Since the airing of National Geographic’s Dog Whisperer featuring Cesar Milan, I’ve had a few calls about what I think of the program.

I’ve been debating if I should write about it, because when trainers disagree, it seems to be put down to ‘professional jealousy’, lack of confidence and pettiness. On request of a client I reluctantly decided to struggle through last week’s episode to see if the techniques used were the ones I’ve seen him use in the past. Maybe there was a change in approach, maybe I could find something positive in it? With each ad break we had a quick chat about what happened, about what I observed and would have done differently.  I did not enjoy it, it reminded me a little of animal acts in a circus – entertainment at the expense of the animal, but if it helped one client to really understand why I don’t agree with his techniques, then it was worth it.

Usually when one looks for someone who’s service we are about to use, we first look at education, credentials or professional societies they may belong to. You will not use the services of a vet, lawyer, pediatrician, physiatrist,  plumber or builder without making sure this person is who and what he claims to be. Why then when it comes to our dogs, do people go for the charismatic, the celebrity or the closest trainer without checking them out.

Trying to find any of Cesar’s credentials was difficult. The closest I got to was that he read two dog related books –‘ The dog’s mind’ by Bruce A. Fogle and ‘Dog Psychology’ by Leon F Whitney and watching the animals on the farm he lived on as a child.  How does that make him (according to his official website) “a world renowned dog behavior specialist”. I’m not saying that only if you have qualifications you are talented and competent, but if you want to practice in a profession that is based on science then, I feel, you should have some qualification to indicate that you understands the ‘laws of learning’…at least.

Who can blame the public for believing that Cesar’s techniques are okay  –  if it is on National Geographic, it must surely be right?  TV, or more so reality programs are about entertainment, and to satisfy the current TV audience is becoming more and more difficult. Mixing an emotive topic such as our pet dogs with a charismatic, energetic  foreigner with a strong accent – surely will make for good viewing. What if the star of the show was a monotonous, ordinary professor in animal behaviour? Ratings would drop. Even Victoria Stillwell had to dress up as a dominatrix in the UK show “It’s me or the dog”. (Victoria has in later years become more of a positive approach trainer.)

Why then are there so many NGO’s, Professional Societies (see below) and other behaviour specialists  in uproar (see below) about Cesar Milan’s techniques. Is it about professional jealousy? I don’t think so – every professional that has come forward with their opinion about his techniques are highly qualified people such as board certified veterinarian behaviourists, professors, certified trainers and lectors in the field of animal behaviour. They are all successful in their own right. Neither I nor any of these professionals are personally attacking Cesar, it said that he is a very charming person and I’m sure his heart is in the right place, but it’s the methods that he uses that is causing great concern amongst dog trainers and behaviourist.

While watching the show – a few buzz words kept coming up like, ‘calm submissiveness’ and ‘respect’ . What he terms as ‘calm submissiveness’, we with a knowledge of body language would rather call that  physical and emotional exhaustion and in some cases even shut-down. The later term means the dog ‘gives up’. Then he proclaims that NOW the dog is respectful of him, because the dog allows him to do just about anything to him (yes…because his given up). And THEN Cesar rewards the dog (for being helpless) with heavy petting. According to the dog’s body language that petting in that context is more of an aversive that a reward.

Next time you watch the Dog Whisperer, if you can stomach it, watch it without sound and focus just on the dog’s body language.

Next time your children start a fight  – grab the one who started it, force him to the floor and hold him down until he stops struggling and when he does, tell him how good he is while ruffling his hair. Do you think you’ve made your relationship stronger, do you think your child respects you? Do you think your child finds your physical touch reassuring? Has this taught your child how to interact appropriately with his sibling?

With all the outcry, public concerns and statements (see below) one would think that a reputable channel such as NG would investigate what the ‘fuss’ was about – if it wasn’t such a serious issue it would be laughable that the National Geographic now puts a “don’t try this at home” warning on the screen – to waiver any liability. Is this not indicative of their knowledge that his techniques could cause harm to owners, other dogs or people? If their idea is to educate dog owners on how to deal with behaviour problems, why warn people about “‘don’t try this at home”?

So what is all the objection about?? It seems that the three basic techniques Cesar uses are positive punishment, flooding and excessive exercise all have negative fallouts and is detrimental to the dog’s well-being. Positive punishment means adding an aversive towards the dog or towards the dog’s environment like choke chains, physical intimidation, shock collars, hanging dogs until they pass out, alpha rolling dogs on their backs until they give up. According to dr. Sophia Yin (whom you can read about more below) says that in most veterinary practices in the USA a vet technician / nurse will get fired for using such techniques. Flooding refers to a technique where you over expose the dog to the stimulus or environment which he finds fearful.

When you physically (or verbally – depending on the individual dog’s temperament) punish a dog, a physiological stress response occurs. There is a cascade of neurotransmitters and hormones that are released in the body and brain. Some of these chemicals can take days to get back to normal levels. As the dog endures more and more punishment the stress response re-occurs over and over and the dog becomes more and more anxious and conflicted – which in time causes the dog to become more reactive and can have an ‘over the top’ response to minor stimuli. This is usually when we hear “he just bit me for no reason” / “I just wanted to pet him and he bit me” This dog was in conflict and did not know if the hand approaching him was going to hurt or feel good.

Some of the dog’s on Cesar’s show that have a fear of a particular stimuli or situation is besieged with this fearful stimuli (flooding) – for example the dog-dog aggressive dog is forced to interact with a whole group of Cesar’s dogs. Can you imagine how that dog must feel inside?

Imagine your worst fear (i.e. heights, snakes or spiders) and then I make you face your fear – how would you like being taken up in the cable-car or enter a room full of wriggling snakes and crawling spiders – is that going to make you feel good? Are going to try and escape the situation – what if I prevented you – would try and fight me to get away – what if you were successful – would you use that same strategy next time in a similar situation? What if you were not successful – wouldn’t you just feel helpless? Would you want your dog to go through this emotional torture.

Another technique he uses is to exercise a dog on a treadmill till the point of exhaustion, off course the dog would not be able to misbehave afterwards. When in that physically exhaustive state no dog will be able to learn any new alternative behaviour. Moderated exercises is good to get rid of excess or nervous energy, but in itself just exercising is not going to solve the problem.

When working with positive reinforcement and removal of reinforcement you might take longer to get to your desired goal, it does requires more creativity, mechanical skills and knowledge, it will require more work as you will have to work systematically, but you will have a more reliable, lasting new behaviour with no negative fallouts.

Cesar seems to contradict his theories at times. On his official website it states : “In Cesar’s opinion, no one should ever hit or yell at a dog to correct unwanted behavior.” – So what does he call string up a dog to cut of air supply or alpha rolling a dog? On the show I watch he said that the Labrador “forgot he was a dog, and thought he was a human” – how does he KNOW THAT? He also said that dogs are not to be treated as children but then he anthropomorphizes this Labby by ascribing human attributes to him.

Does positive punishment work sometimes – yes, if timed properly and appropriate intensity is used. ‘Appropriate intensity’ could mean different things to different trainers. Most trainers cannot even comply to these two criteria, so how can he expect the general public to implement these techniques accurately? When punished on TV, the dog’s behaviour immediately ceases, but in fact it is only temporarily subdued. That behaviour will pop up later again and this time maybe even worse and maybe out of context and/or directed at some person or dog that is completely unrelated to the initial trigger / behaviour. Does Cesar have success stories? Yes – but how reliable, safe and lasting is that success and can he validate the methods he used to get there?

Can gratuitous petting and treating cause negative behaviour – sure it can. Rewards, if used wrong could exasperate unwanted behaviours. It can also cause dogs to become pushy and demanding. Years ago I was bitten on the arm by a Rottweiler that was so use to always getting what she wanted, and the moment I did not give her attention when she nuzzled her nose under my elbow, she bite me out of pure anger, for not getting what she want when she wanted it. (Visualize a spoilt child being told “no”.)

In the show it seems that one behavioural ‘recipe’ fits all. Get “respect”  by forceful means, sprinkled with poorly timed, un-reinforcing rewards. What is clearly lacking from the show is that there has never been a full behavioural work-up done on any dog – neither has it been mentioned – if it was done. Work-ups take approximately 90 minutes to 2 hours (let’s leave that out of the show, cause it’s too boring to watch), and even longer for aggression cases. It usually includes a vet check and a detailed history taking of the behaviour to find out what really drives the unwanted behaviour. Not all ‘mis-behaviours’ are linked to dominance – in fact that theory has been proven incorrect for the last decade. Dogs are individuals and need to be treated as individuals. They have different early learning experiences, different genetic make-ups and different underlying physiology. Has any of those dogs ever been tested for pain of the neurological system, muscular-skeletal system, for endocrine disorders or infectious diseases? If any of the above is underlying the aggressive behaviour no amount of any behaviour modification will work.

Never has Cesar accepted the numerous requests to explain or defend his methods. Why is that? Does he have to? No I guess not, but if you have confidence in your method and you are literally bombarded with negative press from educated, qualified specialist in the profession from all over the world, wouldn’t you like to say your say? When questioned about this in interviews his standard reply always is: “It’s their opinion, I always say my way is not the only way, it’s just a way.”

Has he made more people aware that there is help for their unruly or aggressive dogs? Yes, and that is a good thing. The flipside of that coin is – people are trying his methods at home and getting bitten and emotionally and behaviourally suppressing their dogs. It’s dangerous, unfounded, inhumane and not advisable, unfortunately the packaging it comes in is attractive and alluring.

He has literally taken all the progress that have been made in the field of dog training back by 40 years. It seems we have backtracked to the era of the Monks of New Skete, Koehler and the ‘Barbara Woodhouses’.

©2010 Claire Grobbelaar

All comments will be published that are written in a polite, professional manner regardless of whether you agree with my opinion or not. Posts that are of an offensive manner will be denied.

The following organizations have joined forces to voice their serious concerns about techniques which pose welfare problems for dogs and significant risk to owners who may copy them.

UK – Dogs Trust, The Blue Cross, Royal Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA), The Blue Dog, Wood Green Animal Shelters, World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA), The Kennel Club, Raystede Centre for Animal Welfare, Canine Partners, UK , Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour (ASAB), Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors (APBC), Association of Pet Dog Trainers, UK (APDT, UK), UK Registry of Canine Behaviours (UKRCB), Companion Animal Behaviour Therapy Study Group (CABTSG), British Small Animal veterinary Association (BSAVA) and the British Veterinary Association (BVA).

Australia – Australian Veterinary Association (AVA), Australian Vetrinary Behaviour Interest Group (AVBIG),

USA – American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB), American College of Veterinary Behaviorists (ACVB), The International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC) and The Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers, Inc. (CCPDT)(USA).

Europe – European Society of Clinical Veterinary Ethology (ESCVE), European College of Veterinary Behavioural Medicine – Companion Animals (ECVBM-CA), the Flemish Veterinary Working Group on Ethology (VDWE) and Norwegian Association for Pet Behaviour (NAPB) Norsk Atferdsgruppe for Selskapsdyr (NAS).

Links about what other trainers, behaviourists and experts have to say.

VIDEO – Are the Dog Whisperer’s methods harmful?  (When I watched this video my dogs who were lying next to me abruptly got up and hurried away when they heard the noises the black GSD was making)

Experts say Dominance-based Dog Training Techniques made popular by Television show can contribute to DOG BITES.

Cesar Milan: The Dog ‘Whisperer’?

Andrew Luescher, DVM, Veterinary Behaviorist, Animal Behavior Clinic, Purdue University

Pack of Lies – New York Times

Dog Whisperer Cesar Milan Sued For Dog Injury

Veterinary Behaviorists Question Dominance Theory in Dogs

The Anti-Cesar Milan

Talk softly and carry a big carrot or stick – Jean Donaldson

Why is Pharmaceutical Giant Merial ignoring the advice of Veterinary experts?