Facebook is such great fodder for my blog! Last week someone posted an article about Cesar Millan, a.k.a. the dog whisperer. It’s amazing how just the mention of his name creates controversy. Almost as much as Michael Vick!  You either love him or you wish he would go away. Yes, I was one of the people joining in the “conversation” about Millan.  Want to take a guess at where I stand?

When some people meet me and I tell them that I’m a pet behavior consultant, they often say, “oh, like the dog whisperer.” And that makes me cringe. No, please don’t compare me to him. It’s an insult. Unlike Millan, I have extensively studied animal behavior, learning theory, and behavior modification. I have attended numerous seminars and read just about everything imaginable written by scientists and professionals. Conversely, Millan had no formal education; he learned from watching his farm dogs and from experiences as a groomer. He created his own methods – whatever worked for him, he used on all dogs regardless of if it was sound or not. Pleeeeeeease don’t compare me to him. 

He became famous when he trained Jada Pinkett Smith’s dogs and she then told Oprah about him.  And the rest is history, of course, because of the “Oprah effect.” I do not respect some of his methods nor do I believe that the “results” he shows are always for real. It’s a TV show; it’s edited and made to be spectacular. After all, Millan has to live up to his image as a wunderkind. But guess what, he’s not a whisperer.

Millan advocates the use of force which studies have shown is detrimental to the psyche of the dog and erodes the trust in the relationship. Force evokes fear.  Millan often tells people to hold the dog down to make it submit and to show the owner’s dominance. This method was derived from studies of wolves and contended that the highest ranking wolf would roll the other wolves and hold them down to show dominance.  Sadly, this study proliferated among dog trainers and many still hang onto this notion. What they don’t realize is that more studies were performed and this theory was debunked. But the trainers obviously didn’t get the message! If you remember, a book by the Monks of New Skete advocated this training technique.  But the monks have since come out with a statement that they now do not advocate forced submission. Their book is still on the bookshelves – minus the recant.

Some people contend that Millan is working with highly aggressive dogs and that he has to use these methods.  Really?  Well what do people think most dog trainers and behavior consultants are doing, just teaching dogs not to pee in the house? Trainers work with aggressive dogs constantly; it’s what we do. The dogs we work with are no different than those on Millan’s show.

My biggest complaint about Millan is how he uses that “tsst” sound and a poke at the dog to disrupt inappropriate behavior. People who are well-versed in animal behavior know that what he is doing is not advisable for several reasons:

1) If a dog is growling and you do a “tsst” and a poke, you might make the growling worse.

2) You may get the dog to stop the inappropriate behavior but it may be temporary. What you are in danger of doing is causing the dog to stop the growling, which is in fact a warning signal that he is upset, but the dog is still not happy. He may skip the growl and go right for a bite.

3) Calling attention to inappropriate behavior often rewards and reinforces the behavior.

4) You are not addressing the root cause of the dog’s inappropriate behavior which is often fear. When you’re afraid, would it help if someone were to poke you and say “tsst”?  Not likely.

Others who have studied and understand animal behavior know it’s more advisable to use counter-conditioning techniques instead of force to modify dogs’ behaviors. (See my last post on February 16.) But this technique takes time and that would be boring on a TV show. I guess the American public likes quick fixes, that’s why Millan is so popular – train your dog in 15 minutes!  Real life is not a TV show. Proper dog training techniques require time and dedication.

I think the biggest reason why I hold Millan in disdain is not just for the inappropriate methods but more because he has become so popular. Why can’t someone who knows more about animal behavior and promotes respectful and positive training methods be as popular?  It makes me sad that Millan’s fame proliferates poor training techniques and that so many unknowledgeable dog owners are buying into it, thus the arguments on Facebook. It’s always the people who are not so well-versed in animal behavior who like Millan and defend him and his techniques most vehemently.

In all fairness, he does a lot right and I need to credit him for that. I completely agree that people need to be the leaders. (But not through force.) He’s also right on when he talks about calm energy. Dogs are masters at reading our energy and feeding off of it. And finally, Millan is very correct when he says that dogs need exercise. Just like people!

I hope that this post does not appear to be “bashing” Millan; I’m simply stating my viewpoint as an educated behavior specialist in the same field. After all, if someone in your field of expertise was on TV showing people how to do your job, you would have an opinion too! My passion is advocating for the animals and if I see someone doing something that I believe is not in their best interest, I need to speak up.  You do too!