Cesar Millan – The Dog Whisperer?

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Sam Basso
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A couple of months ago, I was asked to write a review of Cesar Millan’s book,  “Cesar’s Way“. Appearing on high profile shows, such as Oprah Winfrey, he is marketed as “America’s most sought-after-dog-behavior expert. But Cesar is not a trainer in the traditional sense;  his expertise lies in his unique ability to comprehend dog psychology. Founder of the Dog Psychology Center in Los Angeles, Cesar Millan is the star of Dog Whisperer with Cesar Millan on National Geographic Channel.”

In his book, he focuses on three elements when dealing with any dog: exercise, discipline and affection, in that order.

Regarding his method, Cesar Millan runs a type of dog camp or doggie daycare. He uses

a.) a considerable amount of exercise, including the use of treadmills and backpacks, as a way of relaxing dogs to prepare them for counter-conditioning exercises;
b.) packs of dogs to rehabilitate unstable, fearful or aggressive dogs;
c.) Leashes and chain collars to block jumping, whining, possessiveness, biting, aggressiveness, excessive barking, mounting, fighting, active dominance challenges;
d.) Redirection to get dogs doing alternative behaviors in play areas, obstacle courses, a pool, a feeding area, a sleeping area, and an eating / drinking area;
e.) calming techniques using hand feeding;
f.) a limited amount of obedience training, such as teaching the dogs to heel on a loose lead at the handler’s side;
g.) a “claw” technique, his own version of the “alpha rollover”, and a pursuit technique to deal with dogs that don’t show submission to other dogs or people;
h.) “flooding” for phobias;
i.) “calm / assertive” handler techniques;
j.) touch and sound techniques to interrupt, correct and / or redirect behaviors;
k.) a variety of traditional manners rules, which are implemented with the “no free lunch” type of approach;
l.) a variety of games and other “mental challenges”;
m.) human intervention; and
n.) electric collars (not mentioned, as I recall, in the book)

He also believes that obedience training doesn’t fix everything, and feels that an ‘all positive’ approach to behavior modification is not justified for many dogs, especially those that are dangerously aggressive or on the verge of being put to death for behavioral problems.

By doing a bit of research on the internet, I found that Cesar Millan is quite a controversial figure in the dog training world. On the internet, his critics claim

a.) He lacks credentials;
b.) He hasn’t titled dogs in either obedience or in the show dog ring;
c.) He uses “old methods” such as leash corrections, e-collars, dominance techniques, the alpha roll; which they claim induces “learned helplessness”;
d.) The dogs are stressed when his methods are applied;
e.) Some behavioral problems are medically related, are not going to be addressed by any kind of behavior modification program, and Cesar Millan doesn’t clarify this in his writings or on his TV show;
f.) He doesn’t use the accepted behavioral terminology, and makes up his own behavioral vocabulary; and
g.) He and his company are being sued by a former customer for allegedly injuring a dog; inferring or charging this is evidence he is a cruel and inhumane trainer. Some have gone so far as to petition the National Geographic channel to pull his show off the air, and to offer to testify against him in court!

There is a philosophical war going on about how to train animals and humans. Cesar Millan’s primary critics are generally from the ‘all positive’ folks, who have become extremists, and thus hate what Cesar Millan is doing. The clicker folks and veterinary behaviorists really have their hair in a knot. To them, dominance and aggression have become discredited as concepts, only their credentials are valid, stress is considered abnormal and insurmountable, any kind of correction is considered abusive, and operant conditioning has become the bible of all things behavioral.

In his book, Cesar Millan addresses his critics on some of these points, and it is worth reading the book to hear his side of the story.

None of Cesar Millan’s work is really new to anyone experienced with dog training and behavior modification. If you are an experienced “dog psychologist” all this stuff can, and probably should be, in your training toolbox, along with your treats, toys, clickers, and massage techniques. However, few know how to properly administer any of the techniques Cesar uses, so, unless you know what you are doing, you should stick to purely positive methods to get results.

I found the book interesting and would recommend it, yet I had to spend a considerable amount of time pondering what he had to say about behavior.

In general, I liked the book and found it interesting, but I think it isn’t very useful for most dog owners. Most of what he is saying and doing will go over the heads of most people, and that includes most dog trainers and behaviorists. His methods are also expensive to implement, and they require using packs of dogs in conjunction with each technique.

If I am interpreting his book, and what I’ve found by researching his program, I don’t think his methods are abusive or unethical in every instance, but I do think it would be foolish for anyone to try the things he suggests unless they know what he is really talking about. My opinion is that you shouldn’t be doing any of these methods with any dog unless you are working with a professional. The only annoying thing I found about his book is his use of language and terminology. He uses terms, such as “energy”, to define a wide array of behavioral phenomena. His terminology is hard to decipher, and therefore made my review of his book especially difficult. I also think it is misleading to draw the conclusion, from the marketing you get in the media, that you can save all dogs if you just knew more about “dog psychology”, and I didn’t find that stressed clearly enough in his book. I do give him credit for saying that not all dog owners are willing or capable of doing what is necessary for the well being of their dogs.

I’m not here to vouch for Cesar Millan. I don’t know him personally, and can only judge him by what I know about the dog world, and what I’ve seen on TV, from what I’ve read in his book, from his interviews in the media, and by evaluating what his critics say and who they are.

My biggest concern is that I now feel that he hasn’t been totally honest about his methods. For example, it was years before it became clear that he was using electric collars in his program. When I first watched his shows, I was puzzled at how his method didn’t completely add up. Some behaviors looked as though the dogs had been trained using electric collars, but that wasn’t evident in his book or show. The more I watched, the more I started to disrespect him. I don’t like dishonesty, and to me, it felt dishonest. Now, we find out that he did use them, and it wasn’t just dog whispering, as described in the book. That really bothered me.

Get the book. Read it and judge for yourself.

POSTSCRIPT

Cesar Millan has a new book. My initial impressions are that it is a pretty good, it is more along the lines of traditional dog training, it answers most of the charges by his critics, and is worth reading. Over time, I am coming to like a some of what he says. However, like all dog trainers, you can find things you don’t agree with or would have said differently.

I think the main thing most people don’t get is that you should try to train dogs, as much as possible, without using any kind of force. However, so-called “purely positive” training won’t get you a completely trained dog, and it can’t address all the problems you will encounter when dealing with behavioral problems or even just training obedience commands.

Further, the dispute with one of his students (the dog injury case) was settled out of court, according to what I’ve seen on the internet. Settling a suit isn’t the same thing as admitting fault, and you shouldn’t read anything into that.

Lastly, I have seen a number of dog owners who have been bitten by their dogs as they tried to imitate what Cesar Millan does on his show. One in particular was a woman with a Chow Chow who tried his rollover technique and was bitten pretty badly up and down her right forearm. I also have been hired by a number of people who are fans of his. You can spot them pretty quickly because they are always “shh-ing” their dogs like he does… to no effect. You CAN’T learn how to train a dog by watching his TV program, and if your dog is having problems, you need to hire a professional.

UPDATE

Cesar Millan has been evolving. In one of his latest books, he admits he didn’t know much about training methods, but more has been into the intuitive nature of managing dog behavior. He explains thoughts on clicker training, traditional training, and other methods. He is coming to the same conclusion I did several years ago, and that is a good thing. I got my evolution by training with master trainer, Armin Winkler. I don’t let myself be pigeon-holed into any particular method because then you aren’t reading the dog and establishing a good relationship. It will be interesting if he starts offering obedience lessons in the future, something he has not done up to this point. My criticisms have revolved around his one sided approach to dog behavior, but I see he’s seeing there is more to it than his original method. Three cheers for Cesar, he’s on the right track!

Yet again, I am concerned about his lack of details concerning his use of electric collars.

I still believe for now, you should stay away from his materials. In my opinion, he currently doesn’t know what he is doing. Any technique he uses can cause more harm than good.

PLEASE ALSO READ:

Basic Obedience
Behavior Modification
Being A Dog’s Pack Leader
Dog Aggression In The Red Zone
What Is Dog Whispering?
Cesar Millan’s Calm Submissive / Assertive Baloney

Sam Basso is a professional dog trainer and behaviorist, in the Phoenix/ Scottsdale metropolitan area. He’s known for being fun, kind, intelligent, and humane. Sam Basso has a unique personal touch. He has appeared on his own TV show, been a guest radio expert, gives seminars, publishes a dog related blog, does rescue volunteering, and is active in promoting animal welfare and fair dog laws.