Why I dislike The Dog Whisperer
by Mary Harwelik, CPDT-KA
As a certified dog trainer and behavior consultant with 20+ years experience, I am often asked my opinion of the program "The Dog Whisperer" and if I "like" Cesar Millan. Well, I do not know Mr. Millan so I have no opinion of him, personally. However, I most assuredly do NOT like the show or the training and so-called “rehabilitation” techniques used and promoted on the show. To sum up my opinion: the techniques depicted on The Dog Whisperer are outdated, needlessly harsh, often cruel, dangerous and can cause side-effects sometimes worse than the original behavior problem they were supposed to solve.
That's the shorthand version! But WHY do I have this opinion?
Although I am now a trainer and behavior consultant who avoids using force in training and focus instead on using positive reinforcement, this wasn't always so. When I trained my first dog 20 years ago, force and choke chains were the name of the dog training game. This is how trainers dealt with dogs, and if you were taught how to train or solve behavioral problems 15 or 20 years ago, you were taught how to use harsh, forceful techniques. In fact, the "miraculous", "innovative" and "unique" techniques shown on The Dog Whisperer meant to supposedly "rehabilitate" dogs are pretty familiar to “crossover trainers” such as myself. They have been around for ages. In fact, they'd be down right yawn-worthy - if only they didn't cause so much pain and discomfort to dogs and damage to the human-dog relationship. And this is why I and so many others have such a problem with what is shown on The Dog Whisperer.
Millan uses techniques that have been around since the early 1900s, the “Dawn of Dog Training”. These techniques cause pain and are meant to intimidate dogs and stifle behavior; Millan is a skilled handler and an expert at using these techniques and can cause a dog to behaviorally and emotionally shut down in a relatively short period of time - effectively eliminating the display of bad behavior; but certainly not addressing the root cause, nor teaching the dog a new, better way to behave. And just because Millan is good at causing the dog to shut down and cease exhibiting the behavior, it doesn’t mean thatonce the cameras stop rolling, the hapless guardians will be able to replicate the results.
I used to employ the same techniques Cesar Millan before I “crossed over” to a kinder, more effective method based on newer research and a better understanding of how dogs learn. Once I learned WHY certain techniques are so harmful to dogs, I stopped using them. Makes sense, right? It is up to a person in their chosen field to “get with the times” and keep themselves abreast of the latest and greatest research and developments. Millan is strangely stuck in a training time warp and seems unwilling to let go of old, disproven modes of thought and action.
In the past, techniques like alpha rollovers, scruff shakes, stringing dogs up and jerking them around were typical and accepted. Intimidation and causing fear to get a dog to stop reacting - just like Millan currently does – were “the only ways” to get a dog to “behave”. But thankfully, the field of dog training and behavior modification has come a long way, and now there is much available information about why techniques used in the past (and those currently used on The Dog Whisperer) are so detrimental to a dog’s mental and physical wellbeing and the human-canine bond. And there is such an abundance of wonderful information now available from which to learn modern, humane training and behavior modification that it is difficult to understand why such outdated, widely-criticized techniques (like jerking, hanging, alpha rolling, etc) are still used today by some trainers and supposed “dog psychologists/rehabilitators” like Cesar Millan.
When I watch Millan's show, I cringe. Not only because I recognize the real fear and distress exhibited in the faces of the dogs as he is working with them, but also because I know what comes after the fact - generalized fear and aggression, distrust of the guardian, lack of enthusiasm.
But The Dog Whisperer production team cleans up the method Millan employs, presents it in a nice package. If you don’t know exactly what it is you are watching, it might not seem so bad. The viewer is left with a strong, positive impression - hopeless cases, dogs on the edge, saved from damnation by the magic of Cesar Millan. In he walks, with a smile, a wink, and a ready explanation for all he does to dogs. He's not flooding, he's "making the dog face his fear"; that's not physical force and intimidation, it's "creating calm, submissive energy in the dog". And the old explanation used for everything from dog-directed aggression to ball obsession - "the dog is dominant" so the dog must be shown who his “leader” is. In fact, perhaps the most dangerous things about Millan are his euphemisms and distorted explanations of what exactly it is he is doing. The audience is cleverly being manipulated into believing one thing when reality is actually something entirely different.
Millan talks of "energy" as if it was some mystical, magical force that he exudes to get dogs into a "calm, submissive" state. Those who understand what Millan is doing know that the real words of the day are "intimidation" and "flooding" - Millan uses physical force and pain to get a dog to "submit" and a behavioral technique called flooding to overwhelm dogs into a state of complete mental shutdown.
In one episode I viewed, a reactive Bulldog got jerked then kicked with the sole of Millan's shoe in an effort to get him under control. This happened over and over again. "I am not kicking him!" Millan clarifies, "it is never okay to kick a dog!" Apparently it's okay as long as you don't call it kicking. What sort of message is Millan sending to dog guardians? Make no mistake, the techniques depicted on The Dog Whisperer are painful and cause fear and stress, regardless of the words Millan uses to explain what is being done.
But it sure looks impressive, doesn't it?
People who watch The Dog Whisperer and are impressed by Millan's quick-fix techniques fail to realize that serious dog behavior problems are not solved in the short period of airtime each case gets. There is also little if any follow-up to the cases presented. So while footage of a Before Cesar dog reacting wildly and causing mayhem stands in stark comparison to the After Cesar shots in the same show, the viewer doesn't see the long-term effects of Millan's techniques. Was the dog actually rehabilitated? Was the guardian able to replicate the techniques used to maintain the results? Did the dog get better, worse, or...?
Cesar Millan is receiving a lot of publicity due to the fact that he's a Hollywood trainer with his own TV show and an excellent PR team. In actuality, many trainers use methods similar to Millan's in dog training and behavior modification (remember, the techniques Millan uses have been around for a very long time). They just aren't in the spotlight. There really is nothing unique about Millan or what he does. He's a classic case of right person, right time, and right team backing him. This isn’t necessarily about skill or unique ability. Charisma and publicity go a long way in Hollywood. And the dog loving public that is so enamored with Millan need to recognize this. Not to mention, there are far more gifted, kinder, more qualified trainers and behaviorists out there using better methods.
What about these better methods?
Positive reinforcement-based training that eliminates the use of pain and intimidation in training has become very popular, especially over the past ten or fifteen years. Behaviorists have presented research demonstrating that POSITIVE REINFORCEMENT (R+) is an effective, powerful way to alter behavior and change mindsets without instilling fear, causing pain, or producing troublesome side effects. More and more dog trainers and behavior consultants are using these methods to teach dogs new behaviors and eliminate old, unwanted behaviors. Dogs taught through use of R+ actually learn new behaviors and the emotional issues causing problem behavior to manifest in the first place are eliminated and replaced with a new, healthier emotional state. The trainers using and promoting these methods have impressive backgrounds as scientists and authors/lecturers. Some of these more popular trainers (and personal heroes of mine) include: Karen Pryor, Gary Wilkes, Ian Dunbar, Ken Ramirez, Kathy Sdao, Jean Donaldson, Bob Bailey & Marian Breland-Bailey, and many others.
(Remember, Millan has NO real credentials. He is referred to as a behaviorist or psychologist yet holds no academic degrees or certifications!)
The method that Millan uses employs NEGATIVE REINFORCEMENT (R-) and POSITIVE PUNISHMENT (P+) in training. R- uses pain/discomfort to teach a dog something new - when Millan jerks a dog into heel position, he is using R-. P+ uses pain or another unpleasant thing to stop unwanted behavior. Pinning a dog to the ground, choking him or kicking/hitting to stop aggression is P+. Since Millan describes himself not as a dog trainer but a rehabilitator, most of what he does involves STOPPING behavior, not teaching new behavior. So P+ is mainly what he uses when he works with dogs. P+ does not teach a dog a new way to behave; it suppresses behavior that is already happening. Sometimes, new or worse behavior manifests as a result of this suppression. Dogs shut down emotionally, and exhibit something called "learned helplessness" - they learn they are unable to prevent or change something in their environment and so simply stop reacting. They exhibit stress, fear, or increased aggression. R- and P+ oftentimes cause a dog to redirect aggression onto its handler. (Note that this is a big reason Millan gets bitten so often.) So a dog that is pinned down in response to an aggressive outburst directed at another dog suddenly turns and bites his guardian instead. Now there are two problems instead of just one.
And although "dominance" is Millan's excuse for everything a dog does wrong, there are a variety of reasons a dog may act out in an aggressive or seemingly-defiant way - usually fear and/or confusion are the main causes. Using pain or force on a dog that is frightened or confused is not only unfair, it is downright inhumane.
Those people, such as Millan, who are skilled at using positive punishment, may get instant results that can be quite impressive. A wildly reactive dog can be subdued into a stressed but unreactive state in mere minutes. Has any real learning taken place? Maybe a learned fear of the punisher, or a fear of moving lest more pain be doled out. Or maybe an inadvertent conditioning which leads the dog to believe that the presence of certain things in the environment are an indicator that he is about to experience pain (this can later cause extreme reactivity and increased aggression directed at new things in the environment). But that initial suppression of behavior makes it seem as if the “punishment is working”. A person using punishment might see instant results, and be inclined to use punishment again. When the behavior worsens later or new behavior pops up down the line, the person doesn't believe that the technique is at fault; obviously the punishment just wasn't administered strongly enough. So the dog experiences harsher treatment, and a downward spiral of worsened behavior/harsher punishment occurs.
Perhaps most frightening is that the person doing the punishing is actually experiencing reinforcement for inflicting pain on a dog. This doesn't necessarily happen on a conscious level. When a person wallops the dog under the chin for nipping, or jerks the leash for lunging, and the dog's behavior at that moment subsequently stops, the person has been reinforced for punishing. "Oh, what I did had the desired effect! The dog stopped misbehaving". That's reinforcement. When any organism receives reinforcement for something, it is going to keep repeating whatever that something is. So a person keeps using punishment, in a variety of ways, oftentimes wildly inappropriately, and to increasingly harsher degrees. For this reason alone I would advise guardians to avoid using punishment in training. It is way too easy to misuse it, oftentimes without even knowing it.
Why Millan’s show is so popular is still a bit of a mystery to me. Surely there is some of that ol' Hollywood magic having an effect on audiences. Also, dog guardians who don't truly understand what it is Millan does, or know that there are other, kinder options, see Millan as a true magician with dogs. You could fill a bookcase and then some with all the positive reinforcement-based training books out there. And spend days pouring over research material proving why R+ works and is a better choice than physical, heavy-handed techniques. Unfortunately, largely, the public has yet to tap into this material.
Instead, Millan is front and center, making dog training sexy, and touting his calm, assertive energy on national TV and getting rich off of misleading and dangerous advice. This, to me, is unacceptable. The pain Millan inflicts upon dogs is unacceptable. And promotion of these archaic and harmful techniques is unacceptable. I hope other trainers and behavior consultants will join me in speaking out against inhumane practices and work even harder to promote kindness in dog training and behavior modification.
Supplied to this site by Ms Harwelik