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Gail Fisher's Dog Tracks: TV's cat rehabilitator reinforces the pros of positive training

June 17. 2016 8:13PM

Two topics engender a great deal of reaction from readers. The first is death and dying, which brings loads of touching mail, some extremely painful to read, but all appreciated.

The second topic that whips up reader feedback is when I write anything critical of Cesar Millan, the self-styled "Dog Whisperer." In response to recent columns about Cesar's television program in which a pig was seriously bitten by a dog, I got quite a few "attagirls" thanking me for expressing their dismay at Millan's techniques. On the other hand, several readers took me to task. One emailer lectured me about the importance of dominating dogs. The reader believes that in the absence of domination, dogs will nip children, drink antifreeze, run into the road and otherwise run amok and roughshod over their humans. Nothing in her list of behaviors related to dominance. Rather they were all about commonsense management and basic training. Another reader angrily wrote that I was unprofessional in criticizing another dog trainer, as if speaking out against abusive techniques in my profession is verboten. And finally, a reader accused me of sour grapes, writing that I must be jealous because Cesar has a TV program and makes more money than I do.

As I wrote privately to each correspondent, and publicly in a previous column, I have nothing against Cesar Millan as a person. Nor am I criticizing him because he's on TV and I'm not. There is a TV trainer whom I enjoy watching and have learned from, even though he works with a different species. Having spent my professional life training dogs and also becoming a certified dog behavior consultant, I know very little about cat behavior issues. Jackson Galaxy, however, does.

On his TV show, "My Cat from Hell," Galaxy rehabilitates families and cats with behavior problems that run the gamut from litter box issues to cat-cat aggression to cats that seriously injure and even appear murderous toward their human family members.

An extremely colorful person, Jackson travels with a guitar case filled with food, toys and paraphernalia to help his training. His approach to modifying cat behavior is positive - using absolutely nothing punitive. Not a harsh word, not a poke and hiss, and certainly no Alpha rolling or stringing up by the collar. He doesn't dominate his feline clients; he finds ways to change their behavior through positive reinforcement, providing healthy outlets for the cats' energy and creating healthful, stimulating and enjoyable environments.

When there is conflict between a person and the cat, rather than "correcting" (i.e., punishing) the cat for his bad behavior, Galaxy focuses on creating a positive environment and a positive relationship - one that will lead the cat to like the person rather than fear or submit to him or her. If you know anything about cats, the idea of "dominating" a feline is as ridiculous as is the outmoded belief that it is necessary to dominate a dog in order to fix behavior issues.

The approach that Galaxy - and enlightened dog trainers - uses is the same. Figure out why the pet is behaving as he is. Figure out what she is getting out of the behavior. Focus on eliminating the object of fear and desensitizing the pet, reinforcing him or her for alternative, appropriate behaviors. This approach doesn't require domination, physical discipline, or "corrections" of any kind. It works. It's humane. And watching Jackson Galaxy, it's entertaining - much more so than watching any other animal behavior and training program currently on TV.

Gail Fisher, author of "The Thinking Dog" and a dog behavior consultant, runs All Dogs Gym & Inn in Manchester. To suggest a topic for this column, which appears every other Sunday, email or write c/o All Dogs Gym, 505 Sheffield Road, Manchester, NH 03103. You'll find past columns on her website.

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