What’s Wrong With the Dog Whisperer?

Cesar Millan and Top Dogs

Cesar Millan and Top Dogs (Photo credit: Millan Foundation)

There is a certain level of controversy surrounding dominance based dog training. This has been drawn to the forefront by the popularity of the Dog Whisperer program with Cesar Millan. It  is a reality television series that airs exclusively on the Nat Geo WILD channel and It features Cesar Millan’s work with problem dogs.

“Dog Whisperer usually features problem dogs of the shows guests.  Millan usually offers suggestions on how the owners can become their pet’s “pack leader,” consistent with the theory that dogs are pack animals. He uses behavior modification techniques and the philosophy that exercise, discipline and affection are required “in that order” for dogs to be healthy and well balanced.

Here is a brief history of some of the criticism and controversy surrounding Cesar Millan and his techniques displayed on the Dog Whisperer show:

In 2006, Jean Donaldson, the San Francisco SPCA director of The Academy for Dog Trainers, criticized Millan for physically confronting aggressive dogs and using choke chains for fearful dogs. This criticism was published by the American Humane Association, which asked National Geographic to stop airing Dog Whisperer.

The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior has also expressed their concerns over the resurgence of “dominance theory”-based training methods that fixate inappropriately, in their opinion, on pack leadership. They cite behaviorist Dr. Sophia Yin and Knowles/Saxberg, saying “In our relationship with our pets, priority access to resources is not the major concern. The majority of behaviors owners want to modify, such as excessive vocalization, unruly greetings, and failure to come when called, are not related to valued resources and may not even involve aggression. Rather, these behaviors occur because they have been inadvertently rewarded and because alternate appropriate behaviors have not been trained instead.

Consequently, what owners really want is not to gain dominance, but to obtain the ability to influence their pets to perform behaviors willingly. …

The AVSAB recommends that veterinarians not refer clients to trainers or behavior consultants who coach and advocate dominance hierarchy theory and the subsequent confrontational training that follows from it.”

Punishment and attempts at dominating dogs to correct behavioral issues can potentially worsen the problem, AVSAB further notes: “Even in the relatively few cases where aggression is related to rank, applying animal social theory and mimicking how animals would respond can pose a problem. First, it can cause one to use punishment, which may suppress aggression without addressing the underlying cause. Because fear and anxiety are common causes of aggression and other behavior problems, including those that mimic resource guarding, the use of punishment can directly exacerbate the problem by increasing the animal’s fear or anxiety.”

In February 2006, an article in the New York Times quoted Dr. Nicholas Dodman, director of the Animal Behavior Clinic at Tufts University’s Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, said that his college had “written to National Geographic Channel and told them they have put dog training back 20 years”.  A New York Times August 2006 op-ed by Mark Derr, an author noted for his publications on dogs, criticized Dog Whisperer for its reliance on a “simplistic view of the dog’s social structure”. According to Derr, Millan’s methodology “flies in the face of what professional animal behaviorists — either trained and certified veterinarians or ethologists — have learned about normal and abnormal behavior in dogs”.

Also in 2006, the American Humane Association (AHA) requested that the National Geographic Channel stop airing the program, saying that training tactics shown on Dog Whisperer were inhumane, outdated and improper.

In 2007 Dr. Ian Dunbar and dog behaviorist Jean Donaldson collaborated on a  DVD entitled “Fighting Dominance in a Dog Whispering World” that addresses their concerns with Cesar Millan and similar dominance-based theories of training and behavior modification.

By November 2009, Millan had invited the American Humane Association to the set of Dog Whisperer, at which time, according to Millan, “they changed their state of mind about what is cruel”. The association announced in February 2010 that despite “sharp differences of view in the past” and some lingering areas of disagreement, they shared many areas of interest with Millan.

Debra Horwitz, president of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists, said that the major benefits of The Dog Whisperer are that it makes owners aware that they are not alone in the problems they have with their pets, and that it provides good advice on the need for dogs to exercise and have rules. But, Horwitz adds, the show also has the major drawback of attributing behavior problems to dominance when the dog may be misbehaving because it is fearful or anxious. Pet columnist Steve Dale said in a July 2010 newspaper column that while he believed Millan was “blessed with an amazingly intuitive understanding of dog behavior,” some of the methods shown on the program, particularly those related to dominance, were inappropriate and not substantiated by science.

Source material for this article:


For more on this topic:

The Dog Whisperer and Frequently Asked Questions.  Here are some good questions and answers about the show and Cesar Millans dominance based techniques.


Pros and Cons of the Alpha-Dominance Method Popularized by Cesar Milan, Known as the “Dog Whisperer”.  Here are arguments both for and against dominance based training.


Are The Dog Whisperer’s Methods Safe?  This is a good discussion about the safety of the Dog Whisperer’s methods.


Experts Say Dominance-Based Dog Training Techniques Made Popular by Television Shows Can Contribute to Dog Bites.  Here is a recent article on this topic.


For even more on this topic check out these articles too:

Dog Training and the “D” Word


Dogs: Positive Reinforcement Training

Just say yes to training your dog with treats and praise


Critics Challenge ‘Dog Whisperer’ Methods


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Introduction to Pet Dog Training

Dog Looking at and Listening to a Phonograph, ...

Dog Looking at and Listening to a Phonograph, "His Master's Voice", The Original RCA Music Puppy Dog Logo Symbol for Advertising (Photo credit: Beverly & Pack)

Pet dog training is the process of teaching behaviors to a pet dog.   There are two basic types of training that use either positive reward or positive punishment.

Positive reinforcement (Reward)

Positive reinforcement or reward is a basic conditioning technique that rewards dogs for responding accordingly to the trainer’s commands. Rewards often come through food or verbal praise or other types of positive reinforcement, such as a tug toy or ball, social interaction with other dogs, or the owner’s attention. The more rewarding a dog finds a particular reinforcement, the more work he will do to obtain the reinforcement.

Some trainers go through a process of teaching a puppy to strongly desire a particular toy, in order to make the toy a more powerful positive reinforcement for good behavior.

Positive reward training is not without criticism.  One way that critics challenge Positive Reinforcement is on the grounds that it causes additional expenses to the owner and that the dog has the potential to become overweight due to overeating. Another major criticism is that reinforcements only become associated with the trainer, which will motivate the dog to act only when the trainer is around therefore effective results can only be achieved if everyone reinforces the dog’s training; otherwise, training will be unsatisfactory and short-lived.

Positive punishment

Positive punishment, a concept also referred to as dominance theory assumes that animals misbehave because they are striving for higher rank and the best way to change their undesirable behaviors is by applying force. One of the leading advocates of dominance theory is Cesar Millan,  known as the Dog Whisperer.

Studies show that punishment has its place in dog training when combined with positive reinforcement, such as rewards; and a majority of owners still use a combination of rewards and punishment when training their dogs. Punishment-based methods is often employed by owners training dogs not to chew undesirable objects and to prevent dogs from stealing objects.

One of the techniques associated with this type of training is the verbal reprimand.  This is when you use a strong, powerful voice and sound mad when you say NO.

Criticism of this type of training usually challenges the premise of dogs basically being wolves and pack animals.

The concepts of “pack” and “dominance” originated in the 1940s and were later popularized by the Monks of New Skete in the 1970′s. The theory states that “dogs are wolves” essentially because they come from the same species and since wolves live in hierarchical packs where an alpha male rules over everyone else, then humans must dominate dogs in order to modify their behavior.

Recent studies have shown that wolves in the wild actually live in nuclear families where the father and mother are considered the pack leaders, and their offspring’s’ status depends on their birth order which does not involve fighting to attain a higher rank, because the young wolves naturally follow their parents’ lead.

Animal behaviorists assert that using dominance to modify a behavior can suppress a dog’s aggression without addressing the underlying cause of the problem. This can exacerbate the problem and increase their fear, anxiety, and aggression. Often, pets who are subjected to repeated threats may react with aggression not because they are trying to be dominant, but because they feel threatened and afraid.

Fundamentally, dog training is about communication. From the human perspective, the handler is communicating to the dog what behaviors are correct, desired, or preferred in different circumstances and what behaviors are undesirable.

A handler must understand communication from the dog. The dog can signal that he is unsure, confused, nervous, happy, excited, and so on. The emotional state of the dog is an important consideration in directing the training, as a dog that is stressed or distracted will not learn efficiently.

Training a dog takes time and patience. However, with clear and consistent communications,] canines will begin to understand what their trainer wants fairly quickly.

Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dog_training

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