The Dog whisperer Cesar Millan has been a hit on National Geographic for over 10 years now. His rise to stardom has seen him release several books, and he is the star of 3 TV shows. All these shows and books are centered around his philosophy on dog training and behaviour. His show is also broadcasted in more than 80 countries – he is basically the face of modern dog training. And yet his methods are so outdated.
Like many other people when I first watched the dog whisperer – maybe 8 years ago or so – my response was ‘wow, this guy is great’. I watched the show religiously and I am pretty sure I have seen nearly every episode. I was hooked and I thought this guy knew everything there was to know about dogs. And, unfortunately, like many others I started applying his techniques to my own little dog. I pinned her down, jabbed her, and I used a choke chain fitted at the top of her neck. She did everything I wanted her to do. She had no other choice.
However, one time I tried pinning her down she started retaliating. She growled and snapped. She didn’t do any damage but she had intentionally tried to bite me. I was shocked. Why would my Jack Russell all of a sudden want to bite me if I was just treating her how I should be? I was only doing what the best dog trainer in the world was doing and there I was with an angry Jack Russell at the end of my outstretched arm. I was shocked but carried on doing these things to her because I still thought it was what I had to do, and luckily the next episode I saw of the Dog Whisperer was the one where Shadow (a malamute mix) bites Cesar who is also trying to pin him down. I was relieved – it sometimes happens to him so I had even more confidence now that what I was doing was right. However, the more I got into dogs, training and their behaviour the more I would find articles or reports that sounded completely different to what Cesar had taught me. Things like reward your dog, don’t pin them down. Use food or toys to motivate your dog not fear. I didn’t completely understand what I was reading and I thought these so called ‘behavioural scientists’ were just jealous of him. And anyway, the proofs in the pudding, right? You can clearly see these dog’s behaviours changing when Cesar trains them, right? So, regrettably, for the rest of my little Jack Russell’s life I ‘trained’ her using Cesar’s methods.
In 2009 I started working with dogs at a kennels, and I was stunned at how different other dogs are compared to your own. I thought I knew nearly everything about dogs – I’d grown up with dogs, had a dog almost my whole life and had seen all the Dog Whisperer episodes. Yet every day a dog would do something that I just had no idea why they would do that. No matter how hard I jerked some of them on the chain to stop them doing things (normally normal doggy things like sniffing) some of them just would not stop and I had to completely drag them away. Trying to constantly be this hard arsed leader was just tiring – and it wasn’t me. I loved the job but I just wasn’t having any fun with the dogs. I was constantly waiting for them to make mistakes or do something I disliked so I could then let them know they shouldn’t do that. And worst of all some dogs would retaliate and they were not all small Jack Russells.
I went back to these articles I had read a year or so ago. Luckily, I found www.dogstardaily.com and Dr Ian Dunbar and really started doing some research. If I really liked dogs and wanted to work with them, then it was (and still is) my duty to keep up to date with the most modern training techniques. I read articles about positive reinforcement, learned helplessness, flooding, calming signals and all these other terms that I had never heard Cesar talk about. And it seemed they nearly all contradicted what he was saying and doing. My initial reaction, like so many others, was ‘but they don’t work with the types of dogs Cesar does’, I thought they can’t do. I looked at videos of how other trainers did things and the dogs very rarely reacted if at all. So was Cesar just taking the most severe cases?
I’ve had enough now of talking about how great I thought Cesar was because it upsets me that I did. Here is what I have since learnt. Cesar Millan is a self taught ‘dog behaviourist’. He has no academic background and he uses a lot of dangerous, aversive, outdated and abusive methods in the name of training. The methods he promotes cause a lot of fear, stress and anxiety in dogs. His methods can ‘work’ because the dog learns they have no other option especially in cases of aggression. The dog behaves appropriately to avoid any physical or confrontational corrections. This would be similar to getting kids to get straight A’s but in the process we would have to give them the occasional beating, slap on the wrist, and the occasional electric shock.
These trainers that had severe cases but the dogs were not reacting – how do they do this? A good dog trainer doesn’t get the dog to react. It’s good for TV but not for the dog. A good trainer will see tiny signals that suggest a dog is uncomfortable and ultimately stop pushing the dog any further which could cause them to react. They work under ‘threshold’ as we call it in the training world. Dog training is about learning and if a dog is in an erratic state there’s no chance the dog can learn an appropriate new behaviour. It would be like trying to teach me something complex whilst on a flight. I hate flying and become anxious. I can’t read anything because I simply cannot focus. Dogs are the same, if we wait for them to get into the anxious, nervous or reactive state we then have no chance of them learning anything knew. So a good trainer will just simply not push them to the point of reacting. Obviously sometimes we cannot help it but it should never be the intention to get a dog that is reactive reacting.
Results are important but I would argue the process of getting the results is even more important. If I knew what I knew now would I use any of the methods I did with my Jack Russell. Absolutely not. Although she did what I wanted she was doing them for all the wrong reasons. Yes she got excited when the leash came out even though I had a choker on her and jerked her if she walked in front, but this was worth it to her. She knew she could just put up with me being a bit of a dick for ten minutes and then she could run about at the park. Just because some dogs will put up with these methods does not make it right.
His methods are also extremely confrontational. I was bitten by my own dog, not because she was trying to be dominant or being naughty but probably because she thought I was trying to kill her. And rightly so she tried to bite me. Dogs are just trying to get by in our society and the last thing they need is an aggressor pinning them to the ground that they should be able to trust.
Since training using Cesar’s methods I have moved on to use non-confrontational methods. If the dog is growling at me now I don’t try and do things like jab them to show them I’m the boss. I’ll simply back off. Why? Because they are probably uncomfortable. I’d much rather change the way the dog is feeling about the situation so they don’t feel the need to growl in the first place as opposed to just extinguish the growl. Why? Because without the growl they will just then go straight to the bite. That’s probably why we always hear it was out of nowhere. A growl is simply part of a communication system that dogs use. And if we want them to be part of the family, it makes sense to understand what proper dog behaviour is. Not what Hollywood wants it to be.
It upsets me to think that I did all these horrible things to my little dog and that’s why I am writing this. It’s a hard pill to swallow realising that you did everything wrong and that an innocent animal suffered due to your ignorance. So I will carry on writing these articles in the hope I can help change the way we see and treat our best friends. Even if it just makes people think, that’s a start.
Ed’s note: I’ve added in Dr Ian Dunbar’s TED talk here, in case you have never come across him before. It’s an older talk from 2007, but a great one. For more TED talks, visit their website, https://www.ted.com/