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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