A Cesar Millan salad with Catalina dressing
Robert Cabral, the self-described “Malibu dog trainer,” was formerly a martial arts instructor, film director, actor, cinematographer and motivational speaker according to his posted biography.
This would appear to have left Cabral little time for training dogs, had he remained fully employed in any of these previous pursuits.
Nonetheless, Cabral now appears to be well on his way to joining Cesar Millan and Victoria Stilwell among the pantheon of dog trainers favored by shelter personnel and rescuers who insist on believing, against the weight of centuries of evidence and experience and soaring numbers of deaths and disfigurements inflicted by “rescued” dogs, that pit bulls in particular can be trained out of high reactivity and impulsive aggression, and can be made “safe” despite histories of dangerous behavior.
We’re not impressed by any of these “name” trainers, but took Cabral’s testimonials and protestations against rehoming dangerous dogs seriously enough to look more deeply into his methods, which left us less impressed than ever.
Desperate Dogs, Determined Measures
by Robert Cabral
Bound Angels, 2012. 254 pages, paperback. $14.95.
Reviewed by Alexandra Semyonova
Desperate Dogs, a self-published manual for rehabilitating shelter dogs, issued soon after Robert Cabral’s previous self-published manual Selling Used Dogs, arrived for review with impressive endorsements.
Testified Frank Andrews, executive director of the Humane Society of St. Lucie, Florida, “In my 50 years of animal welfare work, I have never read a more useful ‘bible’ for all of us who want to give more dogs a second chance.”
Andrews, formerly director of animal control in Los Angeles County for more than a decade, in 2012 succeeded the now retired Warren Cox as longest tenured professional in the field.
Cabral calls himself a “balanced” dog trainer, using rhetoric reminiscent of Cesar Millan. But much of Desperate Dogs––along with more of Cesar Millan’s methods than he might care to admit––resembles the “Prussian school” training advice dispensed when Andrews and Cox were young.
“If you think you have to beat a dog and jerk the dog around to make the dog safe,” Cox responded, and reiterates today, “then you shouldn’t have the dog.”
Double-housing & treat bags
While Desperate Dogs was under evaluation by two ANIMALS 24-7 reviewers, a staff revolt against Cabral’s methods erupted at Ventura County Animal Control, a two-shelter department with about 50 unionized employees. Donna Gillesby, appointed executive director in early 2013 after 18 years on staff, apparently ran into conflict with longtime colleagues when she introduced procedural changes that affected topics covered by the union contract.
Brought in as a consultant, Cabral, by his own account to ANIMALS 24-7, escalated the situation by endorsing Gillesby’s move to open the Ventura County shelters to the public all seven days a week; recommending that dogs be double-housed except when known to be dangerous toward other dogs; and asking that line staff participate in treat training.
Double-housing dogs and carrying treat bags are perceived as safety risks by some staff, with reason, since double-housing pit bulls in particular can lead to the necessity of breaking up fights in cramped quarters, and since a treat bag can easily become a target for one dog while a worker is preoccupied with another.
Resistance to these recommendations, according to Cabral, led to online allegations that he violently mistreats dogs.
Ed Boks testifies
“I was contacted by someone in Ventura regarding the recent flap,” acknowledged Ed Boks, who worked with Cabral during Boks’ tenure as general manager of the Los Angeles city Department of Animal Services, 2005-2009, and again as executive director of the Humane Society of Yavapai County, Arizona, 2010-2016. “If my experience in L.A. is any barometer,” Boks told ANIMALS 24-7, “I would suspect employees were being asked to work outside their comfort zone.”
Boks credited Cabral with “much of our success at YHS in reducing the killing to 0.6 animals per 1,000 humans” within the shelter service radius. This was at the time the lowest shelter killing rate in the U.S., and perhaps still is.
Yet during the years that the Netherlands banned pit bulls, 1993-2008, many Dutch shelters achieved an equivalent or lower rate of killing dogs taken into the shelters (less than 1% of all dogs received), without use of “Prussian school” methods.
“Few if any dogs should be killed due to aggression”
Cabral includes in Desperate Dogs a section about withdrawn dogs and neutral dogs, a section on desensitizing fearful dogs, and a section on puppy and dog play groups. But these altogether occupy only 34 of his 254 pages. Probably about 75% of Desperate Dogs pertains to dangerous dogs, specifically pit bulls.
“Truly bad, dangerous and unmanageable dogs are rare in shelters,” Cabral asserts. “It is my contention that few, if any dogs, should ever be killed because of aggression issues.”
ANIMALS 24-7 also believes that few if any dogs should ever be killed because of aggression issues, but with the caveat that dogs of dangerous lineage should never be bred, so as not to be born in the first place.
Cabral believes that “More than 90% of dominance and aggression can be treated through proper behavior modification by a qualified trainer or behaviorist.” After describing a dog who attacked every time his tail was touched, Cabral comments that even “a dog who does not like to be touched can still be a good pet, but probably should not be placed with small children.”
Developed own test that more aggressive dogs can pass
Cabral believes that too many dogs fail behavioral assessment because the tests and testers are biased against aggressive breeds. Cabral has developed his own behavioral test that aggressive dogs can pass more easily. “Often times I will test a dog to see when he bites instead of if he bites. When I can find the threshold of the dog, I feel I know the dog,” Cabral says.
Cabral claims to be a ‘motivational trainer.’ “My contention is that all training should start with a treat and a toy,” he explains. “Where it goes from there is up to the individual dog.”
Prongs & shock collars
Cabral uses treats and toys to build a positive relationship with the dog. But once the dog is leashed and actual training begins, the leash becomes a noose, or is attached to a choke chain or prong/pinch collar. If these are ineffective, a leather strap or a piece of rubber hose can be used to hit the dog on the snout. Cabral also likes shock collars.
“Using pinch collars, choke chains and remote collars properly is not cruel, mean, wrong, or any other emotions you choose to attach to it,” Cabral argues. But Cabral acknowledges that a dog who has been trained with a prong collar may revert to dangerous behavior when not wearing it.
Cabral advises dealing with the worst cases by strangling the dog, reporting cheerfully that “I’ve seen dogs pass out from lack of air using this technique and recover just fine.” He warns us not to use his methods with old dogs, dogs with neck injuries, or very small dogs.
“Prescribed training methods didn’t work”
“Extreme animal rights people will argue that correcting a dog is unfair and cruel,” Cabral continues, “but I have yet to find one who will take these dogs we are trying to save in their current state. My best suggestion is to ask these people to join us in the euthanasia room, because the prescribed training methods didn’t work.”
But “correction” is a euphemism for violent training. Cabral ignores that many non-violent trainers also work with dogs so scary that no one else dares to take them out of their cages. Most trainers who work at shelters have seen the euthanasia room. Few of us have ever been “casual” about recommending euthanasia for any dog. Yet sometimes we must accede that a dog cannot be safely placed.
(See The Upside-Down Mind of a Rescue Group by Kenneth Phillips.)
The cause of dangerous behavior can be a genetic predisposition to explosive idiopathic rage. That cannot be cured. Dangerous behavior can also be triggered by learning. Once a genetically normal dog has learned that all-out attack is successful behavior, there is always the risk that the behavior will spontaneously reappear for no apparent reason. This may be because of a scent or sound meaning nothing to any nearby humans. Unfortunately, because the dog cannot be isolated from cues that cannot be recognized, this dog should never be considered safe.
Control & fighting
Cabral admonishes that we must control dogs at all times, including in their play with each other. “It is important to understand that dogs will fight,” Cabral says, “but just because they fight doesn’t make them bad dogs.” In event of a fight, Cabral continues, “There are many tools and concepts out there for breaking up dog fights. Some include cattle-prods, pepper spray, stun guns, garden hoses and more.”
Cabral also tells us that “It is critical to understand that dogs, when engaged in a serious fight, are fighting to the death,” and that re-gripping in a lock hold is a general dog characteristic. But dogs other than pit bulls almost never fight to the death, and re-gripping to achieve a lock bite is typical only of pit bulls; other dogs re-grip mostly in games of tug, being careful at all times not to let their teeth touch the opposing tugger, let alone injure the playmate.
“All dogs bite”
“All dogs have the probability of biting someone,” says Cabral. This overlooks that more than a third of all recognized breeds are not known to have ever killed or disfigured anyone, and that street dogs, worldwide, rarely harm anyone unless rabid.
Normal dogs, not bred for centuries for bull-baiting, dogfighting, and guard work, prefer to avoid conflict. When a conflict cannot be avoided, dogs usually solve it through displays of purely ritual aggression, without the intent of seriously harming each other.
A cattle prod is not needed to end an argument. We don’t have to control and monitor normal domestic dogs every second to prevent disaster. They are good at regulating their own relations peacefully, or at most with ritual scuffles. If they bite, they bite and release, not grip and re-grip in a lock hold. Before they bite, they give warnings. They stop biting as soon as they cease to feel threatened.
“Don’t let dogs train dogs”
Says Cabral on page 116, “I strongly advise against the concept of letting dogs train dogs…Everything that happens to the dog in my care is because of me, not because another dog is asserting himself. Dogs don’t work things out around me; I work things out for them.”
But normal dogs learn reflexive bite inhibition, the art of compromise, and other essential social skills from other dogs in ways that humans cannot possibly teach them.
Cabral has apparently spent his entire training career in a time and place where at least 40% of shelter dogs are pit bulls and their close mixes. Boks estimates that more than 80% of the dogs Cabral trained for him were pit bulls. Therefore it is understandable that Cabral has come to believe pit bull behavior is typical of all dogs.
“Bringing back animal abuse”
Yet bringing back the choke chain, the prong collar, and the shock collar are bringing back animal abuse. The pretexts for using them differ little from the pretexts of abusive parents and spouses that their violence is for the good of their victims. If a dog can be saved, it can be done without violence. If violence is needed, the dog is not salvageable.
“The lessons contained in this book are not the only way to train,” Cabral offers, “nor are they recommended to the average pet owner. They are geared to work with the shelter dogs who desperately need the extra attention, care and guidance to save their lives and give them a chance at a loving forever home. Although some of the lessons may seem rough or abrupt, I feel they are not as abrupt as forcing dogs to linger in the [shelter] environment or be killed.”
Inverse moral logic
Cabral’s argument parallels the inverse moral logic that we see in several other aspects of no-kill militancy––a whole different phenomenon from realizing no-kill as the goal of a great amount of sustained targeted sterilization, so that unwanted dogs and cats are no longer born, entering shelters in huge numbers.
For example, no-kill militancy holds that it is okay to leave cats who are dependent on humans at large outdoors––not true ferals, who want and need nothing from humans, but former pets. No-kill militancy also holds that it is okay to adopt out potentially dangerous dogs, even if they might kill other animals or humans.
Cabral believes it is okay to use training methods that the humane community has taught for decades against using, to enable a dog to pass behavioral screening, which nonetheless may not accurately predict anything about how the dog will behave in the real world.
––Alexandra Semyonova [with Merritt Clifton]
[Alexandra Semyonova, a dog behaviorist and former Dutch SPCA inspector, is author of The 100 Silliest Things People Say About Dogs (Hastings Press, 2009.)]