A Member of the Family

CM family

 Click on the cover above to go to this book at

A Spanish friend who knew nothing of Cesar Millan, looked at this book cover depicting Millan, wife, children and three dogs, and said 'That's immoral'. He argued that Millan should be focusing his attentions on his family, rather than wasting time on dogs. I explained that Millan has made a lot of money for his family from spending time with dogs. It was a curious criticism, which shows how strong our feelings can be when we make moral judgements about how people should behave with dogs. Millan certainly attracts a lot of moral judgements, and they say as much about where the judge is coming from as about Millan himself.

 The idea that dogs should be treated as 'a member of the family' isn't accepted by everyone, and in many places dogs aren't even allowed indoors. I live in rural Spain, where people sometimes tell me that it's immoral and unnatural to keep dogs indoors. They need to be outside, so they can see and hear the world, and pee when they want to, I'm told. So the views presented in this book reflect a particular culture in which it's taken for granted that dogs should share human space, and be counted as family members. Even so, not everyone who believes that dogs can be family members approves of Millan, and their objections are often expressed with some feeling.

This book is, on the surface, a guide to living with dogs, which includes choosing a dog, raising a pup, teaching house rules, travelling with dogs, health care, and helping dogs adapt to changes, such as a new baby. Millan´s wife, Ilusión, and their children, Andre and Calvin, have a chapter each, while the last chapter deals with letting go at the end of a dog's life. 

Much of the advice would be seconded by most dog trainers, though shepherds will find his description of 'The Herding Group' on p27 a little blasé. The ability of dogs to work sheep can vary within a litter, it isn't magically conferred by the AKC giving them the label 'herding'. The 'creators of these breeds' didn't 'remove the prey drive that led to a kill' (p27) in all dogs described as from 'herding' breeds. Border collies, for example, may catch and kill rabbits, and there are collies which are too rough on sheep to be safe with them.

Millan is fond of 'powerful breeds', often kept by men as symbols of their masculinity. He tends to downplay affection, which he sees as treats, playtime and physical affection. Where I live in Spain, young men with pit bulls and boxers accuse their women friends of 'treating dogs like humans', by which they mean bestowing too much affection on the dogs. Millan recognises that he grew up in a macho culture, where women were not valued. It's easy to see why some men feel very comfortable with Millan's approach, especially since pet dog trainers more often than not are women. 

The most interesting chapter is perhaps 'Women and the Power of the Pack', in which Ilusión Wilson Millan explains how she had to make clear 'Rules Boundaries and Limitations' to her husband. Being selfless, working to help support his career, and raising their child, had left her ill, so she left her husband, until he agreed to go to counselling with her. She argues that women have a commitment to the pack, to the family group, which is both a strength, and a weakness. Women have to create our own boundaries in order to be strong enough to raise kids and dogs. 

Leadership is important for dogs. If they ask 'what am I meant to be doing?', they need an answer. Millan´s emphasis on keeping your cool, and not taking canine 'crimes' personally is sensible. All too often we're tempted to overreact. But as Ilusión's chapter makes clear, leadership isn't a simple issue. A good leader listens, and tries to understand life from the point of view of others, while still providing direction - not an easy balancing act!

 Review by Alison Lever


See also: Cesar's Rules