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