Bye bye Cesar Millan

by Marc Bekoff, Ph.D.

In a previous essay I asked “Did Cesar Millan Have To Hang the Husky?” I was referring to a highly controversial video called “Shadow Turns Blue” in which Mr. Millan rather violently lifts a husky off the ground to discipline him. The essay turned out to be very popular and while the comments were a mixed bag most people concluded that this sort of “training” method, based on abusive domination, was unnecessarily harsh and that there was no reason at all to treat Shadow or any other dog in this manner, ever.

Millan’s training techniques have been highly controversial and it’s just been announced that National Geographic will be cancelling the Dog Whisperer series after this season. Twelve new episodes will begin 12 July 2012.

I for one am thrilled to hear this announcement about which I was informed by many others who told me the news. Millan himself noted, “It was bittersweet filming the final episodes, but they are a lot of fun and turned out to be some of the best cases ever. And to my biggest fans, never fear, you haven’t seen the last of me yet!”

I sincerely hope that if Millan reappears he does so using radically different techniques that focus on positive training/teaching methods. He has been very influential and could well use his influence to sway people away from using methods that are abusive and often only a quick-fix.

I concluded my previous essay as follows:

“Dogs expect us to treat them with dignity and respect, and when they become challenging and try our patience, we must never ever forget that they are sentient beings who thoroughly depend on our goodwill. It’s a dirty double-cross to intentionally abuse them and commit them to a life of fear. It’s a betrayal of their trust that we will always have their best interests in mind. It also demeans us.

“The hearts of our companion animals, like our own hearts, are fragile, so we must be gentle with them. Let’s openly and graciously thank them for who they are, for their unfiltered love, and embrace their lessons in passion, compassion, empathy, devotion, respect, spirituality, and love. Surely, we will never have any regrets by doing so, and much pure joy will come our way as we clear the path for deep and rich reciprocal relationships based on immutable trust with our companions and all other beings. Elliot Katz, founder of In Defense of Animals, suggests we drop the word “training” and start using the word ‘teaching.’ Training often becomes synonymous with ‘breaking.’ Training should not mean breaking their fragile hearts”

I stand by these words. Perhaps if National Geographic or any other televsion network takes on a new poster-person they will be someone who shows deep compassion for the dog beings with whom they work and not promote methods that involve abuse and intimidation.

Cesar Millan: Things to think about

Cesar Millan (the “Dog Whisperer”), star of a wildly popular TV series, national lecturer, and author of several books reaches a lot of the public on dog behavior and training issues.
For most lay people, Cesar Millan may be the most familiar source they have for information on dogs, especially training. If you own a dog or are thinking of getting one, you’re almost certain to have a friend, neighbor or family member at some point approach you with “well, here is what Cesar would do” or “the reason you have this problem is because you’re not the alpha and the Dog Whisperer shows how to be a head of the pack if you’d only….”.

The problem is that Cesar Millan’s approach has been widely discredited in the dog training world. Among serious canine competitors, DVM’s, canine research facilities, and well-respected dog trainers like Patricia McConnell, his tactics have been consistently criticized. Trying to do what the Dog Whisperer does (despite how it looks on TV) is poor advice in most cases.
Now, not all of what Millan does is bad. The idea that dogs need consistency and exercise are good ones and almost all reputable trainers have always believed these as well. But his techniques tend to be based on flooding and physical corrections.
Ceser Millan’s tactics have been discredited by the people who originally developed them. For instance, Millan advocates using what he calls an “alpha-roll” or belly-roll to demonstrate dominance to a dog.
However, this technique was originally first widely publicized much earlier by the Monks of New Skete (and Millan adopted it from them).  Job Michael Evans who first suggested the Alpha roll in his book for the Monks of New Skete, later apologized for it. Evans indicated publicly that he wished he had never written about the alpha-roll and it has led to widespread abuse. According to Evans, the only dogs that would likely accept an Alpha roll didn’t need it and the ones who do need it would bite your face if you tried it with them.

Research (not a TV show, not someone’s opinion, not one person’s work, but actual research with different dogs and handlers & situations) showed that that Millan’s techniques increased aggression in 25% of the dogs.

If you’re challenged on this claim, you can find more details about the study here.
This does not mean that physical corrections and force worked 75% of the time–alternative approaches had a higher success rate.
But it does mean that a substantial amount of time (1 out of 4 times), physical correction and force made things worse, not better–it made the aggressive dogs more aggressive.

Millan’s theory is based on outdated research involving wolves. People originally looked at wolves and assumed the lessons we learned from wolf packs would apply to dogs. We know now that…
– Wolves and dogs aren’t identical in their behavior. For instance, wolves make terrible guard animals, show very little play instinct (especially as adults and when compared to dogs), have no eagerness to please and have different pack behavior than do dogs.
– Our understanding of what constitutes “alpha” is wrong as well. With canines (especially dogs), alpha animals tend to not be aggressive or forceful.  The alpha’s control access to food (how much you get and who eats first), who gets to mate (and with whom), who gets to play and when and with what.

– We’ve all seen dogs who are aggressive to other dogs or seek to grab the best toy or protect food. That is not alpha behavior. Dogs of equal status are more likely to fight or behave aggressively while alpha dogs almost never engage in this behavior: signs of aggressiveness (growling, prolonged stares, physical correction) are not things that alpha dogs do so when humans do those behaviors it tells the dogs that we’re not the alpha, we’re unpredictable and possibly dangerous.If you find all of this a bit hard to believe because it contradicts so many stories you’ve heard about alpha dog status, than try looking here, or look at the research of Dr. Ian Dunbar.

Remember: it’s only television.
Of course the Dog Whisperer program shows the successes. And what research on physical corrections proves is that when it succeeds (which is not always), it is almost always temporary–and usually produces negative consequences.
There are plenty of examples where TV shows some kind of problem being dealt with in 20 minutes or less — do you really think that solving the problem was that simple and that quick?

Here’s one example of where Millan’s methods resulted in an injured dog and no improvement in behavior: Dog Whisperer Cesar Milan sued by TV Producer

The point is not that Millan and his methods should be perfect. It’s that the Dog Whisperer program is so seductive because we see only short-term successes from selective cases.

Bribing an animal is a bad way to get results.
But it’s a mistake to believe that there are only two approaches to training behavior–either Millan’s approach (relying heavily on flooding and physical correction) or bribery.

There are lots of different ways to train dogs and most of them don’t rely on bribery.

Actually, one method that predates Millan and has been widely used with horses, dog sports, US Navy training of dolphins, Sea World training of orcas and belugas and was validated with humans through the research of Fred Keller and BF Skinner is that of operant condition. And operant conditioning isn’t bribery. And it’s backed by half a century of thousands of studies.
Operant conditioning tends to be very successful with dogs because of their innate desire to please humans (something distinguishes dogs from other canines like hyenas, wolves, coyotes and jackals). For more information you can go here, or research Karen Pryor and clicker training.
Dogs should not be treated like people.
I agree that dogs aren’t people doesn’t naturally follow that the best ways to train them involve flooding or physical correction.In fact, because of the nature of dogs (poor generalization, poor ability to vocalize, tremendous ability to perceive posture-facial expression, strong desire to get approval), flooding and physical correction work less effectively on dogs than they do on humans. Jean Donaldson’s work (The Culture Clash or Dogs Are From Neptune) or Patricia McConnell’s (The Other Side of the Leash) are both great examples of practical studies and analysis of how dogs and humans are different–without having to resort to flooding and physical correction to get results. You can see verification of this here.

While I can’t argue with Millan’s successes, I encourage you to review the following statements:
Dr. Nicholas Dodman – DVM, Director of Animal Behavior Clinic, Tufts University
“Cesar Millan’s methods are based on flooding and punishment. The results, though immediate, will be only transitory. His methods are misguided, outmoded, in some cases dangerous, and often inhumane. You would not want to be a dog under his sphere of influence. The sad thing is that the public does not recognize the error of his ways. My college thinks it is a travesty. We’ve written to National Geographic Channel and told them they have put dog training back 20 years.”Dr. Suzanne Hetts, Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and 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 .”

Dr. Ian Dunbar, DVM, founder of Association of Pet Dog Trainers, expert witness in dog aggression trials, author of numerous dog training books, “Saying ‘I want to interact with my dog better, so I’ll learn from the wolves’ makes about as much sense as saying, ‘I want to improve my parenting — let’s see how the chimps do it.’ ”

Dr. Andrew Luescher, DVM, asked by National Geographic to review Dog Whisperer shows, “Most of the theoretical explanations that Millan gives regarding causes of the behavior problems are wrong. Not one of these dogs had any issue with dominance. Not one of these dogs wanted to control their owners…Millan’s techniques are outdated and unacceptable not only to the veterinary community, but also to dog trainers… 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.”