Response to Comments about My Cesar Millan Blog

I want to thank everyone who wrote in to provide support, and so many wonderful examples, in response my KOMO-TV spot and my follow-up blog entry.  The response has been most impressive.  I, of course, knew that there were many science-based trainers out there, trainers who have never bought into Cesar’s Way or who have switched to more effective methods when they learned of them.  But so many of them read my blog and were willing to share their support!!  I have passed along your comments to Joel Moreno, the KOMO-TV reporter that pushed along this piece and helped to get it on the air.  He also was somewhat taken aback by the outpouring of information and emotion that the piece triggered, at first by upset CM fans, and later from a wave of appreciative trainers and owners.

 

We have, of course, heard from the CM followers, and as long as their contributions were thoughtful and respectful, we have posted their comments as well.  And the vast number of them (all but one, I think) were just so, and have been posted.  Unfortunately, there is common among these responses the usual defenses.

 

There have been the outright errors (“CM never kicks a dog”: this has been televised… how can you say that?? or “what he does is no different than what wild dogs or wolves do to each other”: wild dogs and wolves never alpha-roll each other, or choke each other hanging in the air, or shock each other, or force each other into fearful or exhausting situations!).

 

There have been the caveats (“he only works with dogs that destined for euthanasia”: blatantly not true in his television show, his books, nor his LA-based practice).

 

There have been the over-generalizations (“only his methods can rescue an aggressive dog destined for euthanasia”: obviously not true, as evidenced by the numerous practices of certified animal behaviorists and board-certified veterinary behaviorists, where we rescue such dogs regularly, and never using CM tactics).

 

And of course, the big one: dogs misbehave because they lack leadership.  The trouble with this one is that there are too many subtleties: wolves do fine without leadership in many ecological situations, many breeds of dogs don’t recognize social signals of other dogs and no longer possess social structures, and many breeds of dogs that do possess social structures don’t incorporate primates (us!) into that social structure.  So along with the fact that wolves and wild dogs don’t alpha-roll, choke, or shock each other in social situations, many breeds of dogs don’t consider us part of their “leadership”, and can’t be forced to do so.

 

Some breeds do incorporate us into their social structure, and social structure can be a problem issue in these breeds, when they are not properly socialized or reach certain ages when they challenge for leadership, but even then, they don’t EVER try to alpha-roll, choke, or shock us!  These are not how dogs express social position, period.  So the whole leadership thing, as an across-the-board, general training process, is simply wrong.  Again, look at the science!

 

But more important than all of this in my mind is the fact that these fans ignore the consequences of his approach.  I have never said that his approach doesn’t work: fear-based methods do indeed cause a decrease in many behaviors.  My concern is for the additional consequences of his approach: the development of learned helplessness leading to severe anxiety disorders, the establishment (substitution?) of fear aggression, and the danger of redirected aggression in these dogs.  The symptoms of these potentially severe consequences (severe enough to require euthanasia) are even visible on his televised episodes, and are frequently reported by owners following these types of training experiences (I know; I have them as clients).

 

In addition, we have the science of animal behavior research to support these observations.  CM followers (not necessarily CM, who takes an “I’m not responsible for what my followers do with my methods” approach) routinely use these techniques with dogs for which these techniques are clearly inappropriate.  I would happily suggest that dogs differ widely in their response to punishment: some will not be fazed at all, and others will develop serious disorders.  Some will redirect their aggression, some will not.  Punishment is a powerful tool to place into the hands of unsophisticated users, and the consequences of mistakes can be dangerous.

 

On the other hand, positive learning techniques, which are the more modern, and science-supported, approaches to behavior modification in dogs (and many other species, including humans) are known to be more effective AND are less likely to have dangerous consequences in the hands of inexperienced handlers.  It’s not that the punishment techniques of CM don’t work (at least in some dogs); it’s that the collateral damage is severe.  Positive techniques work (ok, let’s say) as well or better, and are MUCH less likely to produce negative consequences.  Why take the chance of potentially dangerous consequences when you can use alternative approaches and negate those consequences.  THAT’s my issue with Cesar Millan’s techniques.

 

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About hafamilyseattle

I am a professor of animal behavior at the University of Washington, specializing in social behavior with a focus on primates, killer whales, crows, and companion animals (dogs and cats). For fun, I love to fish saltwater (spinning, fly), snorkel, and travel with my wife Renee and son Andrew.
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