On July 7, 2012, many dog lovers, science-based dog trainers, and veterinary behaviorists will be celebrating the end of an unwelcome era. The Dog Whisperer will air for the last time, after nine seasons of being one of the most popular and controversial dog training shows. I will admit, my tail will be waggin’, but I don’t know for how long. Cesar Milan will be appearing in a new show aptly tilted Leader of the Pack. His website states that the new reality show will be filmed in Spain and it involves families from the UK, the Netherlands, and Italy competing to adopt an ‘unadoptable’ dog and give him a second chance. While I hope this brings public awareness to how many homeless dogs deserve a second chance, I’m also wondering why families are competing over adopting a dog in need. Last I checked, there wasn’t any shortage of homeless dogs needing forever homes.
The controversy over the Dog Whisperer has been due to training methods that are outdated and often misunderstood. The Association of Pet Dog Trainers describes the misconceptions of dominance-based dog training:
“Contrary to popular thinking, research studies of wolves in their natural habitat demonstrate that wolves are not dominated by an ‘Alpha Wolf’ that is the most aggressive male, or male-female pairing, of the pack. Rather, they have found that wolf packs are very similar to how human families are organized, and there is little aggression or fights for ‘dominance.’ Wolves, whether it be the parents or the cubs of a pack, depend on each other to survive in the wild; consequently wolves that engage in aggressive behaviors toward each other would inhibit the pack’s ability to survive and flourish. While social hierarchies do exist (just as they do among human families) they are not related to aggression in the way it is commonly portrayed (incorrectly) in popular culture.”
What Milan does on TV sometimes looks remarkable: an undesired dog behavior is corrected with dominance-based training methods, and a dog emerges whose compliant behavior is acceptable to the humans. What TV doesn’t show you is the long-term results that occur when aversive, dominance-based training methods are used. It’s akin to a child that is fearful when locked in a dark basement. He’ll often yell and cry out of fear. A parent could punish the child and threaten that if he makes another peep, he’d get spanked. Short term, the child will often stop crying, out of fear of being hit. However, the long-term effects are often devastating. The same is true for a dog. A dog can show signs of fear by growling and showing their teeth to another. It’s a warning side that says, “I am not comfortable right now. Please stay away.” It is not a sign of dominance, it is a sign of fear.
Next: What happens when a dog stops giving warning signs of fear?