Cesar Millan: Pack Leader or Predator?
This idea has a lot of appeal for most people. “Yes!” they think. “That’s what’s wrong with my relationship with my dog. He doesn’t see me as his pack leader!”
Here’s the problem though. According to David Mech, the world’s leading experts on the behavior of wild wolves, real wolf packs don’t have pack leaders. The idea that they do came from studies done on captive packs, culled from various sources, who didn’t know one another, and behaved more like rival wolves than true packmates.
Here are some facts about wild wolf behavior:
No wolf always walks ahead of the group when they’re traveling. They take turns. That’s a fact.
No wolf always eats before other members of the group. That’s a fact.
No wolf always goes through an opening or crosses a threshold before other members of the group. That’s a fact.
No wolf ever puts one of his packmates in an alpha roll. That’s a fact.
No wolf tells his packmates how to behave. That’s a fact.
Dominance displays are rare in wild wolf packs and usually only take place between the mother and father over how to disburse food to their young. The female almost always wins these battles by acting “submissive,” which would mean she’s supposedly subservient to the male, when she’s actually almost always victorious.
These are all facts. And here’s what they all add up to:
THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A PACK LEADER.
Yes, it’s true that in any animal group there will be one member who is more experienced, more knowledgeable, and who has more animal magnetism than the others. And most members of the group will tend to be drawn to or gravitate toward him or her. But animal magnetism—which is felt on a visceral level—is something quite different from rank, leadership, and authority—which are purely mental constructs.
There’s another factor. In wolf packs it was long believed that the alpha or leadership role changes hands during the hunt. We now know, through the principles of emergence theory, that the reason this seems to happen is simply because one member of the pack will have a better skill set for a certain type of terrain at some point during the hunt, or another wolf may have more emotional flexibility for adjusting to the changes in the prey animal’s energy during that part of the hunt, or what’s even simpler: one wolf may suddenly be in closer proximity to the prey at certain points, giving the impression that the others are now “following” his leadership when in fact the hunt is always led by the prey.
Going back to dogs, anytime dogs are in conflict it’s always about who has control over resources, i.e., things in the environment. And I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, but you automatically have more control over your dog’s environment than he does. Who has the keys to the car and the house? Who knows how to operate doorknobs? Who knows how to use a can opener? Clearly, if a dog is capable of perceiving things like leadership or superiority, your dog already sees you in that light.
So why doesn’t your dog listen to you the way the dogs on TV listen to Cesar Millan? Well, for one thing there’s a lot of stuff Millan does that ends up on the editing room floor. (I know for a fact that this is true.) Plus, to his credit Millan always seems to act fairly cool under pressure (as long as you don’t look at the anger sometimes simmering in his eyes). But ultimately he acts more like a predator than like a pack leader.
Yes. The spatial relationship between two dogs or wolves takes place on the horizontal. Their eyes face each other. They’re on the same level. But the spatial relationship between dog and human is quite different. We move through space on the vertical. Our eyes are far above theirs. They look up at us, we look down at them. Spatial relationships—which are concrete and visceral—are far more important to dogs than intangibles like leadership or status—which again are more abstract and conceptual.
This brings up an interesting point about wolves, which is that in the wild the only animal that poses serious threat of deadly harm to a wolf (other than homo sapiens) is the same animal the wolf usually hunts: elk, moose, deer, bison. These animals have sharp horns and hooves that could easily kill or maim a wolf. When a moose, for example, is running away from the wolf, the wolf is energized by its movement, and is highly attracted through his desire to chase and bite. But if a moose finds itself cornered, and as a result he turns and stares down at the wolf, brandishing his antlers, the wolf will stop dead in his tracks.
In the wolf’s experience the prey has now become the predator.
Here's the graphic again.
Note the similarities in the spatial dynamics between the moose and wolf on the left, and the dog and man on right. Then note how different they are in comparison to the spatial dynamic of the two wolves in the center.
I’m not suggesting that a dog thinks his owner is a moose. What I am suggesting is that even there were such a thing as a pack leader in wild wolf packs (which there isn’t), and even if dogs had inherited that behavioral tendency from wolves (which they haven’t), there is no way a dog could confuse a human being for another dog, i.e., his “pack leader.” It simply could not happen. As I said before, the relationships between objects in space is concrete while the idea of the “pack leader” is more abstract and cerebral. So when you add yet another cerebral element—that the human owner or trainer is a stand-in for or symbolizes the already abstract idea of the pack leader—you’re getting into mental territory that is way beyond what a dog’s brain is capable of.
The facts of nature and evolution strongly suggest that wolves, and by extension dogs, have a long adaptive history of being cautious about any animal whose eyes are set in a large head and are looking down at them from above, particularly when that animal is facing them directly. They would feel even more fearful or cautious if that vertical being happened to be coming toward them.
Now think of the way Cesar Millan acts when he enters a room and believes he’s being a “pack leader.” Picture the way he stands and stares down at a dog. The level of gaze he has seems “magnetic,” correct? The dogs are on their “best behavior.” Is that because they see him as a pack leader? Of course not. The spatial dynamic is nothing at like that between a supposed pack leader and another dog or wolf. But remember, when a moose suddenly turns and looks down at a wolf, the wolf stops dead in his tracks. And that’s exactly how most misbehaving dogs act when Cesar Millan enters a room. So the feeling Millan is actually stimulating in dogs is the polar opposite of magnetism or leadership.
It’s really just a form of fear or intimidation.
Another way to look at it is that when Millan acts the way he does the dog isn’t thinking, “I respect your authority and position of leadership over me, so I will do as you ask.” It’s far more likely that the dog is thinking,“What can I do to survive this moment? Show me how I can prevent myself from being killed.”
So why does Cesar Millan (and others like him) get results?
This “pack-leader” act essentially stifles the dog’s energy. Then, once that excess energy is contained (i.e., the dog is no longer bouncing off the walls), Cesar takes the dog on 2 - 4 hour walks, sometimes forcing the animal to wear heavy weights, or he puts the dog on a treadmill for several hours to burn off all that energy.
Is there a better way to teach a dog than by stifling his energy and/or wearing him out?
Of course. The more intelligent and effective option is to give the dog a positive outlet for his energy and emotions. That’s kind of what the long walks do, except that while long walks may wear a dog out, they don’t really satisfy his true energy needs. That comes through playing games that stimulate and satisfy his hunting instincts. For example, 5 - 10 minutes of playing tug-of-war—where you always let the dog win and praise him enthusiastically for winning—is roughly equivalent to a two hour walk in terms of the amount of energy expended. Plus, when played correctly, tug always has the positive side-effect of increasing a dog’s desire to learn and obey you. The same can be said for playing fetch for about 20 minutes or so.
Cesar does sometimes play fetch with his dogs, but from what I’ve seen he doesn’t know how to teach a dog whose energy has been stifled to become un-stifled, or to teach a dog how to release his energy through play. From my perspective that should be the first order of business when working with any behavioral problem: teaching the dog to play.
Max von Stephanitz, one of the originators of SchutzHund, wrote, “Before we teach a dog to obey we must teach him how to play.”
There’s a great documentary called “In the Company of Wolves,” where Timothy Dalton goes to the Arctic Circle with David Mech and observes these wonderful animals in their natural habitat. (By the way, if you’ve seen footage of the wolves in Yellowstone, keep in mind that those wolves were taken captive in British Columbia, drugged, outfitted with electronic monitoring collars, and forcibly relocated to a completely new, and in many ways, quite foreign environment. So while they’re still living in the wild, Yellowstone is not really their natural habitat; not yet. So their behaviors are sort of halfway between those exhibited by a truly wild pack and a group of unrelated wolves held against their will in captivity.)
At one point in the Timothy Dalton film a papa wolf (i.e., the pack leader), rolls over on his back, “signifying submission” to his puppies, and encourages them to jump on his stomach and chest and even allows them to nip at his ears and nose. In other words, he’s playing with his pups. (Do you ever see Cesar encourage a dog “dominate” him like this? Why not? If his intent is to be a true pack leader why wouldn’t he want to imitate what a real pack leader, i.e., papa wolf, does?)
Immediately after I saw this documentary for the first time, which was in 1995, I decided to imitate what the papa wolf did with my own pup, an unneutered male Dalmatian named Freddie.
First I got down on my hands and knees, did a play bow. Then I started batting my hands at Freddie’s body, getting him riled up and in the mood to play. Then when he was really in the mood to play bite, I rolled over on my back, pretending to be submissive.
“Oh no! You got me! You killed me! You’re alpha! You’re the king dog!”
He loved it! First he jumped on top of me. Then he tried to get lower than me! Then he began to twist around the way dogs do when they’re rolling around in the grass on a nice spring day. When he was done he raced to find one of his bones and began chewing it, quite happily.
Later, on our evening walk—as he wandered a bit too far ahead of me—I sort of absent-mindedly gave him his recall signal, expecting him to do his usual routine, which was to cock his head, look at me, then look back at whatever he’d been sniffing, and then slowly come trotting back about halfway or, if I was lucky, a maybe a little more.
That’s not what happened.
As soon as I called him he turned on a dime, and like a shot, he came running back at full speed, ending up in a perfect sit right in front of me.
I was astonished! I tested him further by quickly giving him the down command. He dove into position as fast as he could, eager to hear what I wanted him to do next. This was totally amazing and unexpected. I had no idea why this happening until I realized that for some reason, when I’d acted “submissive” toward him a few hours earlier I’d changed something about the emotional dynamic between us. As a result he was immediately far more obedient to all my commands. Plus his response time went from semi-lacksidasical to lightning-fast!
Over the next few months I tried my “submissive” act on most of the dogs I was training (you have to know how to choose which dogs are ready for these kind of shenanigans and which aren't). And in every single case it made the dog far more responsive and quicker to obey.
Why? Because I did what a true pack leader—a papa wolf—does with his pups. I got down on their level and let them “conquer” me.
And here’s the real distinction, which goes back to the dynamic between the wolf and the moose. Remember, when the wolf is chasing the moose he’s releasing his energy in the most optimal way possible. It’s what he was genetically engineered to do. But when the moose stops and turns, the wolf is suddenly like a deer in the headlights, in fear for his life. He’s not a happy camper. So when Cesar Millan thinks he’s acting like a “pack leader,” he’s not only stifling the dog’s energy, he’s instilling a lot of fear into that dog, which would be fine, I suppose, if fear had a positive effect on learning. Sometimes it does (very rarely), but for the most part it creates an inability for the dog to learn anything new.
But when you become a prey animal, by getting down on the dog’s level and playing with him—which is closer to the way dogs learn naturally—you’re opening up an enormous encyclopedia of learning that goes far beyond anything that Cesar Millan or others with the pack-leader mentality could possibly imagine. (Maybe Cesar will get there one day, but he’s not there yet.)
If you want to be a true pack leader, just imitate the papa wolf. Get down on your dog’s level, act submissive, and encourage him to play with you. (Please be careful and use common sense though; don’t try this with just any dog, particularly one you don’t know very well.)
"Changing the World, One Dog at a Time"