Lately there’s been a huge backlash over Cesar Millan and the pig incident.
Here, here, here and here.
I usually don’t get too involved in the Cesar debates because I’ve noticed Cesar fans can be quite aggressive when communicating their ideas and often aren’t willing to consider an opposing viewpoint. I don’t see much sense in trying to talk to someone who won’t listen to your ideas (or proven scientific facts for that matter). But on my personal blog I did post a cheeky comment about the pig incident, which attracted an interesting question:
“Okay, this is a genuine question.. What is wrong with Cesar Millan? I'm just asking because I know a lot of people who think he's great and I'm not very well informed on that topic so I was quite surprised to see you all don't like him.” - Anonymous
This question honestly surprised me. I see posts daily either loving or loathing Cesar Millan. Rarely is there someone in the middle who hasn’t made up their mind or who is willing to ask what the other side of the argument thinks. So I’m going to bite the bullet and explain why I don’t agree with Cesar’s training techniques. Hopefully, I’ll shed some light on the topic for anyone who’s in the dark.
Let’s begin with dominance theory. Cesar Milan’s training style relies heavily dominance theory. This theory was developed by Swiss animal behaviouralist Rudolph Schenkel. During the 1930s and 1940s Schenkel conducted a study on wolves in captivity. This study is called, ‘The erroneous approach to canine social behaviour.’ It’s now known as dominance theory.
You may not have heard of this study, but you’ll probably have heard the result. It’s a pretty common myth. The study stated that wolves in a pack will fight to gain dominance. The winner of the fight will be the ‘alpha wolf.’ He came to this conclusion by watching wolves in captivity. In captivity, wolves did, in fact, end up having social tension and engaging in bloody fights.
But the issue with the findings is how unrealistic the setting was. Wolves in captivity do not behave the same way a wild wolf would behave. These wolves were unrelated animals from different families. Wild wolves have a family pack structure. A breeding pair will live with the young from the litters of the previous few years. When these young mature, they leave to find a mate and begin their own family. Sometimes two or three families will live in a pack, but they don’t compete for a ‘alpha wolf’ position. The wolves in captivity weren’t from the same family groups and weren’t given the normal life of a wolf. Therefore they became socially anxious and violent with one another. We now know wolves in the wild act differently because there have been numerous studies since the 1930s to look into this. See, most notably, David Mech’s 1999 study, ‘Alpha Status, Dominance, and Division of Labor in Wolf Packs’ in which he studied wolf social behaviour for 13 years.
So how does that fit in with dog training? Well, Schenkel drew the conclusion from his study that, if these wolves are fighting to establish an ‘alpha wolf,’ then that’s how a dog brains work too. He concluded that dogs are trying to be the alpha of, not only other dogs, but also their own masters. This is where Cesar gets his ‘be the pack leader’ mantra from.
Considering we now know that this isn’t how a wolf’s brain works and the theory has been disproven, the case is pretty much closed. If a wolf’s brain doesn’t work this way, then we have no reason to believe a dog’s brain works this way too.
But let’s give Cesar the benefit of the doubt. Even if that’s how a wolfs brain works (it isn’t), wolves are so far removed from dogs in terms of evolution that it would be a big stretch to say that they have the same social interactions, especially due to the heavy human influence on the evolution of dogs. They’ve evolved to be companions and workers for humans, unlike wolves. Dogs have been taken as puppies for thousands of years and raised in human environments. This is something that has a huge impact on the drive, nature and thought patterns of an animal.
Putting aside the theory and turning toward the practical. The training techniques used under dominance theory are almost always abusive. For instance, a commonly known dominance trainer William Koehler, who began training dogs in Germany at the end of WWII, recommended filling a hole with water and submerging a dog’s head in it until it was nearly drowned to stop it from digging. Another Koehler method was hanging or helicoptering a dog into submission or unconsciousness if necessary to stop a behaviour. And this man had six books published and still has a training school in his name using his techniques.
The main idea of dominance theory is that, to be the boss of your dog, you need to establish you’re the ‘alpha dog.’ If you do this, they will, supposedly, just do what you want from there. It’s not about teaching a behaviour; it’s about punishing your dog when it offers the wrong behaviour. But this doesn’t make the dog less likely to do the behaviour, it makes them less likely to do it with you around. Or it will make them run from you if you come after them once they have done the behaviour. Because they know what the wrong behaviour is, but they don’t know what else to do.
Whereas, with positive reinforcement training, you actively tell the dog what it should be doing and encourage the correct behaviours while preventing bad behaviours before they happen. My favourite example of how these methods differ is in potty-training. This is one of the more frustrating things to teach a new puppy. But, remember, you didn’t pick it up in a day so why should they?
When using positive reinforcement to teach potty-training you pick a specific area outside or a pee pad that will always be the potty area. Every time you see your puppy sniffing the ground, waking up from a nap, finishing play time, finishing a meal or finishing a drink, you should put it on a leash and take it to the spot. You then wait there until the dog does a wee or poo, then you reward with a treat or praise and take them back to play or nap or whatever puppy wants to do. If you stick to this strictly, eventually puppy will just take himself to the door or outside to wee or poo. It happens pretty quickly if you are consistent.
Now when using dominance theory to potty-train, trainers may tell you a puppy who has an accident is showing you they are the boss of you. It’s often suggested to rub the puppy’s nose in its wee or poo to discourage them from having the accident again. Dogs aren’t able to understand the reason for this act. They just aren’t highly evolved enough to put together “I pooped on the rug. Now you are shouting at me and rubbing my face in it. This means I better not poop on the rug again.” It may sound simple to you, but what the dog really thinks is “I pooped on the rug. Now the human is shouting at me. You don’t like me and you’re scary!” They don’t make that extra step to “Pooping inside is wrong.” This will result in the puppy holding it until you aren’t around or just pooping behind the couch and hoping that you won’t see them and be mean. They may also develop a fear of you because they’ll associate you with being nasty.
Aside from hurting your dog, one of the biggest issues with dominance theory is that a lot of trainers who use this method ignore or can’t read canine body language. This proves to be really dangerous. It’s why Cesar Milan often gets bitten. Cesar Milan completely ignores dog body language all the time. Dog body language can sometimes be very subtle, but a good trainer knows what to look for. It’s really important for trainers to be able to read canine body language because body language can tell you if a dog is ready to bite you, if they are uncomfortable or if they are happy. In many cases Cesar will misread body language and give incorrect assessments of why dogs are doing certain behaviours. He often mistakes fearful dogs for dogs who are ‘trying to be the alpha.’
Most aggression in dogs is built out of fear and the incorrect handling of fear. Sometimes people assume a dog is trying to be ‘alpha’ because there’s no obvious cause for their fear. But the fear can come from something as simple as a lack of previous exposure to a certain situation. Even humans are afraid of new situations! And so are dogs. For example, if a dog wasn’t socialized with children, it may get a fright when it first meets small, loud humans who run fast and, potentially, lack an understanding of personal space. A dog who’s frightened will try to protect itself, which is where things get dangerous. Being able to see the early warning signs of fear is hugely important in order to prevent a dog from progressing to a full-blown attack.
There are certain negative cues a dog will give you that mean it’s scared or uncomfortable. This is often referred to as the ladder of aggression. At the bottom of the ladder you see mild cues. These mean the dog is frightened or uncomfortable. These may seem mild, but when you see these behaviours, you should be acting straight away to defuse the situation and prevent it from escalating. It may seem like a big jump from yawning to biting, but a dog can climb the ladder very quickly. Below is a video of Cesar training a dog named Holly. The video explains the warning signs Cesar missed and the actions he took that escalated a situation that could have otherwise been defused quite easily.
The fear Holly showed was a fear of having her food taken. This is called resource guarding, and it’s a really common behaviour. (Wouldn’t you be annoyed if some snatched your favourite food away from you while you were eating it?) As soon as he places the food bowl down you can see Holly is apprehensive. She’s being fed by a strange person, she has established resource-guarding issues and he stands close to her while she eats. She immediately shows warning signs. He then comes closer and positions himself over her body. This is a bad thing to do with any dog. It’s just bad manners to crowd over a dog’s body. This will make it feel threatened out of instinct. Holly displays more warning signs, but he continues to close in, oblivious to her warnings.
At this stage, she is still scared of losing her food, not of him harming her. Once he makes contact with her neck, she becomes fearful of him, not just of losing her food. This means that not only has he worsened the resource-guarding problem, but now he is making her fear him and potentially other short men. The whole video she’s displaying warning signals, but not once does he mention them or act appropriately towards them. While she’s laying down, showing clear warning signs that she is uncomfortable and ready to bite, he states she’s being submissive. Almost instantly she bites him. He clearly couldn’t see any of the signals. These are basics all trainers should know. Since filming, Holly became more aggressive, as you could expect, and was put to sleep because of her aggression.
When looking at his case alone I have a few issues:
- He ignores warning signs that should be basic knowledge for any trainer.
- Resource guarding is something that can be reduced with training and managed. Holly did not have human aggression before Cesar came to her.
- The dog was put to sleep for an issue Cesar caused.
- The tactic Cesar used was downright dangerous. He was bitten, and it could have been a lot worse. Holly gave more warning signals than a lot of dogs would bother with.
- Children watch his shows. I would hate to see a child try these tactics with a dog and be attacked, because it would be a much more vicious attack. A child wouldn’t have been able to kick a dog like Holly off. I used to mimic everything Victoria Stilwell did on ‘It’s Me or the Dog’ with our naughty family dog. I would hate to think what could have happened if I had Foxtel and could’ve seen Cesar’s shows.
Cesar is reckless with his approach and puts people and animals in danger. The pig incident saw him put a dog with a known past of pig-killing in a yard filled with pigs. This would’ve been a hugely traumatic experience for the pigs, who were chased and attacked. The situation was dangerous and obviously going to fail, but unfortunately Cesar was so confident in his methods that he put the pigs and the dog in danger without even so much as a muzzle.
Forcing dogs onto their side and holding them down, kicking dogs in the stomach, punching dogs in the neck—these are all tactics Cesar uses. These are methods that can cause physical harm to the dog and will most likely also encourage trust issues, along with fear to develop.
The reason I disapprove of these methods so strongly is because they don’t work long term, and they’re methods you need to use each time the dog performs an unwanted behaviour, which will eventually result in the dog snapping out of frustration. When you don’t show the dog the behaviour you want, you cannot expect them to automatically figure it out. There are more successful methods to fix problem behaviours and teach dogs commands. These methods are quicker to teach and do not encourage a dog to become fearful or aggressive.
These positive training methods have been scientifically proven to work better, so why would a trainer actively decide to use a method where they have to kick, punch and force dogs into positions?
In summary I do not like Cesar Millan because I believe he uses training methods which are scientifically flawed as well as dangerous. I do not think there is a need to use training methods that cause harm and fear in a dog when you can use more efficient methods that do not cause any pain. As a trainer I am yet to come across a case which required use of such force, including aggressive cases and problem behaviours. Putting aside the training methods I dislike the false information Cesar spreads and the danger it could put regular owners/views in who watch his shows. Cesar ignores vital warning signs and neglects to explain them on his show, this potentially puts regular owners in danger if they decide to adopt his training tactics. Cesar makes excellent television because he shows aggressive dogs reacting violently, Cesar baits dogs to react as any good trainer knows the best way to stop a bad behaviour is to prevent it before it happens. Baiting aggressive dogs is dangerous and can often make the issues worse, but as Nat geo has found it makes for excellent entertainment.
Imagine watching someone who is hugely famous about a topic you are obsessed and they have no education in the field. This person spreads misinformation and lies that are potentially dangerous, for the general public. All while there are hundreds and thousands of excellent trainers and behavioualists desperatly trying to spread the scientific facts and better training techniques but they just don't get the air time they deserve. That’s what watching Cesar Millan is like for me.
That’s my overview on the subject. If you have any more questions, contact me via the contact page I am always happy to answer questions or talk more about any topics of interest!
For more info on Cesar Millan, dominance theory or positive reinforcement training check out these links below.
Tough love – This is an amazing documentary talking about dominance theory and to some extent Cesar Millan as well.
Dominance in dogs; bad habit or useful construct? - Dog Science Explained
(this one is a favourite of mine, it is clearly explained and all studies are sited in the description)
How dogs learn Dr Sophia Yin
Zak George explains the Dominance myth
Alpha Status, Dominance, and Division of Labor in Wolf Packs by L. David Mech
Dominance in domestic dogsduseful construct or bad habit? John W. S. Bradshaw, Emily J. Blackwell, Rachel A. Casey
Parental care in free-ranging dogs, Canis familiaris S.K. Pal
The Complete Idiot's Guide to Positive Dog Training, 3rd Edition by Pamela Dennison
Wolves: Behavior, Ecology and Conservation by L. David Mech, Luigi Boitani
Societies of Wolves and Free-ranging Dogs by Stephen Spotte
Celebrated Trainers/behavioualist against Dominance theory and Cesar Millan. (There are thousands more, too many to name!)
Dr Sophia Yin
Videos that look at Cesar’s poor training techniques
Cesar kicking dogs and using excessive force
‘Are the dog whisperer’s methods harmful?’
What are the most effective dog training methods? – Dog science Explained
And finally, all the proof you should really need. A trainer should be able to explain why they use the methods they do but Cesar can't.