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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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308 comments

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4:25PM PDT on Oct 2, 2014

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.

3:01AM PDT on May 19, 2014

Further, if you've ever actually watched Milan, he often exercises his dogs, 9 at a time, on leash while he rollerblades .............behind them. However, when working with one or two dogs on leash, he requires they stay at his SIDE.........not ahead of him, nor behind him. Stillwell does the same thing. It's called RESPECT. If you allow your dog to go ahead of you, you are telling your dog that he/she IS your leader. You shouldn't have to drag your dog, but on the other hand, your dog shouldn't be dragging YOU. I find it sad that Piper Hoffman is so clueless about dog behavior and puts herself out in public criticizing others that do. Writers should at least have some knowledge of their subjects, and she appears to have very little. Stillwell is fairly good, but I've yet to see her work with a dog that has serious problems. She shows basically just those animals who are with novice owners who have absolutely little to no expertise and have allowed their dogs to take over. She explains to them how to use common sense and get their lives back, nothing more.

1:56AM PDT on May 19, 2014

Sorry, Olivia, but the main part of all of your comments that I do agree with is that you are not an expert. However, while I am not a Cesar Milan "fan" per se, what you are objecting to, and what Ms. Hoffman describes is not the case at all, and you are completely misconstruing what he does. He does NOT require his dogs to walk behind him, he merely teaches them that HE is their pack "leader" and if you actually understood dog behavior, you'd understand that this is necessary to co-existing with them. Dogs either are pack leaders or they are followers. If you want your dog to be YOUR leader, so be it, but I don't. He also doesnt "KICK" the dogs, but merely asserts a slight "shove" with his heel SOMETIMES, and only if necessary. Dogs, if left on their own, will establish a pecking order and that often is done with much more violence than a slight "shove" with a rounded "heel".

What I object to most is Milan's arrogance and claiming that he's never yet had a dog he couldn't "rehabilitate" and he admits he doesn't "train" dogs. No, he doesn't, but he doesn't always win or succeed with the rehabilitation, either. I've seen several cases on his own TV shows where he didn't, but the "end" was never aired........example...........a 2-parter involving two female Jack Russells who wanted to kill each other. The show ended with Milan holding them apart and both had already bitten him.

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!

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