How to Have the Right Mentality When Working with Dogs

Cesar Millan hugs an interesting piece of artwork.

Seeing the Whole Picture

There’s an ancient parable, which originated in India, about six blind men who encounter an elephant. Each of them touches a different part of the animal, and each of them comes up with a different description.

The man who touches the tail says, “An elephant is like a rope.” The one who touches the side describes the elephant as like a wall; the tusk, like a pipe; the trunk, like a tree; the leg, like a pillar; the ear, like a hand fan.

When they compare notes, they get into a violent disagreement about what an elephant is like until the king comes along and tells them all of them are right, but none of them is completely right because they can’t see the big picture.

When humans consider dogs and their behavior, we often act just like those six blind men.

Look at Dog’s Like They Look at Themselves

I always tell people to look at dogs the way that dogs see themselves: animal, species, breed, and then name, in that order. However, that’s often not how people look at dogs.

Behaviorists focus on animal only, describing behavior as related to stimulus, but ignoring the animal’s motives or the evolutionary development of the behavior.

Ethologists focus on species and breed, trying to learn how behaviors evolved in the context of a dog’s social pack environment.

Breeders and show dog people focus on breed only, trying to develop an ideal standard, while most pet owners focus a little bit on breed, but mostly on the dog’s name.

To focus on any one or two of those four aspects without accounting for them all blinds us to the big picture of what a dog is really like. Think of your dog as just their name, and you’ll wind up humanizing him or her without really communicating at all. Think of your dog as just an animal, and you’ll miss out on so much that they have to teach us.

Animal, species, breed, and name have a parallel in what I like to call the “Four Worlds” that every living creature exists in to one degree or another: spiritual, instinctual, emotional, and intellectual. The last three are self-explanatory; think of spiritual as being in balance and harmony with Nature. These concepts line up like this:


How Humans Think

Humans are mostly emotional and intellectual, so we identify strongly with our names and tend to associate with other humans of the same “breed” — race, status, nationality, and so on. Because of this focus, it’s easy for us to lose touch with our instinctual and spiritual side; to forget that all humans are one species and our species is part of the animal kingdom.

Dogs are spiritual and instinctual, so they are in touch with nature and their “animalness.” They react with instincts that have evolved in their species, many of which are common to all animals, like the need for survival, and some of which vary among species — for example, dogs are pack animals while cats are solitary hunters.

The way a dog’s breed affects those instincts is apparent in the different ways they react to stimuli in their environment. Scent hounds follow their noses and love tracking and finding things; herding dogs have a modified prey drive that leads them to chase and round up animals, and so on. The needs of the breed are the “emotions” that color the way a dog follows their instincts.

Name is least important to a dog, but they will react to their names and to words we say, although they aren’t really intellectualizing it. They’ve just learned to associate a stimulus with a response.

Remember, I mentioned that behaviorists only focused on the animal, and this is where strictly behavioral training doesn’t really work with dogs. Yes, you can train them to do tricks at the sound of a clicker once you’ve associated it with a reward, but you can do that with almost any animal. There are even chickens that can play tick-tack-toe against humans — and win almost every time. (Don’t worry. The chicken cheats. Or at least the humans running the game do.)

If you train a dog this way, you’ll get her to do tricks, but you won’t get her to behave. You need to consider the whole dog — using her instincts in the context of her pack animal species while honoring the needs of her breed. Anybody can teach a dog to sit or shake. It takes a Pack Leader to see the big picture, work with all parts of a dog, and achieve balance and harmony.

Stay calm, and look at the whole elephant!

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