AKA: A Comprehensive Argument as to Why I Hate Cesar Millan:
Every one of Cesar Millan’s clients and fans has two things in common: they love their dogs and they don’t know the first thing about training them. An untrained dog in a household can be a burden and a pain, or even dangerous, depending on the dog. It’s only natural for these people to want to seek help for their problems so they can live in harmony with their pets. But Cesar himself poses an even greater danger to these unsuspecting clients and fans: bad training advice. Cesar Millan and his faulty theories are a danger to dogs and the public and should not be endorsed by a company – National Geographic – whose reputation is based on integrity and scientific fact.
It’s also only natural that these clients, with no training or knowledge of dog behavior would trust a dog-training TV program aired by National Geographic , a long-standing company with an impeccable reputation that few people bother to question But the problem with trusting blindly, is that even National Geographic makes mistakes sometimes. Such is the case when they decided to endorse Cesar Millan AKA The Dog Whisperer.
There are many reasons why his show would be appealing to those unfamiliar with animal behavior as a science. He’s charismatic, he exudes confidence, he always knows just what to do in any hairy situation, and most importantly, he solves problems quickly – which is exactly what fans and owners who don’t want to take the time and effort to train their dogs in the first place want – a quick fix. To the untrained eye, Cesar’s TV program might seem like a doggy miracle hour – out-of-control dogs with atrocious behavior problems turn into loving, obedient pets, all in the course of an hour. Clients are stunned! How on Earth does he do it?!
Anyone with a trained eye can tell you: he cheats.
Cesar Millan preaches a theory based on dominance and submission. He even creates his own language to describe problems dogs can have: Red zone dogs: aggressive dogs. Calm-assertive: what a good owner should be. Calm-submissive: what a good dog should be. In his book, he explains that there are two types of aggression in dogs: dominance aggressions, coming from dogs who are “natural leaders” and not being dominated by their owners properly and therefore become aggressive in an attempt to make up for their owner’s lack of leadership. The other aggression he describes is fear aggressions: in which fearful dogs behave aggressively as a means to repel things that they dislike – and for both of these problems, he offers the same solution: dominance.
He claims that most problem dogs simply don’t respect their owners enough and don’t receive proper discipline. He denounces people that anthropomorphize their dogs and shower them with affection, telling them they have it wrong. They do, but the problem is that, according to the current science of animal behavior, Cesar has it wrong too. This conjecture is supported the vast majority of experts in the field, many of whom are happy to help illustrate why:
The majority of Millan’s theories stem from research done on wolves “in the wild.” The problem with this is that for the majority of the last hundred years, up until 1975 (the year wolves gained endangered species protection from the government) it’s been difficult if not nearly impossible to find a wild wolf pack due to extensive efforts to eradicate the species. In an article featured by the Canadian Journal of Zoology, David Mech writes, “Most research on the social dynamics of wolf packs, however, has been conducted on wolves in captivity. These captive packs were usually composed of an assortment of wolves from various sources placed together and allowed to breed at will,” (Mech, 2). This meshing of random unrelated individuals created a very different social dynamic than those found in wolves in the wild; specifically concerning the occurrence of fights for dominance.
Adult wolves placed in a precarious social situation, will fight with each other, for control of food and resources, and – supposedly – rank in the pack, the strongest, most ferocious animals coming out on top. This is where the concept of an “alpha” wolf stemmed from, and what dominance trainers in the field today fall back upon when asked for a scientific basis for their methods. The problem with this is the fact that wolves in the wild do not form packs in this manner. Mech writes: “Rather than viewing a wolf pack as a group of animals organized with a “top dog” that fought its way to the top, or a male-female pair of such aggressive wolves, science has come to understand that most wolf packs are merely family groups formed exactly the same way as human families are formed,” (Mech). According to David Mech, who is the founder of the International Wolf Center, has studied wolves for 50 years, and has published several books on the topic, these family groups do not compete for dominance. The parents become the leaders of these groups, the pups following the parents naturally and learning from them. In other words, there are rarely, if ever, fights for dominance amongst wild wolves inhabiting the same pack. To base a dog training theory on this faulty concept of wolf behavior is bad science, yielding inaccurate and ineffective results.
The second problem with the wolf pack theory of dominance is outlined by Wendy van Kerkhove in her study on the social behavior of dogs: “It is further assumed that what is true for wolves also is true for dogs; it follows, therefore, that if a stable social hierarchy is established among the dogs in a family home, peace and tranquility will prevail” (Kerkhove, 280).
Unfortunately, as hundreds of years of evolution can tell us, dogs are not wolves. Nor does their behavior emulate that of their wild ancestors in any comparable way. This is because the dog is a domesticated animal – one we, as humans, have created for our own benefit and along the way, we have shaped them behave not like wolves, but exactly as we wish them to. If we want a companion to help us herd sheep, there is a breed for that. If we want a dog to bring back prey during a hunt, there is a breed for that. If we want a dog that will hunt rats underground, there is also a breed for that. We have even created breeds for cosmetic reasons – we’ve all seen a few purse dogs in our lifetimes. Thus, these hundreds of years of unnatural selection and selective breeding have resulted in a species that behaves very differently than its ancestral predecessors. As Alexandra Semyonova explains in her study of the social organization of dogs: “it seems reasonable to propose that the behavior of wolves and domestic dogs may differ as much as the behavior of chimpanzees and humans do” (Semyonova, 2) So if a dog is not a wolf, then why is Cesar Millan insisting upon treating them like they are? With better, more effective methods available, selecting this type of faulty methodology is nothing short of blatant irresponsibility. It is the job and obligation of the leading stars in any scientific field to promote the most recent and best supported science.
The uses of terms such as dominance and submission have a detrimental effect upon the general public and its view of how to behave towards dogs. Cesar further perpetuates this misconception by not only using them to explain dog behavior, but implements this faulty viewpoint into his training theory. What results is a lot of confusion for the dogs, potential danger for the owners, and a giant headache for behaviorists.
See, dogs are more like vending machines than wolves – you put the money in and if you push the right buttons a candy bar pops out. Their cognitive make-up consists of input and output: “If I do this, this will happen.” They learn through classical and operant conditioning – learning by association. In this sense, they are very much like human babies. Where they differ is in the ability to use reason. A dog does not have complex motivations for its actions It only knows “safe” behaviors – things that will not get them punished. And “unsafe” behaviors – things that they associate with punishment. A dog doesn’t understand why two things are associated, it only cares that they are. They learn best through operant conditioning, pairing a desired behavior with a subsequent reward. With this method, it is possible to train a dog to do practically anything through reward and repetition. This is about motivation. You wouldn’t go to work if you didn’t receive a paycheck, would you? And you’d probably work harder if you thought it might get you a Christmas bonus, right? Why should dogs be expected to work for free?
However, Cesar doesn’t use this method when he’s trying to “rehabilitate” dogs. He uses aversive tactics such as corrections when a dog fails to do what is asked for him (regardless of whether or not the dog understands what was asked) or techniques such as flooding or restraint to keep the dog in check. This isn’t behavior modification. This is behavior suppression. The dog will continue to engage in the undesired behavior when the owner isn’t around. The only difference is that the dog has now learned that acting in a specific way in the presence of the owner is “unsafe.”
Watch an episode of the Dog Whisperer and you’re likely to see examples of this supposed rehabilitation. It involves choking dogs out with their leashes when they react undesirably; it involves forcing a dog to confront objects or situations they’re desperately afraid of (a technique called flooding); it involves exercising a dog to the point of exhaustion so they simply do not have the energy to react negatively; it involves “alpha rolls” – a move in which he will flip a dog onto its back and pin it down belly up until the dog stops struggling. His reasoning behind this particular move is that this is what wolves do in the wild to assert authority. What he fails to inform the owners of is that wild wolves offer this behavior voluntarily, they aren’t forcibly pinned down. He also fails to realize or mention that the only time a true alpha roll occurs in the wild is when one wolf intends to kill the other. So an alpha roll for a dog involves being delivered a serious threat of intent to harm and a healthy dose of piss-your-pants terror. Not exactly the best way to build the dog’s confidence.
These aren’t training tactics, they are enforced submission; and from the viewpoint of the dog, they are terrifying to the point of being traumatic and damaging psychologically – further impounding the dog’s behavioral problems. Worst of all, they don’t work. None of these things will ever make a dog decide on its own to stop behaving the way it has learned to behave. In order to modify dog behavior, a new, more acceptable method of behavior must be taught. That cannot be done by manhandling one’s dog and forcing unpleasant things upon it. It involves real actual teaching, slowly and step by step. They must also be provided with a motivation to alter their current behavior. This is different for every dog, but common motivators are food and toys. If there is no motivation, no practical reason for the dog to perform the desired behavior, then training becomes less effective if not rendered entirely void. While aversive techniques may work in some instances for a short period of time, since the behavior has only been suppressed and not altered, it will not take long for the dog to revert to its old habits.
Cesar also fails to address the fact that all aggression in dogs stems from fear. There is no such thing as a dominant aggressive dog. Dogs behave aggressively as an outward manifestation of their lack of confidence. If dogs aren’t given guidance and direction and taught that things they fear will not hurt them, they will react aggressively whenever they are confronted by their object of fear and their threshold for stress is surpassed. Dogs react badly to other dogs because of past trauma, or because they misinterpret the body signals of the other dog, or because of simple fear of the unknown – some owners do not take seriously the task of dog-on-dog socialization in the critical early stages of life. Those that do not socialize their dog set them up to fail by marking all other dogs as something unfamiliar and therefore potentially “unsafe.” Dogs react aggressively towards people for similar reasons, with a lot more emphasis placed on misinterpreting our body language. Dogs are also highly superstitious concerning their associations and learning, thus, it becomes very easy for an unwitting owner to attempt to punish a dog for a bad behavior and for the dog to associate that punishment with something other than the owner intended. For example, slamming a door in the face of a dog attempting to run out of it might not achieve the desired result of causing the dog to fear running through the doorway. The dog may, instead, generalize its fear to include all doors, and not the actual act of running through the doorway – thus the behavior fails to be addressed or corrected and now, additionally, the owner’s dog is deathly afraid of doors. This is an incredibly easy mistake to make, even with the best trainers because timing an action and a consequence (positive or negative) is incredibly tricky and takes considerable practice. But the underlying, unspoken problem with this method in general is the use of fear or aversive techniques to insure behavior.
This means the dog is only doing things because it is forced to, or because it is afraid not to. And since we all agree that people seeking professional training advice do so because they love their dogs and would rather modify the dog’s behavior than give it up, we can assume that these people do not wish to inflict harm or undue stress upon their beloved pets.
Unfortunately, that’s exactly what they’re doing when they turn to Cesar. Aversive and abusive techniques are Cesar’s specialty, though that’s not how he explains it on the show, that’s the magic of him having created his own language, it’s not abuse, it’s “dominance!” It sounds better that way, but only for us; certainly not for the dog. By taking advantage of his clients’ obvious lack of knowledge concerning behavior, he tricks them into believing he is solving their problems. And because they see him as an authority figure – he must know what he’s talking about, he’s on National Geographic channel, after all – these owners are more than happy to stand back and applaud as Cesar abuses their dogs to force them to behave in a way the owner finds acceptable. These people thank Cesar for his invaluable help when all he is doing is instilling in these peoples’ beloved fur-babies something called learned helplessness.
Learned helplessness is what occurs when a creature has decided that there is nothing it can do to help its situation and stops trying. It is a heartbreaking condition of abuse and defeat. In the legal system, we apply this term to the condition seen in long-term victims of domestic abuse and there are no positive connotations associated with the term. So do people really want a trainer that uses the same types of methods an abusive husband uses to dominate his wife anywhere near their pets? It wouldn’t seem so, but that is the seductive influence of Cesar Millan. He uses techniques that scare and hurt peoples’ pets right in front of their eyes and they still view him as a miracle worker.
He’s not. What he is is a fraud. If it weren’t for the blanketing effect of the unwavering endorsement of the trusted scientific authority National Geographic and the effect of social psychology, pet owners would see his harmful actions and not give him the time of day. But because National Geographic and Cesar himself portray Cesar as a trained professional, he is seen by the average viewer with no prior knowledge to be an excellent authority, and thus, they do not question him when he pins a person’s dog down despite the fact that the dog is writhing in fear and that in the long term, this traumatic action will have no positive effect.
So if Cesar’s methods are baseless, the public is left to wonder why National Geographic continues to endorse his show. The reason, sadly, is the same reason all other terrible shows are on the air: publicity and profit. Cesar makes a formidable amount of money from his clients, his books, and his show; and National Geographic gets to share the profits from that last source. They also gain viewership. However, that’s about all they gain. Why they would choose to stain their impeccable reputation by backing junk science is a mystery. In a response letter written by Andrew Luescher – a veterinary behaviorist whom National Geographic requested review Cesar’s show before it went on the air – begs the question: “The show repeatedly cautions the viewers not to attempt these techniques at home. What then is the purpose of this show? I think we have to be realistic: people will try these techniques at home, much to the detriment of their pets,” (Luescher, 1) he goes on to denounce the training methods utilized in the episodes and ends with a plea not to air the show: “My colleagues and I and innumerable leaders in the dog training community have worked now for decades to eliminate such cruel, ineffective (in terms of true cure) and inappropriate techniques,” (Lueshcer, 1). Indeed, Cesar’s methods seem to be causing quite a fuss among reputable dog trainers. Lueshcer is not alone. Among trainers an outcry can be heard – these people do not wish to be represented by Cesar, or his primitive, ineffectual training techniques. Nor do these professionals wish for his personal philosophy to be available to the public – a domain where faulty information can do significant damage in the hands of well-intending pet owners who don’t know enough to sort the good advice from bad advice.
Letters of denouncement of Cesar have poured in from many dog training professionals – Ian Dunbar, Karen Pryor, Pat Miller, Dr. Nicholas Dodman, and Dr. Suzanne Hetts – all long-standing and highly respected individuals in the field of animal behavior and dog training. They have all written to National Geographic with their concerns. Even organizations are weighing in. In a letter to the makers of flea control products that endorsed Millan, The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior states:”The American College of Veterinary Behaviorists (ACVB), the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) and the Society of Veterinary Behavior Technicians (SVBT) have uniformly spoken out against the punishment-based techniques employed by Mr. Millan on his television show “The Dog Whisperer” (Meyer, et al., 1). With such strong letters and voices pouring in from so many sources, it seems impossible that National Geographic could so unceremoniously ignore and suppress this information. And yet, they continue to endorse Cesar and stand behind him and his show. This has become an issue of increasing concern for those who have dedicated their lives to this field and work every day to counteract the methods that Cesar teaches to his clients.
American Humane, too denounces the Dog Whisperer: “As a forerunner in the movement towards humane dog training, we find the excessively rough handling of animals on the show and inhumane training methods to be potentially harmful for the animals and the people on the show,” said the letter’s author, Bill Torgerson, DVM, MBA, who is vice president of Animal Protection Services for American Humane. “It also does a disservice to all the show’s viewers by espousing an inaccurate message about what constitutes effective training and appropriate treatment of animals” (Blauvelt, 1). This excerpt is typical of the letters National Geographic has received on the subject. In fact, it is difficult if not impossible to find a professional opinion of Cesar that does not include some sort of warning against imitating his actions in any situation. Most, in fact, warn that to do so could result in a dangerous situation for either the pets or the owners and may result in injury.
It’s pretty much unanimous across the board – Cesar’s way is not the way. There are very few – if any – professional trainers worth their salt who support or utilize his methods. But this cannot be said for the general public, who don’t have the benefit of years of training and experience available to help them spot the deception. This discretion should have been caught by National Geographic. They should have made the responsible choice not to further perpetuate punitive techniques that cause more harm than good. Obviously, National Geographic was made clearly aware of this discrepancy between methods deemed acceptable and what is presented in the show. And yet they decided to consciously ignore the advice they requested from multiple reputable sources, since the show was aired and remains on television to this day. National Geographic still owes the nation an explanation as to why they are ignoring good science in favor of sensationalism. But that is a question the entire dog training community is waiting for an answer to; in the meantime, it is the unsuspecting viewers and especially their pets that will continue to suffer.
Blauvelt, R. “Dog Whisperer Training Approach More Harmful Than Helpful.” Companion Animal News. Fall 2006. 23; 3, pages 1-2. Print.
Kerkhove, Wendy van. “A Fresh Look at the Wolf-Pack Theory of Companion Animal Dog Social Behavior” Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science; 2004, Vol. 7 Issue 4, p279-285, 7p.
Luescher, Andrew. “Letter to National Geographic Concerning ‘The Dog Whisperer.’” Weblog Entry. Urban Dawgs. Accessed on Novermber 6, 2010. (http://www.urbandawgs.com/luescher_millan.html)
Mech, L. David. “Alpha status, dominance, and division of labor in wolf packs.” Canadian Journal of Zoology 77:1196-1203. Jamestown, ND. 1999.
Mech, L. David. “Whatever Happened to the Term Alpha Wolf?” Weblog Entry. 4 Paws Univeristy. Accessed on October 16, 2010. (http://4pawsu.com/alphawolf.pdf)
Meyer, E. Kathryn; Ciribassi, John; Sueda, Kari; Krause, Karen; Morgan, Kelly; Parthasarathy, Valli; Yin, Sophia; Bergman, Laurie.” AVSAB Letter the Merial.” June 10, 2009.
Semyonova, A. “The social organization of the domestic dog; a longitudinal study of domestic canine behavior and the ontogeny of domestic canine social systems.” The Carriage House Foundation, The Hague, 2003. 38 Pages. Print.
TL&DR man projects toxic masculinity onto “man’s best friend” and it goes exactly as badly as you’d expect.
Long, but important.