What can we learn from Cesar Millan?

Are you ready for a challenge?

umbrellas
Everybody’s got some valuable knowledge – a “yellow umbrella”. Finding it can be challenging. 

Find the yellow umbrella.

We can learn something from every single person.

That’s a conviction that I have.

My challenge to you is to try to find that something in every single pet owner or animal professional that you meet.

What animal-related piece of knowledge can you gain from that person?

Find the yellow umbrella. The nugget of wisdom that will change how you interact with animals.

Ignore the other, black umbrellas: the ideas, techniques and explanations that don’t fit your paradigm. And here’s the challenge: though you might find these black umbrellas appalling – the task in this exercise is to ignore them rather than allow them to flip your lid.

Rather, pick and choose that which resonates with you. What you find might be an animal-related technique, a piece of knowledge, or merely an idea that you can mold to fit your own framework.

I try to approach animal trainers from all camps with an open heart and mind, knowing that they all have some insight that will help me improve my understanding of the world in general, and animals in particular.

So, which nugget of knowledge do I find with the Dog Whisperer, Cesar Millan?

Time for a disclaimer: I disagree with how Millan explains behaviour, his choices of training technique and the way he relates to animals.

For me, those are black umbrellas.

But this blog post isn’t about the black umbrellas of the Dog Whisperer; there has been a ton of scientifically founded blog posts published criticizing his black umbrellas. You can find such posts here, and I’m generally in agreement with them.

This blog post is about finding the yellow umbrella. Rather than picking on the things I disagree with, what knowledge does he share that I think is actually useful?

For me, it is this:

See the film that summarizes the main points of this blog post:

The importance of body language.

He talks about it, but indirectly. He talks about energy, and conceptualizes that as emotion and intention.

He speaks about the importance of being calm, assertive.

And that the dogs should be calm, submissive.

As I’ll explain below, I think the concept of dominance doesn’t belong here, but I do think he’s on to something. With regards to the person’s body language.

So, while I’m not buying his explanation and disagree with how he actually goes about implementing body language, I think that he’s using a tool that many of us are unaware of.

A phenomenon that has been overlooked by many pet owners and animal professionals.

Power posing – effects on chemistry and behaviour.

I saw a fascinating TED talk a few years back.

Harvard professor Amy Cuddy’s talk, called: “Your body language shapes who you are.”

Cuddy’s TED talk has been seen over 34 million times; it’s the second most viewed TED talk of all time presently – if you haven’t seen it, do.

It’s absolutely fascinating.

amy cuddy

To summarize her presentation: By changing body positions, we change our body chemistry. And by doing so, we change our behaviour. Our assertiveness. Our risk taking.

And importantly, we change people’s perceptions of us.

In a famous study, Cuddy and colleagues let volunteers assume a certain body pose for two minutes. These poses were either High Power Poses, or Low Power Poses.

  • High Power – expansive, taking up space, legs apart, arms wide. Assertive, confident. Sort of like Super-Woman.
  • Low Power – legs crossed, arms crossed, slouching. Insecure. Think… Clark Kent. The Christopher Reeve interpretation (not the Tom Welling or Dean Kain versions).

In case you’re wondering, you have the opportunity of seeing me doing these Power Poses in the short video that goes with this blog post. Here it is again.

See Karolina do the Power Poses and explain the main ideas of this blog post.

So, here are some data for all us geeks.

Chemistry changes after Power Posing

After 2 minutes of posing, the High-power people … Wonder woman… had increased their levels of testosterone (a hormone related to aggression).

And not just a trifle, but about 20 percent.

They also decreased their cortisol levels by one quarter.

What’s cortisol again? It’s a stress hormone.

Isn’t that interesting?

But wait. It gets even better.

It was vice versa in the Low-power people. The Clark Kents.

The Clarks get a reduction of testosterone. And a cortisol spike – in other words a stress response.

After two minutes of doing nothing other than assuming a special body position!

Just look at that! The effects of High versus Low Power Poses are opposite mirror images with regards to these hormones.

Mind-boggling.

But is it important? Does it change behaviour?

It sure does.

Risk taking in High Power Posing people
High Power Posing leads to assertive, risk-taking behaviour.

The high-power posing people were more prone to gamble afterward, too – more risk-taking. So, the Wonder Women would likely gamble, but they wouldn’t be stressed.

Their cortisol is low.

Testosterone high.

Confident and at ease.

Calm assertive.

Now, where have we heard that expression…?

Clark Kents glasses
Low Power Posing reduces risk-taking and assertiveness.

The Clark Kents, having done Low Power Posing, are less likely to gamble. But stressed. And insecure.

Not in a good place to make decisions. Stress-reactive and shut down.

So there’s a measurable change in body chemistry as well as behaviour. After spending 2 minutes in a certain body position.

Power Posing has huge and important effects on chemistry – and behaviour.

You know where I’m going with this, right?

No?

Hint: which type of Power Posing do we see from Cesar Millan, the Dog Whisperer?

But let’s not go there yet.

You see, the findings don’t end here. In fact, here’s where it gets really interesting.

So, after High or Low Power Posing for two minutes, researchers sent their volunteers into a very stressful job interview, where they had to spend 5 minutes talking about why they should get their dream job in front of two stone-faced evaluators and a camera.

thumbs
High Power Posing leads to better performance at job interviews than did Low Power Posing.

Without knowing which group a person had been assigned to, evaluators watching only the film would select the High-power people, and reject the Low-power people.

So, there’s a change in how they were visually perceived. It wasn’t the content of the speech, mind you. It’s about the presence. Confidence.

In her TED talk, Cuddy says:

“Our bodies change our minds

And our minds change our behaviour

And our behaviour changes our outcomes”

So let’s bring that quote back to Cesar Millan, the Dog Whisperer. Who is constantly doing High Power Poses.

I mean – just watch an episode. Turn the volume down and look at how he carries himself.

Ignore the training part. The black umbrellas.

Look at body language. The yellow umbrella that’s the topic of this blog post. I’ll get back to in a while how I would tweak this differently than the Dog Whisperer.

Yes, that’s a bold statement coming from someone who’s never owned a dog. But think of that statement as just another umbrella. Is it black, or is it yellow? Read on and find out whether you agree or not. My expertise is not in dogs, it’s in behaviour. I’m not the hands-on type person. I’m more of an observer.

And right now I’m watching a random episode of the Dog Whisperer.

Look at the body language of his clients. Many of them are doing Clark Kent  – impersonations. Limbs crossed, eyes down.

Back to the quote. “our bodies change our minds… our behaviour… our outcomes”.

Power Posing changes other people’s perception of us.

What about a dog’s perception? What if you had been Power Posing before interacting with the animal? People spot the difference – how about dogs?

Three inputs for dogs
Dogs have visual input, olfactory input and choice input after the human’s Power Posing.

A dog would have three different types of input from a human who’s been doing Power Posing before the interaction:

  • The visual input. The stance. How a person moves. Whether they seek eye contact. Are they staring, or just looking?
  • The choice input. The decisions of the person. The degree of risk-taking. The tone of voice. The choice of training techniques.

And that brings in the whole dimension of reinforcement and punishment, and classical conditioning, of course. But let’s put all that aside. In this blog post, I don’t want to lose myself in discussing the choice of training techniques. Just know that the choice of training technique and criteria setting is likely to be affected by Power Posing.

  • And the olfactory input. Smells. Remember, 2 minutes of High Power Posing leads to a 20% increase in testosterone!

Can dogs smell that?

Rhetorical question.

People can smell testosterone! Women prefer the smell of manly guys, and it’s the testosterone that they detect.

Of course dogs can smell that!! Their olfactory sense is a gazillion times better.

Dogs can smell testosterone. A hormone associated with aggressive behaviour.

And they can also smell cortisol. A stress-related hormone.

Will they change their behaviour as a consequence of all this input?

I think so.

But there’s more.

Power Posing is complemented, not mirrored.

Back to Amy Cuddy. One of the things she mentions in passing in her TED talk is that when humans interact with one another, we complement the other individual’s nonverbal power posing behaviour – we don’t mirror them, we do the opposite of them.

We may mirror other behaviour, but when it comes to power, we tend to complement the other’s nonverbals.

In humans, if one individual does a High Power Pose, the other is likely to respond with a Low Power Pose.

Think about this for a second. If a person in front of you with whom you’re interacting is standing in a High Power Pose, you’d feel uncomfortable doing one too if you’re facing each other. It would be as if you were challenging that person. In a conflict.

It’s confrontational. Challenging.

So, apparently, we humans complement rather than mirror Power Poses.

Power pose complemented not mirrored
Non-verbal Power behaviour is complemented, not mirrored.

OK, so we now know two things:

  • Power Posing changes chemistry and behaviour.
  • If you Power Pose facing someone else, you in turn influence that individual’s choice of Power Pose.

And here’s the thing – isn’t that exactly what Cesar Millan does?

I would suggest that, not only does he spend a lot of time in High Power Poses changing his body chemistry and assertiveness, but he actually makes a point of assuming High Power Poses facing the dog.

Challenging the dog, as it were.

Challenging power posing
Doing a High Power Pose facing a dog is likely challenging,

Dogs evolved with humans. Our ancestors intentionally selected individuals that collaborated with us.

Dogs today, living with humans, can read emotional expressions in humans.

I wonder if part of the domestication process involved molding dogs to do this “dance” with us.

That we sometimes respond to assertive aggressive body language in dogs with Low Power Poses, and vice versa: they do the same – doggie versions of Low Power Poses.

That this pattern of interaction that’s documented between humans also might occur between dogs and humans.

As far as I know, that hasn’t been studied. This is just me throwing out an unsubstantiated idea.

I’m speculating that part of what Millan does in his TV shows is that he High Power Poses in front of dogs until they change from the doggie High Power Pose into the canine version of the Low Power Pose.

“Calm assertive” vs “calm submissive”

Milan calls the ideal human energy state calm assertive. That’s a good name, I think – I agree. For me, this is part of the yellow umbrella.

Calm assesrtive

“Calm” corresponds to a low level of cortisol.

“Assertive” is associated with high levels of testosterone.

Though he does it in front of the dog – and I think it’s a fair assumption that he challenges them to change their body language. That, for me, is a black umbrella. More on that shortly.

He calls the dog’s energy state calm submissive.

For me, the dog is neither calm nor necessarily submissive and that term doesn’t at all capture what’s going on. In my world, the expression calm submissive is a black umbrella.

I don’t know whether anyone has examined explicitly what happens with regards to body chemistry in dogs when in this so called calm submissive state.

If body chemistry changes in the same way as it does in humans when assuming a Low Power Pose, we can expect an increase in cortisol. An increase in the stress response. That is not “calm” – it’s the opposite: high arousal. In fact, stressed animals who stop struggling could be in a state of learned helplessness – and that is something altogether different from calm.

Stress can also interfere with learning. A stressed animal may not learn what’s required of him as well as a non-stressed dog. To me, this is not a desirable state of mind for any animal that I want to teach.

“Submissive” – for me as an ethologist and a scientist, this is a term that I reserve for individuals who know each other and have developed a consistent interpersonal relationship. That’s not what I see on Cesar Millan’s TV shows. A more plausible explanation is that the dog has simply learned that changing body language is one way of stopping someone from staring you down. Not submission in the narrow ethological sense.

Implications.

So, I’m suggesting that Millan uses challenging Power Posing to change the body language of dogs.

Does he change the dog’s chemistry? Possibly.

Does he change their overt behaviour and decisions? Yes. Undoubtedly.

So, this has some interesting implications. And as far as I know, it hasn’t been scientifically studied.

We know behaviour changes due to a few different and to some extent overlapping mechanisms.

Behaviour change mechanisms
How much does input from others’ body language produce behaviour change?
  • Operant learning: reinforcement and punishment.
  • Classical conditioning: learning to predict the order of events.
  • Emotional states: emotions and moods influence behaviour – and we sometimes mistake mood change for learning.
  • How does Power Posing affect dog’s behaviour? How much explanatory power should we give to this mechanism? Are the dogs on Millan’s TV shows changing their behaviour because of the top three mechanisms, or the fourth?

I don’t know. As far as I know, this hasn’t been studied experimentally.

It would be interesting to know whether Cesar Millan would get the results he’s getting without using challenging Power Posing.

I don’t know whether he would.

But this, for me, the importance of body language, is the yellow umbrella when it comes to the Dog Whisperer.

It’s the nugget of wisdom.

I would just use it quite differently.

I wouldn’t use challenging Power Posing as a way to dominate a dog, and challenge an aggressive dog in a staring contest until he yields and assumes a low-power position.

That is not the learning outcome I want you to walk away with from this blog post. Such an animal might be stressed and not in a good place to learn.

Indeed, I think the talk of dominance is completely unnecessary in this context – it’s could simply be that it’s highly uncomfortable to be in a situation where two individuals are both in the High Power pose – one of them will switch. Or they escalate.

If it ain’t the human that switches, it’s the dog. And Millan never yields in these staring contests. He does get frequently bitten, though – so escalation occurs too.

To conclude: your body language impacts your chemistry, behaviour, and decision making, and very likely, the animals in your care too.

At least dogs.

Use that to your advantage. Without putting the animal at a disadvantage. Win-win makes everybody happier. We don’t have to “put animals in their place” to get behaviour change.

Rather than using body language to dominate, use it to convey a sense of security.win win

Instead of using High Power Posing to challenge animals to assume the canine versions of Low Power Poses, do a High Power Pose before interacting with your dog. Much like the volunteers in professor Cuddy’s study did before the job interview.

Because if dogs can pick up on the stress-hormone cortisol, and that in turn could make them anxious, that is reason enough to think about how you carry yourself before interacting with dogs.

And perhaps around other animals.

That, for me, is the yellow umbrella of the Dog whisperer. One of the topics of this blog post.

What about cats? That’s a species that was domesticated very differently from dogs. Horses? Rabbits? Parrots? You tell me…

Make a little experiment. Do either Power Pose before you interact with your animals, and reflect on how they respond to you. Film this, and ask someone else to analyze the films. Do you agree on what’s happening? Share your findings here in the comment’s section!

Don’t forget the other topic – the challenge.

Learn something from every pet owner and animal professional that you come across.

yellow umbrellas

Find their yellow umbrellas.

Wanna learn more from yours truly? I have quite a few umbrellas. For you, some of them might be yellow, and others may be black. To access my umbrella collection, sign up for blog updates all about animal behaviour management, and I will also keep you posted about my upcoming free webinars and online courses.

References.

Carney et al., (2010). Power posing brief nonverbal displays affect neuroendocrine levels and risk tolerance.

Cuddy, A. J., Wilmuth, C. A., & Carney, D. R. (2012). The benefit of power posing before a high-stakes social evaluation.

Dabbs & Hopper (1990). Cortisol, arousal, and personality in two groups of normal men.

Shors (2004). Learning during stressful times.

Montoya et al (2012). Testosterone, cortisol, and serotonin as key regulators of social aggression: A review and theoretical perspective.

 

 

 

 

 

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17 Replies to “What can we learn from Cesar Millan?”

  1. Pingback: WTF? – Illis ABC
  2. Wow, very powerful information. I think I had refpjected it because I am also not a fan of the dog whisperer. I have a rescue dog who is very fearful. She also feels like she needs to be in charge. I have noticed her behavior change with different people. I’m going to note the poses and her reactions.

    She also became much less fearful when we unexpectedly adopted a male Husky. He is a soft alpha but his body language gives of the idea that he is in control. Is she smelling his testosterone as protection?

    1. Hard to know what drives behaviour change without more info… Often the presence of another animal will impact fearfulness – perhaps smell is involved, perhaps not…

  3. Another interesting post, thanks. I was considering this concept relating to horses and searched for any correlation with other scientific papers. I only found other Amy Cuddy links or this below which seems to be refuting the evidence of the trials. I still feel our energy and intention is an important element to working with horses but really struggle to be anything but anecdotal about this as so little supporting scientific evidence is out there- unless you can advise of any.
    http://faculty.haas.berkeley.edu/dana_carney/pdf_My%20position%20on%20power%20poses.pdf

    1. Wow, that is really interesting! I wasn’t aware of that. Who is the author of that document, Cuddy herself? I think this illustrates beautifully the way science flip-flops and gradually progresses.

      So, maybe power posing doesn’t have the purported unconscious effects on physiology and behaviour after all, but that doesn’t dispute that there might be effects of human body language on animal behaviour. And the placebo effect could be in action here, too..!

  4. Thank you for this blog Karolina, which I found conceptually and scientifically explained what I have instinctively used and promoted as a way of influencing a dog’s perception of us – a case of your yellow umbrella being my lightbulb moment. I have always taken another couple of parameters into account when interacting with dogs. I am totally comfortable with your High Power and Low Power posing, but would add that the degree of calm assertiveness that can be attained depends also on active relaxation techniques simlar to yogic practice of slowing breathing and lowering heart-rate. I might postulate that this could result in an even greater lowering of Cortisol levels. I can now see a way to have my handlers achieve even better connections with their dogs, by adopting High Power posing, breathing control and heart-rate control before performance situations, then maintaining the relaxation techniques throughout.

    1. So interesting – thanks for sharing! I’m sure that there are many exercises, both mental and physical, that can but us in a better emotional state to teach our animals!

  5. Hi there Karolina
    Great post and love the umbrella concept which is how we learn and move forward rather than stay entrenched in our respective bubbles, be it scientific/philosophical/ethical, politically correct etc etc………

    With regards to body language I think it is the essence as to where many of the owners whom I help go wrong. There is such hesitation after having struggled with a variety of problems which have crept up over the years largely due to the lack of clear guidance from the owners as to what their expectations of their dog are. Many owner do not even know what the want from their dogs or their expectations are unrealistic or they are not followed through consistently. So by now they see their dogs as “rebellious” and they are at a loss as to how to deal with things and become insecure. They then transmit this insecurity to their dogs through their body language. The insecurity can be conveyed not just by an apparently insecure stance but also by aggression on behalf of the owner (like you said from “a Clark Kent kind of place, where stress rules”). Once they know what they want from their dogs, how they might achieve this and what THEY as owners have to do to achieve this then this gives THEM the confidence which they need to be able to transmit a CLEAR, CONFIDENT AND BALANCED BODY LANGUAGE TO THEIR DOG. The change in the dog’s behaviour is pretty much instant (in certain types behaviour modification cases, as described above).
    Tack för ett mycket intressant föredrag Karolina. Mycket uppskattat

    1. Interesting – what you’re describing is really a vicious circle! Glad to hear you’re teaching your clients to break it so efficiently! 🙂

  6. Interesting topic! Two thoughts:

    I would love to see research on human behavior and hormone change after other body poses than High Power Pose, most interested in a “good” posture more like the ones you see in a dancer, a yoga practitioner, an effecient runner etc. I’m interested of the effects of a less extreme but probably effective pose than the High Power. Maybe we can call it Relaxed Aligned Posture? Might that pose also reduce stress level, but more likely induce mirroring than complementing Low Power Pose? Would this pose be easier to bring in to interactions with other, like the job interview? Would be interesting to know!

    I don’t know about any research but in the horse world there is a lot of anecdotial knowledge about body language interactions between human and horse. We have the High Power Pose, combined with negative reinforcement training. And also people more in to creating mirroring between horse and human, both in ground work and ridden work. They focus on balance and body use in the human, aiming for something like Relaxed Aligned Posture. Would be interesting to see experimental work on this! Let me know if you know of any!

    1. Oooh, two really interesting thoughts! Both about finding alternatives to the High Power Pose, and also the concept of mirroring. Not being a horse-person, is the horse-related mirroring when riding the horse or on the ground? (that is; is mirroring achieved through tactile or visual information?)

  7. Your concern about power-posturing provoking ‘complementary’ stressed, cortisol –driven emotion in dogs might be addressed by trying to facilitate ‘mirroring’ instead. This happens between humans quite often and is thought to be linked to rapport, empathy and may also play a part in the phenomenon of emotion contagion (eg Elaine Hatfield’s work). I’m speculating that, as with humans, you would need to engage the dog first, then gradually change your own behaviour, taking the dog along with you, as it were!

    1. Interesting and worth looking into! Certainly the issue of body language is not well explored with regards to human-animal interactions! I’m wondering if perhaps this is what Eva Bodfäldt is touching on in her On-Off training (owner and dog alternating between playful states and calm relaxation).

  8. Such a great post! I’m no fan of Millan myself, but what you write makes sense. Everybody has a yellow umbrella, no matter how small. I’ll try to remember, and find them!

    Power poses were very interesting too. Food for thought; reconsidering my relationship with my dog.

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