Over the last couple of days, there has been a lot of talk about “The Dog Whisperer”, Cesar Millan, after a video from his TV show Cesar 911, began making the rounds. The video features a French bulldog named Simon who has attacked and killed two of the owner’s pet potbellied pigs. Millan takes Simon to his facility and introduces him to his own pet pigs for a “training session” to help Simon get over his aggression around other animals. During the session Simon is let loose and chases after the pigs, biting one in the ear. Because of complaints related to this, Millan is now being investigated for animal cruelty.
I would like to say for the record, Cesar Millan is not an animal abuser. Of course, I’m not a lawyer and California has some of the strictest animal cruelty laws on the books so I could be wrong from a legal standpoint, but I do not believe that he had a malicious objective or that he had any intention of allowing an animal to be hurt. Now here’s the part where I introduce the bait and switch…
I don’t care what his intentions were. He may not have been abusive, but he was and continues to be negligent in his work with animals. He should know better. He should—but he doesn’t. Despite having worked as an “animal behaviorist” for almost two decades, Mr. Millan has no formal training in the field of animal behavior and, in fact, uses techniques that are known by actual animal behaviorist to be dangerous. He actively uses his TV shows and books to promote these techniques to the general public. He is widely held in disregard among true behaviorists and veterinarians.
Cesar Millan bases his training philosophy around the outdated idea that dogs are pack animals who need a pack leader. The truth is, dogs are not wolves, and free roaming dogs do not form packs, thus they do not have a pack mentality. The natural extension of this misguided philosophy is that dogs need to be taught that the human is the “alpha” dog and that they should be submissive.
In order to teach dogs to be submissive, Millan teaches that people should display “calm assertive energy” around their dog. That is fine. Being calm and relaxed around your dog is a good thing. What’s not good is what comes next. Cesar Millan uses aversive (punishment) based techniques to “correct” dogs and cajole them into submission. His “corrections” include using pronged collars, yanking on leashes, giving electric shocks and rolling animals onto their backs and holding them down (the alpha roll). All of these techniques are explicitly denounced by the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists.
Why are these methods derided by the experts? Behaviors such as jumping and pulling on the leash are just dogs being dogs, not dogs being dominant. More serious behavioral issues such as aggression and destructive behaviors during storms or when pets are left alone are rooted in fear and anxiety. Punishment, even non-painful punishment, is going to instill fear in a dog. When you punish a dog for being afraid, you are only compounding that fear. At first a dog will try to avoid the situation through fight or flight, but eventually they may just give up. This is when dominance trainers believe they have won. The dog is no longer displaying the undesirable behavior. But that does not mean the dog is fixed. They have simply learned that nothing they do matters and they begin to shut down. This is called learned helplessness.
In addition to being psychologically damaging to pets, dominance training can be dangerous to YOU and your friends and family. These methods can actually contribute to dog bites.
So what should be done instead? Time and time again it has been shown that positive reinforcement is the way to go. Reward your pet for positive behaviors and make sure you’re not reinforcing bad behaviors (like giving in to your begging dog and dropping him a table scrap). If your dog is afraid, try to avoid their fearful stimulus. For example, if your dog is afraid of thunderstorms, keep her in a windowless room during a storm with the TV turned on to block out the noise. And for more serious behavioral issues, get the advice of a professional—one with proper training and certification who doesn’t employ dominance training.