Cesar Millan – the Good, the Bad, and All the Rest

Cesar Millan is host of The Dog Whisperer, a popular dog training show on the National Geographic channel.

Millan has a charismatic personality, and his show is very entertaining. As a result, he has made The Dog Whisperer into a big favorite among dog owners everywhere, and his many fans implement his techniques on their family dogs and puppies.

However, there are some who feel that his techniques are risky, and inappropriate for novice trainers (most pet owners).

In this article, I examine Millan’s approach and discuss some of its pros and cons.

Cesar Millan – The Good

1. Cesar Millan educates people on being a good pack leader.

To be a good pack leader, Millan talks about setting rules and boundaries for our dog. This includes door manners, and always walking our dog slightly behind us. He also emphasizes the importance of maintaining calm and assertive energy, which made a huge difference with my Shiba Inu.

Since dogs live in a human world, we need to provide them with a degree of structure, so that they feel safe, and so that they do not inadvertently harm others or themselves. They also need a balanced leader who is able to protect them, and show them how to behave in unfamiliar or stressful situations.

These messages are extremely important, especially in this day and age, where owners have a tendency to spoil their dogs and let them do whatever they want. Untrained and unmanaged dogs often become stressed, frustrated, and ultimately develop behaviors that are dangerous to the people around them. In the end, they are surrendered or destroyed because nobody taught them how to behave in a human world.

2. Cesar Millan gets people to fulfill their dogs’ needs, not just their own.

Most of us are very aware of how dogs help us live happier and fuller lives. What is often forgotten, is that dogs have needs of their own.

Millan talks about understanding a dog’s needs, and helping him be a well-balanced canine through dog exercise and dog discipline. He shows us that after our dog burns some energy, he is more calm and well-behaved.

Given the unrealistic expectations of dogs that are propagated by some Hollywood movies, it is helpful to have a popular spokesperson spread this message about considering a dog’s needs, to audiences everywhere.

3. Cesar Millan shows us that dogs can be retrained regardless of breed and background.


Some dog breeds have developed a really bad reputation, especially the Pit Bull Terrier. Millan does a good job of showing us that all dogs can be rehabilitated, whatever their breed or history.

His own pack consists of many Pit Bulls and Rottweilers, which he uses to help retrain other dogs. These wonderful ambassadors are calm, balanced, and very non-reactive, even when faced with extremely hyper dogs.

Sadly, there are a large number of Pitties in shelters today, who have a difficult time finding homes because people are afraid to adopt them. Millan and his sidekick Junior, do great things to combat the negativity associated with the breed.

His message that every dog can be rehabilitated, gives hope to people with difficult dogs, and reduces the number of shelter surrenders. This hopeful message may also encourage people to adopt shelter dogs, and give them a second chance.

4. Cesar Millan uses his pack of dogs to teach other dogs and improve their behavior.

Millan shows us that the best teacher for a dog, is often another dog.

While we may try and learn canine body language, we will never be as adept at using it as another dog. Of course the furry teacher must be calm and very balanced.

When looking for a trainer, try to find one who understands dog psychology, has a good rapport with our dog, and has well-behaved canine assistants who can help with training.

Cesar Millan – The Bad

1. Cesar’s Way or the highway.

Cesar Millan has an extremely confident, charismatic, and alpha personality that makes him very successful. Unfortunately, a side-effect of this, is that people may just follow his techniques and not explore other alternatives.

His emphasis on large breed, aggressive dogs, as well as his frequent use of aversive methods, perpetuates some inaccurate myths on dog training, including:

  • You cannot train large breed dogs with non-aversive methods.
  • You cannot train aggressive dogs with non-aversive methods.

Because he is so widely watched, and so widely recommended by dog breeders, owners, and other dog professionals, there is a huge network effect that propagates and perpetuates these myths. This can lead to widespread tunnel vision, that ultimately does a disservice to dogs, especially dogs that are incorrectly diagnosed with dominant behavior. Misdiagnosing a problem behavior, leads to administering the wrong treatment, which may worsen our dog’s conduct and lower his quality of life.

Non-aversive methods that center around the control of resources are safer, and often more effective at addressing problem dog behaviors, including aggression. There are many trainers who have successfully rehabilitated aggressive dogs by only using resource control techniques.

I think that Millan can combat some these misconceptions by always reminding his audience to keep an open mind, and to use a wider range of techniques in his Dog Whisperer program.

2. Greater emphasis on owner discipline.


Cesar Millan greatly emphasizes dog discipline, but he is a lot less strict with their owners. Dogs with problem behaviors need a lot of attention. Frequently, owners must put in a lot of time and effort to help their dogs reach a happier and more balanced state.

The format of The Dog Whisperer program is such that Millan has to show results quickly, so that it is interesting and engaging. Often times, there is a timer which shows how he solves a problem in minutes (5-15 minutes), that will actually take a lot of hard work to truly become a learned behavior.

Even though Millan may sometimes say that changing a dog’s behavior takes time, his Dog Whisperer program shows the opposite.

This is in contrast to shows like It’s Me or the Dog, where there is a lot more emphasis on owner participation in the dog rehabilitation process, and the unfortunate consequences that may occur when owners fail to put in the effort.

3. More discussion on dog training equipment.

Cesar Millan does advise his clients to put a dog’s collar high-up on the neck, close to the head and ears. He will occasionally use his Illusion Collar to keep a choke chain from sliding down a dog’s neck.

Frequently however, he just goes with whatever the owner is using, thereby implicitly agreeing with the owner’s dog equipment choice. Given that Millan is the expert, it would be helpful to have more of a discussion on the pros and cons of dog training equipment.

Aversive collars such as prong collars and choke chains, should not be left on a dog for long periods of time. They should be put on for a walk or a training session, and removed otherwise. Definitely remove an aversive collar when our dog is off-leash, especially when he is interacting with other dogs. A choke chain may get caught while a dog is playing or running around, which may result in injury or death.

Prolonged use of choke chains may cause injury, even if applied correctly. For safety, only use an aversive collar for a limited amount of time (several weeks). Then, switch back to a flat collar once our dog understands the rules of walking.

The Illusion Collar is a modified choke collar, and the associated risks should at least be mentioned.

4. Explore other forms of pack leadership.

Since our dogs live in our very human world, it is important for us to lead and guide them. However, an important corollary question is what type of leader we should be.

Cesar Millan seems to support something more akin to a dictatorship, where everything the leader says goes, and not following a rule, brings about some kind of disciplinary action whether it be a leash correction, a finger poke, or an alpha roll. The dog is always expected to walk close-to, but behind the human, and there is very little stopping to smell the roses.

Between a dictatorship and no leadership is a wide range of other possibilities. Note that the term dictatorial is used here to refer to type of leadership; nothing more and nothing less. A dictatorial leader is one who makes all the decisions, does not allow others to question those decisions, and will administer swift punishment to those who do not comply with his demands. Here is the dictionary definition -

Asserting or tending to assert one’s authority or to impose one’s will on others.
~~[Free Dictionary]

In terms of leadership, we want to at least consider how much control over our dog’s behavior is truly necessary. Try to take into account our own temperament, and the temperament of our dog, to determine the best type of relationship and human-dog bond.

5. Highlight the dangers of aversive dog training.

Cesar Millan uses a variety of aversive training methods, including alpha rolls, leash jerks, and finger pokes. He often tells owners that these techniques are only used to get a dog’s attention, and that they do not cause the dog any pain or stress. It is often implied that these techniques are appropriate and humane because wolves do that to other wolves, or dogs do that to other dogs.

Both of these statements are not very accurate.

All aversive methods cause an unpleasant sensation, otherwise they would not work. Some aversive techniques may cause pain, stress, and fear in a dog, which is why the dog avoids that behavior in the future.

Aversive training can also backfire if not performed with the proper amount of force, timing, and redirection. When not executed in exactly the right way, these methods can cause additional behavioral problems in dogs, including aggression.

This University of Pennsylvania 2009 study shows that at least 25% of the dogs that are trained with confrontational methods exhibit aggression during training.

Given Millan’s popularity, there are a large number of people who follow his techniques, just from watching The Dog Whisperer program on television. To prevent widespread misuse, it is important to at least inform his audience of the specific risks and dangers associated with dominance and pain-based methods.

As a dog owner, I would like accurate information on obedience training, rather than sugar coated versions.

For those who continue to insist that aversive conditioning is not unpleasant, here are two dictionary definitions of the term aversive.

Causing avoidance of a thing, situation, or behavior by using an unpleasant or punishing stimulus, as in techniques of behavior modification.
~~[The American Heritage Dictionary]

Tending to avoid or causing avoidance of a noxious or punishing stimulus.
~~[Merriam Webster]

Thank You for Your Comments

I would like to thank everyone for leaving comments and participating in this discussion. You have made me think a lot about dogs, dog relationships, training, and how to solve problem behaviors.

Many people feel strongly about this topic because they love their dogs very much, and want what is best for them. This is why there is a lot of controversy surrounding Cesar Millan, and the aversive training methods that he uses. I have noticed however, that he is using fewer such methods in his more recent episodes, and is using a bit more reward training, which I think is a really good thing.

Some people consider aversive methods to be dog cruelty. That is a moral judgment, which is best left to the theologians.

I started out with Cesar Millan’s aversive techniques.

When I tried to switch over to non-aversive training, many so-called positive trainers, called me all sorts of names, including cruel and harsh. Luckily, there were some that gave me good advice, and resource methods ultimately worked out very well for my dogs. Now, I predominantly use resource control techniques, but messages about exercise, discipline, and energy still apply whichever approach we use.

This article is about gathering information and having discussions about dog behavior and dog training. Through discussion and sharing information, we can make better decisions for our dogs. Please help to create a discussion friendly environment by staying away from personal attacks.

Personal attacks or ad hominem arguments are not only pointless, but they also discourage rational discourse and the exchange of ideas.

An ad hominem (Latin for “to the man”), short for argumentum ad hominem, is an argument made personally against an opponent, instead of against the opponent’s argument. Ad hominem reasoning is normally described as an informal fallacy, more precisely an irrelevance.
~~[Wikipedia]

A very common ad hominem is –
“You are only saying this because you are jealous/mean/prejudiced.”

I believe that we do not need to reject everything that Cesar Millan says just because there are some things we disagree with. Similarly, we do not need to follow everything that Cesar Millan says, just because there are some things we agree with.

It is most important to keep an open mind, evaluate techniques objectively, and to listen to our dog.

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Comments

  1. Gar says

    I appreciate your balanced discussion!

    As I watch episodes of the dog whisperer for the first time, I wonder what all the controversy is about. Cesar seems very calm, gentle, positive, absolutely not dictatorial or harsh at all. Some might apply his ideas in an erroneous harsh manner, however.

    The aversive tactics used that I have seen on the show appear mainly to be punitive by academic definition: akin to a posture correction app on your iPhone which vibrates if you start to hunch forward. This type of app acts to instantly give feedback to a habitual behaviour. Such feedback is not painful, but is a consistent reminder. If posture is corrected only by rewarding good posture, you would be getting rewards 90% of the time, and missing your reward 10% of the time (actually the missing reward would academically be called “negative punishment”).

    I can think of episodes where Cesar ingeniously uses positive reinforcement and other conditioning techniques, with remarkable effectiveness, such as the case where he helps a small dog to accept topical medication calmly.

    I don’t think I’ve seen Cesar use food treats as a reinforcement tool, but I agree with his own view that he uses his own calm presence and gentle touch etc. as positive reinforcements.

    The whole “pack leader” thing doesn’t have to be taken as some kind of dogmatic (!) belief about hierarchical/competitive dog behaviour, I think it’s more to do with trying to encourage authoritative leadership on the part of the owner, and recognizing that such leadership is trainable, irrespective of whether such dynamics are innate characteristics of wolves or other dogs.

    Anyway, I do agree that Cesar should learn and teach more positive reinforcement techniques, and be willing to adopt techniques that some of his critics are using well. But his present style already seems remarkably calm, gentle, and wise. The main risk of some of his methods I think is that some people might apply them mistakenly.

    He deserves great credit for saving many lives of dogs, far more than all his critics put together, by making the subject of compassionate dog rehabilitation public, popular, and approachable. I think his show is also insightful about human psychology, giving a message that positive change in a longstanding problem can sometimes happen very quickly, by approaching it calmly, in a disciplined manner, with exercise, training tactics, and affection afterwards.

  2. Sam says

    Important to note that Cesar Millan is not training the average dog. The show is obviously going to pick the worse dogs out of the pile.

    The dogs he’s attempting to help have often been through multiple behaviourist that have failed and have even been advised to put the dog to sleep.

    So obviously not all his methods should be used on your average dog. That why your advised to hire a profession ;). No so much that the profession will know more than you (hey we have Wikipedia haha), but they will know what’s the correct method to use.

  3. D says

    What a good idea for a discussion!

    I disagree with Cesar Millan’s recommendation to use alpha rolls.
    Suggesting this technique, especially to unskilled or fearful owners, seems unsafe.
    The move puts a human face close to a reactive canine’s teeth.
    I believe it sets up anyone for a bite right in the face.

    To date, the monks of New Skete have retracted their recommendation to use alpha rolls. And their German shepherds fall in the “large dog” category. I respect their ideas very much.

    I agree…take what works for your dog, leave what doesn’t. Millan’s a trainer who knows how to sell his ideas effectively: that doesn’t mean every idea’s effective. Or wise.

  4. G says

    And also I take him out every time he eats and before I go to bed and when I wake up there is poop and pee everywhere and he constantly wakes me up with his whining so I take him outside and he does his buisness so I dont understand why he still uses the bathroom inside

  5. G says

    Hello, I recently bought a puppy from a man who couldnt take care of him anymore.But I think he is too young to be away from his mom and siblings already. He is about two weeks old, what age is good to start house training him? And he bites is that normal cause he hasnt learned its not okay, or should I put a stop to it.

    • hunterr1950 says

      Puppies should stay with their mothers at least until 8 weeks! You are going to have many behavior issues taking this Baby at such an early age and YES it is too young to try and correct the biting behavior!

  6. Lisa says

    Thank you so much for writing on this topic!! I was very unsure about what was right and wrong when it comes to training dogs. Cesar Milan is very successful and good at what he does so I assumed he was right, even though not agreeing with everything he does. Thank you for your unbiased opinion! I do have a few questions about my dog though. He’s a 9 month old pitbull and for the most part he is very well behaved! There is a couple things I want to work on and am unsure of how to do it. First off he is very protective sometimes he will hear a noise that he is unsure of, or when someone approaches our room and he starts to growl and bark his fur also stands. I tell him no and stop and he starts to whine. I am very unclear of how to stop this behaviour. I don’t want to poke him or yell or anything like that. And other issue is walking with him. I am currently trying to train him to walk without pulling me. At first I start inside and then the back yard and he does wonderfully, but as soon as I reach a more interesting environment he does not listen very well. He continuously tries to pull me around and sniff at everything. It’s very difficult to get his attention in this environment. What do I do? Thanks again I hope to be hearing from you soon!

    • shibashake says

      How long has he been with you? What was his background like? Does he only do the growl or bark behavior when he is home? What is his behavior with people during walks? Does he act the same way with all people? How does he react to other loud sounds, e.g. garbage truck? How does he react to softer sounds?

      I do desensitization and counter conditioning exercises with my dogs to teach them to stay calm around people and help them to associate people with positive events. Safety is always a priority, so I make sure to properly manage my dogs (use leashes, gates, etc.) and their environment, so that everyone stays safe. We also visited with several professional trainers to help us with our Shiba Inu.
      http://www.apdt.com/pet-owners/choosing-a-trainer/

      For leash training, I use the red-light-green-light technique and the 180 turn around technique with my dogs. In the beginning, I start with short but more frequent walks in quiet areas. In this way, my puppy gets to practice walking, neither of us becomes too frustrated, and going out on walks becomes a regular event. Initially, we may not get very far, but that is ok. I stay consistent and after some time, Lara learned to better control her impulses, learned to stay more calm, and learned the rules of our walk.

      Giving Lara a structured outlet to release her energy before our walk also helps. We may play games, I may supervise a play session with my other dogs, let her work on interactive food toys, and more.

      I also follow the Nothing in Life is Free program with all of my dogs.

      Here is a bit more on leash training.
      Here is a bit more on how I trained my Husky puppy.

  7. Sandy Klo says

    BTW, I really loved the article altogether, and you and your pups are so cute together. You are obviously a beloved and trusted guardian, the ways those lovebugs are looking at you!

  8. david says

    Hi, I have a 5 month old pit bull mastiff mix and he is a good dog for the most part. But I do have a few problems that I need help in correcting for one he pees sometimes on the stairs and also he recently Peed on the bed even though he knows where to pee and I don’t understand why he does it, he also goes after my girl friends son iting him and stuff when either her or I are home but apparently he doesn’t do this when we aren’t around. Also he does not seem to take you seriously unless you are yelling at him. I would really like to correct this behavior before he gets much bigger and any helpful advice would be greatly appreciated. Thank you

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