This week in the magazine, Malcolm Gladwell profiles Cesar Millan, the host of the National Geographic TV show “Dog Whisperer.” Here, with Ben Greenman, Gladwell discusses Millan and what canine behavior tells us about human behavior.
BEN GREENMAN: What first got you interested in Cesar Millan?
MALCOLM GLADWELL: A friend of mine told me about Cesar’s show, “Dog Whisperer,” and swore it was the best thing on television. So I began to watch, and I was quickly hooked. If you are a dog person—and I am—it’s pretty irresistible.
Are most of the canine discipline problems he encounters the result of bad conditioning by dog owners? Has he ever run into a truly incorrigible dog?
Cesar told me that he has failed with only two dogs. The first was a dog that had a discouraging tendency to lunge, unpredictably, at the throats of people nearby. The second was a dog that would attack other dogs when they were being disciplined. Given that Cesar has counselled hundreds, if not thousands, of dogs over the years, that’s not a bad record. I think that even he would concede that there are occasionally bad apples in the dog world—dogs that are the way they are because of some fundamental defect—the same way the human world occasionally gives us a Jeffrey Dahmer.
Early in the article, you point out that dogs are keen observers of human behavior—if not man’s best friend, at least man’s most penetrating analyst. Why did they evolve in this way?
Because we selected them to be that way. Dogs are our most perfect genetic creation. For hundreds of thousands of years, we have systematically chosen and bred dogs precisely for their ability to get along with us, so it’s hardly surprising that the genetic remnant that we deal with today is so perfectly attuned to our needs and moods. There was a famous experiment done in Russia with foxes. Geneticists took wild foxes and systematically bred only those fox offspring which showed any inclination toward human-friendliness. After about forty years of breeding the friendliest of the offspring of a previous generation of friendly foxes, what they got were foxes that not only physically resembled puppies—shorter noses, floppy ears—but foxes that behaved in every way like puppies, that literally ran happily towards any human who came near. Breeding is a wonderful thing.
Are there other animals who understand people as well as dogs? Or do most animals not care? (I’m thinking of Werner Herzog’s documentary film “Grizzly Man,” whose subject thought that he had the power to communicate with and live among bears. He was wrong.)
Not naturally, no. The fox case is a manufactured example, but, in the absence of human intervention, no animal is going to be all that interested in us. Why would they? I mean, if you’re a squirrel, eating nuts and climbing trees and jumping from limb to limb is an awful lot more appealing than, say, the human tendency to watch lots of television or hit a small, round white ball around a golf course.
Cesar Millan’s success is credited not only to his experience with dogs but to one specific skill: phrasing, which deals with the vocabulary and syntax of gesture and movement. How old is the study of phrasing?
The study of human movement—at least, in the formal, sophisticated way that I’m talking about in the article—dates to Rudolf Laban, who was active between the wars. Much of his work was picked up and extended in the nineteen-fifties and sixties by a man named Warren Lamb. So this is a discipline with a fairly extensive history. Laban, interestingly, was a dancer, and this theory started as a way of understanding and notating dance. If you think about it, in that world you need a language to describe movement just as you need a language to describe music.
You write about political phrasing, and how a politician like Bill Clinton or Ronald Reagan is better at calming and inspiring an audience than a politician like George W. Bush is. How much difference does that make to voters watching speeches on television? How much does phrasing overlap with personal charisma?
That’s a good question, and not one I have a good answer to. Television has a strangely muting effect on a lot of this stuff. A former aide to Clinton once said to me that if Bill Clinton had been able to personally shake the hand of every American, he would have been elected unanimously. I think that’s right. In person, people like this are far more impressive than on television: we pick up so much more on nuance. I remember the first time I saw Jesse Jackson live. I’d seen him many times on TV, and was unimpressed. I thought he was kind of a clown. In person, I was floored. Cesar is the same way: it’s only when you meet him that you “get” why he has that kind of effect on dogs.
This is speculative, obviously, but how do the 2008 Presidential front-runners look, in terms of their phrasing? Hillary Clinton? Al Gore? John McCain? Rudy Giuliani?
I don’t know, I’m afraid. I know movement analysts aren’t crazy about Gore or Hillary Clinton. I’ve seen McCain live, and I was impressed. But I haven’t had one of these experts tell me what it is I’m seeing.
Cesar’s phrasing skill impresses not only dogs but dance teachers and movement analysts, and some of them use their own phrasing to work with children with developmental issues. What are the broader implications of good phrasing?
What we’re talking about, when it comes to phrasing, is simply the ability to communicate with clarity. We all think that those around us have the ability to read our minds—and we get frustrated when our intentions are misunderstood. But the truth is that accurate communication is really hard, and only a very small number of people can do it well. One of my favorite quotes in the article was from Karen Bradley, a prominent movement analyst, who said that when someone does manage to properly integrate posture and gesture with speech we tend to give them TV shows. Oprah is a great example. We also tend to elect them President—like Reagan and Clinton.
Did your phrasing change during the time you worked on the article? Are there certain gestures that you now try to include in your movement vocabulary?
I make a point of never connecting what I’m writing about to my own life. Just kidding. Of course, I started to think about it. Actually, I became quite self-conscious for a while about what I was doing with my gestures. I wish, actually, that at some point in my life I had taken a course on movement. I suspect it would have saved me a great deal of grief over the years.
Can a person learn better phrasing late in life? In your article, you mention a dog owner who is a character actor. He is trained to communicate a certain amount of dramatic tension, which is productive onscreen but not good for calming dogs. Is there any hope for him? Can you teach an old non-dog new tricks?
To a certain extent, yes. Movement analysts say that we all have a kind of phrasing baseline—a personal style that is fairly unconscious and unchangeable. But, as with all personal traits, we can definitely learn to improve our performance at the margins. A good analogy is with actors. Are some people better natural actors than others? Absolutely. But even the best actors take acting lessons—and radically improve their performances as a result.
Cesar’s celebrity is strange in some ways. He has become famous for his skill in communicating his feelings to dogs. How much is this a function of television, and, specifically, reality TV, which seems to need to create a national expert for every skill (home organization, getting straight guys to dress better), even if the existence of the skill wasn’t previously known?
Obviously he is very much a creature of television, if only because what he does lends itself so naturally to that medium. It’s one thing to describe what Cesar does—as I do in my article—but quite another to see him in action. I’m not sure that I would lump him in with the more marginal “experts” we now see on TV. I actually think that he possesses a profoundly fundamental gift, which is the ability to create order from chaos. That’s one of the most important skills any human being can have. It’s of a different magnitude than, say, knowing how to properly hang drywall—although you should watch this space for my upcoming major analysis of the drywall phenomenon.