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Why Veterinary Behaviorists Don’t Like Cesar Millan

By Guest Blogger DoLittler, AKA Dr. Patty Khuly, at dogtime.com

One of my close relatives took a bad dog bite to the face. Strictly speaking, there was no doubt it was her fault. He growled at her…and she bit him.

Yes, you read that right. After years of dealing with this dog’s seizure/personality disorder by the book (neurologists, behaviorists, trainers, acupuncturists) his owner lost it and bit him on the ear. It was a corrective kind of a bite he might have expected from another dog. His reaction: a swift, punishing bite to the face.

Cesar Millan, AKA: the dog whisperer

I offer you this close-to-home story by way of explaining how easy it is for humans to become emotionally overwhelmed by a dog’s aggressive behavior. Problem is, while aggression may be a natural, universal language, its interpretation is typically species specific. Thus, a dog cannot read human signs of aggression anywhere near as well as he reads his own species. Even our sophisticated human attempts to convey our emotions at the canine level are likely to be misread by a large percentage of our most docile dogs.

Enter Cesar Millan, “The Dog Whisperer,” and his ilk. Promising almost immediate success through basic dominance-based concepts any human can understand makes the message compelling. The entertainment factor and deliverer’s charm gives it traction. And the media massage of our basest instincts allows for ready acceptance of an almost irresistible idea: great behavior through good pack leadership skills.

It’s not a terribly wrongheaded concept in and of itself. However, expressing canine leadership through the prism of our humanity is not as doable as it sounds. There’s just too much room for misinterpretation.

A recent article in The Journal of Applied Animal Behavior highlights how simple corrective measures conveying dominance can be futile, misconstrued, prove counterproductive, and often result in bodily harm to humans. According to lead study author Dr. Meghan Herron at the University Pennsylvania:

Nationwide, the number-one reason why dog owners take their dog to a veterinary behaviorist is to manage aggressive behavior. Our study demonstrated that many confrontational training methods, whether staring down dogs, striking them, or intimidating them with physical manipulation, do little to correct improper behavior and can elicit aggressive responses.

Dr. Sophia Yin, a veterinarian, applied animal behaviorist, clued me in to this research and urged me to help foster pet owner interest in pursuing non-punishing, non-confrontational, less Millan-ish ways of handling basic and problem behavior.

Dr. Yin found that “the highest frequency of aggression occurred in response to aversive (or punishing) interventions, even when the intervention was indirect. In contrast, non-aversive methods resulted in much lower frequency of aggressive responses.”

Though science and soothing is undoubtedly less sexy to the average pet owner than Millan’s testosterone-fueled fare, studies like this are necessary to help explain the potentially damaging effects of pack leadership-based training methods.

Back to my relative: After two years of hard work the right way, one small bite based on the concept of pack mechanics undid it all. Her beloved (and I mean one really adored dog) was euthanized in the aftermath.

It may take a while for these more subtle methods to reverse the trend Cesar Millan has espoused, but it’s crucial to remember: Confrontation? It can kill, and it’s the dog that suffers in the end.

27 comments to Why Veterinary Behaviorists Don’t Like Cesar Millan

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  • Hi There

    While “pack-leader” training may not be best for some dogs, like with everything, some things work better than others depending on the dog. But more importantly, the temperament and abilities of the owner make the most difference.

    It seems pretty pejorative to call Cesar Milan’s methods “testosterone-fueled.” What we see on his show is just a small part of the training that actually happens; hours and days of training are cut out to fit the tv show format and what happens during that time might be “boring” training techniques that wouldn’t make the show marketable. His show also says that people shouldn’t try any of these techniques without proper training and supervision.

    And that is probably the biggest factor of the issue. If an owner isn’t going to be able or willing to continue the training – regardless of if it is “dominance-based” training or otherwise – then the training isn’t going to work. Watching an episode of “The Dog Whisperer” does not make anyone a canine behavioral specialist. Finding a system of training that an owner will be comfortable with and will be consistent with is the key.

  • Oh, where do I begin? Cesar Millan would never growl or bite a dog. Actually, he has never been aggressive toward any dog during his shows. Leadership has nothing to do with aggression. The word dominance is dangerous, since it’s too vague and can be misinterpreted in this context.

    What Cesar MIllan does is nothing different from any mother tries to apply at home with their kids. He shows he is the leader. At home, we have to rule, too, be our kids furry or not. A mother doesn’t have to punish a kid or a dog to be a leader. And that’s how I see the essence of Millan’s work.

    As Hi There well says, too, that is a TV show that does not explain all the steps of Millan’s work, and he advises people not to try to do at home what he does with the dogs.

    Finally, Cesar Millan saved countless dogs from being euthanized – dogs that nobody would take. Just because many dog owners out there have no clue of what it takes to be a leader, with their dogs or their kids.

  • Thanks Daniela, Cesar has helped many dogs. I’ve heard both good and negative things about him, and I thought this guest blogger had some good points to make. I’m not anti-Cesar. I just prefer other training methods.

  • Why would anyone bite a dog on the ear? That’s not corrective punishment, it’s just plain odd..

  • DOM

    Seriously? Do you WATCH the show? There’s a disclaimer that says do not try this at home. What kind of good method of training appropriate for our pets should come with a warning? Do they edit? Of course. But they show plenty. Like the body language of dogs who are TERRIFIED in his hands. My dog is not well trained, nor is my child or my husband, if any of them respond to me out of fear or because I have physical control. Someone utilizing control that way is a BULLY, pure and simple.
    Watch the animal behavior and not the man. A well trained dog is a happy dog, not one with wide eyes, drool, and a lowered tail.
    And it wasn’t the AHS article stating they wanted nothing to do with him that turned me off. It wasn’t the papers from scores of doctors, behaviorists, trainers, and dog lovers who abhor his methods and have been working with dogs longer than he’s been alive. It wasn’t even the accsations of killing a dog or the other damages he has done.
    It was when I saw an episode and watched with my own two eyes as he KICKED AN ANIMAL to make it act up for the show.
    He is ignorant, charismatic, chauvinistic, and obviously does not truly understand these “pack” animals if he thinks exercise is the biggest part of a wolf pack’s day.
    Is he stupid? Far from it. And he’s a good taller who has excellent slight of hand. That’s what makes him dangerous.
    Do different methods work with different dogs? Of course. Just like people. But bullying and force is not a method…unless your goal is to break spirit, break bonds, and break the bank.

  • Hi Dom, I must admit I don’t watch. This is the opinion of the writer, and I think the writer has some good points. –Michele

  • It is totally odd and wrong. –Michele

  • Beth L

    Interesting. I had a golden, off leash, come behind me and my dog (on leash) and bite my dog in the butt. (Clearly, if the golden was looking at my dog’s butt, my dog was showing no sign of harming him.) In response and being fair to my dog, I let go of his leash. He bit the golden in the ear as a warning. The golden yelped and ran off, never to attack my dog again. Every behaviorist and dog person has agreed that my dog was “politely” telling the golden off. Personally, if you attacked me from behind, I would probably give you much more than a warning.
    Having said that, I would not bite the dog in the ear. And I believe this is what the author is saying. Cesar approach is to behave like an alpha dog — not biting but other dominant behavior. This does work, just as dominance works on many people.
    Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work and when it doesn’t, really bad things can happen. Actually, Egypt is a good example of the same thing with people. Be dominant for a while and people will behave. But everyone has their limits. When you reach them, things are no longer amicable.
    The most important thing to teach a dog and a person is self-control. Self-control allows the one in charge to limit how they use their power. The one without power knows how to control their emotions and anger when they feel mistreated. Basically, self-control allows us to work together even in competing goals and to accept when we don’t get our way.
    But it takes lots of love and consistently rewarding the control (can’t promise a cookie in 5 minutes and then forget to deliver). I wish Cesar would teach more of that to both the owner and the dog. The woman from “It’s me or the dog” does a much better job at teaching self-control to both.

  • Smaragda Louw

    This article is completely misleading, and in fact, it makes no sense at all. Ceasar Milan has never advocated punishing an animal. Where does Dr. Sophia Yin get her information from? Of course the show has to have entertainment value, but that does not distract anyone from the fact that Ceasar Milan is all for gentleness and kindness when it comes to handling dogs with aggression. No, I cannot agree with anything that has been said in this article.

  • Valorie

    I think the problem with ANY TV training method (dogs or horses) is that they tend to teach technique based on intuitive skills that the viewers don’t possess or understand. Body languange and intention are key, and these trainers may HAVE it, but they don’t know how to TEACH it. There are so many subtle cues that animals give us, and these are largely ignored. Unfortunately, these subtle cues are more important than ANY technique. The relationship and hierarchy with the animal is the most important, and creating that trusting understanding. Most of these TV trainers are there to sell books and videos. Their methods can actually put people in danger since they are not teaching the viewers in real time how to teach THEIR animal. I think they mean well, but often they can create a false sense of security.

  • Milan’s show is entertainment, not training. It’s designed to grow a viewership so they can sell advertising. Their disclaimer at the beginning is merely their way of sidestepping all the law suits that will pop up when their viewers try the techniques and get their faces bitten off.

    No different than the beer commercial with the “drink responsibly” reference. Purely self interest to have it on there.

    As for Milan’s viewers, anyone who watches and thinks they can learn how to deal with psychologically disabled dogs is probably watching Jersey Shore in an effort to learn proper social interaction.

    It takes years of training and education to learn the subtleties of this stuff — none of which can you spot from Milan’s shows.

    As for the methods he uses, they’re partially valid and partially invalid, just like every other method out there.

    True dog behaviorists match the method to the dog. Of course, we all have our biases, preferences and default starting points. But at least we’ll change the method on a dime if the dog doesn’t respond.

  • Once again, you ask two trainers a question and you’ll get three answers. I am a certified dog trainer and canine behavior specialist, and own a dog training business. Ceasar Millan’s methods will generally not be accepted by the “clicker bunch”. I’d like to see a clicker trainer break up a dog fight using a clicker. Clicker trainers usually don’t work with aggressive dogs. Caesar works with aggressive dogs, and is largely successful. His ladership cannot be over-stressed. If a dog does not perceive you as the leader, they will not respect you. I have seen this time and time again with clients. For example,a current client told me that her dog goes berserk on walks when he sees another dog. I walked this dog and encountered the behavior once when encountering other dogs. I gave the dog a strong leash and training collar correction. This dog knew from day one, that I will not take any “shit” from him….that is what leash corrections are for. I established leadership. The next time he saw another dog and did not react aggressively, I flooded him with high value treats, verbal praise, and affectionate physical contact. This dog needs ds and cc, which we work on. I find that one size does not fit all in terms of training, but the establishment of who is the leader is most important. If you are not the leader, the dog will try to become the leader. This is not a good option.

  • I didn’t address biting a dog on the ear (nose, lip, etc.).

    Not only is it sometimes appropriate, it is sometimes the only way to communicate with a mentally disturbed dog.

    It should NEVER be a first choice. But biting and other aggressive techniques are all valid IF AND ONLY IF done by a true expert who has studied this stuff for years and knows the nuances involved.

    Put it this way. Amputation of an arm sucks. But if medical science can’t save your life with less aggressive treatment of whatever disease is killing you, then logic dictates the arm must go. But that doesn’t mean watching the surgery channel qualifies you to amputate one.

  • k9mythbuster

    @Eric Albert

    “I’d like to see a clicker trainer break up a dog fight using a clicker. Clicker trainers usually don’t work with aggressive dogs.”

    This conveys your complete lack of knowledge and understanding about marker training. A clicker would NEVER be used to break up a fight…it wouldn’t be necessary because a well-versed trainer would never allow a fight to take place.

    You are still a new trainer and still learning. Please educate yourself about other methods before denigrating them. Because those “clicker trainers” have been doing this MUCH longer, are well-versed in punishment-based methods, and speak from experience.

  • Mark

    Good article but I wonder if th writer has actually read Cesar’s books or watched his programs to any extent?
    If she had she would know that Cesar’s does not in fact promote confrontation as the primary animal behavior technique.
    Cesar’s 3 tenets of dog behavior correction (in order) are:

    1. Exercise – A lot of dogs pent up behavior problems comes from lack of exercise. Mid to Large dogs need at least 30 mins of walking morning and night and not just a run down to the end of the road for a pee. The dog is a lot calmer and easier to condition once exercised first. Cesar recommends exercising the dog before any activity: bathing, vet visits, training. Also regular working allows the dog to socialize with other dogs and develop appropriate social behavior – another problem with dogs who don’t get walked enough and therefore don’t encounter other dogs enough.

    2. Discipline – Even then Cesar does not promote confrontation in the vast majority of cases, He simply promotes establishing the dogs correct position in the pack which in the case of a human family is at the lowest level. He doesnt recommend hitting the dog or anything like it. Activities as simply as keeping the dog off the couch, stopping the dog rushing the door when someone calls and other basic behavior traits.

    3. Affection – When the dog has been exercised and trained/conditioned, only then should the owner reward the dog with displays of affection.

    Milan only recommends more radical behavior for “red zone” dogs where there agression has become dangerous. These techniques include laying the dog down to establish dominance. He does not recommend under any circumstances beating, biting or assaulting the dog in any way shape or form. His only technique for redirecting the dog from a distraction is tapping the dog with a cupped hand and fingers out to simular a nip from the mother to the puppy.

    I’ve used Milan’s techniques many times in my work as an Animal shelter volunteer working with risky breeds like Pit Bulls and the techniques work like a charm.

    I find myself asking if this writer is showing professional arrogance to a gifted and self taught amateur. It wouldnt be the first time.

  • I used a behaviorist who has her ph.d in zoology. She is great and does not agree with Milan’s methods. After working with her, neither do I. Milan isn’t the only person to rescue dogs that would otherwise be euthanized. Many, MANY animal rescues do the exact same thing; it’s just that Milan promotes his good will. The best good will is the kind you don’t brag about. You do it when no one is looking. I have a pit and she has been well-trained …. or let me say, it was I who was well-trained. People think that if they get a dog, they know what to do with it and they don’t and it tapers down to the children. I watched a kid drag her dog on the sidewalk, yelling at it to “come”. I had to get out of my car and help her out by TEACHING her.

    Dogs don’t come with user’s manual, nor do kids. We have to learn from professionals, be it the doctor/vet.

  • I am a “clicker trainer” and I work with aggressive dogs all the time, as does a colleague in the area who is also a clicker trainer. We both get referrals from vets and other trainers for aggression clients, because our methods are successful. There is another local trainer who uses leash corrections as you described, who will send us referrals when he gets an aggression client because his methods don’t work.

    Your statement that clicker trainers don’t work with aggressive dogs is simply ignorant.

  • Talking about leadership does not have to be the equivalent to talking about dominance – people get caught up in words and don’t take the time to think it through. A leader does not have to dominate his followers, he simply needs to act Ike a leader. We talk about leaders as decison makers, the person needs to be mindful of the dogs behavior and help guide him in his decisions. Its very simple and should not require ‘dominant’ actions from the person to get the dog to comply.

    Nor should a leader have to cajole his followers with bribes – through love, play and positive energy a dog should want to comply with his person.

  • Pam Wolf

    The sort of methods that CM promotes far too often lead to dogs being aggressive towards people. I see this far too often. I have been training dogs for over 30 years and started with that sort of method. Fortunately I thought about it early on and started using a far more positive approach to training. Through this experience I agree totally that using ‘dominance’ based methods DO indeed lead to far more dog aggression.

    Many of the owners I help have tried the CM route and either gotten bitten or had family members bitten. This could have been avoided by using a more cerebral and less physical approach.

  • Sally Bradbury

    @Eric

    I also work with aggressive dogs using clicker training so just wanted to echo what the others have said. You could do with finding out a little more about dog behaviour.

    From what I have seen of CM’s methods he can very quickly turn a dog aggressive dog into a people aggressive dog as well in the blink of an eye.

  • @hi there and @daniela – “Because real dog training done properly would be boring TV” is not an excuse for using the aversive methods Millan uses. There is nothing I’ve seen on his show that I can’t accomplish using dog-friendly and mostly positive reinforcement based training methods. 

    @Beth- your Egyptian uprising analogy is very astute. Research has repeatedly demonstrated that many dogs trained by aversive or punishing methods do exhibit aggressive fallout. 

    @Smaragda – Cesar Millan practices punishment of dogs on his TV show, right before your very eyes. It is the primary training method he uses – alpha rolls, leash pops/collar corrections, hand “bites” to the dog’s neck, electronic shock, and kicking the dog in it’s flanks are ALL aversives he regularly uses on his show. He doesn’t talk about it in such terms on the show in large part because he doesn’t have formal training education thus doesn’t know proper terms for his methods. Also, calling it punishment isn’t good for business. 

    @Valorie – Also an astute observation that Millan and other TV trainers fail to convey that intuitive ability they have with dogs. I observed that the first time I watched his show. You sort of have that or you don’t. Not easy to teach even if you say things like “be calm asertive.” How do you teach that? (and what does it mean, really?)

    @Gill – if i understand your last comment correctly, a human biting a dog is never appropriate under any circumstances. If I misunderstood you, my apologies. 

    @Eric – hi Eric. I’ve read enough of your posts on PDT to know something about your philosophies and knowledge level, and K9Mythbusters read you correctly. First, calling yourself certified is a little misleading since you are certified by the trainer who trained you and not by an objective body using standardized testing. But then, as we both know, anyone can call herself a dog trainer without any education whatsoever. Second, I am a dog trainer and behavior counselor who does use a clicker or marker and food rewards (among several other methods), and thus I am part of the “clicker bunch” (if by that you mean any trainer or behavior consultant who uses primarily positive reinforcement). Contrary to your assertion, in my training business, I specialize in aggression and fear cases, as do MOST of my clicking/cookie-pushing colleagues. As K9MB has pointed out, any decent behavior professional who knows what they’re doing would avoid allowing a dog client of theirs to engage in fighting (but you don’t use training to break up dog fights anyway. You use water, a chair, a blanket, wheelbarrowing, an air horn… It has nothing to do with training… At least not good training). As for clickers, they are most often used to train behaviors (like sit, heel, stay), though they certainly can be used for aggression behavior modification–check out “Click to Calm” (Emma Parsons) and “Control Unleashed” (Leslie McDevitt) for examples of using clickers for aggressive behavior modification. I recommend more education. 

    @Mark – There is no special classification of aggression called “red zone.” There are dogs who demonstrate aggression issues. Millan used antiquated techniques in his show. He bases his ideology an wolf pack studies done in the ’50s, and that research about wolf behavior has been roundly debunked. See David Mech, who renounced his own earlier wolf study in the 1980′s. This information isn’t new. 

    @DOM, K9Mythbuster, Sarah, Stacy- CLICK/treat!! 

    Cesar Millan has done two great things for my profession – he has raised consciousness about the importance of exercising pet dogs, and he has brought a new level of attention to the importance of training for dogs. AND let me not underestimate his impact on my business — Millan’s methods have brought me quite a few clients who need help with their dogs after “trying this at home.” Plus, he clearly loves dogs; he just has a funny way of showing it sometimes. So he’s not all bad. 

  • Leigh, I agree with you. I don’t agree with aggressive training methods, and yes, Cesar has done a lot of good for dogs.

  • Thanks, Michele and click/treat to you too!

  • @tenderfoot – using food is not necessarily bribery, though it can devolve into that I luring is done improperly. However, that ain’t the worst thing in the world. I’d rather see someone luring improperly than improperly using a choke chain or prong improperly — the potential for damage using punishment is exponentially greater.

    And, if your boss “paid” you for your work using “love, play, and positive energy” instead of more valuable currency such as US dollars, would you continue to work for her? I think I know the answer. Reward based training doesn’t only rely on food rewards, though for most dogs food is an extremely valuable commodity; for some, play IS more valuable, and for those dogs I would use that commodity. Knowledgeable and skilled rewards trainers fade the use of food as the dog learns the behavioral cues in favor of “life rewards” (eg, going, outside, play, opening doors, eating dinner). Dismissing the use of rewards as “cajoling with bribery” demonstrates an imperfect understanding of lure/reward and clicker training methods. Again, it’s always advisable to really understand a method before dismissing its use.

  • [...] from our BFF Dr. Patty Khuly. This is not from her Fully Vetted blog, but a guest post for Pet News and Views on why some veterinary behaviorists don’t buy into Mr. Millan’s methodology. The [...]

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