The (bad)Dog Whisperer

With his show Dog Whisperer TV, Cesar Milan is probably the most famous “dog trainer” right now, unfortunately his methods are potentially harmful to both dogs and humans. In the show Cesar attempts to resolve behavioral issues with various dogs through asserting dominance as the “pack leader”, using methods such as choking, pinning, shock collars, and other inflictions of pain or stress. Through deceptive editing and and contradictory narration a narrative of rehabilitation is played out.

While negative reinforcement might have been the norm a few decades ago the modern trend is moving toward positive reinforcement and pain-free methods of dealing with even aggressive dogs. The aggressive manhandling of dogs as Cesar does doesn’t make the dog respect you, they just get scared.

Many people and organizations have spoken out against the show and the methods it portrays. The American Humane Association (AHA) requested in 2006 that National Geographic pull the show from the air and called his techniques “inhumane, outdated and improper”. Cesar came out on air attempting to save face saying he invited the AHA on his show and they had changed their opinion. The AHA countered that “American Humane has accepted a courtesy visit with Mr. Millan’s foundation next year in order to discuss why our position differs from his on his training methods, but that certainly does not infer that we are planning to change our position in any way.” As of late they still seem reluctant to fully endorse his show but have said their “hope is that Millan is evolving and eventually will catch up with everyone else.”

One idea Cesar often brings up is that dogs are pack animals, so you have to act like the pack leader. This might make superficial sense…until you consider the evolutionary history of modern domestic canines. By studying recently homeless dogs interact in the wild researcher have determined that dogs tend to not form packs like wolves but rather will team up with another dog only temporarily to secure food or a mating opportunity. The fact is his core principle is based on an outdated view of dog psychology.

Cesar likes to throw around airy new age-y buzz words like “energy”, “spirit”, and “frequencies”. In this blog Cesar talks about a dog channeling another dog’s spirit and pontificates on whether dogs can see ghosts, saying “A dog knows instantly when a human is unstable. Energy is not just a concept to dogs – it’s a language; a way of navigating the world. And since we cannot “see” energy, who knows what else dogs are able to see that we can’t?”
His latest project is to become one of the “super pack” of motivational speakers and work alongside folks like Tony Robbins, Wayne Dyer, Deepak Chopra and Byron Katie.

I will say two good things about Cesar though, he takes a strong stance against breed specific legislation and in his training system a dog’s three main needs are exercise, discipline, and affection, putting primacy on the exercise.

I’ll just leave you with a quote that pretty much sums it up from Dr. Suzanne Hetts, Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist
Co-owner of Animal Behavior Associates, Inc., Littleton, CO
“A number of qualified professionals have voiced concern for the welfare of pet dogs that experience the strong corrections administered by Mr. Millan. My concerns are based on his inappropriateness, inaccurate statements, and complete fabrications of explanations for dog behavior. His ideas, especially those about “dominance”, are completely disconnected from the sciences of ethology and animal learning, which are our best hope for understanding and training our dogs and meeting their behavioral needs. Many of the techniques he encourages the public to try are dangerous, and not good for dogs or our relationships with them .”

For more on the Dog Whisperer check out this episode of the Reality Check podcast.

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4 Responses to “The (bad)Dog Whisperer”

  1. Ed Says:

    In one of her books (I think it may be Animals in Translation) Temple Grandin addresses the methods and philosophy of Cesar Milan. She disagrees with both. Dogs are direct descendants of wolves, and wolves are NOT primarily pack animals, contrary to popular imagination. Their default organization is the family group. Packs are unusual arrangements in response to specific environmental demands, and they rarely last long. She points out that the “forced packs” of wolves introduced into Yellowstone Park usually fell apart after a while.

    The social group that the wolf (and presumably dog) naturally belongs to is the family group consisting of a breeding pair and their young adult offspring and cubs. Often other relatives, such as a sibling of one of the pair, is included. There may possibly be two breeding pairs that are related to each other, but more usually it is just one.

    In this society any “dominance” is inherent in the relationship of the parents to the other pack members, most of whom were raised by them. Until they move away they young adults accept the authority of the parents.

    In Farley Mowat’s observation of wolves in Never Cry Wolf it’s clear that the group is a cooperative family, not a pack ruled by a dominant alpha. Cesar Milan has basically misunderstood the natural organization of canine society.

  2. Red Says:

    I like Victoria Stilwell’s “It’s Me Or the Dog” much better, as far as humane techniques go.

  3. 19peace80 Says:

    I don’t think that fighting all BSL is automatically a good thing. As Merritt Clifton’s “Animal People” has repeatedly documented, BSL that requires pit bulls to be spayed or neutered has ended the tidal wave of euthanized homeless pit bulls in several cities.

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