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.

Photo credit: Stephen


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Past Member 1 months ago

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Jjulie P.
Past Member 1 months ago

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Tony Laycock
Tony Laycock2 months ago

WOW, I can't wait for a day to come when trainers and Behaviorist can have Respect for each other. There are ALL Positive ways or in my mind you can be a Balanced Trainer. I rarely hear Caesar Milan totally and Disrespect other Trainers or Behaviorist. I have see alot of behavior from pet dogs and wilds dogs such as wolf act the same way. How does the Pack Leader act in the Wild? Does he just use treats and a bunch of talking if he/she attacks another member? NO, The Alpha Leader in the Wild will always show though pinning the dog to the ground and other methods. I really Like Caesar Milan but I also like Victoria Stilwell because there is Good and Bad points in there views.
I have NEVER met a Perfect person in this world. Dog Training is almost like how people talk to each other about Child Raising. Spank or Not Spank your child?
My point is that no matter what topic it is there is ALWAYS Disrespect and and at the end of the day it is just your Views.

If you feel your Point of View is better then by All means start a Training Business and write books and record videos to show that your way is best. Please, look at the wrongs you have done in your life before putting down another Trainer or Behaviorist wrongs. Sorry, just had to put my view out there. If you don't like my view then by all means it is ok with me.

Past Member
Past Member 2 months ago

I don’t suppose many of websites give this kind of information.
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Brian H.
Brian H.10 months ago

I'm not saying that Cesar is 100% correct in all situations, but honestly, who am I to judge that seeing as he is a professional fog trainer and I'm an amateur at best (like probably everyone here). But what I consistently see is him being blatantly misrepresented. At no point, ever have I heard or read anything from Cesar in which he even comes close to stating that all dogs are power hungry. Or that all dogs are looking to dominate their owners. In fact it is the exact opposite. Dogs need to know their place and where they stand with you. They aren't wolves but they need a structure, need to know who is in charge. If they aren't a dominant dog then they will be very confused when no one is the clear leader, leading to bad behavior. Get it through your heads, dogs are not people. They are not even close to as intelligent as people, or even small children. In fact their brains work completely different from ours. So is Cesar the only voice of reason? No, of course not. Is happy-happy-hugs-and-kisses the correct approach? Again, of course not. Probably somewhere in the middle, and different for every dog. So have your opinions, but don't misrepresent the face of your movement, whether you like him or not.

Rochell D.
Rochell D11 months ago

I have seen his shows an what some people might think is wrong many others thinks he is good at what he does. How did he stay on tv for so long if He is abusing animals? Why did so many people call him to come help them? Stop hating him just because he is on tv doing something an your not.

Jenny H.
Past Member about a year ago

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Jim Ven
Jim Venabout a year ago

thanks for the article.

Carrie-Anne Brown

thanks for sharing :)

Kate L.
Kate L2 years ago

I feel like PETA wrote this after watching one episode that they misinterpreted as animal abuse. I'll say what others have already said; it's not "kicking", it's pushing or nudging to break the animal's focus on the thing they're fixated on (and therefore not listening to you over). He's not scaring or bullying the dogs, he's being firm with them, as you need to do with dogs and kids and horses and ignorant adults. There's nothing wrong with expressing the fact that you're in charge; some dogs just need someone else to be in charge, or they run wild and destroy things. And he doesn't have the sexist spin on things that this article claims, I'm not sure where the author got that. His declaration that women are more likely to dole out affection than discipline... is generally true. That's just the kind of society we live in, and it should also be noted that men are often accused of being too affectionate and forgiving as well, when it comes to dogs. People who baby their dogs and are then displeased when the dog doesn't take them seriously need to be pointed in the right direction, and that's what Cesar does. I can attest personally that the "kicking" and noise-making to get the dog's attention back on you do in fact work, and my dogs have never shown any sign of being overly dominated or bullied at all.