what i learned from the dog whisperer

CC licensed photo of Cesar Millan's dog Daddy shared by Flickr user puck90CC licensed photo of Cesar Millan’s dog Daddy shared by Flickr user puck90

When puppy fever hit the Lee family in the Spring of 2012, one of the many obsessive activites we engaged in was to watch every episode of every season of Cesar Millan’s Dog Whisperer. We read all of his books, subscribed to the Cesar’s Way blog, listened to every interview, and, heck, there might even have been a man crush or two developed. Cesar, with all his charisma, captured our imagination. We loved his messages about being a calm influence on your dog, and could see a lot of parallels to the kind of parenting we espouse.

We wanted our Harry to be that perfect dog Cesar always talked about: calm, obedient, submissive. Like so many over-confident new parents, we pretty much figured it would be easy. Hey, just follow Cesar’s recipe! We had it all under control.

Nope. Somehow the reality of becoming a dog whispering family felt a little like opening a can of Coke after a prankster has left it shaken for you.

That’s not to say we regret becoming dog owners. On the contrary, we now cannot imagine living on this planet without a pooch. Harry is the most active, fun, loyal creature in the world. He was relatively easy to potty train, has always loved playing with other dogs, and has had an enormously positive and powerful effect on our large family of four adults and three kids.

These days, however, we don’t watch The Dog Whisperer episodes, and Harry is by no means the perfect dog. He barks like a mother bear protecting her cubs if anyone parks in our driveway or knocks on our door; he turns his nose up at gourmet dog food; and he is the most brilliant, extrinsically motivated command following pooch in the world (Alfie Kohn would not approve). It’s not that we don’t like Cesar any more, and it’s not necessarily that we don’t subscribe to his ‘Way’. In fact, we don’t blame Cesar at all. It was us and our approach that was problematic. It made me reflect on a few things which are pertinent to the education sphere I am immersed in.

The Problem with Knowledge

I feel our experience with dog whispering was the perfect illustration of the limitations of knowledge on its own. We knew what we were supposed to do, and we were extensive in our knowledge of everything to avoid when raising our little guy, but, in practice, it was so much more complex. I had that hand into the shape of a dog’s mouth to correct bad behaviour down pat! Every time I saw Cesar do it on TV, dogs would look at him like he was the second coming. Every time I did it, however, Harry would look at me like, ‘Why did you just do that horrendous thing to me, and when can I exact my revenge on you for it?’ This reminded me a bit of our collective forays into inquiry based learning in schools. We seem very enamoured by the theories underpinning it, as well as what it should look, feel, and sound like when it is realized, but our ability to apply these concepts in a meaningful way leaves many of us a tad wanting.

The Problem with Gurus

Self-appointed gurus are often criticized (and rightfully so) for being disingenuous, if not outright fraudulent. However, I don’t think Cesar attained his status with this kind of subterfuge. From knowing a bit about his life history, my guess is there was a lot of serendipity and authenticity involved in his ascent to dog stardom. Still, I know there are many critics of Cesar Millan and his ‘Way’. I won’t pretend to deconstruct his method as I simply don’t have enough experience with the paw set. I am still wet behind the ears when it comes to dog ownership. So my problem with him as a guru has very little to do with accusing him of being hypocritical or false in any way shape or form.

Drinking the Dog Whisperer kool-aid, however, did remind me how important it is to avoid overly lionizing someone for their ideas or methods. In the education bubble, we are frequently guilty, if not pathological, when it comes to this propensity (my wife calles me Royan the Bandwagon Jumper). Do you remember the blue brain vs. pink brain craze that swept the education world approximately a decade ago? Well, you cannot be blamed if you missed it because Leonard Sax came along not long after, debunking all of it, then took over the gender guru helm with his theories on boys and girls. The education conference circuit may always need new second comings. Let’s always be wary of their bandwagons.

The Problem with Perfection

When you watch Cesar’s show, he frequently tames the wildest, most anxious canines. All the while, he proudly walks around with the most noble, calm looking animals under his own charge. Essentially, he is the perfect dog owner and has a wonderful disposition for communicating this perfection. In addition, the people he helps on the show frequently come across as having glaring imperfections in dog care, ones that seem so obvious to anyone on the other side of the LCD screen. When you juxtapose the two, you can’t help but tell yourself that you want to be perfect like Cesar, and not painfully imperfect like the people he visits. Seeking that perfection is usually our first mistake, dooming us to failure and, ironically, a lack of resilience. I worry about this sometimes when giving presentations about successes I’ve experienced in the classroom. Does this really help anyone if all it does is draw attention to the end results rather than the long, sometimes messy journey on the way? These days I’ve been trying to talk a lot more about failure and the importance of appreciating continuums of learning in my workshops.

Have you ever been led astray following a guru or a ‘way’ and realized that you should have looked more within yourself?

This is cross-posted at my Spicy Learning Blog.


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