This really disturbed me.
Pack of Lies
by Mark Derr

With a compelling personal story as the illegal immigrant made good because of his uncanny ability to understand dogs, Cesar Millan has taken the world of canine behavior -- or rather misbehavior -- by storm. He has the top-rated program, "Dog Whisperer," on the National Geographic Channel, a best-selling book and a devoted following, and he has been the subject of several glowing magazine articles.

He is even preparing to release his own "Illusion" collar and leash set, named for his wife and designed to better allow people to walk their dogs the "Cesar way" -- at close heel, under strict control.

Essentially, National Geographic and Cesar Millan have cleverly repackaged and promoted a simplistic view of the dog's social structure and constructed around it a one-size-fits-all, cookie-cutter approach to dog training. In Mr. Millan's world, dog behavioral problems result from a failure of the human to be the "pack leader," to dominate the dog (a wolf by any other name) completely.

While Mr. Millan rejects hitting and yelling at dogs during training, his confrontational methods include physical and psychological intimidation, like finger jabs, choke collars, extended sessions on a treadmill and what is called flooding, or overwhelming the animal with the thing it fears. Compared with some training devices still in use -- whips and cattle prods, for example -- these are mild, but combined with a lack of positive reinforcement or rewards, they place Mr. Millan firmly in a long tradition of punitive dog trainers.

Mr. Millan brings his pastiche of animal behaviorism and pop psychology into millions of homes a week. He's a charming, one-man wrecking ball directed at 40 years of progress in understanding and shaping dog behavior and in developing nonpunitive, reward-based training programs, which have led to seeing each dog as an individual, to understand what motivates it, what frightens it and what its talents and limitations are. Building on strengths and working around and through weaknesses, these trainers and specialists in animal behavior often work wonders with their dogs, but it takes time.

Mr. Millan supposedly delivers fast results. His mantra is "exercise, discipline, affection," where discipline means "rules, boundaries, limitations." Rewards are absent and praise scarce, presumably because they will upset the state of calm submission Mr. Millan wants in his dogs. Corrections abound as animals are forced to submit or face their fear, even if doing so panics them.

Mr. Millan builds his philosophy from a simplistic conception of the dog's "natural" pack, controlled by a dominant alpha animal (usually male). In his scheme, that leader is the human, which leads to the conclusion that all behavior problems in dogs derive from the failure of the owner or owners to dominate. (Conveniently, by this logic, if Mr. Millan's intervention doesn't produce lasting results, it is the owner's fault.)

Women are the worst offenders in his world. In one of the outtakes included in the four-DVD set of the first season of "Dog Whisperer," Mr. Millan explains that a woman is "the only species that is wired different from the rest." And a "woman always applies affection before discipline," he says. "Man applies discipline then affection, so we're more psychological than emotional. All animals follow dominant leaders; they don't follow lovable leaders."

Mr. Millan's sexism is laughable; his ethology is outdated.

The notion of the "alpha pack leader" dominating all other pack members is derived from studies of captive packs of unrelated wolves and thus bears no relationship to the social structure of natural packs, according to L. David Mech, one of the world's leading wolf experts. In the wild, the alpha wolves are merely the breeding pair, and the pack is generally comprised of their juvenile offspring and pups.

"The typical wolf pack," Dr. Mech wrote in The Canadian Journal of Zoology in 1999, "is a family, with the adult parents guiding the activities of a group in a division-of-labor system." In a natural wolf pack, "dominance contests with other wolves are rare, if they exist at all," he writes.

That's a far cry from the dominance model that Mr. Millan attributes to the innate need of dogs by way of wolves.

Unlike their wolf forebears, dogs exist in human society. They have been selectively bred for 15,000 or more years to live with people. Studies have shown that almost from birth they are attentive to people, and that most are eager to please, given proper instruction and encouragement.

But sometimes the relationship goes very wrong, and it is time to call on a professional.

Aggression is perhaps the most significant of the behavioral problems that may afflict more than 20 percent of the nation's 65 million dogs, because it can lead to injury and death. Mr. Millan often treats aggression by forcing the dog to exercise extensively on a treadmill, by asserting his authority over the dog by rolling it on its back in the "alpha rollover," and through other forms of intimidation, including exposure to his pack of dogs.

Forcefully rolling a big dog on its back was once recommended as a way to establish dominance, but it is now recognized as a good way to get bitten. People are advised not to try it. In fact, many animal behaviorists believe that in the long run meeting aggression with aggression breeds more aggression.

More important, aggression often has underlying medical causes that might not be readily apparent -- hip dysplasia or some other hidden physical ailment that causes the dog to bite out of pain; hereditary forms of sudden rage that require a medical history and genealogy to diagnose; inadequate blood flow to the brain or a congenital brain malformation that produces aggression and can only be uncovered through a medical examination. Veterinary behaviorists, having found that many aggressive dogs suffer from low levels of serotonin, have had success in treating such dogs with fluoxetine (the drug better known as Prozac).

Properly treating aggression, phobias, anxiety and fears from the start can literally save time and money. Mr. Millan's quick fix might make for good television and might even produce lasting results in some cases. But it flies in the face of what professional animal behaviorists -- either trained and certified veterinarians or ethologists -- have learned about normal and abnormal behavior in dogs.

Mark Derr is the author of "A Dog's History of America: How Our Best Friend Explored, Conquered and Settled a Continent."
We shared our lives with an anxious, fearful animal, and Millan's methods would have provoked Buster's aggression, and led to his death. Establishing the pecking order of the pack is important, but for most dogs, it occurs naturally. Dogs who are anxious and afraid, like humans, need gentle, gradual training in a secure environment. You don't force a person who's afraid of heights to jump out of an airplane and call it a cure.

There are so many bad dog trainers and methods out there, and they can literally ruin a dog's - and a family's - life. The only time Buster ever attacked another dog - the one time he got away from us and was able to - was a direct result of an incompetent trainer.* I've also read several books by David Mech, the wolf expert cited in this piece, and his view of canine behaviour is enlightened, advanced, and based on years of careful observation, not an easily-packaged pop psychology.

The sexism, well, that's just bullshit. Some of the world's best dog trainers and behaviourists are women. I'm not going to say women make better trainers because they're more gentle (that's sexism, too), but they certainly aren't incapable because they "apply affection" first.

There are thousands, millions, of homeless and abandoned dogs, in part because people don't know what to expect, don't understand the dog's needs, get bad advice, and give up on the "bad dog". People like Cesar Millan only make it worse.

Thanks again to AW1L for pointing me to this story.

* The other dog was OK; he needed stitches in his ear. Allan was rushed to the hospital with a bone protruding from his ripped-open finger, and spent five days in the hospital, often in tremendous pain. The incident released massive aggression in Buster, was highly traumatic for me, and began us on a long, painful, expensive odyssey to try to work with Buster's problems. If the trainer had listened to us, or if I had over-ruled her (not easy to do when you're paying a so-called expert), none of it would have happened.


impudent strumpet said...

So is there a way a person without much experience in training dogs can tell if a professional dog trainer is incompetent?

L-girl said...

That is an excellent question, Ms. Strumpet. I wish I had a good answer.

The horrible trainer that hurt Buster and us so much was recommended by a vet we loved and trusted. (The last time the vet ever recommended her.)

I would ask the trainer to talk about her/his philosophy and point of view. Get some notes from him/her or write your own, then check it out with people who know dogs.

Also speak to former clients, see what their experience was like.

I'd look for a person who wants to earn a dog's trust and respect, and who respects animals, not just wants to dominate them. A person who respects a dog's innate intelligence, who will work with the dog's comfort level, and with yours.

A person who has a set plan - a quick-fix or a 3-week plan - is suspicious, IMO. I'd be more inclined to trust someone who looks for gradual change, according to how the dog does as you move along.

Also a person who uses a lot of positive rewards - food treats combined with praise and love. Positive reinforcement is the only way to form a deep bond of trust, and that underlies all good training. Negative conditioning like "no" and "uh-uh" are used only sparingly.

And you might already know this, but absolutely NO hitting or yelling, ever. Any dog trainer that yells or hits a dog shouldn't get your business or anyone else's.

For ordinary dog training, there are lots of good people. We needed someone with expertise in anxiety and aggression, and that was trickier. You (I hope!) won't need that. :)

That's my experience. Maybe some other dog people who are reading can add to it.

Klite said...

Women are the worst offenders in his world. In one of the outtakes included in the four-DVD set of the first season of "Dog Whisperer," Mr. Millan explains that a woman is "the only species that is wired different from the rest." And a "woman always applies affection before discipline," he says. "Man applies discipline then affection, so we're more psychological than emotional. All animals follow dominant leaders; they don't follow lovable leaders."

ha ha ha ha

Mr. Millan - you are the weakest link- goodbye ! if his methodlogy is so good then i want to see him in a extended nat geo series called Mr Millan boot camp or Prison, see how long he will last.

as for the gender issue - two words

babara woodhouse, no contest period !

she gave displince and affection and became famous for her "walkies" phrase.

Lone Primate said...

Torture your way to affection? Forget dogs; this guy's got a bright future in Homeland Security.

Tom said...

I have watched his show and used some of his techniques on our dog.

I am glad you gave me a different point of view. One things I hate doing that Ceasar advocated is not making much of saying goodbye or greeting your dog right away when entering the door, this supposedly helps with separation anxiety. It kills me to ignore her when she is so excited to see me.

Perhaps I need to re-think this.

L-girl said...

Tom, he's correct on that.

If your dog has separation anxiety, rule number one is don't make a fuss over leaving - a friendly goodbye plus a treat (good association with leaving) - and don't make a fuss over coming home, just a friendly, firm hello and do the crazy greeting thing later.

It's hard to do, but it is super important and SO much better for the dog.

If your dog doesn't have separation anxiety, it doesn't matter. But if he/she does, you should definitely do this.

Imagine your dog is on an emotional roller coaster with your exit and entry. The goal is to try to smooth it out a little, less extremes of highs and lows.

As you exit the door, throw a treat back in, say "bye bye" in a happy voice and leave.

If your dog has serious separation anxiety, consider using a crate. That will give him/her a feeling of security, tapping into the denning instinct, while you're gone.

So I guess Millan is good about some things. I'm glad to know that.

L-girl said...

this guy's got a bright future in Homeland Security.


or more like :<(

Tom said...

Thanks for the advice.

We didn't know Katie had anxiety until the tenant in our previous house said she was crying when we were gone. So we have been trying the techniques and hoping it works for her.

We hope to break it before moving to Canada, knowing we will be renting when we get there. We don't want to anger the neighbors with a crying dog.

Do you have any advice for a dog with severe skin allergies? I bathe her twice a week and give her antihistamines, but she's still suffering. I am taking her to the vet again tomorrow.

L-girl said...

Our Shepherd had bad skin allergies.

A couple of things. So much bathing might be making it worse by drying out her skin, unless you're using a special shampoo. I'd cut out the bathing for a while, unless someone told you specifically that Katie needs it.

Skin allergies are often beef allergies. Gypsy's cleared up by switching to a lamb-and-rice diet, including treats.

Oil supplements in her food might help, like linatone.

Gypsy also had flea-bite dermatitis - one flea bite and she'd be completely inflamed and itchy - we'd always end up at the vet for a cortisone shot - but that was solved when the monthly preps came out, like Frontline. That's probably not a factor for you.

The no-beef diet was like a miracle cure.

About separation anxiety, if you want to email me, feel free. We've had several dogs who suffered that way (common with rescues, I guess), and we were pretty successful at calming it down. I'm no trainer, but I can tell you what we learned.

kavaXtreme said...

You've gotta love it when in our overwhelming concern about living in a tolerant world we become violently intolerant of those who don't subscribe to our own views.

I've never seen Cesar display sexist behaviour. He does acknowldedge that men and women are different (a pretty obvious fact, and not only on the biological level), and treats them that way. Recognizing and respecting individuality is hardly sexism.

But more to the point, while so many people are set on bashing him, his popularity is because very many (not all) people find his methods more effective than other methods they have tried (one example:http://www.slate.com/id/2149364/). It's not about theory of what should and should not work; it's about the bottom line.

L-girl said...

You've gotta love it when in our overwhelming concern about living in a tolerant world we become violently intolerant of those who don't subscribe to our own views.

I'm not violently intolerant of Cesar Millan, or anyone else. The person who wrote the essay is not violently anything.

I love and respect dogs, and don't like to see them mistreated. I believe Millan's theories and programs mistreat dogs.

Recognizing and respecting individuality is hardly sexism.

Saying women cannot be successful at something (in this case, effective dog trainers) because they are women is sexism.

It's not about theory of what should and should not work; it's about the bottom line.

The bottom line in short-term results is different from a happy, well adjusted dog. For that, theories matter.

Thanks for stopping by and sharing your views.

Silvia said...

Excellent article on Millan. The punitive approach makes dogs either more confrontational or shut-down. The physically exhausted dog, or the one that unlearned to offer ANY behavior in fear of a correction, can easily be misconstrued as well-behaved.

If in doubt which method one should use with the family pooch, replace the word with dog with three-year-old child and check if you still feel good about the method.

Silvia - dog behavior consultant