I debated whether to read this book – as I’ve mentioned before, I give myself various outs, including for textbooks, religious material, sci-fi books with metallic covers and romance novels. So I could find an exception for “how-to” books for things I don’t do, like own a dog. But I grew up with a dog and have two cats, so I figured I’m enough of an animal person to find something interesting in it.
(Total digression – I studied abroad in Russia one summer and, after a few weeks, was a bit bored of the dozen other folks in my program, so I set a goal of seeing as many museums as possible and finding at least one interesting thing in each, like the truck rearview mirror a Soviet scientist used to remove his own inflamed appendix at the South Pole, found in a jam-packed display case at the Museum of the Arctic and Antarctic. So I have a taste for the accumulation of random knowledge.)
I knew a little about Cesar Millan from viewing his program at the gym while on the treadmill years ago, but other than being unsure about whether his high collar method is painful to dogs, hadn’t given him much thought. It turns out that he’s actually a pretty controversial figure, and his book does point out areas in which folks disagree with him. For starters, his background is pretty much entirely “practical” – he’s not a vet and his ideas about dog behavior come from watching dogs on his grandfather’s farm in Mexico. To validate his point of view, he spends a lot of the first section of the book (which is fairly slim and quite repetitive and padded with photos and New Yorker cartoons) discussing his childhood in Mexico, the birth of his dog trainer dream and his early years forming his business with the help of a well-connected limo company owner. Through the limo guy, Millan got a job training Will and Jada Smith’s dogs, and they helped him turn himself from a guy with a van to a guy with a business.
Millan’s basic idea is that dogs are dogs first, members of their breed second and individuals last, so they need certain basic dog things to be well-adjusted. He believes these include lots of walking every day and clear dominance structures. Apparently the dominance thing is a flashpoint for a lot of folks, and I can see how it makes people uncomfortable to assert dominance over a companion animal. On the other hand, enforcing some rules seems like a good idea for everyone, and in that context, I thought Millan’s ideas made sense. I think, given dogs’ desire to please, healthy boundary-setting can channel that energy (as the owner of two cats, I frequently wish they were a little people-pleasing . . .). Speaking of energy,. Millan has some annoyingly New Age ways of talking about “energy” that I found distracting, but could accept most of by mentally reframing as body language and the like.
Finally, Millan intersperses vignettes of dogs he has trained (actually, he says he’s really in the business of training humans) to illustrate common problems. This part was mostly very sweet and a few touching cases made me tear up on the subway. There is also a least one extremely graphic description of an attack by two pit bulls that killed a woman, which was a bit gratuitous, but if it convinces more people to learn to control their dogs, I’ll deal.
Ultimately, the book was a good introduction to Millan’s background and philosophy and probably could help the average dog owner understand how to relate to his dog better, but before using the high choke collar, I think review of Millan’s critics would be in order.