Daniel's Reviews > Cesar's Way: The Natural, Everyday Guide to Understanding and Correcting Common Dog Problems

Cesar's Way by Cesar Millan
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's review
Jul 19, 2009

really liked it
bookshelves: 2009
Read in July, 2009

There's a lot going on in "Cesar's Way." Part of the book is a Ragged Dick tale of Cesar Millan growing up poor in Mexico (which by Mexican standards may have been upper middle class, as his family seemed to have owned land and been able to send the kids to school), studying dogs both on his family farm and in the city, and then, with nothing more than $100 in his pocket and a dream to become a Hollywood animal trainer in his heart, having a coyote -- and yes, I do get the inadvertent dog-coyote connection -- smuggle him across the border. Within a few years Millan becomes a dog trainer to the stars -- Will and Jada Pinkett Smith and Oprah Winfrey are the among the names that get dropped repeatedly here -- and, of course, ultimately lands his "Dog Whisperer" television show, which every single one of you reading this has seen.

I'm sure there's tons of self-mythologizing in the memoir section of "Cesar's Way" -- and, hey, we all deserve a bit of self-mythologizing, don't we? -- but you've got to admit it's still a pretty incredible story. Not to get all patriotic here or anything, because I'm really not like that, but the U.S. has to be one of the few places on Earth where someone can start out by sneaking into the country illegally, speaking just snatches of the native language, and within a few years become a wealthy, nationally known celebrity -- and, in this case, by doing something no one has ever done before. OK, granted, for every Cesar Millan, there are millions of people living below the poverty line, unable to get the education or training they need to break through, but, still, most places in the world this guy would have had zero chance, and may have ended up dying on the streets. If Republicans want Americans to be patriotic and given to chanting "USA! USA! USA!" all the time, they should just hand out copies of this book. The problem is, of course, that most Republicans would never have let Millan into the country in the first place.

Only the first part of "Cesar's Way" is a memoir, with much of the rest of the book dedicated to Millan's beliefs, backed up as needed by data and scientific studies, on the psychology of domestic dogs -- the same as the psychology of wolves, coyotes and other wild dogs, really -- and how we humans who live with them can best connect with them, both to make them happy (or "balanced" in Millan's parlance) and to make our lives easier. Anyone who has seen at least a couple episodes of "The Dog Whisperer" -- and, again, that's all of you -- will find few surprises in this part of the book. But is is a reasonably well-argued, in-depth discussion of a philosophy that on the TV show is seen only in bits and pieces between commercial breaks and fancy edits.

The book's far from perfect. It's incredibly repetitive in laying out its ideas -- while reading it, I kept thinking of the Talking Heads line, "Say something once, why say it again?" -- but there are worse things to be for what's basically a instructional/self-help book. Millan's trying to pound his ideas on dog psychology into our heads through sheer repetition -- and he's probably justified in doing so, as his ideas are so different from how most American dog-owners treat their dogs. And that brings up another of the book's shortcomings: Millan is so reluctant to offend his readers that every time he criticizes a particular way they treat our dogs, he has to spend a sentence or two soothing them. Screw that, Cesar. Just as you advise us not to baby our dogs, don't baby your readers. Tell us how fucking stupid we are, and correct our behavior with your calm, assertive energy, just as you would with a fearful-aggressive German Shephard.

Millan spends much of the book's pages lauding "the power of the pack," saying that living in a harmonious group with one strong leader and a bunch of other canines is the way dogs are meant to live. (He maintains a pack of his own at his dog-rehabilitation center.) But he never goes balls-out and says what I kept expecting him to: that those people who own just one dog and one or two people in a household -- and that would include this reader -- are never going to have a fully balanced dog. He almost hints at it, but eventually pussies out and starts giving a lot of lip service to packs with only two members (the dog and the owner), an obvious ploy to keep his readers happy with themselves. Come on, Cesar, man up and tell us we suck if you think we do.

As mentioned in his far more succinct and humorous review at http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/.... Brian highlights the section of "Cesar's Way" on homeless people's dogs. Most of them, Millan says, are far better balanced and closer to living near their natural states than are dogs with homes, he said, because they migrate daily and receive food at the end as a reward, as they would in the wild. Millan tries to head us down a similar path, advising us to take our dogs on looooong, energetic walks or runs several times a day, particulalry before they eat or are left alone, to try to replicate their natural state as much as possible. But, let's face it, if we really did everything Millan advises to do to keep our dogs well-balanced, we basically would all have to quit our jobs and devote ourselves full time to them. Again, Cesar, if you think most of us don't have enough time to be good dog owners, just say so. Man up!

In the last section of the book, which feels almost like an afterthought, Millan gives readers tips on common dog issues -- how to move houses with a dog, how to deal with them at an off-leash dog park -- but this seems tacked on for those readers who may be annoyed that the book has few step-by-step instructions. Again, Millan should have stuck to his guns, decided that this is indeed a dog-psychology book, and not tried to also make it a how-to manual as well.

Personally, I'm already trying some of Millan's ideas with my dog -- using a calm, assertive energy around him (this is explained pretty well in the book), and telling him what I want from him not with words but with body language and sounds (like the "tschhh" sound you hear Millan make on "The Dog Whisperer," and which his mother used on her children) -- and it does work really well.

So I'm giving "Cesar's Way" four stars. I was tempted to give it three because it's not by any stretch of the imagination great literature, and does suffer from a lot of repetition and coddling of its readers. The celebrity name-dropping grates a bit too. But, ultimately, it does exactly what it sets out to do in changing readers' perceptions of how their dogs' minds work, and what dog owners should do to connect with their pets. And, as a bonus, it gives a kick-ass rags-to-riches story that will have some readers chanting "USA! USA! USA!" -- well, those readers who aren't Lou Dobbs, that is.
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message 1: by [deleted user] (last edited Jul 18, 2009 05:41AM) (new)

We love watching Cesar in our house. We try to apply his "methods" whenever possible, but are not always successful. We haven't read the book but the TV show alone is very helpful. Hope you gain insight into the workings and soul of the dog.

Daniel Meg, if you're familiar with the TV show, nothing in the book will surprise to you. It is a longer, deeper discussion of the views he espouses on the show, but also feels a bit padded at times. (The book has a lot of repetition -- not necessarily a terrible trait for what's largely an instructional book, though.) I am getting some useful ideas from it, I have to admit.

message 3: by Buck (new)

Buck Canine psychology? I must be getting soft or something, but, damn it, that's a fine review.

I've heard from other, more forthright experts, that the way most of us raise our dogs basically drives them insane. I happen to be dog-sitting for a friend this summer and, after reading your review, I'm going to feel that much more guilty when I leave for work in the morning and see her traipsing after me to the door.

Daniel You shouldn't feel guilty about a dog that isn't yours, Buck. Other people's dogs are their problem. You're being generous by dog-sitting, and as long as you're following the owner's instructions, you've done your part. Now if it were your dog, then I'd tell you to become a calm, assertive pack leader and all that other bullshit. But it's not, so lose the guilt.

message 5: by Buck (new)

Buck Thanks. I feel better now. Hey, maybe you should write a self-help book. You've even given me an idea for a title: Manning Up. God knows there are enough of us who could use some advice in that department.

Kelly H. (Maybedog) Very nice review. I am almost tempted to read it even though I don't particularly like or agree with his methods. I think it's weird that he's called the dog-whisperer because his methods are not the silent, subtle ways of the horse-whisperer where the whole idea started. He's actually pretty old school. The whole alpha dog/dominance thing is not really the current trend in dog-training. I also think that most "only-dog"s I know are far more well-adjusted then those who live in a house full of dogs (like mine... My excuse is that I rescue elderly crazy dogs.) I've seen a couple of episodes that made me cringe when he got physical with the dogs. I much prefer Victoria Stilwell. I think it's funny, though, that he espouses being the dominant one and then you complain about him wimping out in his book. Made me laugh. :)

Daniel Interesting comments, Kelly. Just a couple thoughts:

- I wouldn't focus too much on the actual name "The Dog Whisperer." Except for references to his television show, Millan never mentions that name in the book. His dog-training center isn't called that, and he doesn't refer to himself as such anywhere in the book. If I had to guess, I'd bet some television executive or marketing person made him use that name.

- I agree with you about households with one dog. My dog, who's my only pet, is relatively well-adjusted, and my friends with single dogs seem to have pretty well-balanced pets too.

- I've seen a handful of "Dog Whisperer" episodes, but I'm not a big fan. They're filmed and edited more to entertain than inform, and the book does a far better job explaining Millan's techniques than the show does. On the show, I have seen Millan use his "bite" -- basically a quick nip at the dog's side with his fingers -- and I've seen him be pretty firm with a leash, and find both fairly inoffensive. (Dogs are tougher than we give them credit for. Just watch how rough they can be with each other even when playing nicely.) Millan does use choke collars for training on the show, though, which I don't do. In the book, he makes no mention of choke collars, or any other equipment, as the book's much more about psychology than about specific training techniques.

Also, I've never heard of Victoria Stilwell. What's her training style like?

message 8: by [deleted user] (last edited Jul 21, 2009 08:21AM) (new)

I want to chime in on the choke collar, while we're talking dogs. I find it more humane for the dog to know sooner where and how to be, thus the effectiveness of the prongs in the choke, than the straining stronger, bigger dogs may do with the regular collars. (I think for smaller dogs, this may be a bit much.) Some dogs really do want to know who the leader is and it makes them feel secure. It's not just about dominance, but about care and guidance. I say all this knowing I'm far from the perfect owner, just as I'm far from the perfect parent.

PS And I like Cesar's shows. Yes, they're for entertainment, but if you already know something about training dogs, it does give you something while letting you relax from a day. I've seen Victoria's shows, but she's got all those fancy cameras to watch dogs to see if they're obeying and to talk to them and startle them while "Mum and Dad" are away and that's, of course, hardly feasible for the average joe.

message 9: by Jen (new)

Jen Agreed, Meg. Sadie responded better to the pronged choke over the regular one, but she is big and crazy thick with fur.

Daniel, I think I may be the only person who hasn't seen the tv show. I don't watch tv programming unless I really want to see it (like Dexter) and then I just put it on my movie queue. I don't know how the rest of you can stand waiting between episodes and watching commercials. Unless you have the magic carpet tv- the one that makes the shows "hover" until you are ready to ride on.

Daniel Jen, I do indeed have a "magic carpet TV," also known as a Tivo. I haven't watched a television show when it was actually airing or sat through a commercial in years. As for waiting between episodes, I rarely have time to watch more than one episode of any show at one time anyhow, so waiting's no big deal.

message 11: by [deleted user] (last edited Jul 21, 2009 09:12AM) (new)

I've been getting less patient with all the crap on TV these days. I do like the shows that either have something to do with my life, but are not depressing, or that are pseudo historical/scientific so I can tell myself I'm getting educated. There is some slick programming on Bravo/Food Network that reels me in, hook, line, and sinker. I love all the contest shows, information shows - design, models, food, hair, you name it. When do writers get to have a contest, that's what I want to know.

Anywho, I love dogs and shows about dogs and could talk about dogs a lot. It is interesting that you rescue dogs, Kelly. Any particular breed? Any and all?

message 12: by Jen (new)

Jen Daniel wrote: "Jen, I do indeed have a "magic carpet TV," also known as a Tivo. I haven't watched a television show when it was actually airing or sat through a commercial in years. As for waiting between episode..."

I couldn't stand the wait. Prime Suspect with Helen Mirren was the last straw. There was no way I could wait for the next one. But that was many many moons ago- I haven't watched tv shows at home for more than ten years. Wow. I hadn't realized that it had been that long. Sheesh. No wonder I describe Tivo as the magic carpet!

I am cavewoman!

message 13: by [deleted user] (last edited Jul 21, 2009 10:07AM) (new)

Sherri wrote: "Victoria Stilwell is a dog trainer, which Cesar Milan does not claim to be. However, she and Cesar cross over a lot. I think of her as the Doggie Dominatrix :)

I did everything possible wrong wit..."

Ha (last remark).

Our first dog was a bouvier, who is still with us but in decline. The breeder from whom we purchased him told me it was the kind of breed who would dominate if you allowed them to. She said I had to be the alpha and at the time of purchase, I had yet to call up my inner alpha. However, I at least managed to keep the dog from attacking me - yes, they can turn if they don't know who's in charge - and attacking others. They are normally gentle, but need to be lead from the get-go. I am glad I had that little tip from the beginning or it could have gotten ugly.

I never succeeded with certain commands. "Come" being the most difficult. "Sit" and "down" and "stay" he will do brilliantly, even when there's an exciting presence at the door. He's arthritic now although smart and bored easily. When he got out of the house the other day, off-leash - we now live in one of those communities where owners are generally required to reign doggies in - he made it to the middle of the road. I said "Come" and he sat and just stared at me. Sitting is his favorite thing to do now that he's old. Ah yes, after all these years, he has managed to retain a smidgen of his alphaness.

message 14: by Kelly H. (Maybedog) (last edited Jul 22, 2009 02:37AM) (new)

Kelly H. (Maybedog) Meg,

I rescue elderly dogs, ones that are considered unadoptable. I work with a nonprofit called Old Dog Haven that places as many elderly dogs as possible and then those that aren't are put in "Final Refuge" homes, basically doggy hospice. I have three elderly ones right now, two in Final Refuge. The fifteen year old is very perky and energetic and definitely has at least a couple of years left in him. The 14 year old I've had a year and a half and she's winding down but she's still enjoying life. The 12 year old is an overweight border collie but she's very healthy other than that. I'm trying to find her a new home because she's not good with other dogs but she's a total sweetie. Well, except that she does exactly what your old dog does: sit and stare at me when I call her. She is testing me to see if I'll call her in with treats (my daughter resorts to that). She's a very smart dog. But I'm smarter, and more stubborn! :)

I'm pretty against choke collars and prong collars. I do understand the rational but I think there are other options, Gentle Leader, Halti, and harnesses that prevent jumping. Victoria suggested an owner put one around her wrist and tug. Of course it hurt. Then she asked if she wanted to put it around her neck. Of course not. The dogs were out of control even with the collar (four big dogs). Victoria was able to get all four behaving appropriately by the end of the show without using force.

Now I know it's edited, and I am sure they wouldn't show one that failed, but I really do believe that those collars are the absolute last resort, right after shock collars. The special equipment isn't necessary for the training. Victoria just uses it to show the owners and audience what is really happening.

I would never take just one dog trainers word for it, though. I have read a lot of different manuals and Cesar's methods, like those of the Monks of New Skete, are definitely effective but they are also definitely old school. The new trainers only use positive reinforcement, no choke or prong collars, and do a lot of clicker training. I personally like the new way better, but that's just my opinion.

I think it's a lot like parenting methods have changed. People still spank but in general that's frowned upon. Yet adults who were spanked as kids aren't necessarily horribly traumatized by it. Heck, Tibetans, one of the most peaceful groups of people on the planet, spank their kids. But the current thinking is that it's unnecessary and that there are better ways. Just another way of thinking, one that I subscribe to myself.

message 15: by [deleted user] (last edited Jul 22, 2009 05:32AM) (new)

Kelly wrote: "Meg,

I rescue elderly dogs, ones that are considered unadoptable. I work with a nonprofit called Old Dog Haven that places as many elderly dogs as possible and then those that aren't are put in "..."

Very cool about your dogs and work with them. When we were going through my grandmother's things after she died, I came across a book called Unleashing Your Inner Dog by Mari Gayatri Stein. I can imagine my grandmother enjoying this book, for she loved dogs and brought a lot of joy to the assisted, semi-independent nursing facility with her sweet old dog, a sheltie. She fed him a lot of people food, which was why he was so fat, but she talked to him and loved him, just like she did with all her other dogs. I find myself talking to my own dogs too.

Sometimes one has to balance out an immediate correction to a dog versus the dog being strong enough to pull you over and do damage. Whenever my elderly in-laws offer to walk my bouvier, for example, I am glad of the choke collar, although it is not as necessary, for he has mellowed out. Still, he used to try to get at a squirrel or whatever and would do so without warning.

I hear what you're saying, though. It sounds like you're a good owner. Some of the rest of us "pass" as in child-rearing. There are consequences for physically punishing your children when they are young - and I think ideally this kind of punishment stops at a very young age. I think it can create a bit of a divide between parent and child. Then again, I'm not a huge believer in children-as-friend, but rather children-as-children with a parent in charge. This gets trickier as they get older, but I think they need to be able to talk to their parent and know that someone is trying to guide them, even as they are trying to break away. It gives them something to push against and I think that's healthy.


message 16: by Kelly H. (Maybedog) (last edited Jul 29, 2009 01:44AM) (new)

Kelly H. (Maybedog) Meg, I 100% agree with your post, especially the last paragraph. My daughter and I love Gilmore Girls but it has always bothered me that the mom and daughter call each other "best friends" even when the daughter was still a child. I was my mom's best friend growing up and it was a horrible burden.

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