Cognition & Reality

Saturday, 30 April 2011

The Dog Whisperer & Biological Determinism

Through his program, “The Dog Whisperer,” Cesar Millan has made himself into the most famous dog trainer in America, if not the world. His approach features his intuitions about dogs’ motivations. In explaining those motivations, he frequently refers to the descendence of domestic dogs from wolves, and only occasionally refers to the relationship between breed characteristics and a dog’s problem behavior. I have never heard him blame bad behavior on a dog’s genetics. In fact, he is a strong defender of pit bulls and other breeds that have been seen as dangerous because they are bred to be aggressive. Because he almost always sees the roots of a problem in confusion about dominance, he trains owners to reinforce positive, submissive behavior by becoming better “pack leaders.” When it comes to dogs, as the success of Millan’s program demonstrates, the public is willing to believe that behavioral pathology is mostly a product of learning.

It is therefore interesting that, in the popular imagination, human psychoemotional difficulties, not so different from the fearfulness and aggressiveness the Dog Whisperer often addresses, represent underlying physiological anomalies. Although people readily accept that dog psychopathology reflects bad “parenting,” they reject the idea that the same can be true of humans. To explain humans’ dysfunction, the public prefers explanations that seem to be at a remove from the direct experience of learning and developing, such as “chemical imbalance” or physical inheritance.

Cesar Millan’s treatments are invariably behavioral. Although I believe he doesn’t explicitly disapprove of using antidepressants with dogs, he never presents chemical or even dietary interventions on his show. Instead, through careful titration, he focuses on changing behavior, replacing dysfunctional behaviors with functional behaviors. He not only employs himself and other humans to do this, but also the dogs in his own pack, particularly his pit bull Daddy and a few other canine co-therapists.

Right now, I’m watching a touching installment of “The Dog Whisperer,” in which Cesar is rehabilitating a fearful Doberman mix named Baby Girl. When he discovers that Baby Girl refuses to eat, Cesar brings in a vet to examine the dog for physiological problems, but there is nothing physically wrong with her. Cesar concludes that Baby Girl’s eating disorder is “psychological.”

Admittedly, the psychological disorders of dogs do not track exactly the psychological disorders of humans. In addition, the cases that make it on to Cesar’s show, more often than not, involve violent dogs. Not only is an aggressive dog likely to drive owners to seek help, but a violent dog also makes better TV. On the other hand, Baby Girl was not violent. She had symptoms more similar to clinical depression or a personality disorder, and Cesar used a mixture of behavioral approaches to treat her. The point here is not so much that Cesar Millan believes in the efficacy of psychological treatment, but that the audience believes in the efficacy of psychological treatment, when the “patient” is a dog.

When the patient is a human, however, the public has been conditioned to accept the use of pharmaceuticals to treat psychoemotional problems, and they have accepted the notion that much psychopathology is “genetic.” Contrast this set of ideas with the way Cesar Millan operates. Although he does, under some circumstances, take into account a dog’s genetics, he almost always attributes behavioral problems to what we would call “upbringing” in the human context: The problem is really with the owners, an attribution most of the owners on the show readily accept.

One can see how much more difficult a similar conclusion about human parenting is to accept . Parents don’t want to believe that they contributed to the psychopathology of a child. In addition, physicians presently enjoy enormous power in treating psychopathology. It is therefore in their interest to promote a relationship between physiology and behavior that Cesar Millan implicitly rejects in the way he treats the psychological problems of canines.

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