Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Dog Whisperer makes me want to scream!

Almost every day in my practice one of my clients will ask me "So, have you ever watched that "Dog Whisperer" on TV?". I grit my teeth, try to avoid grabbing them and shaking them (a very Cesar Milan like correction!), and try to answer nicely.

YES, I have seen him on TV. Unfortunately, so have many of my clients. To be blunt, I think he is one of the most dangerous trainers out there. Every episode I have watched has had multiple instances of both animals and humans being put in very real danger.

So just what is wrong with Cesar Milan?

The "Dog Whisperer" uses techniques that are based primarily on punishment and use of aversion; he relies strongly on dominance theory but doesn't even do a great job of explaining that. Dominance theory, or the idea that you need to be the "alpha wolf" in your pack, has pretty much been shown not to have either a basis in fact or a history of success in dealing with dogs with behavioral issues. When wolf behavior was studied closely in the wild, it was found that the ideas we had about how dominance functioned in the pack were in large part not correct. Besides which, dogs aren't wolves anyway and neither are people. In study after study involving multiple species, while punishment was sometimes found to be effective, it often times had undesirable side effects and in many cases would actually make the problem worse.

The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior has condemned Cesar's techniques and come out with a position statement on dominance theory and punishment based training. You can read their info here:

Now, most of you who are my dog training friends are probably going to read that link. Most of my clients will not. So let's cut to the chase and talk about what is good and bad about the Dog Whisperer.

First we need to define some terms.

REINFORCEMENT is something that you do if you want to increase the odds of a behavior occurring. Positive reinforcement means that something pleasant occurs when a behavior happens so the dog is more likely to do it again, for example, giving them a treat for sitting. Negative reinforcement is when something unpleasant stops when a behavior happens; a good example is using an ear pinch to teach a dog to hold a dumbbell. You hold the dumbbell in front of the dogs mouth and squeeze the ear; dog opens his mouth to protest, you pop the dumbbell in and release the pressure (note: not my preferred method, but a very commonly used one!).

PUNISHMENT is something you do if you want to decrease the odds of a behavior occurring. Punishment can also be positive or negative. Positive punishment is what we most commonly think of as "punishment" in every day terms. This is when we apply something unpleasant to a dog after an unwanted behavior happens. A good example is swatting a puppy with a newspaper when they pee on the floor. Negative punishment is when we remove something the dog likes when an unwanted behavior occurs. We often do this when a puppy gets overly excited and mouthy in playing by ignoring him for a few seconds (removing the attention he craves).

So, to quickly summarize; reinforcement increases the odds of behavior occurring, punishment decreases it. If it is positive, you ADD something, if it is negative, you REMOVE something.
Clear as mud, right?

Now, I will step off the path of the AVASB just slightly. I do think that ALL of the above occur in everyday life, consciously or not, and we can put all of them to good use occasionally in our training program. However, I think the BASIS of any good training program and the vast majority of what a puppy experiences should be positive reinforcement. I also am one who thinks the proof is in the pudding, and when I see happy dogs who love to work and work well, I try to be open minded about how they were trained and learn what I can from the trainer. I also think it is important to realize that ANY of these methods, poorly applied, can result in a stressed, unhappy dog and worsening of the problem.

However, positive reinforcement most definitely is the most forgiving of the above techniques and the one least likely to cause undesirable emotional fallout and escalation of behavior problems. I ASSUME that a novice trainer is going to be very clumsy in applying what they are learning; the dogs are much, much less likely to suffer in the long term when positive reinforcement is used.

I use negative punishment on occasion myself in training; my dog Andy LOVED LOVED LOVED to run agility more than anything in the world, but he didn't always find it necessary to play by my rules which could have resulted in him getting hurt. So in his earlier years, I sometimes would remove him from the course and put him back in his crate when he did not follow the rules (initially it was for jumping off his contacts). I was crystal clear with him on what the rules were to play and the consequences happened EVERY time, no matter whether it was practice or a real trial. It worked beautifully with him and I can't even remember when he blew off a contact last. However, he was VERY motivated to play, and was a relatively "hard" dog (insensitive to corrections and not at all afraid of being wrong). For a softer dog the same treatment could have been very demotivating. I have his son who is a bit softer than him, and I can do this occasionally but I have to use it VERY judiciously as this dog is much more worried about pleasing me. Negative punishment works best on fine tuning behaviors dogs find very reinforcing (for Andy, running agility; for puppies, teaching them not to mouth excessively etc). Again, it is a TOOL, not the basis for an entire program.

Much of Cesar's training is done using positive punishment. Unfortunately, this often creates a fear based response as the dog is continously subjected to unpleasant consequences. In many of the cases he is dealing with, the dog is fearful to start with, so this can be especially disastrous. A huge percentage of aggression cases have at least some basis in fear, so treating them with punishment can only intensify the fear response. Sometimes it is immobilizing enough that the dog appears to improve for a while, but these are often the dogs whose owners tell us they thought were fine and then "suddenly with no warning" they bite. Well....rarely was it really with no warning, it's just that either no one noticed or understood the warning signs. And Cesar misses a LOT of them.

In addition, he seems particularly fond of using a technique called "flooding" which is exposing the dog to the thing they are afraid of at very high levels. The theory is that the dog will then "get used to it". The reality is that this very often escalates the fear response and makes the problem worse. I am terribly afraid of heights; I can't imagine what would happen if someone decided to cure me by making me live in a building where I had to walk across a high glass bridge to get anywhere and then proceeded to drag me across if I wasn't moving fast enough. I doubt very seriously if it would do much alleviate my fear!

Cesar is big on being what he calls "calm and assertive". I do think there is something to be said for being what I would call a "quietly confident leader". If you are confident in your actions and expect the same in your dog, AND you protect them from undesirable things happening to them, they will become more confident. However what I see in Cesar's program is someone who took a page from "winning through intimidation". I see someone who is aggressive, not calmly confident, and who essentially acts for all intents and purposes as a bully.

One of the cardinal rules of dealing with problem dogs is never to start a confrontation if you can't avoid it, and if you can't avoid it you'd better be darn sure you're going to prevail. Cesar sets up confrontational situations over and over again, which have huge potential to injure the owners and often other animals. The owners have already proven they have no idea how to win such a confrontation; so while HE may be able to win them, the owner is at great risk when they try to immitate him. And one confrontation often leads to it becomes an unending circle.

I do like his philosophy of increasing exercise as a tired dog is often times much less likely to get into trouble. However, his METHOD of doing this by putting an untrained dog on a flexi with him on rollerblades is not a particularly bright idea IMO. And I believe he has been involved in a lawsuit involving a dog who died or was seriously injured being overexercised and undersupervised on a treadmill. So use a little more common sense in applying this idea than he does.

A recent study published in the journal Applied Animal Behavior Science found that dogs trained with confrontational or aversive methods were much more likely to become aggressive. You can read more about this study here:

If you want a better example to follow, try watching "It's Me or the Dog" with Victoria Stillwell on Animal Planet. She uses primarily positive based techniques and the episodes I have seen have been fairly well done. (She did drive me a bit nuts on the "Greatest American Dog" show last year though- she's a bit overboard on the pure positive slant and seeing "abuse" in every corner).

My best advice....if you don't see joy and eagerness in your dog's face when he is working...if he doesn't get excited and happy when you pick up his leash and dumbbell....CHANGE YOUR METHODS. No matter what your scores or how well behaved your dog is, if there is no joy in working together, it's not working!


  1. Right on! Cesar is a bone head most of the time. I do believe some of those dog look a little blue in the mucus membranes when they finally sumbit at times. I wish our clients could read between the lines. I would much prefer victoria or the monks of new skeet which unfortunately I think went off the air a while back.

  2. Excellent post, well put!