November 17, 2009


by Cesar Millan
320 pages, Three Rivers Press

Review by Hereward L. M. Proops

It has been said that there is only one smartest dog in the world and that every boy has it. Though undoubtedly a touching sentiment, this aphorism doesn't apply to me. I'm under no illusion that my greyhound Inca is the smartest dog in the world. As a matter of fact, I'm pretty certain that he's the stupidest dog in Europe, if not the world. He's loyal to the point of obsessive, as stubborn and wilful as a teenage girl and has halitosis that can strip the paint off walls. As an ex-racer, he wasn't really bred for anything other than running fast and turning to the left. In the year and a half my wife and I have owned him, he's learned that lying in the kitchen means he gets fed scraps of food, that Yorkshire terriers aren't playthings (regardless how small and fluffy they are) and that it is actually possible to turn to the right whilst running.

If anyone can help me try to figure out what (if anything) is going on in my dog's head, it's Cesar Millan, the star of television's The Dog Whisperer. For the uninitiated, Millan is a dog psychologist who specialises in the treatment and rehabilitation of unstable dogs. He's written two other books (Cesar's Way and Be the Pack Leader) and A Member of the Family aims to show the responsible dog owner how to integrate their pooch into a family home.

I have to confess that this sort of book is well outside my reading comfort zone. I generally steer clear of non-fiction and I would sooner stand downwind of Inca than pick up a self-help book. However, when the great gods of Booksquawk issue an edict that more non-fiction needs to be reviewed, how can a mere mortal like myself ignore such a request?

Starting with chapters helping would-be-owners choose a suitable dog and navigate the emotional minefield that are dog shelters, Millan then offers advice on how to introduce the new pet into the home environment with a minimum of fuss and carpet detergent. These tips, although 18 months too late for me, will undoubtedly prove useful for neophyte pet owners.

With the same gentle yet authoritative tone that he takes with his dogs, Millan grasps hold of the leash and guides the reader with a confidence that is truly impressive. For your dog to obey you, Millan informs us, they must understand and appreciate their position as subordinate within the pack. This respect does not come from raised voices and threatening hands but from a passive yet dominant attitude that the dogs naturally sense. As one reads it becomes clear that Millan has accomplished an impressive double-header. Not only does he leave the reader in no doubt of his expertise and experience with dogs, the book being crammed with genuinely useful practical advice, but it is written in a straightforward, uncomplicated manner that is immediately accessible.

That's not to say the book is without flaws - Millan seems to expect rather a lot from his readers when dealing with their troublesome hounds. Occasionally, he seems to lose sight of the fact that he is an expert in dog psychology and behaviour training and that his readers are not. Approaching a snarling dog whilst exuding an air of self-confidence without betraying any hint of fear may come naturally to him but is a significantly harder challenge for the likes of you and I.

Another aspect which may grate for some readers is Millan's inability to keep himself and his family out of the text. I'd like to point out that this didn't bother me in the slightest - you only have to look at some of my other Booksquawk reviews to know that I am guilty of this - but I can imagine that for those who want a "quick and dirty" guide to dog-ownership may be put off by his frequent reminiscences. This is most apparent in a chapter penned by his wife detailing an episode of marital strife that came about because of his work and how they got through it together. However, such digressions are not wholly unneccessary. This is not just a book about dogs, it's about how dogs fit into the pack - the family environment - and, more importantly, how the family can adapt to the new arrival. Whilst his other books focused on the dogs and training them, A Member of the Family is also about training your own family to be responsible dog owners. Understandably, this approach is not going to endear itself to everyone but for those looking for a genuinely holistic guide to pet care, Millan's latest book is going to be hard to beat.

Has this book changed my life? Not really. My dog is still as daft as a brush and I don't anticipate him developing social skills or anything resembling a personality in the near future. A Member of the Family does contain some useful advice on managing a dog within a family - particularly for those who have never experienced the joy of a canine companion. Cesar Millan is both knowledgeable and likeable as an instructor and this makes the book an enjoyably easy read. However, one can't help wondering how much more effective the book would be had he spent a little more time considering his audience and a little less time dwelling on his past glories.

Hereward L. M. Proops

1 comment:

  1. I wonder if these techniques work with children -- you know, making them understand that they're naturally subordinate (as opposed to insubordinate)?

    Also, do tell, how do you stop your dog from taking a dump on the living room floor and peeing on the sofa leg while you're out of the house. Not that I really need to know now that Henry is dead (RIP), but it is an interesting question.