When Special Interests Clash

“I believe in integrity. Dogs have it. Humans are sometimes lacking it.”
– Cesar Millan

It’s easy to call yourself a dog or animal lover. Anybody who enjoys the company and companionship of animals does it. I have as well. During my journey, I’ve met many good and honest people who are also self-proclaimed dog and animal lovers. But what happens when special interests within the animal welfare community collide?

Integrity (n):
1. Adherence to moral and ethical principles; Soundness of moral character; Honesty.

Preston and me.

What does integrity mean to you? I know what it means to me. I’ve been advocating for dogs and animals most of my life. I’m a firm believer that all earthlings deserve respect and a life without bias or harm. As a vegetarian, I say this as I doublespeak, since I have not given up dairy or eggs and turned completely vegan yet. Still, I am a believer that even carnivores can advocate for the fair and humane treatment of animals, even those who are used as livestock for food, without being a complete and total hypocrite. It’s all in the way you address the issue.

Guilty 'Til Proven Innocent promotional image.

Guilty ‘Til Proven Innocent promotional image.

My time in advocacy is most known for my work in seeking an equal playing field for all dogs and their owners, with regards to laws called breed specific legislation (BSL) – or breed discriminatory legislation (BDL) to be more accurate, which single out certain breeds of dogs as inherently dangerous. I got involved when I began a documentary film titled, Guilty ‘Til Proven Innocent (GTPI), that examined these laws using Ohio and its 25 year statewide restriction of pit bull dogs as the backdrop to the story.

Within the dog loving community, there are several special interests groups that have varying opinions on what is deemed acceptable. Among the related concerns that separate these groups of people are:

  • Breeding (commercial, backyard, and/or responsible breeders),
  • Dietary conflicts (raw, commercial or home cooked),
  • Sheltering standards (the no-kill camp, etc.), and
  • Training (aversive, force-free),
  • to name a few…

It makes it incredibly difficult to unite the masses of dog lovers into seeing through the same common goal(s) when there are other dog-related issues that divide and conquer. It sometimes feels it was purposely set up this way. Regardless, it’s the number one reason for our failures.

Friday, several media outlets reported about celebrity “Dog Whisperer”, Cesar Millan, being investigated for potential animal cruelty charges. During the course of his career on television and his rise to stardom, Cesar has remained a polarizing figure. His training and behavior modification methods have been scrutinized and under heavy criticism for years, often deemed archaic or draconian by modern day standards. Many certified animal behaviorists and trainers I have personally talked to have admitted to using them at one stage of their careers, mostly due to the fact this was all that was available at the time, but “crossed over” when new techniques were presented or offered.

The most common rebuttal by supporters of Millan is the individualism argument of animal behavior against the science-based operant conditioning, which mostly work off the reward system. This attempted argument is to say not all dogs will perform the way we desire when only one tool is offered in the toolbox. This dispute is compounded further by saying, each solution to a specific dog’s problems may vary, requiring the need for other options to be readily accessible, and those may include using fear to your advantage – if we’re to be honest with ourselves.

The use of fear can be accomplished in many ways – kicking; rolling a dog on its back to show “dominance”; the use of prong, choke and/or shock collars; and even yelling. Often times, fear can trigger aggression, which, correct me if I am wrong, is completely counterproductive to the end goal we want to achieve. When a dog is in this state of mind, the only thing the dog remembers is how to get out of the circumstance they found themselves in. The animal will then decide whether they want to fight or run (fight or flight), and it very well could be a downward spiral at that point.

Besides unwanted learned behaviors the dog has picked up, like resource guarding, to add to this complex debate there are other variables that contribute to the equation – environmental factors, and the individual handler of the dog…just to name a couple. How one dog may behave in the environment of my home, may differ than in yours. Or, a specific dog may react, for better or for worse, different while I am handling him, as opposed to if you were.

The shared article about the Cesar Millan investigation.

The shared article about the Cesar Millan investigation on the GTPI facebook page.

I shared one of these articles on the Facebook GTPI page Friday night when the news surfaced, as I normally do share relevant dog related news to the followers of the page. When I was really active in engaging with the audience of the page, I used to write a paragraph or two synopsis of my opinion of the articles being shared. After taking a brief break from the social media network giant, I came back deciding to take a neutral position on most things shared and just post the links to these stories and let those who wish to provide their feedback discuss amongst themselves. Since not all think alike, I found it mentally exhausting constantly walking on egg shells attempting to keep the peace by pleasing everyone, while still maintaining the goal to educate and offer solutions that work. This is why we rarely devoted time to other issues pet owners face, concentrating solely on news specific to BDL/BSL to focus on ending this horrible, yet legal, crime.

I knew it would rile up some people, but I never imagined the type of vitriol that would ensue. Remember, we didn’t say a word on the post, it was just the link to the story. Many defended Cesar’s character, saying he’s a good man. I don’t doubt he isn’t, but I (like most people, I imagine) never met the man personally so that’s always up for debate. Reality TV doesn’t mean it always translates into reality. But, I will say, I appreciate what he has been able to bring to the table in the discussion about pit bull dogs, because of Daddy, his famous longtime sidekick on his first show – “The Dog Whisperer”. He was doing it before the pit bull bandwagon became cool to jump on. But he has often made inaccurate comments that can and have been used against our mission for every dog to be treated on a level playing field, regardless of breed or background (like the quote below):

“All dogs can become aggressive, but the difference between an aggressive Chihuahua and an aggressive pit bull is that the pit bull can do more damage. That’s why it’s important to make sure you are a hundred percent ready for the responsibility if you own a ‘power’ breed, like a pit bull, German shepherd, or Rottweiler.”
– Cesar Millan

The point here is, his celebrity status doesn’t exempt him from deserved criticism or consequences. It shouldn’t anyway. Another commenter told us we “must be vegans”, as if that is supposed to be an insult. Well, like I said above, I’m not, and neither are most of the admins who help manage the page. But that also shouldn’t matter. What matters is the California cruelty laws, and what happened at his business regarding the pig used was in fact outlined as potential cruelty in the ordinance (a nice synopsis can be found here, by noted canine aggression expert, Jim Crosby). It will be up to the legal system to press charges, but there’s no point in arguing this, even if he didn’t intend it to happen.

It didn’t end at that, some stated they were surprised our page would share that story about him, and threatened to unfollow. What they don’t know is, they were actually being a bully – and not the type of dog often called by the same name that found us to connect in the first place, but the kind you hear about on school playgrounds across the country. Nobody learned a thing in this situation, unfortunately.

I admit, I used to also be a fan of his show, before and during the infancy stages of production of my documentary. We even dedicated a chapter to dog behavior to squash some of the myths surrounding “these” (quotations intentional) types of dogs. And we were lucky to have locked in commitments by two very respected, leading animal trainers/behaviorists in the country – Jean Donaldson and Ken McCort (photo below). Both have impeccable credentials, and were a vital part of the film and its story, as they often brought the most compelling and thought-provoking information to the table.

Film slide of GTPI showcasing animal behaviorist, Ken McCort.

Film slide of GTPI showcasing animal behaviorist, Ken McCort.

Many have voiced that Cesar made a mistake. I get that. Making a mistake is natural. We all do it, we wouldn’t be human if we didn’t. Hell, I wrote an entire blog post about my mistakes (see: “A Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing“), I’m not immune to them either. The problem here is, he makes the same mistakes over and over and over (and over) again. He hasn’t learned and is unwilling to even be open-minded to change – that is the root of the problem. The respected certified canine training and behavior consultants I’ve talked to have also admitted to making their fair share of mistakes, as well. Part of rectifying or learning from a mistake is observing what you have done wrong to set up a dog for failure, and then prevent it from happening again, to the best of your abilities. It makes great reality TV, but it was uncontrolled and sloppy. And it shouldn’t matter if the pig was in a commercial factory farm ready to be killed and processed, either. It scares me that people have actually used this as an arguing point.

So, deep down inside there’s also my own experiences. I don’t claim to always have been positive with my dogs, and that bothers me. I don’t want to have a relationship with any of my dogs where they only do what I want them to do because they fear me. That’s not very productive , and very one-sided, if you think about it. I want my dogs to understand love and kindness, especially since they are all rescues. And I want them to know if they do really good, they will get paid really well. This kind of training is not only shoving treats down their throats. The reality of the reward system is, there are other tools to choose from there too, just none of them are intended on hurting or scaring the dog.

Take my boy Preston – he was allegedly used for fighting purposes, then went to a rescue who had him for about two years before I met him. The owner of the rescue even tried talking me out of adopting him due to the challenges we would have to overcome. When I first brought Preston home, I quickly realized I had to earn his trust. Believe me, he was no easy dog, as he quickly reacted to any animal who was in eye sight of distance, and it made for some very embarrassing adventures at the park – at a time when Ohio’s statewide BDL/BSL was still intact. But over time his behavior incrementally changed, only really noticeable after long periods of time has passed with his body language, overall attitude, and acceptance of other animals in his space. It was quite miraculous to observe, and rewarding to see how far we’ve come. It didn’t happen overnight, it took time, dedication, and teamwork. But we built a foundation together. We did it – together, and our relationship thrives because of it.

After I adopted Preston, I heard about the first trainer he went to. It was a man who practiced with many of the same “tools” Cesar uses or has used. In an attempt to subdue Preston and make him be “submissive”, this trainer lifted Preston off the ground using a choke chain with nothing but his neck to support him. Preston pissed himself, as this man held him up in the air choking him to death. And this was a dog that had just come out of a horrible situation where people were abusing him as a fight dog, to be subjected to this?

I’m sorry to anyone who disagrees, but I cannot sit here and believe this was an appropriate thing to do, to Preston, or any other dog regardless of their circumstances. And definitely not on a dog I often proudly confess and call my soulmate (or soul-dog, to be more appropriate). I sometimes wonder if it were some of our recent detractors dog’s, what they would do…

In an effort to not rock the boat, we mostly avoided these talks previously on the film’s fan page while it was making its rounds in the festival circuit and other screenings around the country, with the thought to maintain some semblance of unity. But unity only exists when people are all on board for the greater good. I now see how important it is to have these discussions, and hope others will partake as well in future ones, because they are clearly needed. And if that means we lose followers of the page, then so be it, they probably were never fans to begin with, especially since we included two trainers in the film that they don’t agree with. Instead of asking questions, they immediately jumped to conclusions, and made preposterous claims about us – And, remember, we never said a single word. They became everything they told us we were doing, when they were in fact the ones doing the “lynching”.

So, the public stance “Guilty ‘Til Proven Innocent” supports on training methods is force-free. We invite a healthy debate about this, and hope to have more of them in the future. Our recommendation is to always be suspicious when someone thinks they have a quick fix or remedy the untrained eye appears to instantly work. It is true, you should diagnose each individual dog on a case by case basis, but that can be done in a positive manner. People who know me know I can still maintain friendships with people I disagree with – it’s bound to happen in any discussion, all the while both receive and give constructive criticism when necessary to make us better stalwarts and ambassadors to our dogs. It opens the doors to meaningful discussion, and that is how you accomplish things. To loop this back to the beginning question about integrity…integrity to me means you stand up for what’s right, even if being attacked…and even if it means you stand alone.

We Are Fam-ily…. Era, Me, Fergie, and Preston.

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