Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Cesar Millan phemomenon: Is there blame to be laid? Where do we go from here?

I'll admit it. As a pet care professional, I am not a fan of "The Dog Whisperer". I cringe when I see the commercials for the show, and the poor dogs being subjected to methods of interaction that are cruel, and even dangerous. Cesar Millan, star of the show and self-professed dog behavior guru offers his methods and advice to millions of people across the country on the National Geographic Channel.

I will say that I do appreciate Millan's emphasis on dog's getting enough exercise and humans being more involved with their pets.

flickr photo courtesy of pmarkham
Alas, Millan relies heavily on the "dominance theory", which is for so many reasons, just backward thinking. In fact, the trainers who get the best results from their client rely on positive reinforcement techniques.

The Alpha roll, stringing up/hanging - all things that Millan is in favor of - are counterproductive, detrimental to actually teaching a canine anything besides, well, aggression (things that in many years past, they were implemented to "root out", or even stop it so to speak).

These tools of negative reinforcement as many readers are used to it being referred to, but is actually punishment, to be accurate, keep us from connecting to a canine, and teaching them self-control.

After all, that is the goal, right? To teach canines self-control so that we can both exist together under the same roof, and with others?

Click here for an interesting video that illustrates some of Millan's handiwork.

I'm a little curious that the dog in question, Shadow, was referred to as being "dominant". What's interesting, is that if you watch early on - although it can be hard to tell what Shadow seems to be feeling - he seems to have more of a "curious" posture when he sees the other dog, as does the other dog. Millan quickly "corrects" Shadow with a noisy check with the leash, gives him a soft rear kick when then seems to instigate defensive behavior from Shadow.

Millan proceeds to choke and physically subdue the pooch, all of which goes on for a few minutes.

My querie is: isn't a defensive reaction to being treated in that way normal?

I would hope so.

This isn't the only episode in which tactics like this are used on dogs, but this is an especially problematic one. So much so, that the American Veterinary Society of Behavior issued a position statement about the type of interaction that you just saw in the video.

I should note that Millan has no formal training or certification in animal behavior. That's not to say that there aren't dynamic, knowledgeable and very talented people out there who don't have certifications and are great trainers, because there are. But animal behaviorists are in a different category.

Now, as I said before, I'm not a fan of The Dog Whisperer. Far from it. And a lot of people feel the way that I do, including seasoned animal behaviorists and trainers.

There is talk that The Dog Whisperer show will not continue in the future, but that remains to be determined. I'll take a stab at it and say it's over money. After all, with Millan's seemingly disarming ability with dogs and their humans, his rags-to-riches story and most of all - his marketability (the market is inundated with his merchandise and endorsements) - he probably feels as though he deserves more. He built an empire on what he does.

The show has done quite well, and it's no secret why. We love dogs. My business clearly demonstrates just the tip of the iceberg: a society of caring, mindful human beings who love sharing their lives with those of the tail-wagging persuasion.

People also want to get a quick-fix, and to get it for free. With so many dogs being welcomed into homes as young pups, and even adult dogs being rescued by willing (albeit that some are ill-equipped to handle a difficult dog) families in our country, the help is needed.

So why not look to the television? It must be real, right? Surely, National Geographic wouldn't put someone that wasn't capable on their channel.

Did I mention that this is television?

In the years that I've been a professional pet sitter and dog walker, I have seen experienced, gentle dog owners who are mindful and intelligent turn to complete novices when it comes to their canines. All because of other people who want to make some money in a field that's all the rage - dog training and animal behavior - by  telling these unsuspecting dog owners that they need to be following the methods that they teach, not what has worked for them in the past.

A lot of negative talk against Millan and his methods are out there. Myself? I'm taking the opportunity that this situation has availed to emphasize why animal behavior problems need to stop being a part of our pop culture and fixing the problems need to go back into the hands of the real professionals.

Since it's already there, why not use the visibility that Millan has given animal behavior to really educate people about how to co-exist with their dogs correctly from the start - and point those who need help in the right direction. (Maybe, just maybe Cesar Millan could be 'rehabilitated', in the process as well.)

After all, if your child was clearly in the same need of help to get over their serious behavioral issues, it wouldn't be acceptable to watch a television show to try and get a handle on things - right?

So why does your dog - a long-term member of your family - deserve any less?

Lorrie Shaw is owner of Professional Pet Sitting in Dexter Township, MI. She is also lead pets blogger for and writes about pet health, behavior, pet culture and more. Catch her daily adventures or email her directly.


  1. I've never seen his show and now I don't even want to. When I took my dogs to obedience school (Petsmart) we were taught positive reinforcement with our dogs. The instructor told us that if we had a difficult dog it would take time and patience. So far it's worked. I'm happy, the dogs are happy, and we didn't have to hurt them in order for them to feel that way.


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