Shelties vs The Dog Whisperer
What do Shelties make of The Dog Whisperer? Here's what I learned from Rana the Sheltie's rehabilitation sessions with alpha-dog proponent, Cesar Millan.
The Dog Whisperer is a popular TV show hosted by dog rehabilitator, Cesar Millan. He aims to teach people how to build better relationships with their dogs who, in turn, exhibit healthier behaviors.
Cesar approaches a range of problems in the first season, from excessive barking to aggression towards people. Each episode typically features two misbehaving dogs who, thanks to some good editing, undergo massive personality changes in minutes. The owners are gobsmacked while Cesar exudes a calm energy over their problem pet.
So how does he do it? Are we dog lovers missing something obvious? It turns out that almost every dog has at least one bad habit, and Cesar reckons that with an adjustment in our perspective, we can repair these behaviors and improve our relationships with our pooches.
The Alpha Dog Theory
Cesar Millan's controversial philosophy is based on the theory that even modern, domesticated dogs are pack animals who seek to follow an alpha leader. What's more, the leader rises to this position by physically dominating the other animals in the pack.
The idea of a pack leader originates from studies of wolves in the 1940s. When forced to live together, the wolves naturally competed for status. The acclaimed animal behaviorist, Rudolph Schenkel, dubbed the male and female who won out as the "alpha pair".
Later, others criticized this premise: in the wild, wolves live in nuclear families, not randomly assembled units. Today, many animal behaviorists have switched their views away from alpha theory because of this unnatural experimental setup. It's now believed that the pack's hierarchy doesn't involve a fight to the top, but rather a natural inclination for puppies to follow their parents' lead.
Despite this, Cesar maintains that dogs instinctively dominate other pack animals to become the alpha, especially given that dogs are taken from their litters and placed into human families. This thousands of years of evolution at play, he says, even after the domestication of our pets.
My sense is there is truth to both theories. Many species—including humans—naturally organize themselves into social hierarchies to help determine who should lead. When mental dominance (intellect, charisma, or popularity) fails, people resort to physical dominance (bullying, fighting, or punishment) to gain the power advantage. It seems understandable that some ill-adjusted dogs, like some ill-adjusted people, resort to aggression as a means of taking charge.
On this basis, Cesar Millan demonstrates his own firm approach to rehabilitating aggressive dogs. He does so by out-aggressing them, teaching them that he's the superior boss. This kind of negative reinforcement is increasingly frowned upon in the world of dog training, with opponents saying there are alternative ways to bring an unruly dog to order.
The running theme of The Dog Whisperer is that it's not the dog's fault when he exhibits neurotic or aggressive behaviors. Rather, it's the owner who has put the dog in an impossible position. Cesar believes we don't naturally act like the pack leaders our dogs seek to follow. Troubled dogs are compelled to assume the alpha role even when they don't have the leadership skills required. This results in damaging and unpredictable behaviors like excessive barking, anxiety, growling, and biting.
Can Shelties Be Alpha Dogs?
"But my sweet Sheltie doesn't care about being the alpha dog!" I hear you cry. And more often than not, this is absolutely true. Sweet, submissive Shelties are happy with their place in the social hierarchy. But can dominant Shelties succumb to an aggressive drive for alpha status?
In Season One of The Dog Whisperer, Cesar deals with a highly strung Sheltie who barks at anything—from toasters to telephones—and it comes across as a wild, aggressive behavior to his frazzled owners. Cesar theorizes that it's caused by the owners treating their maladjusted Sheltie like a baby. They shower him with affection, but never show him any discipline to define the limits of bad behavior.
This logic reminds me of a child who has plenty of nurture but not enough structure. In the absence of boundaries, they push further and further into undesirable behaviors. If this can be applied to a dog, it's easy to see how dogs without boundaries can also become unmanageable member of the family.
In this case, Rana the Sheltie had become confused by the lack of leadership and designated himself as the alpha dog. But because he didn't have confidence or self-discipline of a leader, he became extremely anxious about all potential threats in the home. He saw unusual sights and sounds as a need to sound the alarm and whip his owners into a nervous frenzy. It was the alarm dog tendency in overkill mode.
Cesar treated Rana by putting him on a leash, to signal the idea: "I'm in charge now—you can relax" and entrain a submissive state of mind.
Then he calmly stood by the toaster and had it pop in front of Rana. The dog was clearly anxious and alarmed but forced to confront his fear through restraint by the leash. In psychotherapy, this is known as exposure therapy. The difference with humans is that we have the capacity to buy-in to the treatment, knowing its a simulated experience for our overall benefit. The dog can't know that.
This tough love approach is hard for many dog lovers to accept, especially when we consider the gentle nature of the Sheltie. However, to be fair, it worked. After numerous repetitions, Rana was unable to maintain a state of constant anxiety and instead began feeding off the calm energy of the Dog Whisperer. Eventually, Rana submitted to Cesar's toast-popping whims.
What began as a highly stressful situation for the dog soon became a series of positive reinforcements. The Sheltie began to build positive associations with the toaster, generating a new learned behavior. Rana didn't need to bark at it anymore.
For Cesar, it was then a case of teaching Rana's owners to behave the same way, and reinforce the peaceful state of mind until it was fully habituated.
The Dog Whisperer Controversy
We love our dogs, and don't want to see them suffer on any level. This is why Cesar Millan has attracted some harsh critics, who say that the alpha dog theory means unnecessarily dominating dogs until they break into a submissive state of mind.
Cesar insists that for packs of dogs to function effectively and survive in the wild, they evolved to organize themselves in a natural social hierarchy, which necessitated shows of dominance and aggression. The alpha rises because he is the smartest and bravest dog. He is neither neurotic nor cocky; but the most self-assured, which makes the other dogs feel safe and secure in turn.
Cesar claims the other dogs don't resent their leader—they respect him. And, apparently, they don't resent the fact that they are lower in the pack. For any dog, simply knowing his place is what makes him feel at ease. As long as he has a calm-assertive leader to follow, life is good.
If the events on the show are indeed reflected truthfully, Cesar's theory is supported by numerous demonstrations of converting ill-adjusted dogs to a calm and obedient state of mind.
Dogs that are abused, mistreated, or simply lacking confident leadership can develop abnormal psychological habits. They can be confused, neurotic, and aggressive, and when these factors combine, dogs can be very dangerous to children and adults.
If they can't be rehabilitated, these dogs may eventually be put down. It's dog trainers like Cesar Millan and Victoria Stillwell and others—even when they use competing psychological theories—who have the courage to approach these dogs and turn them around.
Humans and dogs have a fantastic symbiotic relationship that's advantageous for us both. Indeed, recent scientific studies show that dogs' brains have evolved to interpret our facial expressions. Deep down, it is every dog's instinct to work with and please his human companion.
Affection vs Discipline
The Dog Whisperer is not all about commanding discipline. Cesar says this a small but important part of a dog's development, and should be counterbalanced by lots of love, play, and affection.
Unfortunately, many people forget to reinforce the discipline. They figure that all stops when their puppy is housetrained and can walk on a leash. But, according to Cesar, a dog will continually test the boundaries if they sense you are not behaving as a sufficiently dominant leader.
Once you've set the boundaries of appropriate behavior, you can of course get all those snuggles from your pooch and have a very psychologically healthy dog. As long as it's on your terms. So what are the terms? Take a look at this classic example.
Many of us play with our Shelties as soon as we get home, when they're hyped up in relief of our return. But this actually reinforces a hyperactive state of mind and encourages them to bark every time you walk through the front door. What's more, if you think your Sheltie is already on the nervous end of the spectrum, is it wise to praise and encourage this over-excited behavior in this circumstance?
The Dog Whisperer tell us that the best time to give your dog affection is when he's already calm and submissive, thereby reinforcing that good temperament. Overall, it's better for you and your Sheltie if you set these kinds of associations. So leave your Sheltie alone for a few minutes when you get home, and allow him to calm down before praising him and giving him all the attention in the world.
I've learned a lot about boundaries and discipline while watching Season One of The Dog Whisperer. As dog lovers, we need all the help we can get to nurture the beautiful, if sometimes confounding, relationships we have with our pets.
Training your dog to eliminate disruptive and dangerous behaviors is in the interest of your own safety and sanity. In many dog rehabilitations shows, I've learned that living with a maladjusted dog can be seriously stressful, negatively impacting on everyone in the house. We owe it to our dogs to entrain calm and obedient behaviors, and we owe it to ourselves and our families as we live with them.
If your Sheltie has behavioral issues and you're wary of this dominance-based approach, take a look at clicker training your Sheltie instead. If you'd like to learn more about the Dog Whisperer philosophy, see Cesar Millan's book, How to Raise the Perfect Dog: Through Puppyhood and Beyond.