Love him or hate him, few dog trainers have received as much attention as the famous Cesar Millan, “The Dog Whisperer.”
What started in 2004 as a back-channel cable TV show eventually led to millions of books and videos, a monthly magazine, a popular website and a foundation.
Within a few years, though, the controversy began. Suddenly, Cesar Millan was being attacked by dog lovers claiming some of his training methods were cruel.
And the furor wasn’t just online.
For example, in 2012 a protest took place outside a theater in Rochester, New York, where Millan was giving a talk. “There has been so much attention to this that other cities … are doing the same,” noted Ada Simms, an organizer of the Rochester protest.
So what happened? Why is Cesar Millan so polarizing?
How “The Dog Whisperer” Got His Start
Let’s start at the beginning.
Cesar Millan is a self-taught expert. His real-world learning began when he was a child in Mexico and was known as “the dog boy” because he had a natural touch.
Later, in the United States, he worked with aggressive dogs as part of a grooming business. He then created a canine academy, which began to attract a roster of high-profile clients, such as filmmaker Ridley Scott.
The TV series Dog Whisperer With Cesar Millan first aired on Sept. 13, 2004, on the National Geographic Channel. The show was a runaway success.
A bestselling book, Cesar’s Way, soon followed. And as time passed, even more shows hit the airwaves, such as Cesar Millan’s Leader of the Pack, Cesar 911 and Cesar Millan’s Dog Nation.
Cesar Millan’s training philosophy can be summed up this way: Your dog needs strong “pack leadership” from you because you are the true “alpha dog.” It’s called dominance theory.
He says dogs should be handled with “calm, assertive energy” and given plenty of exercise, clear rules and affection when the time is right.
Your dog is a dog, not a human, and should be treated like one, according to Millan.
“What people most often do is humanize the dog. And from that point on, they’re going to practice human psychology on a dog. And when they really want the dog to listen to them, the dog is not going to because this is not the dog’s state of mind,” he said in a 2009 interview.
On his TV shows, Millan seems to think you need to put your dog in their place when the dog is aggressive, using force — such as finger jabs to the abdomen, “alpha rolls” and even choke collars — if required.
But Millan’s critics say the opposite is true — that the dogs are simply being put into a state of helplessness by Millan’s outdated and flawed training techniques.
They say “alpha” status is essentially nonsense.
A 2009 review in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science concluded that “aggression and other behavior problems are not a result of dominant behavior or lack of the owner’s “alpha” status, but rather a result of fear (self-defense) or underlying anxiety problems.”
Cesar Millan Attacked by Critics
In September 2006, just 2 years after Cesar Millan’s award-winning TV show premiered, the American Humane Society harshly criticized it, calling some of Millan’s training methods “inhumane” as well as “cruel and dangerous.”
The group said it was especially disturbed by the way he subdued dogs with shock collars, by pinning them to the ground, or by tightening their collars.
“Several instances of cruel and dangerous treatment — promoted by Millan as acceptable training methods — were documented by American Humane, including one in which a dog was partially asphyxiated in an episode. In this instance, the fractious dog was pinned to the ground by its neck after first being “hung” by a collar incrementally tightened by Millan. Millan’s goal — of subduing a fractious animal — was accomplished by partially cutting off the blood supply to its brain.”
The group demanded that the TV network cancel the show, which it claimed gives viewers “an inaccurate message about what constitutes effective training and appropriate treatment of animals.”
In his defense, Millan said he uses only “minimum force” to correct behaviors in aggressive pets, and he added that “my way is not the only way.”
A few years later, the American Humane Society made nice with Millan, saying that despite “some sharp differences of view in the past,” the group actually shares many “areas of mutual interest” with the trainer.
Training Methods Called “Laughable,” “Outdated”
The criticisms didn’t stop, though.
A 2006 New York Times piece headlined “Pack of Lies” lambasted Millan’s methods as “laughable” and “outdated.” The writer, dog expert Mark Derr, concluded:
“Millan’s quick fix might make for good television and might even produce lasting results in some cases. But it flies in the face of what professional animal behaviorists — either trained and certified veterinarians or ethologists — have learned about normal and abnormal behavior in dogs.”
In 2009, the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior issued a policy statement on dominance theory, which didn’t mention Millan by name but denounced his methods, saying they lead to “an antagonistic relationship between owners and their pets.”
As Time magazine explained in 2010, “The debate has its roots in 1940s studies of captive wolves gathered from various places that, when forced to live together, naturally competed for status.”
But “as it turns out, this research was based on a faulty premise…. The pack’s hierarchy does not involve anyone fighting to the top of the group, because just like in a human family, the youngsters naturally follow their parents’ lead.”
In article after article, positive dog trainers urged a gentler approach.
TV Show Comes With a Warning Label
The National Geographic Channel clearly was aware of the criticism, because the network began inserting a warning onscreen that said, “Do not attempt these techniques yourself without consulting a professional.”
By 2010, an “Anti Cesar Millan” Facebook group had thousands of members. Also that year, PBS aired “The Dominance Myth,” an episode of the documentary series Through a Dog’s Eyes, which stated, “Scientifically, dominance makes no sense.”
More and more attention was being given to mainstream criticism of the Dog Whisperer juggernaut.
As Simms, the 2012 Rochester protest organizer, summed things up: “It looks good on TV that he’s this ‘master’ over dogs. But then you see the credits: ‘Don’t try this at home.’ Why? Because it’s dangerous.”
Lawsuits and Investigations
Millan has been involved in a number of lawsuits over the years.
- For example, in 2006 a producer on Dog Whisperer claimed his dog, Gator, was left bleeding, covered in bruises, and gasping for breath after being choked with a collar and overworked at Millan’s Dog Psychology Center. Flody Suarez said he spent more than $25,000 on medical bills. The lawsuit was settled a year later.
- In 2015, a Florida nurse named Alison Bitney sued Millan, claiming she was attacked and left with disfiguring wounds by a “vicious and dangerous” dog who had been released prematurely by Millan’s training center. Bitney said she had to undergo reconstructive surgery as a result of the attack. It appears that as the suit wound its way through the legal system, Millan was eventually dismissed as a defendant.
- And in 2016, Millan was placed under investigation for possible animal cruelty after a pet pig was “nipped” in the ear by a dog being trained on an episode of Cesar 911. Ultimately, authorities decided not to bring charges, and Millan was fully vindicated. “The clip caused some concern for viewers who did not see or understand the full context of the encounter,” Nat Geo WILD said in a statement.
“Love Him or Hate Him”
Contrast everything you’ve read so far with the dozens of supportive comments beneath this article if you want to see just how polarizing Cesar Millan can be.
“People either love him or hate him — there doesn’t seem to be a middle ground,” says Pet Product News writer Steve LeGrice in an opinion piece titled “Why Do People Have It In for Cesar Millan?”
But as Brent Toellner of Best Friends Animal Society has explained on his personal blog, the Cesar Millan controversy isn’t so black-and-white. He says blanket accusations that Millan never uses positive reinforcement are just plain wrong, and he concludes:
“Sometimes I think, in efforts to discourage his training practices, people become too anti-Cesar Millan. They have become so frustrated with the people that are ‘doing it wrong’ that they feel forced to break down the man they feel represents that training style.”
And remember, at the end of the day, this is still a TV show — meaning that the drama has been ratcheted up to get more people to watch.
As dog trainer Eric Goebelbecker has said, “The Dog Whisperer is not a how-to show. It’s a reality show. Each case is framed as a drama, and the cinematography, music and direction [are all clearly] aimed for maximum tension.”
Preconceived Notions of Cruelty?
LeGrice, an editor who worked with Millan for several years on his magazine, says many Millan critics have “preconceived ideas about him based often on something that they had heard about him — not something they had actually seen.”
“Another thing that must be remembered,” LeGrice points out, “is that a lot of the dogs Cesar works with are animals that have been allowed to get so far out of control that they face being relinquished to a shelter — or worse — euthanized.… If you establish yourself as pack leader in order to turn around a ‘dangerous’ dog rather than see him put down, that seems a decent bargain from the dog’s point of view.”
He adds: “I cannot in my wildest dreams imagine Cesar ever being cruel to an animal.”
Here’s a quick video that tells more interesting facts about Cesar Millan:
Is Cesar Millan a Bad Guy?
And Millan is actually right about a lot of things, such as:
- That you are responsible for your own dog’s behavior
- That your pet needs lots of love and exercise
- And that chaining dogs is awful
Despite the constant attacks against Cesar Millan, there’s still a lot everyone agrees on.
For example, dogs do require structure in their lives in order to be well-behaved members of your family. “Dogs need direction and boundaries,” Babette Haggerty, a dog trainer, explained to Live Science.
She added: “If dogs don’t know what the boundaries are, they will wreak havoc.”
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This article was originally published in 2012 and is regularly updated. It was last reviewed and updated Aug. 1, 2019.