By Steve Dale
Cesar Millan has an opportunity enjoyed by no other dog trainer in history. Here’s the only problem, the messages he delivers are sometimes debatable, some even say dangerous, leaving many animal behavior experts cringing about the outcomes.
Dog training books by H.R. East and William Koehler were trendy back in the day, but they greatly pre-dated TV. Captain (Arthur) Haggerty delivered dog training to TV audiences early on, and he was followed by a then wildly popular stern British lady who repeated the command “walkies,” but Haggerty and Barbara Woodhouse peaked before the explosion of cable TV and the Internet.
Millan is everywhere, and his reach is unmatched. He continues to host “The Dog Whisperer with Cesar Millan” on the National Geographic Channel, and he’s a frequent guest on other TV shows even appearing on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.” There’s his personal website, www.cesarmillaninc.com, and now new interactive site, www.sessionswithcesar.com, where followers can pay for lessons and network with likeminded fans. He recently released his fourth book “A Member of the Family: Cesar Millan’s Guide to a Lifetime of Fulfillment with Your Dog” (Harmony Books, New York, NY, 2008; $25.95).
Unfortunately, the impact isn’t all good. Veterinary behaviorist Dr. Lore Haug of Houston, TX is one of literally dozens of dog trainers, behavior consultants and veterinary behaviorists who have told me they, in fact, see a lot of clients because of Millan’s advice. “My colleagues frequently have dogs come to us after owners unsuccessfully used his methods, often making a problem worse and damaging the relationships between dogs and owners.”
In fact, there are pop up bubbles on his TV show, warning viewers against attempting his techniques at home,
In a recent appearance on Pet Central, my Chicago-based WGN Radio show, Millan answersed, “The Dog Whisperer is not a ‘how-to’ show, the book is for that. I don’t want people to try it at home because every episode is tailored to a specific family and specific dog.”
Still many viewers do ignore the warnings, “I realize many viewers say we know we’re not supposed to try this at home, but it works, of course,” he said. “God bless their hearts. But we still say you’re not supposed to try it.”
What about concerns that children, some barely able to read those warnings " may still follow Millan’s instructions, or that people have gotten hurt attempting replicate his often intimidating methods of training dogs? Among those credible organizations that have expressed these concerns about the ‘Cesar Way’ are the American Humane Association, and International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants.
“Everyone has their own way of doing things,” he said. “I’m not saying every dog trainer should be me. My way is not the only way. I’m always learning from whatever I see.”
So who is Cesar’s teacher? He mentions Leon S. Whitney, who authored dog titles in the 1950’s and ‘60’s, including “Dog Psychology: The Basics of Dog Training.” “I read every single (dog training) book; it’s always good to be in a surrender state and stay open to everything,” he says. Yet, Millan fails to come up with the name of even a single contemporary dog trainer whose work has influenced him, or the name of a recent book he’s read.
One criticism is that Millan’s methods and philosophy were contemporary back when Whitney was writing, taking dog training back decades in time, more toward intimidation and away from contemporary learning theory. One example is how Millan compares dogs to wolves, and how owners must assert themselves as the dominant pack leaders in our homes.
Appearing later that same night on my radio show, Dr. John Ciribassi, a veterinary behaviorist based in the Chicago area, and immediate past president of the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior said, “The reality is that the pack explanation, the need to fight for dominance (in a home) is an arcane theory. The idea of dominance and need for it implies the need to, in fact, dominate our dogs. There is a need to communicate, and to motivate but not to dominate. He (Millan) uses the word leader (for the owner); perhaps the word teacher is better.”
“My emphasis is on getting the behaviors you do want,” added Dr. Barbara Sherman, president of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists (veterinarians board certified in animal behavior) and professor, Department of Clinical SciencesNorth Carolina State University, College of Veterinary Medicine. “It’s the over-riding rule of animal behavior: Encourage the behaviors you want. Ignore the behaviors you don’t. Also, punishment doesn’t make clear what you want the dogs to do. And punishment, like roll overs (rolling a dog over, and/or pinning a dog) can be very frightening. You may get a backlash of aggression because the dog is scared and doesn’t know what is going on. This can worsen behavior.”
Interestingly, Millan has admitted he has softened his view somewhat. “Listen, dominance is a mental act,” he said. “Just like a cat controls a dog just with a state of mind, we can do the same, control (a dog’s behavior) using our minds. And I’m certainly not against using food, or whatever it takes to motivate a dog.”
Viewers who closely follow Millan may note that his views have moderated to accept more conventional and contemporary approaches. “Of course,” he says. “It’s all about moving forward. Most of the time I come to cases when other professionals have tried, and it’s up to me to save that dog. I have a certain knowledge and common sense. I hope to share that knowledge through my video game, or www.sessionswithcesar.com or the TV show. My job is to help dogs.”