Monday, June 8, 2009

No talk, no touch, no eye contact

Spike's choice, on Spike's schedule.
No talk, no touch, no eye contact.

Raise your hand if you have never heard this phrase applied to a dog.

(Scans silent room with no hands up.)

Cesar Millan's mantra when he's dealing with a new person and a pack of dogs, or a single unsocialized, fearful, or aggressive dog, has pretty well permeated the popular culture.

I had no idea how thoroughly, or how fortuitously, until Spike came to foster here.

Spike's genetic temperament is bold and pushy. His total lack of socialization as a puppy did not support those genetics. He came here shy and somewhat reactive, with a desire to approach people overlaid with terror at the prospect. He was especially reactive to men.

In other words, a pup who could easily be pushed into the world of fear-biting.

So off we went to Tractor Supply. All the damned time.

At first, I'd hook him to Rosie with a coupler. Rosie always wants to whore it for strangers; Spike would get dragged up to people whether he wanted to go or not.

Most people would ask what was up with him. I developed a really brief little patter for them:

Spike was born in a puppymill that was raided in a cruelty investigation.

He was probably not touched for the first eight weeks of his life, and certainly never met any new people.

He's here to learn how to be confident.

It works best if you just fuss over Rosie and pretend he isn't even there.

If he approaches you, just put your hand down low and let him investigate it, and pet his chest and chin if he leans into you.

And at least half the people would come back with "Oh, I get it. No talk, no touch, no eye contact." And without any further coaching, or with very little, they'd carry on allowing Spike to progress at his own pace. They'd turn sideways to him, avert their eyes, continue the conversation with me some of the time, and let Spike get comfortable and approach them without getting excited and lunging for him as soon as he made the slightest overture. No hovering, no cooing, no "Oh, it's okay, dogs love me!"

Scores of total strangers who are presumably not all dog trainers did this in the months we worked with Spike. (The one place I did not take Spike was the local PetsMart, where the "trainers" will not leave customers' dogs alone, and insist on using junk food to condition jab 'n' grab precursor-to-biting habits in shy dogs.)

Once, and once only, when I asked a strange man to stop approaching a barking, growling, skittering Spike in the store, the man tried to argue with me -- "How else is he going to get friendly?!"

Tried to argue, because I no longer argue with intrusive idiots -- I stepped between them and claimed space from the cynological expert -- and with me, because a lady who was looking at the baby chicks nearby spontaneously took up verbal advocacy for Spike for me. She told the guy that Spike was not his dog, and that he didn't know what he was doing and had no business screwing up his training.

Imagine that. For my N=1 of morons who are dead-set to press their pig-ignorance on my dog, I got an N=1 of genuinely helpful bystanders.

There couldn't be a starker contrast than to the last time I had an unsocialized, terrified hoarder refugee -- two of them, actually.

When I fostered Zoom and Boink for Animal Friends of Pittsburgh (I think it was about 2001), the two little beaglish mutts may have never been touched by human hands. It took weeks to gain their trust, and a couple months to get them socialized enough to consider placing them for adoption. And it was a daily trial to get people to give them some goddamn space. I had to use clients and friends, and provide pre-contact coaching and simulations using my own dogs, in order to get people to behave appropriately around the adorable, and mortified, little dogs. Taking them out into public simply invited assaults that they were simply not equipped to tolerate for several months.

There are other true and useful memes that have drifted out into the generally dog-ignorant popular culture from Cesar Millan's cable television show: the importance of exercise, the fact that dogs are animals, not human children in hairy jumpsuits, the owners' role in most "dog behavior problems."

But if the popularity of this cable television show had done nothing else, Spike and countless other dogs -- dogs whose tolerance for simian vulgarity is not the bottomless well that rude, thoughtless humans presume from the mostly endlessly forebearing canines who abide them -- say Thank You.


  1. I'm very ambivalent about CM. I think he's done a lot for making people aware that dogs need more energy input from people to be happy and psychologically normal pets, and that training CAN fix a lot of problems. I think he's got phenomenal timing and ability to read a dog. I have no problem with him as entertainment. (I think some of the 'look how reactive this dog is' that bothers me the most is created partially by editing - showing a lower stress interaction and then the overhthreshold response that may or may not have gone with THAT reaction- it's almost never shown as a continuous take.

    But I really hate the dominance paradigm. I'm not denying that dogs have a hierarchy (Gee, really? Who knew? :P) but I hate the oversimplified way that people use it as an excuse to be a bully. I hate the pssst thing. I hate the neckjabbing. And I *really* hate the way the public seems to have glommed onto the 'magic' of those things that seem so dramatic, and completely missed the utility (and MUCH wider applicability) of the less concrete stuff.

    In _Bones Would Rain From The Sky_, Suzanne Clothier relates a story about a woman asking "Where do you tie the knots?" about a leash that had knots tied in it and missed the entire POINT of the training session that SC had demo'd. People are superstitious. They like NAMES for things and techniques, and concrete "Do this and it will fix that" type answers. Behavior (in any critter) is never that simple. Away from the CM folks, I'm seeing wide acceptance (equally erroneous) of the "Look at that!" game from Leslie McDevitt's Control Unleashed book, performed without understanding that you're SHAPING a behavior, not simply marking an existing behavior that you want to modify, and without the understanding that you have GOT to build the foundation of calmness before LAT can be used with any degree of success for the purpose McDevitt assigns it. It's not so much that I think it's necessary for folks to know and understand WHY training works (not entirely. Quadrents of behavior are super-useful but still limited, although I don't like the black box thing either.) but I think it's ESSENTIAL to understand that advanced techniques build on basic ones. You see this in horses, too - newbies and re-riders who want to break colts and train mustangs because it looks so simple and easy when Clinton Anderson does it on RFD; dressage newbies who want to learn to do the upper level moves like tempi and piaffe without being able to sit a trot correctly or really understanding and FEELING lead changes, seeing them as just something you simply ASK the horse and the horse does it if they're trained, not something that involves YOU as director as much as horse as performer.

    TL;DR? People are dumb and want instant solutions that fix any problems and tend to glomp onto the most novel or concrete or specific instance of a professional's techniques without the basic understanding of how to use the techniques from the ground up.

    PS: Good thougsts, please? Rittie is missing tonight- going back out as soon as it's light enough.

  2. Cait, I've had people ask me for the 2-second quick fix to [insert behavioral problem here]. There is simply NO WAY to cram years of experience into something like that, especially to someone you KNOW will just retort with 'But I already tried that' or 'This isn't working, on to the next fix.' I've learned to just give them my number to set up a time where they can meet with me and pay me for my knowledge rather than just blow it off.

    Heather, I've not seen any of Victoria Stillwell (no cable here), but from what I've heard and what people are saying, she's coming up pretty fast. How do you think she compares with Cesar? The little YouTube clippies I've seen of her don't really strike me as what I want working my dog, but some others may disagree!

  3. I think the only real problem with CM is that he's on TV. People see his show and think they now know how to work with a problem dog despite all the disclaimers at the beginning of the show - and more often than not, they either (a) look like complete morons (like in this post on Pet Connection or (b) they misinterpret his methods and screw up the dog even more, or get bitten. But overall I think most of his mantras (exercise first, no touch etc) are definitely beneficial.
    Victoria vs. Cesar - CM does not claim to be a trainer ("I rehabilitate dogs, I train people" is the catchphrase from the show) but Victoria is definitely a trainer, and I think her influence on the TV-watching masses might be better than his. Her methods are simple, tried & true positive reinforcement that aren't as easy to screw up.
    (I'm not a trainer or handler, BTW - just an owner of a rescue mutt trying to do the best by my dog & learn as much as I can so I can rescue some more!)

  4. ohmidog....YES why is that those darn trainers in Petsmart/Petco have to come DIRECTLY up to shy dogs!?!??!! I don't get it. Just for an experiement one day I took an extremely social and jumpy blind/deaf dog in to see what would happen....the DURN trainer got all mad at her for actually approaching him first and jumping on him as he was leaning down over her.
    I don't get it.
    Spike's lucky to have you.

  5. I note the Petsmart trainers are hit and miss - i found my very talented triple crown trainer at a Petsmart where he was putting in some time for some extra cash and the discount. But at the same time i've seen another trainer there yelling at a puppy who was jumping on her to reach the treat she had in her hand.
    I never understand why people seem to think other people's dogs are their business.
    And kudos to that Lady that backed you. I hope i would have been brave enough to do so in her position

  6. Victoria Stillwell is an actress/model who is posing as a dog trainer on television, and believes it herself.

    The dominatrix costume is cute and she has the ass to pull it off, but the dogs clearly don't believe it conveys authority, and no real dog trainer shows up to work in fucking stiletto heels.

    She parrots what she read from the Pozzieboro trainers, and pretends that things that are clearly not working are.

    And I could really do without the sophomoric faces she pulls for the camera, by way of showing contempt for her teevee "clients."

    The day I watched her turn her back on an uber-nasty humping boxer -- apparently so he could take her enthusiastically through the back door -- was when I clocked out. This dog needed a boot to the ass, not a presentation of hers for his humping pleasure.

    But the "best trainers in the world" had told her that ignoring the humping would always make it go away -- so it must be true.

  7. I came straight here from Pet Connection and I was certainly not disappointed.

    Kudos to you. And permission to point to this in a piece of work I am preparing for on-line publication.

  8. Pulling Gina's chain?

  9. I have to tell you of two people (uncle and nephew who was visiting from out of town) who misunderstood CM's 'no look, no touch' completely when they adopted puppies (from different byb at 6th month interval). They fed the dogs and let them out on a schedule (yeh for that), but thought that being friendly and playing with the puppies wouldn't show them who was 'dominant.'

    Yes, they were idiots, and CM certainly doesn't mean those instructions that way, but the disclaimers on the show should be explained by him - if he's showing how he does it, letting people know that not everyone (very few at best) can accomplish what he does, precisely because they aren't him.

  10. No talk, no touch, no eye contact has been very handy at the shelter when going into the kennel of a dog that is nervous or scared. Otherwise, I probably would be one of those well-meaning people who are leaning over the dog talking at them non-stop to "reassure" them and trying to pat them on the head. Fail.

    Giving them the space to approach me and use their noses seems to get things off on a better foot (or paw).

  11. I kind of "backed into" the "calm, assertive" after an impromptu session by Brenda Aloff. I say backed into because this happened before we rented a season of Millan. As Aloff explained it, think of centering your yourself behind your belt buckle, instead of at your shoulders. In practice, this means holding onto the leash at your waist as opposed to letting it (and the dog) dangle from your extended arm. This doesn't work the first time you try it. You have to practice it. When you are successful, your emotions and body are calm, and you can assert the desired control over the dog. Another aspect of centering Brenda spoke on was how doing so altered your "energy", defining a personal space, and who was in control of it. Dogs have personal spaces, too. "No talk, no touch, no eye contact" is about this personal space. IMO, any dog, no matter how well socialized, appreciates and benefits from having their personal space respected. Hovering over a dog, patting them on their head, grabbing at their bodies, and jabbering idiot-speak at them is offensive to most dogs, more obvious in some, not so much in others.

    Whether CM (or whoever) is right or wrong, it isn't until I study and apply that I know whether it works for me. At first I was concerned that I wouldn't be able to determine which was "the right way". Now I just look for the "way for this dog".


  12. @ Heather, VS is a model? HA!! That totally explains her lack of taste in clothing (or common sense for that matter - stiletto heels for working with dogs??). Despite all of that (which is new info for me, so thanks for providing) I still think having a "competitive" show to The Dog Whisperer is good, to at least illustrate some good training techniques. Sounds like Animal Planet should have chosen an honest to god, reputable trainer though instead of just a pretty face.

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  15. Oh, I guess I have not been adequately clear.

    Comments by "anonymous" that are not otherwise signed will be deleted.

    Thank you for playing, come again.

  16. My fault, I forgot to sign. Although what good is "signing" a comment? We're all pretty anonymous, I can call myself Charlie Chan, that doesn't mean I am.

    My comment was in respose to your remarks about Victoria Stillwell being an actress/model playing the part of a dog trainer. I assume you meant it snarkily, but at least one of your readers thinks you mean that she is actually a model and not a trainer. I can't find evidence of this anywhere, can you? I understand that you don't like her, but saying that she's not a trainer is spreading misinformation about the woman.

    Anyhow, I enjoy your blog in general, I always find food for thought.

  17. The requirement for signed posts eliminates the confusion when Anonymous is having a debate/discussion with Anonymous. Among other things. I may yet restrict comments to those with blogger/open ID, but I would prefer not to, in deference to the webchnology-challenged.

    I mean, really, how hard is Google?

    Some of my best friends are actors. My brother is an Equity stage actor.

    "Actor" is not a term of snark here. Actor posing as a member of my profession is another thing entirely. Actor all over the teevees claiming authority in that profession based on no proven record of results better have the snark-shield up, because I'm going to call bullshit.

    If you'd like to claim "Oh, she used to be an actress, and is now a dog trainer who just happens to do all her training on the TeeVee," well, you are free to believe it.

    Last night I watched her flex her knee so a teenage mastiff cross could continue humping (after first flipping off her angry, shrill "correction"). She spent a good part of the show lying to the owners about pet overpopulation in an effort to get the dog's balls off.

    Not that that particular dog's nards did not badly need to go to a new home at the county dump, but it was not because he was going to engender 70,000 descendants in 10 years, or whatever the bosh was that she was serving.

    But now I've watched her enable humping in front of the camera with TWO different serious molester dogs, while she's tricked out in those heels and skin-tight leather, and the crawly-factor on the squidge meter is rising for me.

    Some may find it entertaining -- hey, beats crush videos on YouTube -- but dog training?

    The other thing I hadn't noticed before is that she uses the dominance paradigm at least as much as Cesar Millan does -- but she doesn't give the on-screen clients the physical tools they need to communicate leadership to the dog.

    So why is she the darling of the PROC crowd? Because her attempts at correction fail?

  18. Thanks for the quick (and mostly non-snarky) reply. I was expecting my comment to either be deleted or to have my head handed to me.

    I watched the mastiff episode last night as well. Why was flexing her knee an invitation to let the dog continue humping? How would you have stopped him? It appeared to me that she lifted her knee to brush the dog off, as a way to knock him off her leg so she could move away from him, but they only showed a few seconds of the "action" so I'm not sure.

    You said:"If you'd like to claim "Oh, she used to be an actress, and is now a dog trainer who just happens to do all her training on the TeeVee," well, you are free to believe it."

    I guess I do believe it. I used to be stenographer, does that mean that I'm now a stenographer playing the part of a trainer? Or a waitress pretending to be a trainer? And why can't she be both? I don't think she "just happens" to do her training on TV, I think the fact that she's an actress* means she has good screen presence and an idea of what an audience wants to see and that makes her attractive to a network.

    I don't think that necessarily means she's not a good trainer. I read an interview with her a few weeks ago (Whole Dog Journal, I think) and she says that she often goes back to continue working with the dogs after the filming is over, or refers the families to local trainers. What we're seeing on the show is a tiny edited portion of the overall training program.

    *And you have my sincere apology for my weak-ass googling. I'm skimming and posting from work and get distracted.

  19. If you consistently showed up to work as a dog trainer dressed in your old waitress uniform, we'd wonder how committed you were to the profession, yes?

    The dominatrix uniform, complete with the stilettos, serves the deity of the theater, not the purposes of the profession of dog training.

    It is a field mark that says "I'm putting on a show, not getting the job done. My priority is how I look for the camera, not the demands of the work." And in my opinion, it mocks the profession by playing with whips and chains imagery.

    Anyway, Diana Rigg soooo pulled off that look a million times better. Just ask my SLOH.

    The knee flex gave the mastiff puppy a better grip. She held it there for about ten seconds, that I could see on camera, and the camera cut to it while the flex 'n' hump was already in progress. I saw no motion that indicated that she was attempting to push the puppy off. She neither tucked back (which will dislodge a humper for the moment) nor moved into the animal's space (which will both dislodge and communicate).

    So if she wasn't deliberately providing a hump-platform for the dog, then she's even less competent than I thought.


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