The Trouble with the Dog Whisperer

an 'embarrassed' dog

Cesar Millan is one of the most popular and controversial characters in modern dog training. He is a great entertainer – he is charismatic, quick witted, and appears to do amazing things with the dogs that he works with. However, he is a big proponent of training methods that are heavily reliant on physical force, psychological intimidation, and that are considered to be outdated and dangerous based on a multitude of scientific studies.

Dog Psychology is based in Pack Theory and Dominance

Cesar Millan speaks at length about the important of being the “pack leader.” Many of his “dog psychology” practices are based on the erroneous conclusions made about the social structure of wolves. It was previously believed that individual wolves in the pack were constantly struggling to establish their place at the top of the hierarchy and were using aggressive displays to achieve their status. The wolves that won the fights were called the “alphas” and were considered to be “dominant” over the other members of the pack.

Fortunately, the science has changed and improved since those first wolf studies were published. The newest studies have shown that wolf packs operate in much the same way as human families do – they are led by a set of parents and generally consist of one or two generations of offspring.  The older wolves are in charge of making decisions for the pack because they have the life skills and experience to make good decisions, not because they are “dominant” to other members of the pack. Traditional “pack theory” is not appropriate to use to explain wolf behaviour, and it is most definitely inappropriate to use it to explain dog behaviour.

The truth is that dogs learn by association (or classical conditioning) and by consequence (or operant conditioning), just like people, horses, chickens, goldfish, etc. Dogs behave in ways that make them feel safe, and in ways that have “worked” for them in the past to get access to the reinforcers that they were looking for. That’s it. Your dog is not trying to take over your household because he wants to sleep on your bed. He probably wants to sleep there because it’s comfortable and because it’s where you are sleeping. There are no ulterior motives when he chews your belongings or has an accident in the house. He most likely lacks a full understanding of how to behave appropriately when left alone. Whenever a mistake happens, it’s your job as our dog’s caretaker to take responsibility for the mistake (because that’s all it is) and then take steps to help your dog develop better manners in the future.

His training methods are outdated and unnecessarily harsh

Cesar’s training methods are heavily reliant on force, both physical and psychological, to get a dog to change his behaviour. Physical force can include everything from a verbal correction (yelling, or Cesar’s iconic “tsh!”), leash corrections done by jerking on the dog’s collar/choke chain/prong collar, hitting, kicking, or rolling the dog over on his side using an “alpha roll.” Psychological force occurs in the form of flooding – prolonged and forced exposure to something that the dog finds frightening or unpleasant. When dogs get too overwhelmed due to stress, they can “shut down” mentally and will no longer exhibit any behavioural problems.

This can seem like a good solution, but there are significant consequences to using force. First, the use of force can often result in an even more exaggerated aggressive response from the dog. This exaggerated response can also be re-directed at the person administering the correction (ever notice how often Cesar gets bit by the dog that he’s working with throughout the course of his shows?). Secondly, dogs can learn to associate you with the punishment, thereby weakening your relationship and destroying trust. Finally, these methods are heavily reliant on the use of special equipment and the ability to physically put your hands on the dog. What happens if the collar breaks?  Without the threat of imminent punishment, many dogs will go right back to behaving aggressively. Suppression only deals with the symptoms of a behavioural problem, not the problem itself. When the suppressive pressure is removed, the evidence of the problem comes right back.

His methods don’t create lasting changes in behaviour.

To the untrained eye, he achieves amazing changes in a dog’s behaviour in minutes.  Dogs that were barking, snapping, and biting at the beginning of the show are magically transformed into calm, well-behaved animals at the end of the hour. Sounds great, right? Unfortunately, it’s an illusion that is part of the television productions process. Cesar’s methods are really good at suppressing behaviour in the moment that it is happening. They do not address the underlying cause of the behaviour, nor do they do anything to teach the dog how to cope with the situation differently in the future. If Cesar’s methods are going to be used successfully, then the dog owner has to continually repeat the process of correcting the dog over and over again if the behaviour is going to continue “stopping” in the future. This approach to behaviour modification is setting both dog and owner up for a lifetime of conflict and frustration.

A better approach to behaviour modification is the use of desensitisation and counter-conditioning to gradually change a dog’s emotional response to a person, place, animal, or scenario. The vast majority of dogs do not bark, growl, lunge, or bite because they are bad dogs; they are doing it because they are extremely nervous or scared; changing how the dog feels about something will have long term effects on the dog’s behaviour. Desensitisation means to make less sensitive. The goal is to reduce (or hopefully eliminate) the exaggerated reaction that an animal has to a specific person, place, noise, or object. Systematic desensitisation is a structured plan – it’s a gradual process of exposing an animal to a less intense version of the thing that he fears, in such a way that his fear isn’t triggered.

Counter-conditioning means to re-teach the dog to have a pleasant feeling and reaction toward something that he once feared or disliked. We do this by associating the feared thing with something good so that it predicts good things for the dog. As soon as the dog sees the thing that he’s afraid of or over-excited by, we give him a delicious treat to create a pleasant emotional reaction. Over many repetitions, the dog learns that whenever that thing appears, good things happen! Eventually, the process produces a neutral or positive emotional reaction to the sight of the previously feared or disliked person, animal, event, place or object.

He is an entertainer, not an educator

Cesar Millan is an entertainer. He is a reality television personality and the purpose of his show is to entertain viewers for an hour, not educate them. He has no formal education in learning theory or behaviour modification. Furthermore, he has actually taken and failed standardised tests that animal trainers must pass in order to receive their certifications in several European countries.

It’s not absolutely necessary to hold advanced degrees to train a dog, but it is essential to be willing to acquire knowledge beyond old myths about wolves as well as continue your education. Scientists and behaviourists all over the world are constantly studying dogs and behaviour to gain a better understanding of why they think, feel, and behave as they do. Science has come a long way in helping trainers better understand how to work with all dogs, but especially ones with difficult behavioural challenges. It is foolish to ignore the science in order to rely on folklore.

Don’t get us wrong, this article didn’t evolve from anti-Millan sentiments. In fact, Cesar Millan had contributed a lot of good to the animal welfare realm, including advocating against puppy mills and supporting spay and neuter programs. Additionally, not all is lost in that hour of TV show. In each of his shows, Cesar Millan succinctly brings up practices that are good take-aways for his viewers. These are:

  • Dogs should get their deserved exercise each day. Yes, in general we dog owners do not exercise our pets enough. Cesar stresses that dogs need to expend their energy to lead balanced and healthy lives, and that the daily walk should be the fundamental activity, supplemented by additional runs, swims or frisbee sessions when our dogs so require. We cannot agree more that a big back yard is no where close to becoming a substitute for a good walk.
  • Projecting a calm and assertive energy. Calmness and assertiveness are essential elements in any communication. Cesar’s philosophy centers on communicating to dogs through our energy, and that dogs are naturals when it comes to following leaders who are calm and assertive. Although, we do not think they will instinctively attempt to rebalance a pack (to become a pack leader) when they come across a leader who isn’t calm nor assertive, they simply do not understand what is wanted of them.
  • Establishing rules, boundaries and limits. Every household needs rules, no less in a cross-species landscape. Cesar illustrates at length on the exact right time when such rules and limits are communicated to dogs. The challenge is how such rules, boundaries and limits are communicated to our dogs. We could approach it with methods backed by science (positive reinforcement), or simply jab them into submission. We need to be mindful that fear doesn’t train a reliable dog.

See what others say about Cesar Millan’s training methods here:

LiveScience: Critics Challenge ‘Dog Whisperer’ Methods by Lynn Peeples
Steve Dale Pet World: He Ought to Call Himself the Dog Screamer by Steve Dale
Marin Independent Journal: Tails of Marin: Pros and cons of the Cesar phenomenon by Trish King
Steve Dale Pet World: Cesar Millan Contends ‘I Help The Dogs.’ But Experts Question His Approach by Steve Dale
SF Gate: The Anti-Cesar Millan by Louise Rafkin
Land of Pure Gold: Beyond the “Dominance” Paradigm by Patiricia B. McConnell, PhD
The New York Times: Pack of Lies by Mark Derr
Esquire: The Dog Whisperer Should Just Shut Up: Misguided expert of the year by Curtis Pesmen
Huffington Post: Seven Tips for Preventing Dog Bites in Animal Care Professionals and Dog Lovers by Sophia Yin
Petful: The Rise and Fall of Cesar Millan, the Dog Whisperer by Dave Baker
Beyond Cesar Millan

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