Why Cesar Millan Troubles This Dog Trainer

By | Posted: February 6, 2012, 6 a.m.

Back in 1999, I went to work as an editor at Howell Book House, a division of Macmillan Publishing. Howell was, and still is, exclusively a pet publishing house, with titles going back to 1961.

In 1962, Howell published a book on training utility and guard dogs. I had just started to learn to train dogs in 1998, having trained birds for many years, so my first job as an editor was to look at a giant stack of back-listed titles and to choose the books that I thought were outdated.

As I read through the stack, I underlined and bookmarked passages that included advice like digging a hole and filling it with water and putting the dog’s face into the water until it submitted. Choking and hanging dogs into submission was also suggested. But my favorite suggestion was to take a broomstick (or wooden dowel), cut a piece of hose the length of the dowel, insert the wooden stick into it, and use that to beat an unruly dog (rather than your hands, I guess).

Are you kidding me?

I showed it to my boss, the publisher, who agreed that we should stop publishing these books. Times had changed.  We had great authors on our list, like Carol Lea Benjamin (Mother Knows Best: The Natural Way to Train Your Dog) and Sarah Hodgson (Puppies for Dummies).

It’s not that you shouldn’t give a physical correction to a very aggressive dog or a dog that is repeating a behavior that could get himself killed or sent to the pound. But methods like this in the hands of novices are very dangerous.

In desperate situations, correction-type training used by dog trainers can be useful, but the average dog owner should not correct a dog without clear instruction on how to do it properly. Corrections done properly can work. Corrections done improperly, with poor timing, can create a nightmare for dog and owner. I try to train without physical corrections (but I do use verbal corrections), and I have trained aggressive dogs using only good timing, treats, and a clicker – it works.

I thought that the old dog training methodology would fade and newer, more humane training methods would emerge as the primary way that people trained their dogs.

Until Cesar Millan came along.

Millan’s method is based on pack leadership, which makes sense in theory. I don’t disagree with this philosophy – to a point. But some of his methods are flashbacks to the dark ages of dog training; techniques like flooding (stick the poor dog into the middle of a terrifying situation and make him “tough it out”), harsh corrections (like choking a dog into submission), pinching and kicking, and using intimidation tactics.

Every time I tell someone I’m a dog trainer (and I mean, every time), they always ask, in a very perky tone, “Hey, what do you think of Cesar Millan?”

I say, “I don’t like his methods.”

Their eyes widen. “What?” they exclaim, incredulously. “He’s amazing!”

“That’s because you don’t know what you’re looking at, and dog trainers do,” I reply.

When I watch Millan’s show I see a lot of avoidable mistakes, confused owners, and some very unhappy dogs. This dog trainer, and many others, get called in after an owner has tried months of using the dog training methods she saw on Millan’s show, and failed.

You might see a guy who gets control of a crazy dog in five minutes. I see all of the hours it actually took. You might see a calm dog. I see a frustrated or scared dog. Instead of respecting the dog and coming to him on terms he might understand and even appreciate, Millan comes to the dog on his own terms that suit only his agenda – get a dog to submit quickly.

I walk my dogs around New York City every day, and every single day I hear at least one dog owner hissing like a flattening tire, “Sssssssssssssss” and then I see them yanking on their dog’s collar and saying “NO!” Another Cesar Millan casualty, I think to myself. What did that little, well-behaved French Bulldog puppy do to deserve that correction? In reality, it’s the owner who probably needed the correction – or at least a great deal of instruction on how to properly handle a dog.

I recently read a blog written by a dog lover, Joanne Brokaw, who attended Millan’s recent Pack Leader tour. She hadn’t ever watched a Cesar Millan TV show – she went into it with an open mind. What she saw horrified her. She writes:

“There’s a difference between being a leader and being in charge . . . intimidating dogs into doing what you want by pinching them or leashing them in their most sensitive place is neither leading or being in charge. It’s being rude and being a bully . . . research has proven that: 1) dogs are not wolves any more than men are apes and 2) what we thought we knew about wolf packs has been completely invalidated once we began to study wolves in the wild.”

She’s also mentions a dog that Millan uses in his talk, and says that its body language was not that of a happy dog. I see that every time I watch Millan’s show. I think he owes me some money for Botox because I cringe the entire 30 minutes (and cringing creates horrible wrinkles). His “domination” techniques are profoundly extreme. You can get the same results with far less drama, but it doesn’t make for good television. I’m not saying that the show isn’t entertaining – so is “Medical Mysteries,” but I wouldn’t use it to diagnose my illness.

I watched an episode of Millan’s show about a Vizsla with resource guarding issues. The dog tried to bite if someone came near its chewy. Millan said it was because the dog was trying to be dominant. Any dog trainer worth her biscuits will tell you that resource guarding has little to do with “dominance.” The dog had either been “trained” by its family to do that (the kids teased the dog with food, etc.) or the dog was acting on pure instinct to keep its food.

Yes, the “dominant” wolves in a pack would eat first, and I’m assuming that’s what Millan is basing his assessment on, but from watching the dog, it seemed more likely that the behavior of the family made the dog that way. Millan went on to yank and hiss the dog into “submission,” and the dog even bit him. Eventually, Millan took the chewy – the dog cowered and licked its lips nervously, like any prison inmate would do when confronted with a cruel warden. My guess is that the dog went straight back to resource guarding once Millan left. Rather than make the dog’s life miserable, how about offering the dog something better than the chewy? A dog will trade a chewy for a piece of liver any day.

There’s a technique to this that takes days, even weeks, but eventually you have a waggy-tailed dog that is more than willing to part with its chewy because it knows that it doesn’t mean parting with it forever and that you are not a threat – you are a source of good things. There’s no “dominant/submissive” in this scenario. Just learning and fun.

So, why does the average dog owner (and people who don’t even have dogs) love Millan? I think it’s because people like easy-to-understand, repetitive, logical formulas that seem to work. The problem is that a method that might work on one dog will not work on another. The formula is faulty, and many dog trainers see that.

Dog training is counterintuitive, and people are more comfortable using paradigms that they understand, like human behavior. But when you apply human behavior to dog behavior, you get a mismatch. Millan also chooses training methods that appeal to people because they can see an instant change in the dog – no matter that the dog is unhappy. Personally, I’d rather have a dog follow me because he wants to (because I’ve created that atmosphere with positive training), not because he has Stockholm Syndrome.

This is a very complicated issue, partly because dog training isn’t really about training dogs, it’s about training an owner to behave consistently in a certain way that creates certain behaviors in the dog. This takes a lot of practice – more than you can get in a short TV show.

Millan has done some good. I like that he focuses on exercise – most dogs don’t get enough, and a tired dog is a good dog. He has made dog training a wide topic of conversation. But it’s important to view his show as “advertising” for a brand – you don’t run out and buy every potato chip, insurance plan, and heart medicine you see advertised on TV, do you? Why? Because those things might not be for you as an individual. You wouldn’t buy car insurance if you didn’t have a car, right? Some of Millan’s techniques might be good for your dog, some may not. Use with caution.

What do I recommend? Try clicker training before hissing at and correcting your dog. I swear it works. Clicker training is fantastic for fear, aggression, resource guarding, and general training. Someone just decided that it’s not sexy enough for TV.



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colin   boston, Massachusetts

12/10/2015 2:07:13 PM

This is the typical sour grapes we see from dog trainers that are envious of Milan. I along with my brother won two north American Ring Sport Championships and we understand Cesar for the Genius he is.

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Samantha   Arlington, Massachusetts

8/29/2014 10:18:19 PM

This article writer is an idiot who obviously uses the "petco/petsmart" way of training yet know nothing of a TRUE dog's body language. That being said certain dogs achieve more from positive reinforcement but this writer is biased and an idiot as I said before. I am 28 years old, have been raised around all breeds; collies, terriers etc and worked for THREE years in a dog day camp setting with numerous breeds and individual personalities. I know dog body language and behavior and the "click and treat" while working with SOME dogs at basic level does SHIT for a lot of dog breeds and individual personalities. I advise every dog owner look at THEIR dog's personality and do extensive research on THEIR dog's breed. The trainers who think "only positive reinforcement" are the ones who's client's dogs usually end up in the pound. Positive reinforcement is good but should be balanced by painless, shocking reprimands..

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Samantha   Arlington, Massachusetts

8/29/2014 10:04:56 PM

First off I own a 1 and three month old APBT. And she is excelling already in protection detail towards children. Second I have NEVER seen Cesear Millan mistreating or "choking" a dog into submission though the method IS used by trainers. PICTURE. A wolf pack/ dogs are basically NO different than wolves save their domesticity. In a wolf pack do the alphas "click and treat" thier pack members for misbehavior? NO! A reprimand is quick and shocking, reward being loved and simply praised. Briefly choking and shocking a dog achieves the same result as an alpha role. It is NEVER about harming a dog it is about exerting your dominance as pack alpha. Trust me your dog will feel safer and more content this way

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Jerry   Concord, California

11/3/2013 11:21:27 PM

I've learned a couple of valuable lessons from Cesar Millan. One is patience. Another is calmness. They work wonders. Too many people don't learn those basic lessons and instead try to apply his "magical cures". We've never hissed at our dog - that does not work for us. But we have done things like "claim" space because they seemed natural for us to do and they worked wonders.

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