• Et tu, Cesar?


    Say it isn’t true! I guess even the best of us can get suckered in. My name is Beth and I used to very much enjoy Cesar Millan’s program, “The Dog Whisperer.”

    While I enjoyed the show, I had one problem, I could never quite master his techniques. A little background would be appropriate here.

    We have two dogs, both Humane Society grads. Jake is a 14 year old Mini Pin who will live forever, fueled only by his indomitable attitude. Rudie, our eight year old pure bred Canardly (because we “can-ardly” tell what breed she is), is pure sweet. Neither dog really took to Cesar’s techniques.

    First, we had “the sound.” You can hear it in the first 20 seconds of this vid:

    Yeah… my family and I tried it. Didn’t work. We tried it a few times on our daily walk. While “Tsching” all over town, the dogs were generally unimpressed. Also, when any of us performed this particular vocalization, we were more apt to spray saliva, rather than modify anyone’s behavior. Plus, the “tscher” tended to look rather silly.

    Secondly, my dogs never act like this:

    Seriously? I don’t know if we simply pick good dogs or if we’re lucky but woah… if either of my pups acted like that during their supper, we’d be off to dog training classes.

    However, we never let anyone get to that point of aggression. I guess my 4H Dog Training Classes during elementary school taught me enough to know how to prevent this behavior in the first place. I could be wrong, though. (That said, I probably wouldn’t mind seeing Maury or Peder strike that dramatic Cesar pose while glaring at one of the dogs. I’d even hunt down the camera to immortalize the occasion. Our dogs, however, would likely find the whole experience perplexing.)

    And we have this:

    The whole “flip the dog on his/her side” when they’re upset generally wouldn’t work for us. We adopted Jake when he was seven. He evidently lived those first seven years in a dark basement. To this day he’s twitchy about confined spaces.

    How did we “rehabilitate” him past his twitchy fears? Well, we walked him. A lot. At first he was terrified of the outdoors, then he began to think it was OK, now he really enjoys his walks. We tried doing the “flip him on his side” once when he got upset, but it only made things worse. In his case, couple walks a day to burn his nervous energy, a long term life together where he could forge a bond of trust, combined with lots of petting has helped his twitchy habit a lot. In Jake’s case, turns out the dude REALLY likes affection. We’re lucky in that regard.

    But, I know not all dogs situations can be that simple… and your mileage may vary. Which brings me to this headline:

    The Damage of “Dog Whispering”

    This author says:

    I’ve now been training dogs for a decade. I find Cesar Millan’s training theory and advice appalling. As a scientist, its obvious that his factual statements and derived conclusions are entirely wrong. As a trainer, I can tell how stressed and unhappy – not cured – the dogs portrayed on his show are. It’s covered up by rhetoric, the soundtrack and a voiceover. Tens of scientists, trainers and behavioral science organizations have spoken out against his theories. I’ve seen dogs mistreated by well-meaning owners who took his advice unquestioningly. Whether you’re an owner, a trainer or just someone who likes dogs, please read this. It’s important to be educated in the science behind training theories before espousing or applying them.

    Oh my. A popular television show may contain incorrect information? That’s disappointing.

    But the author actually has a valid point:

    Theories of canine psychology and training derived from legitimate behavioral science have progressed greatly in the last fifty years. Unfortunately, the public’s most beloved source of information – The Dog Whisperer by Cesar Millan – advocates a theory in direct opposition to this progress. For the last eight years, Cesar Millan has put forth an abusive training theory predicated on disproven science, fallacious logic, and incorrect assumptions. Described by a New York Times affiliate as a “one-man wrecking ball directed at 40 years of progress in understanding and shaping dog behavior[1],” Millan mixes an overly simplistic and incorrect view of canine social structures with a lack of scientific knowledge. His philosophy centers around two main theories; that canines have an innate and ingrained need to function according to a ‘wolf-pack’ social structure, and that dogs need to live ‘as they did in nature’, before human intervention. Because the concept of dominance theory is central to Millan’s training philosophy, many other crucial aspects of a dog’s environment and psyche that should be addressed when dealing with behavioral issues are completely ignored. As a result of the Dog Whisperer’s popularized methods, many dogs with simple issues are handled badly and likely abused in the name of ‘pack theory’. The worst part is that the entire situation could be avoided easily. It requires only a small amount of research into the social and psychological lives of the common canine to understand where Millan’s theory goes wrong.

    Wow. That’s even more disappointing.

    Turns out that Millan’s “wolf pack analogy” is likely incorrect as well. I guess that would explain why Rudie and Jake don’t exactly act like… er… wolves. They’re dogs. Whoda thunk.

    There is a crucial error in Millan’s thinking even more important than incorrect wolf science: he completely ignores recent research that shows that the domestic dog is not a pack animal[20]. He cannot ‘lead the pack like an alpha wolf’[21] because in domestic dog society no role of the sort exists.

    I found this tidbit rather amusing:

    Many of Millan’s other assertions are also incorrect. He teaches that owners should always eat before their dogs, because the alpha leader in a pack should always eat first and most – after all, he says, if wolves kill a deer the pack leader gets the biggest piece[28] and the most submissive wolf always eats last.[29] This is incorrect:  it has been shown that wolves in the wild that catch large prey eat simultaneously.

    Ha. I missed that piece of advice when his show originally aired. It’s good to know I haven’t ruined Rudy by tossing her bits of cucumber when I’m chopping salad. Oh. Wait a minute. I probably shouldn’t admit I feed my girlie-girl cucumber. I probably shouldn’t call her girlie-girl either. Oh well. Cat’s out of the bag. (Ha, I just brought cats into the subject.)

    This review of Millan’s work gets even tougher:

    In his review, submitted to National Geographic before The Dog Whisperer was ever aired, Dr. Andrew Luescher stated that the show “would be a major embarrassment… as 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.”[63] In criticizing the program, the director of The SF/SPCA Academy for Dog Trainers goes even farther, saying that “a profession that has been making steady gains in its professionalism, technical sophistication and humane standards has been greatly set back.”[64] Set back how far? Easily twenty years, according to the letter written to National Geographic by Dr. Nicholas Dodman.[65] Outcry against Millan’s methods has come from all corners of the scientific world. His methods are outdated, dangerous, and scientifically baseless. Millan is perpetuating incorrect scientific knowledge throughout common media, leading to the mistreatment of thousands more animals. Any small amount of research would make it clear to a nonscientific layperson that dogs are not wolves, and in no way function on the dominance-centered hierarchy that Millan espouses as the basis of his theories. While entertaining and charismatic, The Dog Whisperer is the one of the least progressive informational sources for dog owners of our times.

    Well, that’s really too bad. I guess even dog owners need to be cautious when they take blanket advice from celebrity dog trainers unfamiliar with their particular situation. It’s amazing how the power of marketing can trump truth nearly every. single. time.

    Be careful when training your pup. Take most, if not all, advice with a great big grain of salt. Definitely don’t take any dog training advice from me. Your four-legged best friend will appreciate your skepticism when it comes to these matters.


    Category: Interesting


    Article by: Beth Erickson

    I'm Beth Ann Erickson, a freelance writer, publisher, and skeptic. I live in Central Minnesota with my husband, son, and two rescue pups. Life is flippin' good. :)