The Damage of Dog Whispering
Theories of canine psychology and training derived from legitimate behavioral science have progressed greatly in the last fifty years. Unfortunately, the public’s most beloved source of information – The Dog Whisperer by Cesar Millan - advocates a theory in direct opposition to this progress. For the last eight years, Cesar Millan has put forth an abusive training theory predicated on disproven science, fallacious logic, and incorrect assumptions.
The Damage of Dog Whispering:
A Critique of Cesar Millan's Theory of Dog Pack Dynamics
June 2, 2016 - Rachel Garner
Theories of canine psychology and training derived from legitimate behavioral science have progressed greatly in the last fifty years. Unfortunately, the public’s most beloved source of information – The Dog Whisperer by Cesar Millan - advocates a theory in direct opposition to this progress. For the last eight years, Cesar Millan has put forth an abusive training theory predicated on disproven science, fallacious logic, and incorrect assumptions. Described by a New York Times affiliate as a “one-man wrecking ball directed at 40 years of progress in understanding and shaping dog behavior,” Millan mixes an overly simplistic and incorrect view of canine social structures with a lack of scientific knowledge. His philosophy centers around two main theories; that canines have an innate and ingrained need to function according to a ‘wolf-pack’ social structure, and that dogs need to live ‘as they did in nature’, before human intervention. Because the concept of dominance theory is central to Millan’s training philosophy, many other crucial aspects of a dog’s environment and psyche that should be addressed when dealing with behavioral issues are completely ignored. As a result of the Dog Whisperer’s popularized methods, many dogs with simple issues are handled badly and likely abused in the name of ‘pack theory’. The worst part is that the entire situation could be avoided easily. It requires only a small amount of research into the social and psychological lives of the common canine to understand where Millan’s theory goes wrong.
Millan openly admits that he has no scientific background. He proudly tells his own story as such: an immigrant from Mexico who never went to college, he has had no formal education in any biological or psychological science. The extent of his background is a short period working as a veterinary technician as a teenager in Mazatlan and a period of self-education from dog psychology books popular in the 1980's. Rather than see this as a problem to be rectified, Millan touts his lack of training as almost another credential. It is a badge of pride for him – he maintains that his work stems from an intuitive knowledge of dogs’ universal ‘language of energy’, which he feels even schooled scientists and most trainers can’t seem to understand. To the uneducated layperson this might be a convincing argument. However, Millan’s lack of any sort of scientific background and the absence of scientific credibility supporting his beliefs means that his theory is built on a combination of outdated behavioral science amalgamated with old-wives’ tales and quasi-scientific concepts.
Millan‘s ‘pack’ theory is not only demonstrably incorrect when applied to domesticated canines, but also did not even exist in the ‘wolf ancestors’ that he draws it from. He holds to the romantic ideal that we need to help dogs return to their ‘wild nature’ and to supplement their lifestyles according to how they would live in a world without human intervention. Millan does not take into account the fact that dogs would have not have evolved into the animals they are today without interaction with of humans. Therefore there is no such thing as “the balance they would achieve naturally in a world without human influence.” Throughout his books he makes statements that are patently false; many of these errors relate directly to his inadequate understanding of canine psychology and behavior, such as the idea that domesticated canines ‘in the wild’ would routinely execute the frail and feeble . These misconceptions lead to serious flaws in his methodology.
Millan's Wolf Pack Dynamics
Central to Millan’s philosophy (and foremost in his use of incorrect science) is the belief that dogs are motivated by the need to be part of a stable pack hierarchy. He asserts that “a dog’s pack is his life force. The pack instinct is his primal instinct. His status in the pack is his self, his identity. Pack is all important to a dog because if anything threatens the pack’s harmony, it threatens each individual dog’s harmony.”
Millan suggests that while dogs are not wolves, a lot can be learned by observing these canine ancestors. However, he never distinguishes between the two in his theory of ‘pack’ and uses examples of (often incorrect) wolf behavior as direct analogies to the behavior of domesticated canines. He believes that by taking the role of ‘pack leader’, or alpha, for himself, “their deepest, most primal instinct guides them to follow [him]… to obey [him], and to cooperate with one another.” Unfortunately, there are numerous problems inherent to Millan’s ‘pack theory’, not the least of which is that the dominance-based theory of wolf-pack structure is not biologically correct. It was created by a Nazi scientist as a way of justifying their eugenics campaign in the 1930s and 1940s.
Research has shown that wolves do not actually live in a dominance-based hierarchy as Millan and many others like to assume. The belief that wolves function in a dominance hierarchy can be traced back to the Victorian era. During this time, ideas about the ‘right of the strong’ were perpetuated by influential writers such as Nietzsche and Kipling, often with analogies to wild predators like wolves. The Nazis co-opted this rhetoric of ‘man as predator’ and Nietzsche’s references to a ‘Teutonic blonde beast’ that inspired terror. During this time, Konrad Lorenz, funded by the Nazi party, tried to justify eugenic measures in human populations by comparing the genetics and behavior of wild and domesticated animals – especially canines. He based this work primarily on Nietzsche’s comparisons of human civilization with the domestication of animals. After the end of the Nazi era, the theories of wolf behavior and that of other wild canines put forth by Lorenz in King Solomon’s Ring closely paralleled Nazi ideology: wolves are seen as far-ranging and powerful, devoted to the pack and willing to defend it to the death. In contrast, jackals and their metaphorically Semitic descendants, while intelligent, lack the obedience and loyalty to the group which made wolves supreme. Humans are well-known for projecting their own social structures onto the animals they study, and by using wolves as a metaphor for Nazi ideals Lorenz projected the Nazi structure of absolute rigid rank onto wolf packs. Just like the Nazi structure he adored, Lorenz decided wolves operated in a distinct hierarchical structure, where each wolf adhered to a strict rank – submissive to those above him, ruthless to those underneath. Because he is considered one of the founders of modern ethology, much of Lorenz’s work was accepted as fact for years. In light of the Nobel Prize he won for his work, the origins of his philosophy were never effectively questioned until after his death. This is the beginning of the modern myth of dominance-structured wolf packs.
Modern Understanding of Wolf Pack Structure
Today it is well understood in the scientific community that Lorenz’s theory of wolf pack structure is entirely wrong. When forced into captivity with other unrelated wolves, a dominance hierarchy will form among the individuals as a way of keeping order – as with almost any group of unrelated individuals within a species who are forced into unnatural proximity. But thanks to David L. Mech, we know that in the wild, wolf packs are simple nuclear family units, led by a mating pair and containing multiple generations of pups.As pups grow up and come to sexual maturity they disperse, find a mate, and create their own pack. Within a pack there is often a non-rigid hierarchy between siblings, which is due more to individual personalities than to any sort of need for violence and dominance within the pack. Nowhere is Lorenz’s idea of a violent and rigid social structure observed. Lone wolves do exist, but not because they are outcasts or martyrs –such situations arise, for example, when there might not be enough prey in the area to support a larger group or when the wolf hasn’t found a mate yet. Aggressive wolves are reprimanded and socialized by the group, not outcast. Wolves living together in the wild are close family units, into which strangers are rarely ever admitted. Within the larger group of canidae, the definition of a pack is a nuclear family unit that hunts and defends a territory together.
Thus wolf packs in nature don’t behave with anything like the ‘pack structure’ that Cesar Millan maintains exist in dogs. There is no such entity as a dominant ‘pack leader’ – the closest that exists is the oldest pair of wolves, who are generally the parents of all other wolves in the pack. They lead by example and experience, not by physically dominating their offspring. By preaching that “in a pack, there are only two roles; the role of leader and role of follower,” Millan is completely ignoring the fact that wolf packs function on a family dynamic. He teaches owners that dogs have an ingrained pack mentality and writes that “If you’re not asserting leadership over your dog, your dog will try to compensate by showing dominant or unstable behavior.” This leads to the creation of many dangerous situations where a dog that is not showing aggressive behavior will be misread by its owner and its real problems ignored, or an owner will attempt to dominate a dog that is showing aggressive behavior. Both are prime ways for the owner and dog to get hurt – entirely because Millan has misrepresented the situation and the solution.
Additional Problems with Millan's Theory and Methods
There is a crucial error in Millan's thinking even more important than incorrect wolf science: he completely ignores recent research that shows that the domestic dog is not a pack animal. He cannot ‘lead the pack like an alpha wolf’ because in domestic dog society no role of the sort exists. Free-ranging urban dogs spend the majority of their time either wandering alone or with a singular companion. Groups larger than three dogs are rare - and when they do exist, they are not a ‘pack’ because they are fluid groupings of individuals rather than stable family units. These groupings of dogs consist of temporary gatherings of essentially solitary animals that don’t derive benefit from group living. Because the major dangers to feral dogs are cars and poisoning, there is no reproductive advantage to living in a group, for either protecting pups or hunting for food. In fact, domestic dogs are notoriously bad at hunting – hundreds of years of human influence have disconnected them from the behavioral sequence of a true hunter. Domestic dogs that have turned feral survive as scavengers, not hunters. This is the most economic state for a feral dog – unlike wolves: a dog does not have to travel for miles on end to find food. In fact, free-ranging dogs barely forage at all – living around humans provides enough food that most dogs spend about 80% of the day playing, sleeping, or lazing around. Science has shown that domestic dogs don’t behave like wolves or function on the same social continuum that wolves do, so it is ludicrous that Millan has based an entire theory on the fallacious assumption that dogs are akin to wolves. His view that “dogs in the wild have [the natural ability] simply to be dogs, to live in a stable, balanced pack” is simply wrong.
Many of Millan’s other assertions are also incorrect. He teaches that owners should always eat before their dogs, because the alpha leader in a pack should always eat first and most – after all, he says, if wolves kill a deer the pack leader gets the biggest pieceand the most submissive wolf always eats last. This is incorrect: it has been shown that wolves in the wild that catch large prey eat simultaneously. Small prey is generally devoured by whomever captures it. Domestic dogs are foragers and scavengers rather than hunters and because they are generally alone, whatever they find, they eat. Because he believes that dogs hunt like wolves, Millan contends that dogs must do so as well in order to be fulfilled in their ‘purpose’. Since “the need to hunt… is hardwired into wolves” it is “natural for them to expect to work for their food.” However, free-ranging dogs in their natural habitats barely work for their food and spend most of their time ‘goofing off’. Therefore, requiring owners to eat before their dog is unnecessary - the supposed hierarchy it creates does not exist in any canine social group.
Even more egregious are other statements that are completely without basis in fact. One example is the claim that pit bulls were bred for fighting bulls, when in reality the term ‘pit bull’ has been used to describe any dog used for pit-fighting. Millan seems to believe that dogs are as ruthless as humans and says that “dogs don’t feel sorry for the frail and the feeble. They attack and execute them.” Such blatant factual errors call Millan’s already tenuous credibility into serious question.
Evolution Of The Domestic Dog:
Millan says that “nature designed [dogs] for a purpose, and that inbred desire for purpose does not go away when we bring them into our homes.” However, in this and many other statements, he seems to forget that interaction with humanity – not natural selection – created the domesticated dog. Throughout both of his books, Millan preaches that his goal is to “help dogs receive both structure and intensive physical activity to help dogs achieve the kind of balance they would if they lived naturally, in a world without human influence.” There is no such thing as a world in which the domestic dog could live without human influence.
Humans and the domestic dog co-evolved starting thousands of years ago. The original theory was that proto-humans decided wolves could be useful, stole a number of pups, and reared them. They would then have intentionally bred the tamest individuals, and eventually ended up with the modern dog. However, this theory does not hold water on further investigation.
While it isn’t unreasonable to think that early humans might have captured wolf pups and tried to rear them, taming wolves is extremely difficult and the resulting adult would have been hard to handle. Early humans were migratory, and would not have stayed in a particular area long enough to influence the genetics of the nearby wolf population even if they did exert slight control over the breeding of wild wolves. It is much more likely that some wolves ‘chose’ to domesticate themselves. As humans began to create temporary settlements instead of migrating constantly, trash would have accumulated. The wolves in nearby populations who were less wary of humans would have learned to conserve energy by accessing this easy-to-find food. At that point, natural selection would have taken over and these less-fearful wolves would have begun to differ from those that were still completely wild. Over time a tame type of wolf would have developed. During this process, it was likely that humans would have recognized the reciprocal benefits of having such predators around the camp. The camp would have been cleaner; resulting in fewer vermin and less disease, and the presence of the proto-dogs would have warded off other predators.
Eventually, humans would have realized that they could influence the temperament of these creatures they lived with – and maybe even make use of them – and begun to intervene in the breeding process, resulting in the creature we know today as the domesticated dog. Without the presence of humans and their debris, wolves would never have had the opportunity to evolve into dogs. A domesticated dog’s ‘natural habitat’ is anywhere that humanity is – in cities, towns and homes. It’s not possible for a domesticated dog to return to its humanity-free roots, as they never existed in the first place. Millan advocates this romanticized idea of domestication because of its appeal to the layperson, but it has no factual basis.
Flooding and Positive Punishment:
When The Dog Whisperer first aired on September 13, 2004, it was shown despite the vehement protests of veterinarians, trainers, behaviorists and other experts who reviewed the show prior to its release. All who spoke out against Millan’s methods understood that his theories were based on outdated science, and that the training solutions he promoted had been proven to create or increase aggressive behaviors,. His main techniques are flooding and positive punishment, both of which are unpleasant and often traumatic. These techniques go directly against all sets of professional dog training guidelines, which state that less invasive techniques (i.e, without pain or force) must be competently tried and exhausted before more invasive techniques are attempted.
Flooding is an exposure to something that provokes a stimulus (either aggression or fear) until the animal simply stops reacting. In one episode of The Dog Whisperer, Millan drags a Great Dane terrified of shiny floors onto the surface he feared using a choke chain, ‘flooding’ him with the stimulus. The dog was under extreme stress, as documented by excessive drooling and body posture. The dog collapsed from fear and eventually stopped struggling – the results of a phenomenon known as ‘learned helplessness’, which occurs when an animal repeatedly exposed to an aversive stimulus learns it has no escape. Whether or not the animal is cured, flooding puts it under extreme amounts of stress and runs a huge risk for traumatizing the animal. It has always been considered a cruel method of treatment whether used on humans or animals. Some dogs may become so traumatized by flooding that they become aggressive and dangerous for the average person to handle.
Also an aggression risk, positive punishment is the application of an unpleasant stimulus as a consequence for behavior, and it is generally considered an entirely inappropriate method for dealing with any behavioral problem that is based in aggression or anxiety. Positive punishment quells the symptoms of a problem but does not eliminate the cause of the behavior. In another controversial episode of The Dog Whisperer, a Rottweiler was punished by being kicked for “showing aggression” on a walk; the ensuing struggle resulted in the handler being bitten more than once and the dog being nearly asphyxiated as punishment for biting.
Both these techniques are not only unhealthy for the animals involved, but they are also extremely dangerous for the handler. Any animal that is scared or forced into an aggressive state is more likely to bite. During the course of his show, Millan repeatedly gets bitten by the dogs he’s working with and is proud of it. Alexandra Semyonova, one of the many behaviorists who have openly spoken out against Millan, attributes this to what she calls ‘Lion Tamer Syndrome’: “There are thousands of us out here working with ‘aggressive’ dogs every day and not getting bit,” she says:
"This isn’t because we intimidate or terrorize the dogs even better than Mr. Millan does, but because we understand them… if Mr. Millan is worried the dog won’t get aggressive, he does something to make it do so. The dog must be aggressive, and the more aggressive it is, the greater an authority the trainer must be… The Lion Tamer Syndrome is not, not ever, about competence in training animals. It’s more a kind of pissing contest between humans. And the more a human engages in it, the less s/he generally really knows about the animal involved."
Attesting to this, at the beginning of each show, a disclaimer reminds owners not to try his techniques at home. Many professionals who speak out against Millan say that, bad science aside, any dog training show that considers its methods so dangerous that it needs such a disclaimer should not be on the air.,
One Size Fits All:
Even more worrying then the specific techniques is the ‘one size fits all’ approach Millan takes. To Millan, every behavioral problem is rooted in dominance and pack hierarchy, which ignores a dog’s true mental state. Regardless of whether the dog is fearful, anxious, excited, or has severe psychological issues, Millan diagnoses it as a dominance issue. Even something as simple as an excited dog greeting its owner by jumping up is diagnosed as a dominant behavior and Millan recommends dealing with this by stepping on the dog’s toes, throwing her to the ground, and forcibly rolling her over into a submissive posture and holding her there. That sort of ‘training’ can lead to further behavioral problems – the dog will stop jumping, but she’s also going to quickly become afraid of her owner’s apparently ‘random’ violence. Veterinary staff say they can always tell when dogs come in who have been subjected to dominance-based training, as they are often very fearful and aggressive towards people as a result.
Dogs with actual mental disabilities often fare even worse. In yet another episode of The Dog Whisperer, Millan treats an Entlebucher Mountain Dog that has a compulsive disorder with a prong collar, ‘popping’ it every time the dog began a compulsive behavior. Dr. Andrew Luescher, the director of the Animal Behavior Clinic at Purdue University, compares this to abusing a child exhibiting stereotypic rocking behaviors. “The method Millan used to approach this problem would be like hitting this severely disturbed child each time it rocks. I bet you could suppress the rocking behavior, but certainly no-one would suggest that that child was cured.” This is particularly disturbing because obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is known to be a neurochemical imbalance, and is therefore an undeniable medical condition. Nevertheless Millan advocates using punishment to control the behavior. Dr. Rachel Casey, Senior Lecturer in Companion Animal Behaviour and Welfare at Bristol University considers the blanket assumption that every dog is “motivated by some innate desire to control people and other dogs” ridiculous. None of the dogs in the examples above were displaying any signs of dominance – all of them had entirely legitimate reasons for their abnormal behavior that were completely ignored by Millan. Many trainers call his reasoning and techniques “outdated, needlessly harsh, often cruel, and dangerous.” Those who were trained to use the same techniques say that when science proved them to be ineffective and cruel, they quickly switched philosophies and have had far more success ever since.
In his review, submitted to National Geographic before The Dog Whisperer was ever aired, Dr. Andrew Luescher stated that the show “would be a major embarrassment… as my colleagues and I and innumerable leaders in the dog training community have worked now for decades to eliminate such cruel, ineffective (in terms of true cure) and inappropriate techniques.” In criticizing the program, the director of The SF/SPCA Academy for Dog Trainers goes even farther, saying that “a profession that has been making steady gains in its professionalism, technical sophistication and humane standards has been greatly set back.” Set back how far? Easily twenty years, according to the letter written to National Geographic by Dr. Nicholas Dodman. Outcry against Millan’s methods has come from all corners of the scientific world. His methods are outdated, dangerous, and scientifically baseless. Not only is Millan himself abusing animals, but he is perpetuating incorrect scientific knowledge throughout common media, leading to the mistreatment of thousands more animals. Any small amount of research would make it clear to a nonscientific layperson that dogs are not wolves, and in no way function on the dominance-centered hierarchy that Millan espouses as the basis of his theories. While entertaining and charismatic, The Dog Whisperer is the worst thing to happen to the domestic canine in recent history.
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Rachel is an educator and animal science writer. With prior professional experience in zookeeping, visitor education, shelter behavior management, and more, she works to translate pertinent field-specific knowledge into comprehensive explanations about current animal related topics.