Be a “Child Whisperer”

I’d like to add the name of Cesar Millan, National Geographic Channel’s “Dog Whisperer,’ to the ranks of the mental health establishment. Episode after episode, he consistently delivers on his assertion, ‘I rehabilitate dogs. I train people.’

Yes, Millan is a dog psychologist, but if you watch the show regularly, it becomes apparent that he’s more of a human one than you’d think. He understands canine behavioral and mental temperament, but he also grasps that most of the troubles exhibited by dogs stem from their owners.

In just about every episode, Millan helps his human clients correct errors in thinking. He states, ‘Dogs are not your children.’ In other words, you can’t project your human feelings onto them, and then respond to those feelings. Dogs want love, but they need leadership. Your being the ‘top dog” is germane to their very survival.

Dogs develop behavioral problems when humans go awry. In a recent episode, an anxious woman began to cry as she talked about the stress in her life. Rather than help her with her own problems (not the point of the show), Millan pointed out how her anxiety was obviously being conveyed to the dog. The more she sniffled, the more the dog barked and skittered about. And it happens every time.

Dogs pick up on the emotions of their humans. Millan calls it “energy”; the behavioral cues that humans give off. Do dogs cognitively understand ‘anxiety?’ Of course not. But they nonetheless sense it from the myriad nonverbal signals we display.

The Dog Whisperer sensibly illustrates the role humans play in perpetuating their dogs’ problems. This is something that a child psychologist will almost never do. The premise of the parent (often encouraged by the professional) is that something is wrong with the child that must be “treated” — which is to say, ‘fixed.’ This conveniently removes responsibility for counterproductive behavior from both the parent and from the child.

Hence the popularity of medication, despite its elusive effectiveness. “Oh, good,” the parent is encouraged to think, “It’s not me. And it’s not Johnny either. It’s something external, like the flu.” Medication rarely ends up doing what the parents hope it will do, but they hold on to the myth anyway, because the alternative is that the child or the parent might actually be part of the problem. Unthinkable!

None of this baloney is present on The Dog Whisperer. Millan clearly expects his clients to accept the fact that their dog’s behavioral difficulties are almost certainly due to something the human is doing, however unintentionally.

He exposes errors like “the dog is my baby.” The objective fact is that it’s an animal, with certain instincts and a certain set of parameters within which one must work. They need limits and boundaries, and they don’t get their feelings hurt. But they do mirror anxiety when the owner is a not an effective ‘pack leader.’ Dogs don’t want neglect or abuse, but inconsistency and a lack of boundaries can be almost as damaging. Wow — sounds like young children, doesn’t it?

Before you email me, I KNOW that children are not dogs. Children grow into conceptual beings that puppies will never become. Humans don’t survive only by instinct; they survive by reason. And dogs that share our homes survive in great measure by our reasoning, which is why they relate so well to us. And, because young children have not yet developed into sophisticated conceptual thinkers, they also share that reliance on the sensory-perceptual level by picking up on the cues and behaviors of adults.

Children also need and want leadership. Yet when the parent of a troubled child goes to a child psychologist, the parent does not get Mr. Millan. Instead he or she is usually told that the child is “acting out.” In plain English this means that neither the child nor the parent is responsible for any of those actions. The solution? Some undefined “treatment.”

In the old days “treatment” used to be unexplained psychotherapy, usually with the child alone, which neither the child nor the therapist understood. Today, it’s a lot simpler to give the kid a pill. Does it work? It doesn’t matter, because the alternative is that somebody has to take responsibility. Oops ‘ unthinkable.

Cesar Millan frankly and objectively demonstrates what is mistaken in the humans’ thinking and actions, and how that can impact their dog. With kids, the answers are not always that simple, but staying with that premise almost always leads to positive results. Parents shape their children more than they know. If there’s a problem with the child, the parent must be the ‘pack leader’ to guide them to whatever the solution may be.