However anti-establishment his methods appear, he does seek to improve the lives of dogs and their owners.
UPDATE: The same day of this blog, the Boston Review published, "Dogs Are Not People."

Leading from the Middle Library of the Week: University of Guelph, Ontario, Canada.

Copyright John Lubans 2014
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