It is unnerving how common it is for folks to say things like, “I don’t know how people think Victoria Stilwell and Cesar Millan are so different. She is always talking about setting rules and boundaries and being a leader, isn’t that exactly what Cesar talks about?” Don’t be shocked when I tell you this, but “rules, boundaries, and limitations” are not connected exclusively to Cesar Millan. The concept of having rules and boundaries for dogs is nothing new or innovative on Millan’s part (though the phrase is one of his catch phrases).
Dogs are social animals that have their own rules, within their species, on how to act and what is appropriate behavior. In this post’s photo, my pups are playing with teeth bared, loud snarling/growling, and standing tall, this is appropriate play for these two dogs (it’s mutual rough play). However, playing with a human with teeth bared, loud snarling/growling, and jumping up like that would not be considered appropriate and could be a sign that the dog needs to learn some boundaries in regards to interacting with people. Other things like barking, nipping, butt sniffing, protecting space, humping and chewing are all acceptable and NORMAL behavior within dog culture. In human culture, they are not seen as acceptable behaviors and are often the root of a stressful situation. Fortunately for us, dogs are adaptable and can learn to live under a new set of rules and expectations for the most part.
Until we clearly define the rules and set distinct boundaries, our dogs will not understand that we don’t appreciate barking, nipping, butt sniffing, etc. It isn’t until we set rules, boundaries, and limitations that we can coexist in a positive manner (not everyone must have the same rules/boundaries). If dogs are not given clear expectations and are punished or reinforced inconsistently, they can become frustrated and confused. With a frustrated and confused dog comes a frustrated and confused owner… an owner who may then consider relinquishing their ‘untrainable’ dog to the shelter.
Which brings up my main point: valuing rules, boundaries and limitations is not what connects (or doesn’t) various trainers, it’s how one goes about setting those rules that will bind various trainers together (or not). What makes Victoria Stillwell and Cesar Millan so incredibly different is how they choose to communicate these rules to dogs, how they choose to enforce rules and how they choose to be a leader.
Victoria Stilwell chooses, most often, to use a combination of obedience training, rewarding positive behavior, desensitization, increasing mental and physical exercise, and using non-physical punishments (like walking away, closing a door, turning away, losing access, or no reward markers) to set rules and make boundaries clear. For dogs who are not getting the picture, or for some issues like counter surfing that occur in the absence of people, she will use mild to moderate sound aversion–most often an “eh eh”or clap, and occasionally an alarm of sorts. More often than not (based on the episodes I’ve seen), she can nip the problem in the bud without the use of moderate or severe sound aversion. In her methods, humans become the leader through building up a dog’s confidence by doing obedience, agility, or rally-O. These activities require a partnership where the dogs defer to the human’s cues or instructions but it’s the human’s responsibility to reward positive behavior throughout the activity–the end result is a dog who learns to follow a human’s instructions and rules because they are confident it will benefit them in the end.
Cesar Millan, on the other hand, uses physical and confrontational methods for even common problems. He chooses to poke, kick, alpha roll, exercise until sheer exhaustion, and use collar corrections to communicate the rules. If a dog is obsessing over a toy, he delivers leash pops, neck pokes, and TSCH’s to break the focus and teach rules regarding the toy. If a dog is scared of the stairs, he simply drags it up and down them repeatedly by the collar. He chooses to be forceful and confrontational when defining the rules and limitations to the dog. He physically wears down the dog and calls it submission, dogs are forced to submit in a physical manner–instead of raising the value of following the human, he literally diminishes the value of the dog. This is in stark contrast to the methods Victoria Stilwell uses to set boundaries, communicate rules, and create limitations–he is a very different type of leader.
I am a firm believer that dogs to best when they have a clear understanding of a set of rules, boundaries, and limitations, but that does not mean dogs must be squashed to fit into our human culture. Rules, as long as they are clearly defined, can be somewhat lax and completely different household to household. In my house, dogs have access to furniture, are given ‘table scraps’, are allowed to bark at strangers at the door, they can use their mouths gently with me when we play, are allowed to jump up on me, or walk all over me when I’m sitting on the couch and even sit on the back of the couch above me–these things don’t bother me and I’m comfortable with these behaviors. I do have very clear rules about door manners (an open door isn’t an invitation to leave), about going to their places during my dinner (to keep them from begging at my feet), about what are appropriate chew toys, and that any food dropped is OFF limits until I say they can have it (or not). These rules were put into place not through confrontation or force but through reinforcing desired behaviors until the dogs understood what was expected of them.
Most trainers believe that having rules, boundaries and limitations are essential in creating a harmonious household–so that is not a very defining feature of a trainer. What is the defining feature is how a trainer works to communicate those rules to the dog; whether the trainer uses force and intimidation or uses redirection to, and rewarding, desired behavior.