The Dog Whisperer Phenomenon: Two very different Dog Whisperers
“Practices such as physically confronting aggressive dogs and using of choke collars for fearful dogs are outrageous by even the most diluted dog training standards. A profession that has been making steady gains in its professionalism, technical sophistication and humane standards has been greatly set back. I have long been deeply troubled by the popularity of Mr. Millan as so many will emulate him. To co-opt a word like ‘whispering’ for arcane, violent and technically unsound practice is unconscionable.”
Jean Donaldson, Director, SPCA Academy for Dog Trainers, San Francisco.
Owens on the other hand, taking into account actual research into wolf and canine behaviour, concurs with the numerous behaviourists and trainers who have long discarded “dominance theory” as an outdated and unsubstantiated belief. In a section of “The Dog Whisperer” headed “The Dominance Myth” (p. 100 - 105) Owens says the following:
“For many years concepts about hierarchy in the canine world led to the idea that one dog in the pack is the top ranking “alpha dog” and that that dog is dominant in all situations. In recent years this concept has been researched extensively by leading animal behaviourists who now consider it to be outdated and simplistic. Still, the perception that dogs look up to the alpha in the pack as some sort of tyrannical dictator and that humans should take on this role has been perpetuated by the authors of many mainstream dog training books and trainers on television.”
Owens then goes on to quote David L Mech, “one of the world’s leading experts on pack behaviour in wild wolves” as saying: “In natural wolf packs the alpha male or female are merely…. the parents of the pack and dominance contests with other wolves are rare, if they exist at all.”
Owens continues: “So the question arises, why do some trainers seem to get almost miraculous results … through what they call “dominance training”? The truth is, it isn’t miraculous nor is it related to dominance. The results are due to using physical force in order to suppress behaviours, which is done by using positive punishment and physically forcing dogs into fearful situations until they “shut down”…. Calling this dominance training is simply incorrect and its practise can be dangerous for both dogs and humans, especially when aggression is involved. Its pure abuse when used with fearful dogs.”
So, it is clear that the original “Dog Whisperer” is in fact firmly opposed to the methods and ideology of the TV celebrity of the same name. Yet, despite Millan’s own admission that he has no qualifications as a behaviourist or dog trainer, dog owners all over the world unquestioningly follow Millan’s approach, while ignoring or dismissing the warnings of the numerous qualified experts in the field like Paul Owens.
So why is the second Dog Whisperer so popular and why do dog owners believe whatever he says? Well, it is actually pretty obvious: Millan has his own TV programme which is designed, edited and produced to paint him as a hero and saviour of dogs. That kind of marketing and Millan’s own natural charming, charismatic and slightly exotic personality is very hard to argue with and the average dog owner is unlikely to see through it. However, those with a good knowledge of canine behaviour and training techniques are actually quite quick to see past the drama and sensationalism of the show to the rather ugly truth that Millan is using antiquated theories and brute force to suppress behaviours rather than resolve them.
Probably one of the hottest debates in the dog training world at the moment is between Cesar fans and qualified, positive trainers and behaviourists. The fans insist that Cesar is a hero and that professionals in the field who criticise his methods are intolerant and envious of his success. The qualified professionals insist that Cesar is undoing years of progress in the dog training world and actually putting humans and dogs at risk. As I firmly fall into the latter camp (as does the original dog whisperer), I would like to address some of the most common questions and criticisms that Cesar fans raise with positive trainers like myself:
Question: We have spared the rod with children and look where that has gotten us. If we use positive training techniques our dogs won’t really respect us and we will have to bribe them to do what we want.
Answer: Dogs are not human beings. Unlike children, dogs are not moral and they do not know right and wrong. Dogs don’t deliberately defy us or do things to cause us distress. We therefore cannot always compare methods of raising or training children, who are able to reason and who will often choose to go their own way regardless of what they know to be right or wrong, to methods for training and raising dogs. Also, what is often called “respect” is simply fear. The dog may listen because he fears his owner. Healthy relationships are not based on fear. Positive training techniques are not by default permissive. Positive training creates dogs that enjoy complying with their owners requests and who trust their owners. Trust is a vital ingredient in any healthy relationship.
Question: The man gets results - how can you argue with that?
Answer: People believe that because they usually see a much quieter dog at the end of the episode the dog has been cured. However, quietness is not necessarily a sign that the dog is mentally healthy or that the behaviour itself has improved. When a dog is repeatedly exposed to a threatening stimulus and both fight and flight options are removed (e.g. the dog is rolled on its side and pinned to the ground) the dog will eventually just “shut down” and stop reacting. This does not mean that the dog has improved, but that its mental state has deteriorated to such a point that it has given up using normal behavioural patterns to escape a threat. This non-responsiveness is frequently seen in rescued dogs that have been the victims of ongoing abuse. They know that nothing they do will get them out of the situation and so they enter a passive state known as “learned helplessness”. In other cases, the treatment protocol often involves keeping the dog on a very tight choker with virtually no play on the leash. The dog is therefore being physically forced to comply or physically prevented from engaging in the problem behaviour. The behaviour itself has not been modified in any way. As a behaviourist who is always interested in seeing how problem behaviours can be tackled, I have also found that Cesar often tends to side-step the problem altogether and instead focuses on another issue which he obviously feels he can handle better. In one case an issue of separation anxiety (the very reason the owner is reported to have contacted him) is ignored while the owner is taught how to dominate her dog more effectively. At the end of the show the dog is supposedly cured, yet all we see is a dog walking on a tight lead and no indication of whether the dog is actually coping when left alone at home. (DVD “Difficult Cases”)
Question: Your dog should listen to you, because you are the leader and this is what Cesar shows us how to do.
Answer: I have already mentioned “dominance” theory in my introduction so it should be clear by now that the idea of a “dominant alpha” dog is not supported by any modern research into dog or wolf behaviour. Erroneous dominance theory has been used to support some rather unpleasant dog training methods including “the alpha roll”, pinching dogs with pliers, poking them, holding their muzzles closed and denying them all attention or affection. Dominance theory can be extremely detrimental to human-dog relationships as it creates a false and negative perception of how dogs operate in the family and the home. For those more interested in the subject, the study “Dominance in domestic dogs - useful construct or bad habit?” by John W. S. Bradshaw, Emily J. Blackwell and Rachel A. Casey Journal of Veterinary Behaviour: Clinical Applications and Research, Volume 4, Issue 3, Pages 109-144 (May-June 2009) would be well worth reading. To view the press release about the study go to http://www.bristol.ac.uk/news/2009/6361.html
Question: Those who criticise Cesar don’t deal with Red Zone dogs or would have such dogs put down.
Answer: The term “red zone” is not a scientific concept. Cesar seems to use it to describe the state a dog enters when reacting aggressively to a perceived threat. The dramatic music and the careful filming help to create drama and thrill the viewers as the dog “enters the red zone”. There is nothing mysterious or particularly fascinating about the aggression these so-called “red-zone” dogs are displaying. The only difference is that most dog trainers don’t intentionally push the dogs they work with into heightened displays of aggression as Cesar does. Cesar regularly pins frightened or agitated dogs to the ground, hangs them by slip collars and even kicks them. (And before anyone objects and says they have never seen this - yes, I have watched the programme and these are actual cases I have witnessed and not just hearsay.) If you remove the option of escape and physically attack a dog, you are very likely to get a violent reaction! The idea that positive trainers would put aggressive dogs down rather than rehabilitate them is complete nonsense. Numerous positive trainers work in rescue organisations, dedicating their lives to rehabilitating dogs with very serious problems. There are many extremely effective positive methods which can be SAFELY used on dogs with aggression problems with excellent results.
Question: Why can’t positive trainers just admit that different methods work for different dogs?
Answer: Most modern trainers and behaviourists do admit that there are different ways to train dogs and that some methods work better with some dogs and some work better with others (For example, we may choose to train with toys or food, to use the “all or none” method, lure-reward training or clicker training.) However, most modern trainers also agree that using physical force and psychological intimidation to train dogs is unnecessary, inappropriate and potentially dangerous for dogs and humans. Would positive trainers really be acting in good conscience if they supported or turned a blind eye to practises they sincerely believe are dangerous?
Question: Positive trainers don’t really understand what Cesar is doing and misinterpret it as cruel:
Answer: The methods used on the Dog Whisperer are not something new to the dog training world. There is nothing ingenious or innovative about them. They are methods that were used decades ago around the world, before more accurate research improved our understanding of dog behaviour and effective training techniques. Many positive trainers were originally taught these methods and practised them themselves. The programme may occasionally disguise the practises in some new-age terminology, but anyone with a basic understanding of how animals learn can spot the underlying tactics, i.e. positive punishment, flooding and negative reinforcement, very easily.
Question: Why do positive trainers get so upset by the Dog Whisperer?
Answer: Most positive trainers and behaviourists see their job as educating dog owners in order to improve the lives of people and their dogs. The belief is that when humans understand how dogs learn, what they need and what is normal behaviour for them, people and dogs will be able to live together more harmoniously, dogs will have fuller lives and less behavioural problems and people will have greater pleasure from owning dogs. The safety of humans and dogs is also a priority - dogs that bite humans don’t have a very good life-expectancy! So, over the last few decades huge strides have been made in the field of dog training and animal behaviour in regards to developing safe, kind and effective methods of training and behaviour modification based on modern research. The results have been that training has become accessible to all sorts of people and dogs, that dogs are generally treated with more understanding and that owners are increasingly finding more intelligent and kinder ways of dealing with problems rather than resorting to brute force. Then, along comes the “Dog Whisperer” and overnight millions of dog owners around the world are being told that the “old” methods which we have spent years dismantling are the way to deal with dogs. The dominance myth is resurrected and brute force is encouraged. To make matters worse, the programme appears on the National Geographic channel which gives it an air of credibility which the general public cannot argue with. To say that this is frustrating for those of us who have devoted our careers to the good of people and their dogs is an understatement. Perhaps a good comparison would be how qualified doctors would feel if a reality TV medical programme encouraged the use of drugs and treatments now known by those in the medical field to be very harmful to people. Unfortunately Hollywood seems to be more powerful than science and unless a person is actually a professional in the field, it is hard to see the truth.
However, it will be interesting to see how things develop. Due to pressure from American Humane, an organisation whose aim is to protect the rights of people and animals and who attempted to petition National Geographic to remove his programme from the air, Cesar agreed to attend a symposium on animal welfare. He has also sought the advice of respected animal behaviourist and dog trainer Dr Ian Dunbar (amongst others) for a new book on dog training called “Cesar’s Rules”(a snippet of this can be seen on You-tube with Dunbar clearly stating that he himself takes a “non-contact” approach to dog training). I have also been told that in some more recent episodes Cesar has started to explain his actions in such a way as to try and convince people that he is not hurting a dog when he touches it. So one has to wonder if he is starting to feel the pressure. Recently Cesar was also investigated for animal cruelty after a dog he was working with attacked and injured a pig Cesar was using as "bait" during filming. His complete lack of understanding of training methods and dog behaviour also came under the spotlight when he failed tests that would have allowed him to work with dogs on a tour of Germany (https://www.thedodo.com/community/dogsandethics/cesar-millan-fails-german-dog--730677947.html).
American Humane Association Board Member, Steve Dale, made a comment that sums it up rather well: “All dog trainers evolve. My hope is that Millan is evolving and eventually will catch up with everyone else.” Dale, Steve (July 14th, 2010). “Dog Whisperer Has His Good, and Bad Points”. Tribune Media Service.
For more information on the topic see the following links:
Statement by the Centre of Applied Pet Ethology: http://www.coape.org/awsn_statement.html
While I have touched on the subject before in other posts and articles, I have decided to write an article that deals with this topic more thoroughly due to the current interest brought about by the “Dog Whisperer” TV series, the numerous questions I get from clients about it and the rise in local trainers who have jumped on the band-wagon, adopting the name and principles of the show and in some cases claiming some personal connection with the star.
While the vast majority of dog owners are familiar with Cesar Millan’s TV show, few know that another dog trainer actually used the title Dog Whisperer five years before the show was produced. Paul Owens, a dog trainer who later subtitled his book “A Compassionate Nonviolent Approach to Dog Training” wrote “The Dog Whisperer” and “The Puppy Whisperer” in 1999. Owens is an official member of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT) and is endorsed by The National Association of Dog Obedience Instructors (NADOI).
True to the title and subtitle of the books, Owens advocates gentle, non-confrontational, positive training techniques. This is in stark contrast to Millan’s hands-on, forceful and highly confrontational interactions with dogs. And this is not the only area where these two dog whisperers differ. Millan bases his approach to dealing with dogs on “dominance theory”, the idea that all dog behaviour problems stem from dogs attempting to dominate their owners as a result of owners being weak and indulgent.