Why I'm Not a Big Fan of National Geographic's Dog Whisperer

©Scott Sheaffer, USA Dog Behavior

Whether you love this TV series or take issue with its methods, I believe it has actually been a net plus for dogs with behavior issues. Why? It has brought attention to the fact that dogs can have behavioral issues that negatively impact the owner's and dog's quality of life - issues that can be addressed by qualified professionals.

Take a moment to view this 3-minute clip from an episode titled "Cesar's Worst Bite." This is a famous episode where the show's star, Cesar Millan, is bitten fairly severely.

Before viewing, please be aware that a dog bite with blood is shown along with, what some may consider, animal cruelty.

When watching made-for-TV dog training, remember that the dramatic music, editing and off-camera commentary give the show an air of heightened credibility. I sometimes turn the volume down so I can evaluate things more objectively; you might want to do the same with this video.

The dog in this video clip, named Holly, is a 2-year-old female Labrador Retriever. Holly appears to have moderate to severe food aggression or food resource guarding issues. This is a common behavioral problem with dogs (yes, even Labrador Retrievers) and there are standard behavioral training protocols used for treating it.

Please note, what you observe in this video are things that are not endorsed by dog behavior professionals (e.g., ACVB, IAABC, APDT and CCPDT). I do not recommend that you try the things that are found in this video as they are both dangerous and can exacerbate behavioral problems.

Let's examine this video more critically.

The implied premise of most dog training television is that the dog's issues will be remedied in one visit. Holly didn't learn this behavior quickly nor is there a quick cure for most behavioral issues. Real and lasting animal behavior modification takes time and patience.

Note how Holly is eating her food with no issues at the beginning of the video. However, the cast and crew continue to move closer to her until she is forced to respond. It's very important to note that this all occurs in a fairly small backyard with limited escape routes for the dog. Forcing oneself into a dog's space like this is a recipe for aggression.

In my opinion, the dog appears to be deliberately taunted for the cameras. Continually confronting Holly, who is obviously stressed, is going to dramatically increase the probability of aggression. Shortly into the video we find that it's no longer about food aggression any longer. Holly is obviously feeling threatened and is sending out multiple signals that she wants this to stop (e.g., she lies down). But they persist.

Remember that there are cameras and crew standing behind and to the side of Holly as this unfolds. This adds an additional level of stress to the dog.

I have no idea what Cesar Millan's intentions are as he starts posturing as if he is going to attack Holly with Kung Fu. I sadly believe this is another attempt by the show to add some mystery and drama for the cameras.

I object to the silly pseudo-science used in this episode. What does "brain got stuck" mean?

And when Holly can't deal with things any longer, she bites. It's really hard to believe that anyone would put his or her hand on Holly's muzzle after everything she has just been through. She is then kicked which may have actually extended the length of the bite (in the full length version of this episode you see the dog hit in the neck prior to the bite). After the bite, you hear Cesar Millan say, "I didn't see that coming." Would you have put your hand in Holly's face? I wouldn't have either.

Near the end of the video note how Holly's jaw appears to chatter. This is an extreme indicator of anxiety for dogs - one that you rarely see. This dog is very afraid. I'm surprised she hasn't aggressed more than what we see on the video considering all that she has just been through.

In the full episode, the off-camera commentary talks about Holly's aggression getting worse after the episode was shot. I am not the least bit surprised by this information.

There is no place for magical looking aversive techniques such as these in dog training. Animal science has adequately demonstrated that science-based non-punitive (i.e., positive) techniques are the most effective with our canine friends. Dogs like Holly can be helped, but there is no excuse to treat a dog like this.