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Why The Dog Whisperer Has Dog Training Entirely Wrong

Why The Dog Whisperer Has Dog Training Entirely Wrong

The famous Dog Whisperer, Cesar Millan, doesn’t whisper to dogs. He kicks them. One method Millan has used to modify dogs’ behavior on his television show, “The Dog Whisperer,” is to kick them swiftly in the haunches with his heel. That doesn’t feel like the right way to teach an animal under your care, and it turns out that it doesn’t work anyway. Millan bases his approach, which he calls “positive punishment,” on the belief that dogs need a dominant pack leader, and it is the human’s job to establish herself as that leader — essentially by bullying the dog into submission.

Millan is so into dominance that he requires dogs to walk behind him, like oppressed wives in some cultures. That analogy might suit him fine: he believes that women are “the only species that is wired different from the rest” — whatever that means. He also believes that women are inherently unable to train dogs. A “woman always applies affection before discipline,” he says. “Man applies discipline then affection, so we’re more psychological than emotional. All animals follow dominant leaders; they don’t follow lovable leaders.” I suppose that is why mothers are never the bad cops…except when they are. Or why women are never political leaders…except when they are. Or why men are never pliable softies…yeah, right.

So the guy clearly has some issues, which makes his Orwellian creepiness less surprising. Real Clear Science excerpts what it calls an “eerily dystopian” quote from Millan’s blog:

Make sure you offer your dog the complete package when you bring him into your world. Along with exercise, food, shelter, and affection, offer him a healthy dose of rules, boundaries, and discipline. Don’t think of discipline as punishment, but just one more gift you give your best friend to keep him happy and balanced.

This quote is no longer available on Millan’s blog. Neither are descriptions of the types of “corrections” Millan advocates, except for squeezing dogs’ necks by yanking on a slip collar (one veterinarian calls it “a noose around the most sensitive area of the neck”). Even his book, “Cesar’s Way,” does not explain what “physical corrections” to use or how to use them, though the New York Times reports that one of his techniques is “finger jabs.”

Physical corrections, “combined with a lack of positive reinforcement or rewards,” the Times concludes, “place Mr. Millan firmly in a long tradition of punitive dog trainers.”

Science has undermined the foundation of Millan’s rather hostile training philosophy: that people must dominate their dogs. This dominance theory is based on 1960′s studies of wolf packs in captivity that found individuals vying for dominance and labeled the winner “alpha.”

The scientist who did much of the wolf research, Dave Mech, does not believe it applies to dogs. In fact, he has concluded that it doesn’t apply even to wolves when they are in the wild, where he found that their group dynamics resemble those in human families. “They don’t have to fight to get to the top. When they mature and find a mate they are at the top.” There is no need for displays of aggression to win a contest for the alpha spot.

Rather than yielding a docile pup, shows of dominance over one’s dog, like the ones Millan advocates, can make her aggressive, according to a 2009 study from the University of Pennsylvania. That is no small problem: “nationwide, the No. 1 reason why dog owners take their pet to a veterinary behaviorist is to manage aggressive behavior,” said Meghan E. Herron, the study’s lead author. She suggested that the Dog Whisperer’s techniques are risky: “dominance-based training, which has been made popular by TV, books and punishment-based training advocates,” elicits fear “and may lead to owner-directed aggression.” So if you do as the Dog Whisperer says with your own dog, don’t be surprised if your pet bites you. It’s your own fault.

If you need your fix of miraculous doggy transformation television and are done with the Dog Whisperer, do not despair. Victoria Stilwell (pictured above) of “It’s Me or the Dog” performs wonders with positive reinforcement and rewards. On her website, named Positively, Stilwell’s summary of her philosophy takes unmistakable aim at Millan.

Dogs are not on a quest for world domination. They are not socialized wolves who are constantly striving to be “top dog” over us, and they are not hard-wired to try and control every situation they are in. Contrary to what traditional training ideologies and much modern media would have you believe, most canine behavior problems stem from insecurity and/or a desire to seek and maintain safety and comfort – not from a desire to establish higher rank and be the “alpha” over you.

That sounds more like the canines I know and love, some of whom seem far too goofy to be concerned with dominance. Stilwell’s description of the strongest dog/human relationships sounds better too: it is “based on cooperation and kindness rather than a human dominance/animal submission methodology.” Being dominant all the time sounds like a lot of work. I’d rather curl up with a dog and cuddle.

Instead of intimidating dogs, Stilwell rewards good behavior, a training technique that she says is “universally endorsed by the behavioral scientific community at large as the most effective, long-lasting, humane and safest method in dog training.” To punish bad behavior, she temporarily takes away something the dog wants, like her attention; she may also use a sound to redirect the dog towards a good behavior.

In addition to being kinder and gentler, Stilwell gives dogs a lot more credit than Millan does. “It is vitally important that you understand your dog,” she writes. It may be easy to assume that every misbehavior is an attempt at dominance, but it isn’t accurate. To change a bad behavior, a person must understand why the dog is doing it. That requires understanding that dogs are more than furry king-of-the-hill combatants. Each dog has her own preferences and interests. According to Stilwell, the better you know your dog, the better equipped you are to change her behavior.

In deciding how to train your own dog, consider whether you would rather do battle with him or cooperate with him, then slip him treats when he gets it. One thing to keep in mind: this dog knows where you sleep.

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Photo credit: Stephen

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7:59AM PDT on Apr 11, 2014

This is not to say I know it all because I certainly do not. However, as an advocate for advancement in the field and for the human/animal bond, it sure can be frustrating to have such a public figure who sets our field back 50 years. This is not to mention the effect the training methods have psychologically on the dogs we love so much. I’m not saying Cesar doesn’t love dogs; I’m sure he does, but this does not change the myriad unfortunate effects that positive punishment based training has. And good news – there is a better method out there that focuses on positive reinforcement.

I would certainly encourage you all to check out more about learning theory (positive reinforcement, positive punishment, and the other two quadrants not discussed) as well as information about classical and operant conditioning. There are wonderful educated veterinary behaviorists to learn from like Dr. Sophia Yin and Dr. Ian Dunbar as well as other renowned names like Dr. Patricia McConnell, Jean Donaldson, and Karen Pryor. This is just a start, and I sincerely hope you do look into these authors further. They sure know a heck of a lot more than I do.

7:59AM PDT on Apr 11, 2014

This is similar to forcing a person with arachnophobia to sit in a room of spiders and then saying ‘No! Don’t be scared! You can’t scream or get away!’ Gosh, how much more terrifying would that be! It’s no wonder that the family had to give up the dog during the episode because the behavior did not improve, as sad as it is.

One of the saddest parts to me is the lack of ability on Cesar’s part to read the dog’s body language and therefore mental state. What he says is calm is usually completely shut down. The dog has often lost the will to fight or flight because it cannot do so anymore. An unfortunate repercussion of this is that pre-training the dog gave many signals before biting (growl, baring teeth, hackles raised), but now post-training the dog bites ‘without warning,’ as those initial signals have been suppressed through flooding and positive punishment. It honestly makes me sad to think of this fallout that so often happens through these training techniques.

I want the Cesar advocates to understand, those of us that do not agree with his methods aren’t doing so to ‘be right’ or because we are competitors in any way. It’s like any field of science in the sense that advancements are constantly made. Those of us that pride ourselves on knowing the science also pride ourselves on continuing our education and being up-to-date on the best methods and techniques available to help our clients. This is not

7:58AM PDT on Apr 11, 2014

So in reviewing these two approaches – one basically gives communication to a dog what TO do whereas one communicates to the dog what NOT to do. Which method do you think communicates more clearly? Which would be easier and less stressful for you? If I stated to you ‘Don’t lay down,’ then when you stood up ‘Don’t stand up,’ would it be clear what I expected? Or would it be better if I just said ‘Please sit down’? There is clear winner as far as communication. Often with these dogs who are reactive, they do the only thing that has worked for them, lunging and biting. It’s reinforcing to them because it gets the desired result – people/dogs back off. Positive reinforcement often shows a dog a better alternate behavior; it says, hey, this works even better to get what you want!

One of the other flaws in Cesar’s approach to behavior modification is the use of flooding. This means immersing the dog in the very stimulus that is scaring him. I saw an example of this on his program just this morning. A dog was scared of men, and rather than gradually expose the dog and ensuring good experiences (to decrease the dog’s fear), he had men (himself and one or two others) approach directly. This (understandably) elevated the dog’s fear to which he responded with positive punishment (leash corrections and using the leash to make her stay close to the man). This is similar to forcing a person with arachnophobia to sit i

7:57AM PDT on Apr 11, 2014

Maybe for others the money is unimportant and they would prefer a piece of candy. The item added must increase the probability the behavior will happen again.

In the case of dogs – dogs decide what is reinforcing. I see some trainers advocating a verbal ‘good’ and pat. For most dogs, that does not reinforce behavior. Dogs do not speak English and unless ‘good’ has been specifically conditioned as a secondary reinforcer, it has no meaning. Most positive reinforcement trainers use food because it can be delivered quickly and is reinforcing to all dogs. They need food to live after all. Many trainers will use the dog’s regular diet for this, thus no worries about a dog getting fat from training.
I have also seen comments on here that what Cesar does (whether it is a kick, nudge, roll, or leash yank) is not punishment. Actually, by definition within the field of psychology, it is – specifically positive punishment. As you recall, positive means adding. Punishment refers to something that decreases the chances of behavior reoccurring so positive punishment is adding something to decrease the chance of a behavior reoccurring. In the case of Cesar he adds a nudge/poke (whatever you want to call it) to decrease the chance that the dog will bark/bite/lunge/whatever again.

So in reviewing these two approaches – one basically gives communication to a dog what TO do whereas one communicates to the dog what NOT to do. Which method do you thin

7:56AM PDT on Apr 11, 2014

First I will be clear that I agree with this author about Cesar’s training methods not being the best. That being said I don’t necessarily believe he is a bad person or has bad intentions. I do believe that without proper training or education he is not qualified to give advice, thus why his advice is not favorable from the standpoint of behavioral science. I may have the absolute best intentions as far as dispensing medical advice, but without the proper training it is irresponsible of me to do so.

I do want to make some definitions clear. I have seen comments here such as positive reinforcement doesn’t work for every dog. Actually, by definition within the field of psychology, positive reinforcement works for every living being. Positive does not mean positive in the sense of good/bad but rather should be thought of as adding (like adding/subtracting). Reinforcement refers to something that increases the chances of a behavior reoccurring. Therefore positive reinforcement is the adding of something to increase the chance of a behavior reoccurring. A simple example would be that you sit down and I hand you a $20 bill. You will likely either keep sitting or if that doesn’t work, get up and sit down again – hoping to get that cash prize one more time. But the thing about positive reinforcement is that it’s the subject who decides what is reinforcing. Some people may sit down for 10c and some may take $10. Maybe for others the money is unimportan

1:27AM PDT on Mar 10, 2014

My first dog was a black lab mix who was only to happy to please me, so potty training etc was basically a breeze. my parents adopted a chow/retriever mix who despite best efforts on my part just wanted to have his way, chewing everything in sight including people. i wasn't succeeding so i suggested to my parents puppy training school.

first day we were there, the trainer recognised that this pup was getting out of control, nipping at me. she taught me to flip on his back, pin him to the ground by the loose skin on his neck and hold him until he stops fighting and calms down. for two weeks i had scratches up and down my arm and then finally he accepted me as the leader and started to obey. i think that lesson exorcised the chow bit and he turned into a retriever, loyal, lovable and wonderful.

some dogs need tough love and if you don't give it to them, then you are completely responsible for the child bitten or the neighbour's dog killed by your animal. better tough love from me than forced euthanasia by the law.

4:13AM PST on Feb 8, 2014

Noted!

11:27AM PST on Jan 31, 2014

Harriet,
I really wish you would have taken the time to read the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior's article on dominance training. If you had you would understand why they have this posted:
"The AVSAB recommends that veterinarians identify and refer clients only to trainers
and behavior consultants who understand the principles of learning theory and who
focus on reinforcing desirable behaviors and removing the reinforcement for undesirable behaviors"
This is America's leading authority on dog behavior who analyzed years of research (clinical studies) by people who are the best in their field. You hit the nail on the head when you said "the person's handling of the dog can create problems." They agree by saying dominance training can often lead to an aggressive dog.
I said you know more than MOST people about giving a massage because of your training. Your response implied something quite different. Most people who have PhD's in animal behavior disagree with dominance training, nothing they say (or the research done) will convince you any differently.
I'll make a deal with you. I will start using dominance (punitive) training on dogs as soon as you start dropping bricks on people from three feet as a new style of massage. I'm sure we good both see the good and grow from the experience.


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3:28PM PST on Jan 27, 2014

I'm not saying his methods are the best, but I've never seen him kick a dog!

11:16AM PST on Jan 27, 2014

Dale, sorry for the delay in answering your well posed question. Although I have been trained by the Koller Institute of Health, they teach one of many methods or techniques of massage, secondly, there are people who have a god-given talent for massage, the best I ever had was not certified but had an innate ability to heal the body, so NO I do not automatically believe I know more about massage then everyone.
The only and last suggestion I can make is something I learned a long time ago, don't throw the baby out with the bath water. Try to find the good in all things, whether it is how one is taught or not.
I understand that you do not agree with Milan, but you might actually find some good in his teachings, ie: he honors the breed of a dog, he teaches people to make sure the dog gets enough exercise for the type of energy the dog has. He teaches people that they are responsible for their dogs, and the person's handling of the dog can create problems.
Unfortunately, the articel says all of Milan's techiniques are wrong, this is what most of the people blogging are attempting to say NOT ALL OF MILAN'S training is wrong, find the good and grow.
Training is about dominance getting someone or, in this case, dogs to act in the way the trainer wants them to act, whether by reward system, praise system, denial system, it is still about getting the dog to act the way the trainer wants, that is dominance.
I wish you well, it is now time for me to move on. I feel very

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