Until recently, few people on this side of the Atlantic had any inkling who Alan Titchmarsh is, but this deceptively unassuming British gardener-cum-talk-show-host has suddenly gained an international reputation for ferocity, even brutality. It only took one interview with an American icon: Cesar Millan.
For those who aren't familiar with the late National Geographic show The Dog Whisperer, Millan is a self-taught "dog psychologist" whose ideal of "calm, assertive leadership" is rooted in his understanding of dogs as status-obsessed creatures always looking to get a leg up on the hapless humans who indulge them. Though it flies in the teeth of contemporary science, Millan's view that "dominance" is the key element in human-dog interactions has persisted and proliferated among American dog owners. So too have his highly physical and confrontational methods, which include "alpha rolls," leash "pops," and swift kicks to dogs' bellies.
You might think that such a man could easily hold his own with a mild-mannered (and manifestly less dashing) horticulturalist, but that's not how things went down. The breathless headlines that followed Millan's appearance on the Alan Titchmarsh Show would lead you to believe that Titchmarsh had publicly feasted on Millan's liver with a side of fava beans and a glass of Chianti:
Titchmarsh Savages Dog Trainer
Alan Titchmarsh Goes for the Throat
Titchmarsh Grills Controversial Dog Trainer
If you watch the clip below, you'll find that the reality is far less bloody, but exciting nonetheless. Much like Martha Raddatz in her moderation of the American vice-presidential debate, Titchmarsh asks a series of pointed but reasonable questions in a tone of genuine curiosity. Also like Raddatz, he's polite throughout. (The British accent contributes to the impression of graciousness, though I suppose it could seem Lecter-like to some.) He proceeds from the assumption that Millan is decent and well-intentioned, not a sadist: "But does it not worry you. . . You can't get pleasure out of hitting a dog, surely." It's not on Titchmarsh's conscience that Millan must struggle to explain why he continues to employ and champion methods whose potential dangers he openly acknowledges. (When Titchmarsh notes that people who watch Millan's show are likely to mimic his methods without his unquestioned skills of timing, Millan replies: "Well, unfortunately. Right? Just like on the cigarettes, they say don't, you know, smoke kills, and people [are] still doing it.")
In marked contrast to most American talk show hosts who have interviewed Millan, Titchmarsh does dare to challenge his authority and logic, and this appears to shock Millan as much as Raddatz's sheer bloody nerve did Paul Ryan and Joe Biden. That's the only violence committed here: an assault on the expectation of "due" deference. A failure of submission that registers to some as a failure of respect.
Inevitably and at moments comically, the pro- and contra-Millan factions have been battling it out in comment sections on both sides of the virtual pond in the weeks since the interview aired.** Millan's supporters have called Titchmarsh "abusive" and his interview an "attack."
Was it? I don't know. I think Millan might have needed just the sort of shock Titchmarsh delivered, in order to "snap his brain out of it." I think Millan is far less vulnerable to destructive fallout from this surprising display of dominance from an "ignorant little gardener" (as one commenter described Titchmarsh) than dogs are vulnerable to destructive fallout from Millan's "light touches." Though Millan has built his reputation by "rehabilitating" what he calls "red-zone" dogs, anyone who's spent time in a shelter knows very well how many dangerously aggressive dogs are created by the use and abuse of Millan's methods, and how much patient, positive training it takes to restore their capacity for trust and help them discover that there are peaceable ways to get what they need.
I am guardedly (perhaps foolishly) optimistic for Cesar. I don't think he's a sadist. I do think he's a traditionalist of a seductively macho stripe, but one who senses the ground shaking under his feet. The most telling moment in the interview could be when Millan "defends" the use of shock and prong collars by pleading that he just works with what he's given. (It's an interesting admission from a man so intent on assertive leadership.) I was also pleased to see Millan reach out to progressive, science-savvy trainers like Ian Dunbar and Bob Bailey for his most recent book, Cesar's Way. Who knows? WIth a little luck and a few more light verbal touches from informed and compassionate positive reinforcement advocates, his appetite for dialogue and his interest in the welfare of dogs may outlast his attachment to moribund dominance dogma.
**My favorite response to the interview was courtesy of "norfolksheep" in Norwich, England: "I'm still confused about the parrot thing. Should I be getting a parrot to train my dogs? Do I alpha roll the parrot instead of the dog? What do I do if it goes for me with its beak? Is there a subliminal message in Monty Python's parrot sketch which I've missed?"
This post was originally published in TheDogs.