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Training Books - many by Ian Dunbar who has had much success training Malamutes

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Dog Training Theories

Dogs need training, but they need appropriate training.   I'm seeing a number of people that are just in awe of the Dog Whisperer show and the training methods presented there that seem to "fix" behaviors in 30 minutes.  Well, it doesn't happen that way.  Training is hard work - I'm sure for every dog you see fixed in 30 minutes - weeks went into modifying the behavior.  There are few problems (truthfully, I can't think of any) that can be "cured" in 30 minutes with a Malamute.  Even things you think you corrected will turn up over and over over time (a counter surfer will always be a counter surfer in spirit).  Training is a life long, ongoing occupation with a Malamute.  While I agree with Cesar's mantra of the need for calmness, exercise, consistency and taking an alpha role, there are times when he uses methods that just don't work with Malamutes.  There are methods he uses that can make a borderline dog worse.  I'm sure you've noticed he has never had an aggressive Malamute on his show.  When Shadow was alive I used to joke we should ask him to come to Michigan - he would fail and that would be the end of his show.  However, by that time Shadow was older, mellower and nothing like his younger more messed up self.  It would have just created more problems...after all Shadow had come a long way - he was actually letting the UPS men pet him! 

Cesar is correct in that humans tend to treat dogs as people and that gets them into trouble - a byproduct of modern society is using dogs as substitute children.  Cesar has built his Dog Psychology Center around this fact. His clientele are the Hollywood rich, pampered dogs whose owners are not owners at all - but equals and oftimes intimidated by their own pets who they spoil and pamper with luxuries poor children would envy.  In the olden days "a dog was a dog". They weren't allowed on furniture, they didn't get special treats, old shoes were their toys, and you didn't fence your yard for the dog, you did it for your children.  That was a good life for dog in a family  that were  dog lovers for their time.  They may have used a rolled up newspaper for discipline, but would have never let a dog sleep in the bed.  They rubbed dog noses in potty accidents.  If an unfenced dog got hit by a car or took off - oh well, can't be prevented.  It didn't have "street smarts".  I call this the "farm dawg" mentality, and it was common 50 years ago.  I still see this everywhere - from people putting a dog in the back of a pickup truck to the use and misuse of fencing (by misuse I mean invisible fences or no fence at all).  While we've come a long way and should never do this in these enlightened times, in some places this still exists in our society.  While Malamutes are primitive dogs, it does not mean primitive methods should be used to train them.  On the contrary, because of their intelligence they will know when you are using an unfair, stupid method - and you will pay for it with sassy dog that does not respect your status.   There is a need for a happy medium - somewhere between allowing the Malamute to be your child and being a "farm dawg".  There are many dog training methods out there.  My concern is what works best with a Malamute.  Consider this letter  (I'll give you my opinion later):

Andrew Luescher, DVM, on Cesar Millan

Courteous Canine, Inc - Andrew Luescher, DVM, Veterinary Behaviorist, Animal
Behavior Clinic, Purdue University

By Andrew Luescher, DVM

I reviewed the four preview-videotapes kindly submitted to me by National Geographic. I very much appreciate having gotten the opportunity to see these tapes before the program goes on the air. I will be happy to review any programs that deal with domestic animal behavior and training. I believe this is a responsibility of our profession.

I have been involved in continuing education for dog trainers for over 10 years, first through the How Dogs Learn" program at the University of Guelph (Ontario Veterinary College) and then through the DOGS! Course at Purdue University. I therefore know very well where dog training stands today, and I must tell you that Millan's techniques are outdated and unacceptable not only to the veterinary community, but also to dog trainers. The first question regarding the above mentioned tapes I have is this: The show repeatedly cautions the viewers not to attempt these techniques at home. What then is the purpose of this show? I think we have to be realistic: people will try these techniques at home, much to the detriment of their pets.

Millan's techniques are almost exclusively based on two techniques: Flooding and positive punishment. In flooding, an animal is exposed to a fear (or aggression) evoking stimulus and prevented from leaving the situation, until it stops reacting. To take a human example: arachnophobia would be treated by locking a person into a closet releasing hundreds of spiders into that closet, and keeping the door shut until the person stops reacting. The person might be cured by that, but also might be severely disturbed and would have gone through an excessive amount of stress. Flooding has therefore always been considered a risky and cruel method of treatment.

Positive punishment refers to applying an aversive stimulus or correction as a consequence of a behavior. There are many concerns about punishment aside from its unpleasantness. Punishment is entirely inappropriate for most types of aggression and for any behavior that involves anxiety. Punishment can suppress most behavior but does not resolve the underlying problem, i.e., the fear or anxiety. Even in cases where correctly applied punishment might be considered appropriate, many conditions have to be met that most dog owners can't meet: The punishment has to be applied every time the behavior is displayed, within ½ second of the behavior, and at the correct intensity.

I would just like to point out three particularly disturbing episodes. In one, a Great Dane is dragged onto a slippery floor by a choke chain. Again, punishment and flooding is used. The dog was under extreme stress. The photographer did an excellent job at documenting the excessive drooling. In another sequence a Viszla is corrected for showing fear by inflicting pain. Would you hit your frightened child if it was afraid, say, of heights? The most disturbing sequence was the Entlebucher Mountain Dog with compulsive disorder that was "treated" with a prong collar. The dog's behavior could be compared to stereotypic rocking in a child. The method Millan used to approach this problem would be like hitting this severely disturbed child each time it rocks. I bet you could suppress rocking behavior, but certainly no-one would suggest that that child was cured.

The last episode (compulsive disorder) is particularly unsettling because compulsive disorder is related to an imbalance in neurotransmitter levels or receptors, and is therefore unequivocally a medical condition. Would it be appropriate to treat obsessive compulsive disorder in people with punishment? Or have a layperson go around treating such patients?

Most of the theoretical explanations that Millan gives regarding causes of the behavior problems are wrong. Not one of these dogs had any issue with dominance. Not one of these dogs wanted to control their owners. What he was right about was that calmness and consistency are extremely important, but they don't make the presented methods appropriate or justifiable.

The title "The Dog Whisperer" is particularly ironic. The title is of course taken from the horse whisperer. The training techniques of the horse whisperer are based on an understanding of equine behavior, and are non-confrontational and particularly gentle. Cesar Millan anything but "whispers"!

I think this series, if aired, would be a major embarrassment for National Geographic. It is not stimulating or thought-provoking, since none of the presented techniques are new. They are outdated and have long been abandoned by most responsible trainers, let alone behaviorists, as inappropriate and cruel. I very much hope National Geographic will pull the plug on this program.

My colleagues and I and innumerable leaders in the dog training community have worked now for decades to eliminate such cruel, ineffective (in terms of true cure) and inappropriate techniques. It would be a major blow for all our efforts if National Geographic portrayed these very techniques as the current standard in training and behavior modification. National Geographic would be in a difficult situation because they would promote an individual practicing veterinary medicine without a license (at least compulsive disorder is a medical condition, and the diagnosis of any behavior problem is considered practicing veterinary medicine in the model veterinary practice act). I also would not be surprised if the large national animal welfare organizations were to sue National Geographic for promoting cruelty to animals. I can guarantee to you that they would have the support of all professional organizations involved in dog behavior and training.

Andrew Luescher, DVM, Veterinary Behaviorist, Animal Behavior Clinic, Purdue


We are in agreement that Cesar uses some pretty antiquated methods, and sometimes quite inappropriately.  But what DO you use with a Malamute?  Positive reinforcement only goes so far with some dogs, and when you have a Malamute one day you will discover this.  So perhaps a real world example will be helpful. 

This morning we handed out new toys and a fight erupted after playing nicely among themselves for over a half hour.  It was like the flashpoint in a fire - it erupted spontaneously.  Had I not been playing with my camera, I'd have seen the precipitating posture, but I didn't. It was a minor fight with 5 dogs - Mula corrected Mocha, then Jazzy went for Mula because that's HER puppy (she's 1 1/2 but still mommy's puppy), after which Simone joined in and Jazzy corrected HER, then Riggs got involved to keep pack order....(only Theodore stayed out of the fray).  What do you do?  No, you don't beat the instigators...(though you'd like to - and good luck figuring out who is the instigator?  Mocha who overstepped her bounds or Mula that corrected her?). The worst thing to do is yell and freak out.  First you CALMLY separate and diffuse the fight.  Keep them apart, Jazz still had her hackles up so she got some crate time (aka timeout)...Mula did too on principle since Mocha had a couple of deep scratches on her nose from Mula's correction.  Mocha and the puppies got a strong scolding since they really didn't do anything wrong (it was an over-reaction by the "mommy's"). Riggs was doing his job as alpha male trying to keep pack order.  It wasn't a "serious" fight so we didn't have to be ogres this time.  Everyone stopped when we told them to - no one "kept coming back for more", so the punishment has to fit the crime.  This wasn't a "I want to kill you and die" fight.  So the punishment was somewhat low-key.  Did we beat them with a newspaper, no.  Yell, no (that would have escalated things).  We just growled "cut it out" and separated them and went about our business. So is life with Malamutes! 

Generally you try positive reinforcement first, which takes time and has the best long term results.  If something that positive reinforcement can't be used for happens - say a fight - use the least severe method to get results.  In this case it was a time out and some crate time - separation from the pack. Had it been a severe "kill them!" type of fight, it would have meant pinning and perhaps a bite on the nose (from us) to the instigator (yes, antiquated training methods) to make a point.  How do I know what kind of fight it was? It would have taken much more than firmly growling at them to end it.   So, in general, while the above dog behaviorist is generally right, Cesar is also right when their is no "psychological problem" going on.  The answer lies somewhere in between. The cardinal rule is do not make the problem worse.  Do not punish more severely than the crime merits.  Use positive reinforcement whenever possible.  If you're not sure, or it's something weird, have a professional evaluate the situation but always keep in mind you know your dog best.  Even behaviorists can be wrong. There is no right/wrong answer sometimes - you have to do what works.  Every trainer has their favorite "methods" and there are some general rules to follow:

  • Never call a dog to punish him (or he won't come next time). Doing that undermines his trust in you.
  • The punishment should fit the crime (no matter how angry you are he ate your wallet). Save your severe punishments for things that endanger life and limb. 
  • Make rules and enforce them. Consistency!!!  All family members should be in agreement as to what the rules are.
  • Don't be overly affectionate with your dog if you aren't willing to be a leader too.  (Recipe for disaster with a pushy dominant Malamute and even a shy/non-pushy Malamute may take advantage of this perceived "status" indicator).
  • Give enough exercise and something to do, bored busy dogs get into trouble.
  • Try positive reinforcement first.  If the dog is say, jumping up - show him what to do and praise - every time he jumps.  It works better and the results are longer lasting when he finally "gets it" though it may take longer to achieve a result.
  • Be firm and don't waver in your confident in your approach - he will sense your waffling and take advantage of it.
  • If the dog seems to have a serious problem (separation anxiety, obsessive/compulsive behaviors) you should consult a professional behaviorist so you don't make the problem worse.  
  • A problem can appear to be "dominance" related and not be.  Some very manipulative dogs are not dominant at all.
  • Flooding and excessive punishment never work with Malamutes - you will likely make a shy dog shyer, or an aggressive dog vicious.
  • Always use a non-confrontational method for an aggressive situation.
  • When unsure, find a way to use positive reinforcement - you'll do no harm and won't make problems worse
  • It's ok to use certain caveman techniques with certain Malamutes - but use them sparingly and only for serious infractions (fighting, biting).  Scruff shakes, pinning and chucks under the chin have a place.  However, used with a sensitive, shy or timid dog this can CAUSE aggression. I am hesitant to say this only because some people tend to go overboard with these "old fashioned" methods, but they do have their place with pushier, confident, more primitive Malamutes.  This is not a dog you can say "no no poochie-poo, that was a baaaaaad doggie and mommy is angry"...they'll laugh at you.
  • You will find the things you have the most success with are the things you are doing best.  (and why shouldn't that be?)  If it's not working, try something else. 
  • Sometimes the best solution is the practical one.  If you have dogs, don't buy white carpet and expect them to keep it clean.  Not gonna happen! Common sense goes a long way.