Cesar Millan, the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

 
Cesar Millan manhandles a dog in a recent episode of Cesar 911.

Cesar Millan manhandles a dog in a recent episode of Cesar 911.

 

©Scott Sheaffer, CDBC, CPDT-KA, USA Dog Behavior, LLC

You may not be aware of this, but Cesar Millan is a highly controversial person in the world of professional dog training and behavior consulting. For full disclosure, I am not an adherent of Mr. Millan’s approach to dog behavior (see my article, Why I'm Not a Big Fan of National Geographic's Dog Whisperer).

Mr. Millan, by his own admission, is a self-taught dog behaviorist with no formal training or certifications.

He is best known as the star of his television show Dog Whisperer that ran from 2004 to 2012 produced by National Geographic. In 2014 his new series, Cesar 911, debuted, also produced by National Geographic. His new series has recently gotten him some attention he wishes he didn’t have. For more information, see USA Today’s article 'Dog Whisperer' Cesar Millan investigated over animal cruelty complaints.

He subscribes to the theory that human handlers should dominate their dogs. This theory, which was popularized in the 1940s and 1950s, has fallen out of favor with virtually all dog behavior specialists; the long-term efficacy of this approach isn’t supported by current animal science.

Much of Mr. Millan’s thinking relies on the old view of wolf packs.  We now know that our past understanding of the hierarchy within wolf packs was wrong (e.g., “alpha” and “beta” wolves). In addition to that, wolf pack behavior just doesn’t translate very well to domestic dogs living in our homes. Dr. L. David Mech proposed the hierarchy theory of wolf packs in 1970, but in 2008 he changed his thinking. He has an informative video about his new understanding of wolf-pack behavior titled, “Alpha” Wolf? that appears below.

 
Dr. L. David Mech talks about the terms "alpha" and "beta" wolves and why they are no longer scientifically accurate.
 

Two of the best-known names in the world of dog behavior are Dr. Ian Dunbar and Dr. Nicholas Dodman. Dr. Dunbar is a veterinarian and animal behaviorist who received his veterinary degree from London University and a doctorate in animal behavior from UC Berkeley. Dr. Dodman is a veterinarian and behaviorist at Tufts University where he is the Program Director of the Animal Behavior Department of Clinical Sciences.

Both of these behavior scientists have the following concerns with Mr. Millan’s punishment-based dominance approach to dogs (their thoughts have been summarized and paraphrased):

  • Wolf behavior in the wild does not translate well to domestic dogs.
  • Dogs that are afraid of certain things (e.g., vacuum cleaners, skateboards, humans, etc.) can’t be cured by a single session of intense exposure. This exposure is called flooding and merely gets the dog to shut down temporarily. Not long after this exposure is over, the dog’s fear will return – most likely even more intensely.
  • Using finger jabs, alpha-rollovers, choking and leash-pops to gain compliance from dogs is not as effective as positive reward training where the dog voluntarily performs the behaviors requested. Training done with positive techniques produces more durable results too.
  • The approaches used by Mr. Millan can be abusive and inhumane.
  • Some of Mr. Millan’s techniques are unnecessarily dangerous. [There’s a reason that “Don’t try this at home” messages appear throughout his television shows.]

When we see people on TV who are experts on a topic, we tend to believe them. One of the most aggravating things to professional dog behavior consultants and animal behaviorists is the vocabulary that Mr. Millan has created and uses. “Balanced,” “exercise-discipline-affection,” "red zone dogs" and “calm, submissive state" are some of his most often repeated terms. These are terms that don’t appear in any animal behavior or dog training textbooks I've ever read. They may resonate on TV, but are vague, meaningless and just silly sounding terms when applied to animal behavior.

That’s a sample of the bad and the ugly. Has Mr. Millan done any good when it comes to animal welfare? Well yes, actually. He has brought awareness to the fact that dogs have behavior issues that need to be addressed.

He has essentially promoted the concept of dog behavior throughout the world. For that, dog behavior professionals everywhere are grateful. Taken in that context, he has probably done more good than harm for dogs.

For further reading, Reward The Good Or Punish The Bad?