Since everyone else has written about Cesar Millan and the pig, I thought I might as well, too.
The training methods have been well covered by the likes of Steve Dale, Jean Donaldson, Dr. Marty Becker and other nationally respected experts. And I agree that dog training should never be based on fear, dominance or other techniques where the dog is exposed to a stimulus until he’s just overwhelmed and shuts down.
But an even bigger problem looms: using television as a medium of education, for the dog and the public.
The Truth: Good Dog Training Makes Boring TV
Helping a dog succeed through gradual, repeated practice of successful training exercises is just outright boring.
If you are a dog trainer, proficient in dogs’ body language, it is a joy to watch. But if you are a layperson who wants to see a miraculous transition from a dog biting and lunging to become a well-behaved model student, good dog training is like watching paint dry.
Bad Behavior Shouldn’t Be Made Worse
When I train and counter condition a dog to get rid of a problem behavior, one of the baseline principles is to prevent the dog from rehearsing the bad behavior — even one more time.
For example, the more a dog rushes at something he wants to attack, the better he gets at it. In addition, the act itself actually releases feel-good brain chemicals and relieves stress. Even if you have the dog observe the unfortunate target of his desire from a distance, he is ruminating and building pent-up energy.
So, even without the dog practicing the bad behavior, it’s likely to get worse.
There isn’t any point in making behaviors worse and then trying to solve them — it just makes it even more difficult to help the dog learn better habits.
Good trainers will plan a behavior modification program based on the easiest path to better behavior. No people worthy of calling themselves decent trainers or behavior consultants would ever intentionally make a behavior worse before trying to solve it.
The Dark Side of Training on TV
There is little value in viewers seeing a dog improve without knowing where he started. The problem in training on TV is flawed to begin with — the network producing the show wants the transformation to be as dramatic as possible.
We all know that television — even reality shows — are a series of repeated takes until the producer and the director get the shot they want. This could involve letting the dog misbehave over and over.
Frighteningly, often the dog is actually set up or baited to misbehave. In the case of Cesar and the pig, many trainers believe that one of the pigs was restrained uncomfortably to make it squeal, thus triggering the chase by Simon the French Bulldog.
Good Dog Training Has No Drama
Good trainers don’t get bitten, don’t let dogs misbehave and don’t ever push dogs past their comfort zone. Even Nat Geo says viewers didn’t see Cesar’s whole process and that much more was done behind the scenes.
As a fear-free and pain-free trainer, I find that frightening in itself. If we see anxiety and injury in the name of success, what has happened behind the scenes?
Nearly 10,000 people petitioned National Geographic Channel to pull the plug on Cesar Millan’s TV show after the now-infamous episode aired:
TV Stunts Can Breed Misconceptions
The best and most successful training is a progression of training exercises with measurable improvement. When it seems like horrific “red zone” dogs can be magically rehabilitated overnight, we give the viewing public the wrong idea. Additionally, it makes it harder for the rest of the training world to help clients have patience for the process of good techniques.
I do think we owe some debt of gratitude to the show, unfortunately at the expense of the pig: This incident has brought to the forefront of the public eye the problem with televising dog training.
I urge both my readers and Cesar fans alike to look twice and think, “Is this something I want to do with my own pet?” I hope you decide that the answer is no.