There are two basic ways of understanding dog’s behaviour. The traditional way is to look at dog packs as very rigidly stratified power based hierarchical societies in which there is an Alpha-dog and all the other dogs submit happily to the absolute rule of the Alpha. This model is more than a hundred years old and it is based on observations on wolves in captivity. I modern days, the most prominent supporter of this theory has been Cesar Milan. His training method consists of convincing the dog that he/she has met its master (the human) and what is expected is absolute submission. Cesar Milan is extremely gifted in dog – human communication. He understands dog body language probably better than any other trainer I have been able to observe at work. He is also very proficient in communicating his wishes to the dogs. Dogs follow his instructions readily. Cesar Milan seems to be very kindly disposed towards dogs and I am sure that his dogs never suffer any mistreatment. In spite of this I think that his approach has caused a lot of unnecessary humiliation and suffering to a lot of dogs. My point is that this theory of the Alpha Dog is very clearly paternalistic and imposes a huge burden on the dogs in question while not demanding a lot of effort from the owner/trainer. Unfortunately for dogs, a lot of humans love the idea of total domination over another being and absolute obedience. Therefore, this model has caused dogs a lot of confusion, fear and unnecessary suffering. All of which have the effect of making training awkward, slow and painful for the dog. In the end the dog “gets it”, and because of the loving, friendly, eager to please nature of dogs, the training is successful. This training does not require that the human learn anything about the character, ability and needs of the individual dog. It does not require that the trainer take time to observe the particular dog, or the patience and humility that it takes to understand an animal as complex and multifaceted as a dog. And absolutely it does not require respect for the dog.
Another problem I have with Cesar Milan’s method is his mantra of “no talk no touch no eye contact”. This behaviour is very useful when confronting any aggressive animal. However, it is completely useless and indeed counterproductive when meeting a normal, well intentioned, dog. Dogs are very physical beings and react positively to touch. They are capable of understanding hundreds of words, and by not looking a dog in the eyes we miss three quarters of his communication. Therefore, in my opinion Cesar Milan’s mantra is a very basic mistake for any person who wishes to interact positively with a dog.
Once, a long time ago, my sister acquired a puppy. I happened to be present at the first delivery of the little animal. He was scared and trembling. I was sitting on a step and the dog came to sit next to me. I instinctively drew him to me and held him close. He stopped trembling and relaxed. Since that time the dog, a beautiful German Shepherd named Thor, adored me and greeted me with more joy than any of his owners. And I learned a very important lesson: Kindness is very appreciated not just by humans, but, very much so, by dogs.