Updated: Jan 23, 2021
A man places a dish of food down before an adult Labrador Retriever, and then crouches down and stares at the dog. The dog blinks, turns her head, and looks nervous. Seconds later, with the man still crouched there in a tense, stiff stance, the dog begins to eat. The man reaches toward the dish. The dog snarls, and turns her head toward the man. There is a moment of opportunity for the man to back away. Instead, he forms his hand into a shape that resembles a claw, and jabs at the dog’s neck. The dog snarls and retracts her upper lip to show her teeth. She does not bite the man, but instead moves her upper body away from the man. When this happens, the man advances in a threatening manner, and the dog takes two steps backward.
As the man continues to move toward her in a hovering crouch, the dog turns sideways and takes a few steps away. When the man keeps approaching in a threatening manner, the dog retracts the sides of her mouth in a fear grimace. The man keeps coming. The dog snarls and shows teeth again, but her entire body weight is away from the man. The man is claiming the space between them, and is clearly threatening. The dog takes a step toward him and snarls. The man backs off for a split second, then immediately advances again in a threatening pose. The dog’s muzzle wrinkles and releases and her tongue repeatedly darts out from between her teeth as she finally sits and faces the man. The man stands still and stares at the dog. The dog looks up at the man, blinks with squinted eyes, licks her lips a few more times, and looks away. She lies down.
There is a period of approximately 15 seconds where the dog remains lying with the man crouched nearby, as the man talks to the dog’s owner. The man then turns back toward the dog and reaches his hand toward her, bringing it palm down over her muzzle. Her lips retract again and her tongue flicks. She air snaps, and the man quickly pulls his hand away. He stands up quickly, then immediately crouches back down facing the dog, with one hand raised. The dog lunges toward the man and bites his hand. It is not a bite and release, but a bite and hold. The man kicks at the dog, and she releases her grip.
I wish the foregoing had never happened. I also wish the man in question had been a complete unknown, an average dog owner—anyone but Cesar Millan, because it would have been much easier to discuss the event without the emotional charge that accompanies any discussion of this man. But this was a trailer for the dramatic season finale of the television show The Dog Whisperer. (If the trailer is still available by the time you read this, you’ll find it here. )
It appears that Cesar had been called in because the Lab guarded his food and had threatened the male owner, and the couple had a baby. They were right to be concerned. It’s also clear, though, that the dog’s behavior throughout the rest of the clip was a textbook case of defensive aggression. You might have noticed that I reported the action as succinctly as possible without adding any subjective comments. For those who hadn’t previously seen or heard about the clip, I wanted the interactions to be judged on their own merits, rather than having pre-existing opinions of Cesar Millan cloud anyone’s judgment either way.
It’s easy for the average dog owner to see things this way: Cesar put a dish of food down in front of the dog. When he reached for the food, the dog snarled at him and snapped. There were a few moments where the dog was lying down, and then Cesar reached for her and got bitten. The takeaway, especially after seeing the blood running down Cesar’s hand, would be that this is obviously a very dangerous dog. But while it’s true that there is no way the dog should be in a home with a small child, let’s look at what really happened. The dog did not bite over her food, despite being jabbed at in the neck area. She did not bite when she was repeatedly advanced upon. Time after time, she gave signals that she was frightened and defensive. She tried to end the conflict repeatedly by moving away. The bite itself shouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone, because that’s what dogs do when they feel frightened and pushed too far—they bite.
I read an online comment in defense of Cesar’s actions, saying that he needed to push the dog that far to see what she’d do, how far she’d go, so that the parents could see it and know the dog wouldn’t be safe around their child. That fact was obvious during the first ten seconds, when the dog snarled over her food. But was this truly a dangerous dog? In this situation for this family, yes, she certainly could have been. Would she have bitten during this filmed exchange, had she not been pushed too far? It appears not. Her body language and signaling were intended to back the man off without further conflict. Finally, given no choice, she bit.
Television and celebrity trainers aside, this begs a larger question: how far should we push dogs in order to assess their behavior? I’ve spent many years working with dogs who showed severe aggression toward people; dogs who multiply puncture wounded multiple people, and even one extra-large German Shepherd who put a hole clear through the hand of his six-foot-two, large male owner. I’ve worked with hundreds of dogs who were clearly willing to bite over food or other possessions, and for a multitude of other reasons. You might assume that my hands are covered in scars, but they’re not. Is it because I’m not “brave” enough to “dominate” these dogs, to show them who’s boss? No. I’ve never been bitten in those situations because there is no reason to push a dog over threshold to the point that he feels he has to bite, in order to assess behavior. Any dog will bite if pushed too far, and eliciting a bite does not necessarily mean that the dog is dangerous in general. Think about it: you’re a perfectly nice, friendly person. A man comes toward you in a threatening manner. You move away, but that doesn’t work; he keeps coming. You try threatening him right back in an attempt to back him off. That doesn’t work, either. Finally, you attack. Does that make you a dangerous person? No. You acted in a way that could be interpreted as dangerous, had the observer not clearly understood the context and sequence of events that led to your actions. It’s the same with dogs.
I’m not suggesting that trainers should take owners at their word about a dog’s behavior, because owner information is subjective and non-professional. But an experienced, knowledgeable trainer should be able to observe and test behavior without allowing (or worse, causing) it to escalate to the point that the dog feels he has to defend himself by biting. It’s sad that eliciting this drama and violence, while clearly a boon for television ratings, might have cost this dog her life. In the real world, helping dogs is not about dominating them or having a showdown. It’s about accurately assessing and respecting their body language and behavior, and modifying that behavior in a way that’s effective but still keeps everybody safe. It might not make for good television, but it saves lives.
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