It seems that everyone has heard of Cesar Milllan, host of the popular dog training show “The Dog Whisperer” shown on the National Geographic cable TV channel. When learning that I’m a dog trainer, a new acquaintance will often exclaim that they watch Cesar Millan and just love his show! I cringe inside while I try to calmly and politely explain just why Cesar Millan is bad for the dog training profession and very bad for our dogs.
While Cesar Millan does promote some good ideas concerning our relationships with dogs (I can agree with him that exercise and leadership are paramount!), his methods of fixing problem behavior rely heavily on using punishment and “flooding” — forcing a dog to face its fears until it “submits” (which may result in “learned helplessness,” a state of depression and helplessness in an animal that appears to the untrained observer to be calm compliance). Taken even a little bit too far, some of his methods are downright abusive.
A bigger problem is that while Cesar Millan can pull off staring down an aggressive dog or suppressing its aggressive behavior through punishment, a big part of Cesar’s success is his sheer “presence” or charisma. He’s a natural leader with a forceful personality, one that commands respect from dogs and even from people. A pet owner who doesn’t have that same inner core of pure self-confidence and domineering willpower that dogs recognize in Cesar Millan will likely get bitten trying the same techniques on their own dogs. Which is why the show includes “Don’t try this at home!” warnings throughout the broadcast.
Cesar’s not the least bit wishy-washy, and dogs respect that. (With Cesar’s training techniques, they learn to respect that or else. Looking at the body language of the dogs Cesar has trained, it’s obvious to me that they fear him. That may work for Machiavelli, but I want my dogs to love and respect me, not fear me.)
The real shame of it all is that Cesar Millan would be just as successful as a dog trainer and as the host of America’s most popular dog training show if he used positive reinforcement techniques based on scientific learning theory and a true understanding of how dogs learn. But “Dog Whisperer?” No, he’s a “dog shouter.” I’d rather see a “dog listener” host that show. As near as I can tell, Cesar Millan either doesn’t realize exactly what the dogs are trying desperately to communicate to him (”please don’t hurt or scare me any more!”) — or he doesn’t care.
There are other problems with his show. For one thing, it’s television — edited television. The problem behavior cases are neatly packaged into an hour of entertaining “education” and may give the false impression that behavior problems, especially involving aggression, can be solved quickly and easily if only you do what Cesar Millan does.
The biggest problem, though, is that most of Cesar Millan’s methods emphasize punishment to suppress the unwanted behavior. There are many problems with using punishment - especially of the scary or painful kind (and some of the techniques I’ve seen on his show qualify as scary or painful — or both!). One big problem is that punishment suppresses behavior without necessarily replacing the behavior with an alternative, acceptable behavior. And the problem with suppressed behavior is that it has a nasty tendency to resurface at some point in the future - days or weeks or even years later - and when it does it’s often much, much worse.
That’s why positive reinforcement training techniques focus on teaching the dog what to do (sit instead of jumping up, going and lying down on a mat or in a crate instead of growling at a visiting stranger, or whatever) instead of teaching the dog what not to do. Once the new, alternative, incompatible, desired behavior is well established, there’s no room for the unwanted behavior to pop up again. It’s been replaced, not suppressed.
Okay, so now you know that I’m not a fan of Cesar Millan or his “The Dog Whisperer” show.
I am a fan of Dr. Ian Dunbar. And finally, the media’s beginning to realize that Cesar Millan isn’t the be-all and end-all of dog training in America.
A recent article in the San Francisco Chronicle is a good example:
The Anti-Cesar Millan:
Ian Dunbar’s been succeeding for 25 years with lure-reward dog training; how come he’s been usurped by the flashy, aggressive TV host?
I’m a fan of a lot of other trainers who promote healthy relationships (not based on fear or avoidance of punishment) and training techniques that focus on the positive (good behavior, positive reinforcement). For some examples, see my Recommended Reading links.