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.
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.
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.
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.
Interesting Articles on Cesar Millan
- American Humane Association: ‘Dog Whisperer’ Training Approach More Harmful Than Helpful.
- The Anti-Cesar Millan: Ian Dunbar.
- The New York Times: "Pack of Lies".
- Dog Whisperer to Critics: My Techniques Are "Instinctual"
- The New Yorker: What the Dog Saw by Malcolm Gladwell.
- Wikipedia: Cesar Millan.
Cesar Millan Discussion Threads
- Yelp: Cesar Millan dog ‘rehabilitating’ techniques inhumane? (good mix of Cesar positive and negative)
- Dogster (mostly Cesar positive)
- I Remember Love Forum (mostly Cesar positive)
- Dog Explorer (mostly Cesar negative)
yes, good summary of pros/cons in my opinion – it’s nice when someone actually tries to objectively present both sides of the story, which i think you’ve done well. i like cesar millan and find the show entertaining, but would be the first to say people should recognize other methods. plus, hopefully most people are training not rehabilitating dogs! he deals with some *#*ed up dogs and it’d be best if people never let them get that bad!
Thanks jetpeach. Yeah, he really does deal with some extreme cases. I just saw an episode with a dog called Argonaut. That dog was really in a bad state and would pretty much bite any hand that came across his face. The owners got the dog as a puppy, but decided to wait until things got extremely bad before getting real help. Meanwhile, they just kept exposing their stressed out dog to more and more people who wanted to pet him, and this just made him more stressed, less trusting, and more aggressive. Really sad.
THANK YOU for your informative webpage. It’s about time TV viewers wake up and understand what Cesar Milan is really doing to the dogs on TV 🙁 I would NEVER use his tecniques on any dog nor would I recommend it to others. Instead I would recomment learning about positive informent training (which actually WORKS on ALL dogs if you know how to use it). I’m happy and proud to live in a country, that stopped showing Milans programs because the viewers, trainers, behavoirists and the kennel klub strongly objected to see this kind of bad and misinforming TV 🙂
Thanks for visiting. I too am a big proponent of positive reinforcement techniques. Aversive/punishment techniques are especially inappropriate for Shibas who will almost always fight back with great gusto, and become even more aggressive. Btw, where do you live? It is interesting that Millan’s show is banned. Do you know if there are other countries that currently ban his show? Thanks for the info.
I live in Denmark. The show is not “banned” but a massive write-in campaign from viewers and a lot of hard work from dog behaviorists and trainers finally made the tv station realize that this was really not a good show 🙂 Now they show “It’s me or the dog” with Victoria Stillwell who has a more updated knowledge about dogs than Milan and has a much more humane view on dog training and problem solving 🙂
Thanks for the information Shibalover. Quite amazing what you all did. I also watch It’s Me or the Dog, and enjoy it very much. I like it that Victoria has a lot of variety in dealing with dog issues. I also like how visual she is, and how she "says it like it is" to the owners.
Training a Puppy says
I think overall his shows are pretty useful, but at the end of the day, it is still a TV show that needs to maintain its viewing figures. I would like to see more coverage of different types of dog training gear – like collars and harnesses etc.
By watching the shows it gives us dog owners an idea of what is possible, and that not all is lost if we have a badly behaved dog – it’s never too late to re-train.
Great hub btw – I like that you’ve aired both sides to his argument.
Only to nay sayers of Cesar Millam, true dog whisperer….No one is perfect. If you do what you do best 90 percent of the time, I can follow that. Cesar has a gift of opening the public’s eye of a dimension of dog psycholgy through experience. He has stated many times that he too is still learning. Many of you have all "education" and no experience nor application, which is useless. His pros outweigh his cons, hence a 5 season series. Results!!
Out of a sleugh of critism; some overy applauding, some overly condemning, your’s is, by far, one of the most balanced and CONSTRUCTIVE critical reviews out there, and I just wanted to extend my appreciation.
Thanks Opa1! I am glad you liked the article, and your wonderful words are greatly appreciated.
I agree that you did a pretty good job with this pro/con list. Personally, I LOVE the Dog Whisperer and will watch it whenever I can, but I recognize that I am not Cesar Millan and my dog is not one of the dogs on the show. Meaning, I can learn from his theories, but I need to see what practices work with my specific situation and circumstances. I would HOPE that most viewers would understand similarly, but I’m sure you’re right, that this is not always the case.
Still, I saw a petition online to have his show pulled from the air, and that really saddened me. Anyone can see from just five minutes of the show that Cesar truly loves dogs and has a special way with them. HE can do these things. That doesn’t mean everyone can, but he never said they could. In fact, he’s really training the people, and he says that all the time!
I was glad to see you appreciate the good of him, even if you recognize some potential issues.
Thanks Kristan. Sadly, I think that many people just follow what they see on the show without truly considering their individual circumstances. Before I moved, I used to take my dog to a nearby dog park and to some nearby trails. Every-time I go to these places, there would be several people alpha rolling their dog left-right-and center. I have also seen dog walkers doing this simply because their dog barked at a rude dog that was running into their space. IMHO it is better to promote positive reinforcement techniques because even when misapplied, the possible adverse effects are limited.
About 2 years ago I read his book-Cesar’s Way-on an airline flight. Three days later I rescued an extremely abused border collie. I had the courage to do this because I had read the book. I did take the dog to get evaluated by a dog trainer. She said the dog would need alot of hours in rehab training. I reread the book and started walking the dog first with a muzzle(she tried to bite me-fear biter) I walked and walked and walked probably 4 hours that first day. After an hour I removed the muzzle, gave her water and let her rest. She sat next to me and licked my hand! She knew she wasn’t in danger any longer. After about four days of walking and sitting next to each other she really calmed dodwn. We found her a great loving home and she is happy and loves her new "mom" .
The point to this story is that if I hadn’t read Cesar’s book that dog would have been attacked again and killed. No doubt about it. It gave me the courage to even try something like this. Hey, we already had two dogs and our house was on the market. My husband wasn’t pleased at all that I rescued a dog at the time but now he said it was one of the most wonderful things I ever did in my life.
Thanks for sharing your wonderful story. You are a true hero for doing what you did. Please share some pictures if you have them available 🙂
I think that Cesar definitely teaches people many good things. His emphasis on exercise as well as calm and assertive energy helped me greatly with my own dogs. I have also noticed that he is not using alpha rolls as much lately, which I think is a really good thing. I think Cesar has a really good rapport with dogs, and he really does not need to use any aversive techniques.
Do you watch DogTown? It comes on after Dog Whisperer on Fridays. I really enjoyed the second season episodes and they use only positive reinforcement techniques to rehabilitate dogs with sometimes, very aggressive histories.
i have to object to the statement of Cesar not defining what kind of pack leader to be. He does state to be a calm assertive pack leader. I would say more but i have respect and don’t bring people down.
laterdayz, thank you for visiting. The intent of this article is not to bring anybody down but rather to have a balanced discussion of Cesar Millan’s techniques. Discussions over Cesar Millan tend to be very polarized on one end or another, which I think is unfortunate because there is both good and bad in his teachings.
I think that being calm and assertive is a very good thing, and that has helped me a lot in training dogs. Wrt. "type of leader" I was mostly referring to discussions on what is the "right level" of structure/discipline as well as discussions on how and how frequently we should correct our dog. I think the answer to these questions will be different for different people but it is important to have that discussion nevertheless.
#1 He has said "My way is NOT the only way"
#2 Some dogs go to his center for weeks or months, He is the "DOG WHISPERER" thats his thing. If it took him years to train a dog to do something he wouldnt be the dog whisperer, he would be ….me or you.
#3 If you want to know more, research it! Take your dog to a class. Thats why they charge $100, To do the work your to lazy to do. You cant expect someone to do everything for you.
#4 CALM & ASSERTIVE !!!! Do they need to call the show calm and assertive pack leader for you to get it. I cant count the number of times he has said this.
#5 HAVE YOU SEEN THE SHOW? Before every show it says and reads for you…….. " Do Not attempt the techniques you are about to see without consulting a professional". In other words if YOU want to learn it, you must pay someone ( A PROFESSIONAL ) to teach it.
Anyway it comes down to this: He works hard to give dogs a 2nd chance and he makes good money doing it. Nobody is perfect. People get jealous because he is making money and they are not. Find something to whine about that matters. ex.. Child Abuse, Dog fighting rings, Animal neglect, Drinking and driving, all things that should take priority over the debate of cesar millan’s dog training techniques.
Love, peace, and chicken grease
Dear laterdayz, Take a few minutes to ‘calm’ down. Calm comes before assertive.
In terms of pack leader we can be a calm, assertive dictator, or we can also be a calm, assertive, democratic leader, or a calm, assertive something in-between. Being calm and assertive is tangential to our style of governance. I believe it is useful to have a discussion about which style of governance best suits a person and their dog.
In terms of time it takes to train, there are some issues that will take years to train no matter who is doing the training. It is more a function of the dog, the temperament of the dog, and the amount of abuse he/she has had to endure. Certain techniques, like “flooding” which Cesar uses may bring quicker results but it may also cause the dog to totally break down.
I believe that it makes sense to have discussions about a wide range of topics. Otherwise we just accept what someone says as truth, and that often brings detrimental results.
Yes I have seen almost all of the Dog Whisperer episodes, and I think Cesar has some good things to say and some not so good things to say. Discussion is useful for everyone because it helps highlight both the strengths and the weaknesses of a system so that we can more effectively utilize the system. There is nothing wrong with discussion, it is the lack of questioning and blind acceptance that are the most dangerous.
Well constructed. I must admit, I am a huge Cesar critic. I honestly can’t stand the thought of people watching his show and attempting some of his techniques. While everyone is entitled to their own opinion, I must strongly urge you to consider more reseach on pack structure. His nonsense about who walks where and who proceeds first rarely makes any difference, because it’s based on what the personal dog itself sees as valuable. Also, rarely do dogs gain power by physical force, meaning by using force you are actually showing your dog you are insecure in your position! I have attached a URL that is linked to a 19 year study done on DOG packs (not wolves!) and you might find some of it highly interesting, and contradictory, to what Millan praises. Maybe he has a presence, but sometimes education is an asset, too.
Thanks for the article. I definitely agree with everything said there, especially with establishing leadership through the control of resources. Following the NILIF program and learning to control my energy and fears were the two biggest things that helped me improve my relationship with my dogs.
I think dogs definitely need rules, and boundaries. What rules people choose to enforce, is dependent on their particular situation and individual taste. And I whole-heartedly support the concept of enforcing those rules through resource control rather than physical force. I learned the hard way that aversive techniques can cause more harm than good.
Rochelle Frank says
You did a good job with this. I (and my dog) have really learned a lot vfrom his program– but you are right, he may set up unreasonable expectations for people to have similar results.
Overall, I think his advice is sound… but you also did a good job pointing out the things that may be missing.
Thanks! I really tried to create a balanced opinion piece on this since so many discussions about Cesar are pretty extreme to one side or the other.
Btw. I really enjoy your articles about humor. I think humorous articles are the most difficult to write.