As a dog owner I have frequently heard of César Millán the Dog Whisperer. Millán is a Mexican-American dog trainer, best known for his National Geographic TV show, The Dog Whisperer, in which he rehabilitates trouble dogs.
Here is a typical video showing what Millán does with aggressive dogs.
When watching his show, one can’t help but be amazed at the way he handles some of these dogs, many of which are either wildly disobedient or incredibly aggressive. His successes have earned him many fans. He’s published three best seller books, made numerous media appearances, gives presentations to sold out venues, and he owns his own dog training facility.
It’s hard to imagine anyone taking issue with his methods which are so effective. But taking issue is what many dog training professionals are doing. Can we take a skeptical look at what Millán does?
Millán’s modus operandi can be summed up into two central points:
1) Be a “calm, assertive, pack leader”
2) Dogs require “exercise, discipline and affection—in that order.”
Essentially what Millán is suggesting is that dogs, like wolves, are pack animals. The owner of the dog is like the alpha wolf. The owner must be the dominate pack leader and the dog must be submissive. Dogs that misbehave do so because they consider themselves the pack leader and don’t respect their owners.
Millán goes about establishing dominance through his “calm, assertive, energy” he doesn’t acknowledge dogs when he meets them, he ignores them when they bark, the only response he typically gives is a quick poke or slap. It’s only when the dog has calmed down and is willing to listen to him that he initiates contact.
In order to train and teach his dogs, Millán relies on two techniques almost exclusively, flooding and positive punishment. Flooding is when:
“an animal is exposed to a fear (or aggression) evoking stimulus and prevented from leaving the situation, until it stops reacting. To take a human example: arachnophobia would be treated by locking a person into a closet, releasing hundreds of spiders into that closet, and keeping the door shut until the person stops reacting. The person might be cured by that, but also might be severely disturbed and would have gone through an excessive amount of stress.” – Andrew Luescher, DVM, Ph.D, DACVB
Positive punishment is any type of punishment in which the dog is punished with an unpleasant condition to discourage future behavior. It’s the same type of thinking that suggests spanking a child for misbehaving.
Punishment, among most trainers of animals, is considered backwards and antithetical to successful obedience training. It is also generally agreed among psychologists that punishment is not an effective way to correct unwanted behavior in humans. However, Millán defends his use of punishment as part of the pack mentality that dogs naturally exist in. After all, a quick poke can’t really compare to what a alpha wolf would do to a member of its pack who misbehaved, right?
It turns out that the scientific consensus on pack behavior is as out of date on prior perceptions of corporal punishment. (See my blog post on corporal punishment for more on this)
One of the assumptions that Millán makes about dogs is that they are pack animals. His thesis of dog rehabilitation rests on the hypothesis that a good owner is also the pack leader and controls the dog with calm assertive energy in the same way an alpha wolf would control the pack. However, modern research on wolves and dogs indicates that this view of dominance and the “alpha wolf” are incorrect.
David Mech is an adjunct Professor in the Department of Fisheries, Wildlife and Conservation Biology, and Ecology, Evolution and Behavior at the University of Minnesota, he’s also one of the world foremost experts on wolf behaviour. Much of the terminology of wolf behavior comes from Mech’s original research. The vernacular of alpha wolf can be attributed to him. However, Mech reveals that the science of wolf behavior has changed in the last thirty years. His first book was published in the 1970′s, in which he used the term “alpha wolf” however he suggests that in reality, wolves don’t form packs based on dominance but rather cooperation. It would be more accurate to refer to the pack leader as the “breeding male and breeding female.”
This is an important distinction, which it appears that Millán didn’t get the memo on. If the “alpha wolf” theory is incorrect that would mean that a major part of Millán’s method is based on incorrect data. Since wolves and by extension, dogs are not dominance based pack animals, a dog that is acting up isn’t doing so because it has delusions of grandeur and a thirst for power. Treating it as though it were will not solve the problem.
Even if dogs were in a dominance based hierarchy as Millán suggests, his methods still wouldn’t make sense. Animals that rely on dominance do so to control mating and access to resources. It’s enforced constantly, sometimes resulting in animals being killed to enforce that control. Remember, evolution only works if you pass on your genes. Animals that are put in a position where they don’t get to mate have very little reason to not fight to the death to gain that position. If dogs were dominance based, they would not readily submit to anything, a dog owner would constantly have to engage in dominance based corrective behavior to “remind” the dog who was in charge.
Simply the fact that there are large scale efforts to have dogs spayed and neutered should tell you that dogs don’t exist in such behavioral system. Research on dog evolution indicates they are scavengers and have promiscuous mating habits. This is why humans have taken such measures to try to control dog mating.
So why does Millán’s techniques appear to work? The most obvious answer is that we only ever see his techniques over the course of an hour long show. There’s no debate that positive punishment can be effective in the short term. If you smack a child for doing something, chances are they aren’t immediately going to go right back to doing that behavior, it’s the same with dogs.
Another reason is that some of Millán’s techniques are useful, mainly the exercise aspect. It should be no surprise that hyperactive dogs probably aren’t getting enough exercise. But it’s also important to realize that there are more than one type of dogs. Some breeds are highly energetic and require way more attention from their owner’s than other breeds of dogs. Border Collies, for example, are one of the most active and energetic dog breeds. Bull Terriers, while also being energetic are also known for being mischievous little devils that will require more training and stricter social structure to avoid them getting into trouble.
So, certain breeds of dogs and in certain situations would see an improvement in behaviour with firmer training, more exercise and more attention.
I’ve talked about how Millán’s theories on dog behavior are wrong. They are not pack animals who are dominance based. I’ve also talked about his methods which use positive punishment and exposure of dogs to stressful situations called flooding.
But I’d also like to discuss Millán’s connection to more traditional woo like homeopathy.
Millán has on more than one occasion promoted or suggested the use of homeopathic dog medicine. In an episode called Mufasa and Tucker, Millán invited Dr. Dahlia Shemtob to administer homeopathic medicine to calm a dog’s nerves. In a Q and A with his fans, he also recommended homeopathy and acupuncture for dogs to help keep them relaxed. In a quote on the Homeopathy Health Center, Millán states: “Homeopathy means to me; the ability to live without any negative blockage to go forward and be at my potential. Because of homeopathy my family and dogs live a balanced life.”
Not only are Millán’s suggestions irresponsible but they could be dangerous to your dog’s health. If your dog is sick, you need to take it to a science based vet who can diagnose the problem and prescribe the correct medication or treatment.
I checked to see what Millán’s stance is on vaccinations but for the most part he seems to be in favor of them. He does occasionally use troubling vocabulary like letting your dog use its own natural defences (speaking to the misnomer that the immune system is like a muscle that needs to be worked out.) He also suggests dog owners do their own research which is always risky. Unless you are qualified to understand dog biology and medicine, you should really limit “research” to consultations with qualified vets.
Overall however there is plenty for the skeptical dog owner to have misgivings about César Millán. His outdated theories on dog behavior, his questionable methods of training and punishing dogs, his reliance on quack medicine for dogs, his ambiguous vocabulary on “energy” and other common pseudo science buzz words. Based on all of this, I’d recommend extreme caution in using any of Millán’s methods.