As Science Proves Us Wrong, Our Approach to Pets Needs to Change
Walking through the halls at Western Vet Conference this past week, the place was abuzz with two names: Cesar Millan and Dr. Pol. I tell you one thing, they sure evoke a lot of emotion in people, both good and bad.
They’re great for ratings, and to be honest, great for our profession. It forces us to speak up for what we believe and to really clarify our arguments. There was a lot of grumbling as to why they were there, but it’s worth thinking about.
Before I give you my own opinions, I have to tell you this: Regardless of my feelings about approaches or outcomes, I do not believe either Pol or Millan are bad people. I’ve spoken to many people who know both personally and report that they are lovely humans, and I have no reason to disbelieve that. I happen to disagree with their approaches to their areas of expertise, but I feel it’s important to dissociate that from how I feel about someone as a person.
We’ve gotten to a point in our society where disagreement on a topic somehow translates to “I hate you personally and want to scorch you from the face of the earth,” but starting WWIII every time two people disagree on a point is generally the worst way possible for anyone to make the world a better place.
But in order for us to have any real, valuable discourse we all have to admit something else: none of us knows everything. This is not a value judgment. It’s truth. What we learned 10 or 20 years ago as The Way may be proven next week to be incorrect, and we have a choice: be grateful science has caught up and made us better, or dig in our heels and insist we were right all along.
I for one am glad most scientists take the former approach, or else my current headache would still be treated with leeches, half of my friends would have died in childbirth, and my epileptic cousin would be getting bled by a barber instead of seeing a neurologist.
This is the truth as I see it: There is no shame in being wrong, because it happens to us all. It takes far more strength of character to admit an error and grow than to refuse. And this is why I have very different feelings about the two men in question attending a veterinary conference.
Dr. Pol has received a good amount of criticism for the type of medicine he practices on his television show. He also receives a great deal of praise for the people he helps. He was asked by his state licensing board to commit to additional continuing education (CE) in order to bring his practice up to date with the most current medical recommendations. And here he is, at one of the country’s biggest CE conferences, to learn. Why would I criticize that? Go forth and evolve, Dr. Pol, and a (gloved, hopefully, gloves are great) high five to you.
Now onto The Dog Whisperer. Look, I have no doubt that when he learned on his own how to train dogs, his theories of dominance were right on trend. They were, in fact, the leading philosophy when I was in school, when shock collar training programs were commonplace and people were still alpha-rolling dogs to get them to behave. His show would have fit in just great in 1998.
But we change; because we must. Pioneers like Sophia Yin who at the time were laughed at for their “silly” approach to positive reinforcement approaches persisted in their desire to change the way we do things. They studied animal behavior and published papers and did the hard work, willing to be wrong but hoping they were right, and it paid off. We know, without a doubt, that Millan’s approach to training aggressive dogs is incorrect and far less likely to achieve the desired outcome than the current training methods endorsed by veterinary behaviorists, animal experts, and most trainers.
If Millan were there to attend behavior lectures and really improve what he is doing, I’d be the first to defend his presence. He wasn’t. He was there to perform a meet and greet at a booth.
You can’t say he is unaware of this newer scientific evidence surrounding animal behavior and how to modify it safely and effectively. It’s everywhere, including surrounding him at that very conference. All one can deduce from it is that he either doesn’t believe the piles of science in front of him or he simply doesn’t care.
He may be a great person. He may have helped many dogs. All of this is true. It is also true that he refuses to change with the times because his way is “good enough.”
If you want to read a good response to all of the usual arguments, read this piece. If you still believe in what he does, you might be willfully ignoring science too.
Doing right by our animals and ourselves is a hard thing, especially when we are in a field that is not static. It stings to admit we are wrong, but we must if we truly believe in what we are doing. Because we’re always going to be wrong about something. It is the only way to grow, and I hope to remain humble enough about my humanity to remember that the next time I’m wrong.