I've been impressed by TV shows with Cesar Millan and wonder if his methods would be suitable for training my dog?

It is fantastic when anything makes people realise that it is necessary to exercise their dogs every day and to train them to respond reliably to our requests. However, there are 'good, bad and ugly' sides to some of the many different training techniques in books, websites and on TV shows. In order to make the best choice on what training methods to use on our own dogs we need to know what is actually involved and the alternatives that are available.

As mentioned elsewhere (in the FAQs re whether clicker training can be used to rehabilitate aggressive dogs) the shows with charismatic TV-trainers are more often about entertainment and ratings than about serious dog training. Many of the methods seen on them are far from original and are simply a re-hash of ways that things were always done in the past. The programmes need to attract and retain large audiences and in order to do so they use many euphemisms to make harsh words and concepts politically correct and to make traditional training seem new and exciting.

Traditional dog training methods are largely based on myths that have been long discredited but refuse to die - such as 'your-chihuahua-is-a-wolf-and-so-must-be-treated-just-like-a-wolf'.  Under the clever new packaging there is actually nothing much original in anything that Cesar Millan practices and preaches.

Anybody without experience, academic qualifications or licences who wishes to enter the dog training industry can set up in business, call themselves what they like and print a card with a fancy title. And, no matter what methods they use, the very same day they can claim to be the world's best dog trainer and offer to cure all the behavioural problems that dogs have ever had. 

In an as yet unregulated industry this happens all the time - whereas if it was for the education of humans it would obviously be illegal. Imagine our parental concern - if not outrage - if a school teacher without suitable educational qualifications was found teaching our children at the local school.
In some countries there are voluntary associations and organisations with their own code of ethics and stringent internal examination requirements for dog trainers. But, apart from veterinarians who cannot practice without being fully qualified, there are as yet no government regulations or requirements for anybody else involved with dogs. This is a tragedy as sometimes the results are horrendous. 

In 2001 Cesar Millan, who had already become a celebrity trainer to several Hollywood film stars, opened his ''Dog Psychology Centre' in Los Angeles. In 2005 he quickly rose to further fame and fortune after appearing on 'Oprah' as a result of assisting Oprah Winfrey with her 10 year old Cocker Spaniel, 'Sophie'.
Sophie had become increasingly aggressive to other dogs and also suffered from chronic separation anxiety. She was, so we are told in Millan's first book, soon cured by Oprah being told how to be a dog's leader and by 'group therapy 'sessions in which Cesar brought along five other dogs from his day care centre, a Chihuahua, two Italian Greyhounds, a Lhasa Apso and a Pit Bull named 'Daddy'. 

When Sophie first saw this strange assortment of dogs 'she stood on the doorstep, frozen' - and no doubt her heartbeat would have doubled. However, in his book Cesar says that he quickly 'moved her down amongst the other dogs and gave her a slight (leash) correction every time she became fearful or anxious'   ..the energy I was sending her through the leash was vital, too. I was her pack leader and I was instructing her to get along with the rest of the pack ...and after about ten minutes Sophie was able to relax.... In about half an hour she was picking up on the group's calm-submissive energy and seemed actually to be enjoying herself (Cesar's Way, P128). 

The time frame for treating mental conditions - such as separation anxiety, noise phobias and obsessive compulsive disorders - is, as any human psychologist will attest, lengthy. Depending on the severity of the condition, treatment can take several weeks if not months or years. One wonders  what were the side effects of a dog being flooded with so many stimuli at the same time and what happened to Sophie's separation anxiety and other fears in the following weeks?  Was she really calm and happy or was her body language  -  licking her nose, lifting a paw, yawning, scratching - saying that she would much prefer to be somewhere else? And when 'Daddy' and company were no longer around how long did she remained 'relaxed' and non-aggressive around other dogs?

Cesar Millan describes himself as 'instinctual' rather than 'intellectual'. He says that he is 'not a dog trainer'  but that he uses "dog psychology to rehabilitate dogs and train people'. This seems a somewhat bizarre differentiation. The Oxford Dictionary says that training is 'to bring a person, child or animal to a desired state or standard of efficiency by instruction and practice'. Rehabilitation is 'to restore (a handicapped or delinquent person for example) to useful life through education and therapy'. As any veterinary behaviourist or experienced dog trainer will attest, training and rehabilitation of delinquent family dogs with emotional issues like Sophie go hand in glove. It is not possible to have one without the other.

[As an aside, a little known outside of her own country but a highly accomplished Italian dog trainer by name of Alexa Capra also rehabilitates dogs. In contrast to Cesar Millan she uses no force or corrections; her only tools are a 'clicker', to mark the desired behaviour and part of a dog's daily food intake to reward and reinforce the behaviour she wants. What is so remarkable is that her dogs are all ex-fighting Pit Bull Terriers - a breed considered by local authorities to be potentially so dangerous that here in Australia, as in many other countries, they are banned altogether. 

The abused and highly aggressive dogs that are sent to Alexa for help are rescued from the now underground but still flourishing East European dog fighting rings. She says:" We have done 5 thesis with two Universities, it is not talking, everything is videotaped, written and proven. I have been working with pit bulls since 2003 and I am absolutely horrified by those who claim you cannot rehabilitate a pit bull with methods based on positive training and relationships." 

Alexa is an experienced trainer who understands that the proper function of dog trainers is to work with both dogs and with people  - to show owners what to do and then to make sure they stay on track. To date she has rehabilitated 14 ex-fighting dogs and, moreover and incredibly, successfully re-homed them with Italian families to lead safe, useful and happy lives.]

Millan freely admits to having no formal education or any qualifications or credentials in psychology or, indeed, any of the canine behavioural sciences such as ethology. He goes to some lengths to differentiate between 'human' psychology and 'dog' psychology.

In a nutshell his 'dog psychology' involves showing dogs who is the boss - the 'Alpha ' -  if necessary by physical means (normally a jerk on the lead but sometimes a neck scruff or an 'alpha roll' or a kick in the ribs) exercising them for several hours a day (on a treadmill if necessary), going through doorways first, always walking in front of them with shoulders back and head held high and, at all times, exuding calm and assertive energy.

Cesar Millan says that his 'personal role model for my professional behaviour' is Oprah herself and that with their dogs people should radiate importance and have the same calm and assertive energy that she has with her TV audiences.

So what, then, is a 'boss'? Is a boss automatically a good "leader"? Is a good leader necessarily a 'boss'? Maybe sometimes so but here, thanks to an unknown source, are some significant differences:

"The boss uses I, the leader uses WE; the boss relies on AUTHORITY to get things done, the leader relies on CO-OPERATION to get things done; the boss knows HOW, the leader SHOWS how; the boss shows WHO is wrong, the leader shows WHAT is wrong; the boss DRIVES others, the leader INSPIRES others; the boss creates FEAR, the leader creates TRUST; the boss is LOATHED, the leader is LOVED; the boss DEMANDS respect, the leader COMMANDS respect; the boss provokes RESENTMENT, the leader provokes ENTHUSIASM; the boss is a DICTATOR, the leader is a DIRECTOR.'

Certified Animal Behaviourist Dr Suzanne Hetts from Animal Behaviour Associates in Colorado was a keynote speaker at the annual 3 day conference of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers Australia at Coffs Harbour in 2004. She has a weekly series of  invaluable 3-5 minute audio postcards sent around the world to trainers, breeders and dog owners on her mailing list. For details click > http://helpingfido.com/behavior-tips.htm

A recent postcard was entitled 'Dog Psychology - what it is and what it is NOT'. She describes as both "quite amusing" and "quite sad" (from the dog's point of view) the 'behaviour baloney ' and the 'convoluted mess of information'  that people are being given on websites and elsewhere about leadership and dog psychology. Click HERE to listen to it in full.

She succinctly points out that it is quite erroneous to suggest that human and dog psychology have nothing to do with each other. Dogs are sentient beings who most definitely have feelings and emotions just like humans. Many of the practices currently used in human psychology were first tested on other animals - primarily dogs. As the text books of any first year psychology student shows there are many parralels and, indeed, a considerable overlap between human psychology and dog psychology.  

The information provided by Certified Animal Behaviourists to dog owners is based on scientific principles of animal behaviour and in-depth trials and comparative research, not on personal experience, anecdote, opinion, 'pop psychology' or myths. Just like the laws of gravity the fundamental laws of animal learning and animal behaviour apply equally to humans, canines and all other living species. 

Much of the popular literature says that dogs are always wanting to be 'the alpha boss' whereas, as pointed out on the Certified Animal Behaviourist website, the reality is that for centuries "people have been breeding dogs to be submissive to, not dominant over, people......dog behaviour problems can develop for a variety of reasons and it is quite wrong to immediately blame the owner for a lack of leadership that have caused the bad behaviours. Many dog owners have had previous dogs that had absolutely no behaviour problems at all'.

Cesar Millan is viewed with dismay by many people as a 'Johnny-come-lately' who readily admits that getting bitten is part of the job and uses techniques that often quickly reduce a dog to a state of learned helplessness. People are specifically warned on his TV programmes not to try his techniques at home yet there is no doubt that, as far as the general public is concerned, he is viewed as a canine Messiah. 

This is nothing short of remarkable for somebody who 20 years ago spoke not a word of English and crossed the border from Mexico into the USA as an illegal and penniless immigrant. He made a fortuitous decision and went to Hollywood. There he worked in a grooming salon, met some influential people, became the dog trainer for several film stars and opened his dog day care business. On 'Google'  he now has over 2.5 million hits which, by any standard, is certainly impressive!

Although Millan has been sued on several occasions by owners who said their dogs were badly treated and they had large vet bills as a result (http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/12648003) he nonetheless has a legion of devoted fans that have read his best selling books, eagerly watched his TV programmes and flocked to his seminars.

His marketing success over the past 4-5 years is a phenomenon that, to the surprise of many people and to the horror of people like Alexa Capra and others, has taken the dog training world by storm. Details of his interesting and astonishing rags to riches story -  which together with his undoubted charisma and marketability helps with the TV ratings and therefore the profit margins of National Geographic - can be seen at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cesar_Millan or at http://www.cesarmillaninc.com/.

However, Cesar Millan has a host of detractors.

Jean Donaldson, director of training at the San Franscisco SPCA, says 'practices such as physically confronting aggressive dogs and using choke collars for fearful dogs are outrageous by even the most diluted dog training standards ...... a profession that has been making steady gains in its professionalism, technical sophistication and human standards has been greatly set back. I have long been deeply troubled by the popularity of Mr Millan as so many will emulate him. To co-opt a word like 'whispering' for arcane, violent and technically unsound practice is unconscionable'.

'Many members world-wide of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers, the American Humane Association and the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals are equally opposed  to his ideas and his techniques. So when everybody was first discussing him I felt obliged, in order to be able to participate objectively in the debate, to pick up a copy of "Cesar's Way".

Nobody could possibly quarrel with the obvious common sense things in the book such as the need to avoid inappropriate non-stop affection, the need for adequate daily exercise and the necessity for owners to be calm and have confident body language around dogs. Instructors at local dog clubs around the world have been beating the same drum for years.
It was interesting to read of Cesar's childhood in rural Mexico where in the school holidays he observed the behaviour of packs of working dogs on his grandfather's and on neighbouring farms. These farm dogs simply did the jobs that needed doing and 'in exchange for their assistance we'd throw them a 'burrito' or two now and then'. Otherwise they scavenged for their food, or hunted smaller animals. "These 'working' dogs on our farm", he continues, "were my true teachers in the art and science of canine psychology' (Cesar's Way - page 25). By the age of fourteen he had won six judo championships in a row and learned skills that "I still use every day and find especially crucial in my work with dangerous, red-zone aggressive dogs". (Cesar's Way - Page 34).

The indoor spoiled and pampered pet dogs Millan later came across in Hollywood were very different to the outdoor packs of Mexican village dogs living on scraps from his childhood. However, the big divide worldwide is whether our relationship with our dogs should be about robotic compulsion and imposing our will on them in a physical, punishing or adversarial manner? Or should it be about rewarding relationships built on trust and co-operation, rather than fear and intimidation, and giving our dogs the means with which to live safely, compatibly and happily in our human world?

Many of the world's leading authorities on dog behaviour agree wholeheartedly with Jean Donaldson. The following articles clarify further:

American Humane Association
'Dog Whisperer - Training More Harmful Than Helfpul'

New York Times, Mark Derr
'A Pack of Lies'

Purdue University, Andrew Luesher
Veterinary Behaviorist

Paul Owens, (The Original Dog Whisper)
'A Bone To Pick"

USA Today
'Dog Whisperer Cesar Millan Sued By TV Producer'

San Fransisco Chronicle
'The Anti-Cesar Millan - How Come Ian Dunbar Has Been Usurped by an aggressive TV Host?'

Richard Belzer
'First Do No Harm'

'The Good and the Bad of the Dog Whisperer'

'Cesar Millan, the Dog Whisperer's Most Controversial Topics'

Cesar Millan is touring Australia in June 2009 and holding expected to be "Sold Out' seminars at convention centres in Perth, Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane. If people want to decide for themselves whether to buy a choker chain, or learn judo, in order to copy his methods they can book at  http://www.cesarmillaninc.com/interactive/seminars.php.

So, will I be amongst the excited hordes paying a small fortune to attend Cesar's evening seminar and buying his merchandise at the 13.000 + seating capacity Brisbane Entertainment Centre on June 19th?  Reluctantly yes - but curious, not excited.
Knowing exactly what has been said and demonstrated will assist in objective discussion afterwards. No doubt a lot of what people will hear will be common sense recommendations with which nobody could disagree. It will, however, be interesting to see if the 'violent and technically unsound practices'  that Jean Donaldson and others find so 'outrageous and unconscionable' are recommended and demonstrated.
Those equally curious trainers using different methods who are going to the Entertainment Centre will see first hand exactly what happens. We will be in a better position to explain that, as shown by unassuming quite achievers like Alexa Capra in Italy with her rescued abused ex-fighting Pit Bulls, there are much nicer and more effective and enjoyable alternatives - at both ends of the lead - for the family pet dogs of Brisbane.

Actually we'd all be far better off waiting for one of the seminars that are being conducted around the country by the highly credentialed members of the Australian Veterinary Association's Behaviour Interest Group. Their topics, "Dispel the Dominance Myth and Gain Control of Dog Behaviour" will be much better value for time and money and more my own cup of tea.

Oliver Beverly
©  C.L.E.A.R. Dog Training  March 2009


Post Script

After Sophie died Oprah got 3 Golden Retrievers, Gracie, Layla and Luke. When she needed assistance in getting them to behave nicely she initially engaged Mr Millan but then switched to another celebrity Hollywood trainer, Tamar Geller, who has an altogether different training philosophy, abhors aggressive methods and only uses positive reinforcement techniques.

She too also appeared on 'Oprah' and wrote a book, "The Loved Dog: the Playful Non-Aggressive Way to Teach Your Dog Good Behavior". Although it was perhaps more of a book for the masses than an in-depth one for serious dog owners and trainers, it was a pleasing anithesis to Cesar Millan.

Many world-renowned dog trainers, dog obedience and agility competitors, judges, veterinarians and animal behaviourists, many with PhDs in one or more of the sciences comprising animal learning and behaviour, have warned that Cesar Millan’s methods have the potential for disaster. 

Below are quotes, available from the internet, from well respected international authorities:

Dr. Nicholas Dodman - Professor and Head, Section of Animal Behavior
Director of Behavior Clinic, Tufts University - Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine
“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.”

Jean Donaldson - Director of The Academy for Dog Trainers, The San Francisco SPCA
“Practices such as physically confronting aggressive dogs and using of choke collars for fearful dogs are outrageous by even the most diluted dog training standards.  A profession that has been making steady gains in its professionalism, technical sophistication and humane standards has been greatly set back. I have long been deeply troubled by the popularity of Mr. Millan as so many will emulate him.To co-opt a word like ‘whispering’ for arcane, violent and technically unsound practice is unconscionable.”

Dr. Suzanne Hetts, Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist
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."

Vyolet Michaels, CTC, CPDT (Certified Dog Trainer and Behavior Counselor)
Owner of Urban Dawgs, LLC of Red Bank, NJ
"Cesar Millan employs outdated methods that are dangerous and inhumane. Using a choke chain and treadmill to treat fear of strangers and dogs is completely inappropriate. Hopefully the National Geographic Channel will listen to the scientific community and discontinue production of The Dog Whisperer."

Janis Bradley, Instructor at The San Francisco SPCA Academy for Dog Trainers
Author of the book, "Dogs Bite"
"On his TV show, the main method Millan uses for aggression is aversives (leash jerks, kicks, snaps of the hand against the neck, and restraint, among others) applied non contingently. The aversives are non contingent because they are so frequent that they're not connected to any particular behavior on the part of the dog - the dog gets popped pretty much constantly. This results in a state called learned helplessness, which means the animal hunkers down and tries to do as little as possible. This is what Millan calls "calm submission." It's exactly the same thing you see in a rat in a Skinner box that is subjected to intermittent shocks it can do nothing to avoid. This can happen quite fast, by the way, shall we say in ten minutes? The dangers to the dog are obvious, ranging from chronic stress to exacerbating the aggression, i.e.,some dogs fight back when attacked. This latter is the simplest reason that aversives are a bad idea in treating aggression. Even used technically correctly as positive punishment for specific behaviors like growling and snarling, aversives do nothing to change the underlying fear or hostility, so the best you can hope for, in the words of famed vet and behaviorist, Ian Dunbar, is "removing the ticker from the time bomb." Thus such methods substantially increase the risk to humans of getting bitten."

Excerpt of letter from Lisa Laney, Dip. DTBC, CPDT, CBC
to National Geographic before airing “The Dog Whisperer”:
“The intended program depicts aversive and abusive training methods - treatment for some serious anxiety and fear based issues - being administered by an individual with no formal education whatsoever in canine behavioral sciences. The "results" that are shown are more than likely not long lasting changes, but the result of learned helplessness, or fatigue, neither of which impact behavior to any significant long term degree - at least not in a good way. For those of us who are pioneering the effort to end the ignorance that drives the cruel treatment administered upon our canine companions, it is disappointing to see that this programming will reach the masses - especially on the NG Channel. The ignorance that this program perpetuates will give equally ignorant people the green light to subject their dogs to abuse. In turn these dogs will react even more defensively, will bite more people - and end up dead.”

Steve Dale
"I have serious concerns because his methods are often intimidating rather than motivating. On TV, the dogs do comply but often they're being forced to - you can tell by their body language: tail down, mouth closed, ears back, eyes dilated... I argue that motivating leadership is far more effective than leading through intimidation."

Steve Dale is the author of the twice weekly syndicated newspaper column “My Pet World” (Tribune Media Services). He’s also the host of syndicated radio programs Steve Dale’s Pet World, The Pet Minute with Steve Dale; and Pet Central, at WGN Radio, Chicago. Steve is a contributing editor at USA Weekend, special correspondent/columnist Dog World and editor-in-chief of PawPrints (a newsletter for veterinarians). His books include “American Zoos” and “DogGone Chicago.” Steve’s appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show; National Geographic Explorer; Pets Part of the Family on PBS; several Animal Planet Shows; Fox News Channel, and Balance TV (Canada). He was a regular on WGN-TV Chicago. Touted as reaching more pet owners than any other pet journalist, Steve’s a frequent guest expert on radio shows all over America and Canada; he’s been quoted in dozens of newspaper and magazine stories, including the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, and Redbook.  He's certified as a Behavior Consultant by the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants, and the recipient of many awards including the prestigious AVMA Humane Award.