What I Learned from the Dog Whisperer

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

CC 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 calls 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 dog blog Harry the Dawg.

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6 thoughts on “What I Learned from the Dog Whisperer

  1. I always live in my own fantasy world so I attribute any dog failure and my inability to “be like Cesar” to the magic of television and I just know that what makes it to air is the result of many takes. But, you can’t overlook the fact that, for at least one moment, there is success. In a world where you’re talking failure, I see a huge parallel with the message “stick to it” so that at some point you can video your success.

  2. Thank you for allowing me an opportunity to jump on one of the many cars in my bandwagon train 🙂 We often forget that education is personal. The experience of individuals can differ wildly because we are all different. People will sometimes ask if such and such is a good school and my reply is always ‘it depends’ because within any awful school there are students loving it an learning a lot, and their parents are very happy. So long as you are that student or those parents you’re happy. And of course, conversely, in any wonderful school there will be some unhappy students who don’t like their teacher and aren’t learning much. We know this but we forget. In spite of the fact that education is always personal we continue to look for THE answer, the idea that will help everyone. No such idea exists. Any strategy will work for some but not for others. If someone asks if the latest educational idea has merit the answer is always the same, “it depends”.

  3. I find that sometimes it is hard to learn from “experts” because their experience and knowledge is so far removed from mine. I can’t be a dog whisperer like Cesar because I don’t know enough about dogs, I can’t know exactly what a dog is thinking/feeling by the set of his head, etc. I need to learn from someone who knows just a little bit more about dogs than I do, someone I can relate to, that can learn with me, but also help me when I am having trouble. You know, someone in my zone of proximal development.

  4. The guru part is something that I cringe at often. Yes, Sir Ken is great, but is his TED Talk why we need to be pushing creativity? Sure, Will Richardson has some interesting things to say. However, I watch people gush over his words as if they were written in red. I have nothing wrong with listening to experts. They often have great ideas. The problem is when their words are taken blindly because of their charisma.

    • And doesn’t it feel extra weird when the guru people are looking to is you? I’ve had moments where people have erroneously called me a guru. I know they mean it as a compliment, and usually they’re joking, but it immediately makes me question everything I’m doing:)

  5. My name is Kim Templeton and I am currently a student at the University of South Alabama taking EDM310. My assignment was to read your blog. Cesar Millan’s Dog Whisperer is one of my favorites as well. I have to agree it looks so easy, but what background knowledge does he have? I’m sure the average dog owner does not have the skills he has developed over years and years of experience. The key word is “experience.” You can’t just watch Dog Whisper and become an expert. I think this will be true as a teacher. It will take years of experience to develop skills to engage students. It is not something that magically happens on cue. Enjoyed your blog, sounds like your are an awesome teacher.
    Kim Templeton

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