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Becoming the Alpha Dog in Your Own Home

Nov 20, 2009

by Alex Wilson

As far back as “Father Knows Best,” television has been an unintentional teaching aid for parents. To watch Mike and Carol Brady labor tirelessly to boost Jan’s wobbly self-esteem, or Cliff and Clair Huxtable corral Denise’s rebellious impulses with affection and wisdom, was to learn how to raise happy, healthy children. After all those hours in front of the set, you couldn’t help but absorb the lessons.

Today’s network lineup provides fewer idealized families and no shortage of questionable child-rearing role models (see “Gosselin, Jon”). For every take-charge SuperNanny, there’s a Homer Simpson, and who wants to raise a Bart?

It’s little wonder, then, that some parents, and even a few child therapists, have found themselves taking mental notes from a television personality known for inspiring discipline, order and devotion: Cesar Millan, otherwise known as the Dog Whisperer.

The suggestion that the Dog Whisperer is also a Child Whisperer of sorts has popped up — sometimes couched as a joke, but, well, not really — in parents’ forums like blogs, online discussion boards, magazines, Twitter feeds and podcasts. Some parents are starting to take notice.

“When we started watching his shows, we had intended to apply his advice toward our dogs,” said Amy Twomey, a blogger on parenthood for The Dallas Morning News who is raising three children under 10 with her husband, Matt. “But we realized a lot of ideas can be used on our kids.”

Indeed, Mr. Millan’s advice has replaced a shelf full of books on how to tame an unruly child. “It’s all the same simple concept: how to be the pack leader in your own house,” she said.

Certainly, an army, or at least a few divisions, of credentialed experts on human parenthood long ago stumbled on Mr. Millan’s philosophical holy trinity — exercise, discipline and affection equals happiness. And Mr. Millan does not hold himself up as a new Dr. Spock; he has never opined on how one should raise a creature with two legs in his show on the National Geographic Channel, or in his four books.

But some parents — particularly those weary of never-say-no techniques and child-rearing books suggesting that children should call the shots — say they find inspiration, and even practical advice, in Mr. Millan’s approach, which teaches pet owners how to become the alpha dogs by projecting his trademark “calm-assertive energy.”

DaddyCast, a series of podcasts published online by a father of two who identifies himself only as P.D., devoted an episode last year to discussing how he applied Dog Whisperer philosophies to raising children. In the episode, he recalled exchanging Twitter messages with a father who wrote: “Pampering and never punishing will make a child crazy and unlikable, never self-competent.”

“That goes along with the philosophy of the Dog Whisperer,” the host added. Brenna Hicks, a child therapist in Palm Harbor, Fla., who writes an advice blog, The Kid Counselor, adapted Mr. Millan’s central idea, that dogs take their cues from their masters, and misbehave only when the masters fail to carry themselves, in body language and tone of voice, like pack leaders. In a post, “Raising Kids: Wisdom From the Dog Whisperer,” she wrote, “When we present nervous, angry or scared energy in front of our kids, they pick up on those emotions.”

Allison Pearson, author of the novel I Don’t Know How She Does It, which explored the stresses of modern motherhood, explained how parents would naturally envy the authority of dog trainers. “My generation got itself in a muddle about parenting,” she wrote by e-mail. “We thought that obedience was the enemy of love. We didn’t want the kids to be afraid of us, but after a while we found ourselves wondering: do we have to do what they say the whole time?”

“Unlike modern parents,” she added, “dog trainers don’t think discipline equals being mean. They understand that dogs are happiest when they know their position in the hierarchy.”

So is it “spare the rolled-up newspaper, spoil the child?” Not exactly. Many Dog Whisperer techniques — say, the push on the neck to get a dog’s attention — are best left to the kennel, unless you welcome a visit from Child Protective Services.

But other measures may yield an obedient child. Matthew Hranek, a photographer in New York, has a daughter, Clara, who is 6, and a Patterdale terrier, Charlie, who is a handful. Lately, Mr. Hranek said, he finds himself adopting Mr. Millan’s trademark “sshht!” sound — meant to snap dogs out of unconstructive patterns of thought or behavior — not just when Charlie jumps up on the kitchen counter, but also when Clara does. A bit of a joke? Sure. But it’s efficient. With none of the usual red-in-the-face parental haranguing, it reminds her who is boss in a syllable.

Mr. Hranek said that some parents he knows “do not allow the word ‘no’ to be said around the house. How absurd is that?”

“When you’re wishy-washy with dogs, they take advantage — ‘He didn’t mean don’t eat that biscuit,’ ” Mr. Hranek said. “Kids think the same way.”

In that spirit, Jenny Hope, a television producer in Los Angeles, not connected to the Millan show, applies Dog Whisperer lessons not just to the family dog, Heidi, but also to her son, Rowan, 3. On the show, she said, Mr. Millan lets the dogs know that he decides when they can run off to sniff a juniper bush, and when to heel.
When Ms. Hope’s husband, Simon Cote, recently installed a sprinkler system in the backyard, Rowan wanted to play in the mud. She relented. Fun is crucial, after all. But so is an end to the fun. She let him make his resplendent mess, then brought him in after a set period of time.

“It’s finite, and it’s what they crave,” Ms. Hope explained. “Children love structure, the same as animals love structure.”

Mr. Millan says parents question him all the time. “I’m going to give them my point of view — I’m a father myself,” he said.

As a native of Mexico, he said, he adheres to a more traditional, hierarchical child-rearing philosophy, which he considers effective in both the pack and the family. There, “for thousands of years, the elder has always been the pack leader, it’s never the child,” Mr. Millan said. “In America, kids have too many options when they only need one: ‘Just do it, because.’ ”

To some parents, however, moving Dog Whisperer theories into the human realm is not so much about changing their child’s attitude as it is about changing their own.

Take Elizabeth Meyer, in Columbus Township, Mich. She and her husband adopted a strong-willed 2-year-old boy from South Korea last year.

“Given that all of us were still adjusting, bonding and getting to know one another, there were times when my husband and I really struggled with parenting,” she wrote in an e-mail message.

Then one night she was watching the Dog Whisperer. Squaring off against a particularly difficult dog, he took its intransigence as an opportunity to teach proper behavior. “This is good,” he said.

For Ms. Meyer, it was a moment of epiphany.

“This is good?” she wrote. “Did I have that attitude as a parent? Was I focusing on the positives, the opportunities? Did I remember to take a deep breath, to be calm and assertive when dealing with a frustrating situation? I realized this was something I really needed to work on. And once I did, I saw a difference right away. Our son was calmer and more responsive. During those times when he did act up, being calm and assertive helped me deal with the misbehavior in a positive way.”

It also, she added, “left me feeling a lot less stressed out."