An article, purporting to be the latest science on dogs, has been making the internet rounds in condemnation of Cesar Millan.
Cesar Millan is a particularly nettlesome burr under the saddle of progressive learning/training theorists, who believe that animal behavior is driven by reinforcement. Cesar is challenging this view, in effect saying that there is an underlying template inherited from the dog’s ancestor the wolf, which in Cesar’s view, endows the dog with the drive to follow a pack leader. He believes dogs are always seeking to satisfy this primordial and innate urge.
Yes I do believe that Cesar’s confrontational approach can cause aggression. But it’s hyperbolic to lament that Cesar represents the end of science in dogdom. Lots of people were bitten after the publication of the Monks of New Skete book in the seventies and their popularization of the “alpha roll,” yet Dogdom moved along. And in fact, if we look back over the early years of dog work, some amazing herding, service and even police dogs were trained well before science became involved in a discussion of training, and people were certainly more heavy handed in those days. In point of fact I contend that today there is even more aggression being caused by the positive school with their positive, hyper-manic stimulating–stimulating—stimulating ideology. So while I disagree with much of what Cesar does, I don’t believe he’s a dog abuser. Let’s ratchet things down. Cesar is a good guy trying to help dogs and has been blessed with many riches for his talents. May we all be so fortunate. Those interested in the science of dogs (in other words the theories and practices which make the most sense) should welcome Cesar as a springboard for a deeper discussion. This is why for example I don’t understand Neo-Darwinism’s vitriolic treatment of Intelligent Design when it should be seen as an opportunity to engage millions of young people in the finer points of evolutionary theory. I say let’s go! Let’s have a debate and see what evolves from an open and free ranging discussion. (I thought the positive folks believed in evolution?)
The author of this particular article considers the following critique a rigorously scientific approach:
“While it isn’t unreasonable to think that early humans might have captured wolf pups and tried to rear them, taming wolves is extremely difficult and the resulting adult would have been hard to handle. Early humans were migratory, and would not have stayed in a particular area long enough to influence the genetics of the nearby wolf population even if they did exert slight control over the breeding of wild wolves. It is much more likely that some wolves ‘chose’ to domesticate themselves. As humans began to create temporary settlements instead of migrating constantly, trash would have accumulated. The wolves in nearby populations who were less wary of humans would have learned to conserve energy by accessing this easy-to-find food. At that point, natural selection would have taken over and these less-fearful wolves would have begun to differ from those that were still completely wild. Over time a tame type of wolf would have developed. During this process, it was likely that humans would have recognized the reciprocal benefits of having such predators around the camp. The camp would have been cleaner; resulting in fewer vermin and less disease, and the presence of the proto-dogs would have warded off other predators. Without the presence of humans and their debris, wolves would never have had the opportunity to evolve into dogs. A domesticated dog’s ‘natural habitat’ is anywhere that humanity is – in cities, towns and homes. It’s not possible for a domesticated dog to return to its humanity-free roots, as they never existed in the first place. Millan advocates this romanticized idea of domestication because of its appeal to the layperson, but it has no factual basis.”
The positive school favors the scavenger theory, in conjunction with Mech’s view of a wolf pack as an extended family group, because it minimizes the innate nature of a dog and emphasizes an owner as a care giver rather than a pack leader, and supports the learning by reinforcement model. Want to understand a dog? Need not consider its nature but its affiliation with humans, the main supplier of resources. Of course the problem with this is that it leaves aside the nature of humans just as much as it does the dogs.
Previously I’ve articulated my objections to the dog-as-scavenger theory. For example, why was it only wolf-to-dog, not fox-to-fox/dog, or coyote-to-coyote/dog, why isn’t there a domesticated version of the raccoon perhaps the most prolific animal at the dump? <<BTW, my question isn’t why didn’t foxes, raccoons or bears evolve into domesticated versions. I know why they didn’t, they aren’t group hunters of a physically superior prey. My point is that the village dump is not a logical basis to presume that wolves evolved into domesticated versions by virtue of access to same. Domestication amplified the hunting group dynamic, it wasn’t a “taming” process selecting for docility or submissiveness. >>All these animals had the same access to village dumps and yet no such domestication event happened. But even more importantly the hunting drive in the domestic dog is legendary and saying that dogs are scavengers denies their obvious hunting drive, the fact that every breed class, and virtually every breed name, is derivative as to how it was selected to hunt. Clearly domestication is an evolutionary process not an arbitrary artifice of man and this is because hunting has been integral to the evolution of human nature as well.
The biggest irony in this article is that the author is using what he/she views as the latest science so as to club Cesar upside the head with, and yet the most recent science is trending away from the scavenger theory.
Anthropologist Pat Shipman has studied “Mammoth Megasites” wherein hundreds of mammoths were killed in the same spot over hundreds of years, the site may be as old as 45,000 years. During the same period wolf/dog-like skulls have been found in affiliation with humans, many tens of thousands of years before the village dog scenario. Some of these proto-dog skulls found at megasites have healed fractures, indicating that a human may have nursed them back to health. The evidence at these sites suggests a hunting symbiosis between man and canine, especially given that there are proto-dog burials done in a ritualistic way.
So Cesar is closer to the best science than is the positive camp because the dog is the dog due to the wolf. Cesar is right on this broad point. However, the key to the wolf is how it hunts as a group. My study of the dog led me to conclude that the hunting style of the wolf begat the social style of the wolf, not the other way around. Wolves are social because of how they work as a team, not because of how they live as a pack. With all due respect to Dr. Mech, he was still using the alpha as in pack leader designation in 1992 when I articulated in “Natural Dog Training” exactly how this group dynamic works. And now saying that wolves are extended family groups isn’t really saying anything. Bonobos form extended family groups, as do African Wild Hunting Dogs, and yet these species will never be capable of living and working alongside human beings. So there still remains a group dynamic around which the family organizes, and again this is due to their hunting nature, a nature amplified not dampened by the domestication process. So note to the positive folks, put your Cesar Basher down so we can just talk dogs!