The Everything Whisperer

I think I'm going to have to add a fourth "main influence" to the Art & Science of Singing: Cesar Millan, "The Dog Whisperer."


Originally, I was drawn to Mr. Millan's TV show and books for their substantial help in creating the kind of behavior I wanted in my "pack" (Freddy and Willy, the Chihuahuas).  But I have found benefits well beyond the realm of dog behavioral training: becoming a pack leader has led me to some pretty significant personal development in other aspects of my life.

Many of Cesar Millan's training principles apply to life in general and to my teaching.  A calm, assertive energy is likely to help me get anything I want in life, not just obedient pack members.  When I teach, my staying in a calm, assertive state elicits a state of mind in my students that is conducive to learning.  And, as Millan demonstrates in nearly every episode of The Dog Whisperer (I have 4 seasons on DVD!), when we want to create positive change, we must strive not to work against Mother Nature.  Treating dogs as if they were humans makes them unbalanced; ignoring the way our bodies and voices are designed to work makes us unbalanced--tense, injury-prone, and frustrated.

Today I want to write about another of Millan's principles that has proven effective with my dogs and beyond.  I extracted this principle from numerous episodes of the TV show in which Millan rehabilitates a dog who demonstrates inappropriate behavior--fear, barking, aggression, etc.--to some stimulus.

Millan's approach in such cases is to discover what provokes the unwanted response most strongly and to immediately confront that situation while guiding the dog to a different response.  For example, he once worked with a dog who trembled uncontrollably every time her owner would turn on the stove timer.  After draining excess energy through a bit of exercise, Millan brought the dog into the kitchen and turned on the timer.  Through his calm, assertive energy combined with various ways of touching and otherwise guiding the dog, he taught her that the sound of the timer means "relax."

That's the principle, in a nutshell: teach the dog that the upsetting stimulus actually means "relax."  I have seen it work on the show with skateboards, other dogs, cats, grooming tools, and many other potential triggers of bad behavior.  Now I use it every day when walking my own pack.  Freddy used to "go off" many times during any given walk--whenever we walked past bikers, roaring motorcycles, loud children, mentally disturbed homeless people, etc.  Now I coach myself when approaching these kinds of stimuli to remain calm and assertive and I mentally state something like "aggressively barking pit bull means 'relax'."

What I've come to realize that Freddy is calmer now because I am calmer.  Of course, he was all the time just responding to things that I found annoying or things that caused me to tense because I expected Freddy to bark at them.

Once I realized my own culpability, I began to apply the principle to my own tension-producing situations outside of the dogwalks.  I remind myself when I notice myself beginning to become annoyed or frustrated or anxious that the stimulus means "relax":


  • Long line at grocery store means "relax."
  • Rude librarian means "relax."
  • Student arriving 18 minutes late means "relax."
  • Breaking bottle of olive oil (extra virgin, organic, costly) all over kitchen floor means "relax."
This mental mantra helps me to avoid getting caught up in an unproductive response pattern and choose more effective ways of dealing with the situation at hand.  Does this process sound familiar to any of you Alexander students out there?

Cesar Millan's principle of reformulating triggers of tension into triggers of relaxation is a form of what Alexander called "inhibition."  Inhibition means preventing a habitual (often unproductive) reaction so that something more beneficial can arise.  Traditionally in Alexander work, inhibiting often involves a pause during which you can notice unhelpful tension creeping in and choose instead a more easeful response.  Alexander advocated using these pauses to notice primarily your neck, because response patterns in our bodies tend to originate in the neck and propagate outwards from there.

Feel free to join me in experimenting with a combination of F.M. Alexander and Cesar Millan principles.  When you notice yourself becoming frustrated (maybe at your next voice lesson), pause for a moment and tell yourself "singing a wrong note [or insert your favorite trigger here] means 'relax'."  Then invite your neck to release any unnecessary tension that might have crept in before continuing with what you were doing.  

See if that doesn't bring about a more productive state of mind and body!  Works for me, every time.  Thank you, Cesar.  Thank you, F.M.