Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Cesar Millan

Last night I watched the first 8 episodes of Cesar Millan’s show, The Dog Whisperer. He has caused quite a storm in the dog world and as a public figure I’d say he is the American version of Barbara Woodhouse. In other words, he is influencing an entire generation of dog owners with his training ideology. There is furious debate about whether or not that ideology is sound, particularly in terms of its stress on dominance and submission.

I had to see for myself. And this is what I have to say about him….

1. At core he is working from a deep understanding of dog/human relations and it is the SAME one that ALL good trainers understand... Primary: dogs are not furry people* and many people are more focused on projections of their own needs for affection than the dog’s needs for a secure and happy life. They need constructive stimulation and trust in their owner’s leadership skills. In a dog’s world SOMEBODY has to be in charge. They want leadership more than they want “freedom.”

*Patricia McConnell talks about it this way in both of her excellent books**: People behave like monkeys and dogs behave like dogs. Communication is not a given, as we operate from different readings of body language. IE: We see hugs as signs of affection, and direct approach as respectful: they experience hugs as strangeness to be tolerated and direct approach as aggression.

**The Other End of the Leash
**For Love of a Dog

2. His approach to that understanding is very male. It is direct, get the job done with no f***ing around. He doesn’t care that the dog he just taught how to walk respectfully on a leash is frightened and stressed. Signs: tail between legs, drooling, licking of lips. I think he figures they’ll get over it. Where he barrels through a dog’s stress and discomfort, others might slow down, be more sensitive to what the dog is saying and offer more encouragement and positive reinforcement. It is a matter of leadership styles, positive vs. negative reinforcement, “male” and female” styles. (Not men vs. woman…plenty of women lead in a “male way”)

3. It also relies heavily on a vocabulary that needs examination. Dominance and Submission are very tainted words in our culture…we tend to see the submissive as OPPRESSED by the dominant. Master/Slave. Majority/Minority. Men/Women.

If we were to substitute the words Leadership for Dominance and Trust for Submission… we might see his work more clearly.

4. There was only one out of nine episodes where I saw him adapt and soften in regards to the dog’s needs. That was the visit with the Shih Tzu who refused to walk on a leash. He was firm, gentle and upbeat…and I heard him praise the dog. Praise is RARELY heard on the episodes I saw…He uses negative reinforcement to achieve balance…”When you submit, I will stop doing this uncomfortable thing.”

5. I am grateful. Yes, GRATEFUL, that he is so popular. I have never been able to walk my own dogs as comfortably, because I think a lot of people are taking his advice and controlling their own dogs out in the world. (Well…a lot MORE people).

6. More dogs are given up and destroyed from a lack of leadership, guidance and stimulation than from “cruelty” or “lack of freedom.” The dog relegated to the backyard and ignored is the dog who was not taught how to behave properly in the house, with the family. These are the cases we see him confront. I believe he has probably saved many many lives.

It is a mixed response. I think he does more good than harm. Still, I prefer the conversation that trainer Suzanne Clothier initiates with dogs...I wish SHE had a TV show! For now, her book, Bones will Rain From the Sky, will have to suffice.
I love that in the title sequence of his show Millan says he wants to "share the knowledge he was born with." Maybe he was. Born with it. I'm still learning how to be that leader my dogs need. It is one of my life goals....


  1. Whenever I give my dogs hugs I tell them they are gonna get Monkey Hugs! I love Jean Donaldson and Patricia McConnell. And Susan Clothier. I've read them all and I love their books. I have never watched Cesar, I've heard that he puts aggressive rescue dogs into his pack and lets them work it out... to the point that their can be serious damage. I don't like that idea.

  2. Cynthia, you shouldn't listen to what people say about Cesar Millan, there seem to be only to points, they love him or they dislike/hate him. For my point of view he has a great understanding of dogs, but that doesn't mean that people understand him, because not a lot of people seem to understand dog from their point of view, they understand them or try to understand them from human point of view. And no, Cesar doesn't use negative reinforcement, and yes, he doesn't praise the dog all the time, because dogs don't praise each other with words either, but with energy and body language. And he uses this techniques. And like the person who wrote this article, uses words the way we use them with people, like to be dominate to be aggressive, or submission being oppressive, or discipline is punishment. Cesar explains how he uses the words and lots of people who are listening understand. But people want to see what they want to see.
    I have a high regard for Patricia McConnell and Cesar Millan, like I have a high regard of Siegfried Lorenz and Eberhard Trummler (the last two ones German animal behaviorist. Go with the ones you are most comfortable with. When you like to be put down and shouted at, go with Victoria Stillwell. She isn't to bad with dogs as a dog trainer (she isn't a behaviorist though) but she is arrogant and tactless with people. Lots of people like her though, I don't.