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Approach and Trust : a lesson with Cesar Millan

Soon after coming back from Belize in 2015, I acquired a job through a mutual friend, shooting photos of Cesar Millan for his foundation at a local animal shelter. Arriving on the morning of the shoot day, I wandered the neat rows of cages looking for places to shoot and observed the vast amount of abandoned pit bulls, each exhibiting an array of personalities from wagging tails to aggressive behavior. Having settled on a couple of locations, I photographed a dog with his paw reaching through a break in his cages fence.

A young pit bull pushes a paw through his enclosure.

Working with animals can be trying, adding a well-known celebrity to the mix can elevate the situation. Caesar’s strong belief in himself and his willingness to walk me through his approach and process in handling dogs was reassuring. There was a common assertive nature in his demeanor that put both myself and the pit bull, whose cage we were entering, at ease. This particular dog, the same one I had photographed earlier, though not aggressive, was definitely not sure about the two strangers entering his enclosure —the dog retreated to a back corner as we closed the door.

Like all species, canids need a different approach from other animals. There is a difference between how you approach and earn the trust of a domestic dog versus a wolf/wolfdog (a wolfdog, wolf-dog hybrid, or wolf hybrid is a canid hybrid resulting from the breeding of a wolf with a domestic dog). Even among humans we apply different methods in situations with strangers or different cultures, this is the same with all creatures. Dogs and wolves require subtly different approaches. The situation or location can and will determine these types of approaches, whether it is in a cage or in the wild. Sometimes it is the minute details that can make or break a relationship with an animal or person.

Cesar’s way with domestic dogs requires staying calm and speaking softly, not getting overly excited or using a high pitched voice when greeting a new dog. Overly excited energy can elevate a dog’s fight or flight instinct, or cause the dog to jump on you bypassing the development of boundaries and trust. Respect their space, do not touch them or initiate eye contact. Avoid standing too close to the dog, give it space at first. Approach the dog from the side, kneel down next to the dog, facing the same direction in a non-aggressive manner. Kneeling at their level, hold your hand down in a fist without making eye contact. If the dog is interested, sniffs your hand and remains calm, then you can pet the front of their chest, not their head. Never try to touch an unfamiliar dog from above. If the dog turns away, they may not be interested, do not pursue the contact —let them come to you. As Cesar says, “In the dog world, the followers approach the leaders and not the other way around”.

Cesar Millan applying his patient technique.

In my limited experience I have learned that interaction and behavior with captive wolves/wolfdogs depends on the individual animal, and how socialized to humans they are. It should go without saying that one should not try to approach a wolf in the wild. Wolves are not aggressive, they are cautious and timid, not wanting anything to do with humans. They will shy away, approaching, then changing direction suddenly. It may take weeks or longer before they come closer on their own. Interestingly, with wolf dogs it is the domestic dog in them that is aggressive, not the wolf, and this involves a different type of vigilance when building a relationship.

Wolves and wolfdogs require a slightly different, but a similar approach to dogs in gaining trust. You should remain calm and speak softly in a lower pitched voice. Respect their space and do not crowd or chase them. A major difference is that you should never kneel, remain upright and give the appearance of indifference —look or even walk away. If they are interested in approaching you, offer a closed fist (fingers look like sausages) to sniff, they also may want to sniff other parts of you, let them, don’t chase after them. Until you gain a relationship with the animal and a mutual agreement, reserve petting to the chest and underside. Though subtle, the differences between types of canids and approaches is a glimpse into understanding the complexities of all creatures and relationships.

Cesar Millan reinforcing a newly acquired trust.

Rarely do you find people who have an innate feel for animals, a natural understanding and the capacity to read and communicate without words. Cesar Millan has this ability, and it was an enjoyable experience working with him. As a photographer, as well as in life, understanding your subject and the situation defines how you see the world —and how the world sees you.

 

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