Few dog trainers have received as much attention as Cesar Millan, known to most as “The Dog Whisperer.”
What started in 2004 as a back-channel cable TV show led to millions of books and videos, a monthly magazine, a website and a foundation.
These days, however, Millan’s methods are hotly debated. Even some veterinary behaviorists don’t like The Dog Whisperer.
And the furor isn’t just online. A protest took place on January 15, 2012, for example, at a theater in Rochester, New York, where Millan gave a talk. “There has been so much attention to this that other cities … are doing the same,” says Ada Simms, Rochester protest organizer.
“Protests are being organized in Columbus and Akron, Ohio, where Cesar is performing,” Simms says. “There have been inquiries from as far away as Europe, where Cesar will be on tour after his U.S. tour ends.”
So what happened? Where did things go wrong for TV’s top dog guru?
How the Juggernaut Began
Millan is a self-taught expert. His real-world learning began when he was a kid 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 attracted high-profile clients.
The TV series Dog Whisperer With Cesar Millan premiered in 2004 on the National Geographic Channel and was a runaway success. The bestselling book Cesar’s Way quickly followed.
Millan’s training philosophy in a nutshell is this: Your dog needs strong “pack leadership” from you (the true “alpha dog”) in order to be healthy and balanced. It’s called dominance theory.
The longer version: He says to handle your dog with “calm-assertive energy,” giving him plenty of exercise, clear boundaries and rules, and lots of affection when the time is right. Your dog is a dog, not a human, and is to be treated like one, Millan says. On the TV show, Millan seems to think you need to put your dog in its place when the dog is aggressive, using force — finger jabs to the abdomen, “alpha rolls,” even choke collars — if required.
Here’s an interesting Wall Street Journal video interview with Millan:
Critics Begin Speaking Up
In 2006, the American Humane Society lobbed one of the first grenades, asking producers to cancel Millan’s TV show, calling some of his training methods “inhumane” and “cruel and dangerous.”
The society said it was especially disturbed by the way Millan subdued dogs with shock collars, by pinning them to the ground or by tightening their collars.
Millan defends his methods, saying he uses “minimum force” to correct behaviors in aggressive pets, and adding, “My way is not the only way.”
The American Humane Society later made nice with Millan, saying that despite “sharp differences,” the group shares many “areas of mutual interest” with the celeb trainer.
“Laughable” and “Outdated”?
The criticisms didn’t stop, because plenty of others picked up where the American Humane Society left off.
A fall 2006 New York Times piece headlined “Pack of Lies” lambasted Millan’s methods as “laughable” and “outdated.” The writer concluded:
“Mr. Millan’s quick fix might make for good television…. But it flies in the face of what professional animal behaviorists…have learned.”
Two years later, 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.”
In article after article, positive dog trainers urged a gentler approach (such as clicker training) than Millan’s. And newer studies seemed to bear the critics out. For example, a spring 2009 report in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior showed that asserting dominance over dogs actually increases aggression in those dogs.
A Warning Label on the TV Show
The National Geographic Channel clearly was aware of the criticism, because the network cautions viewers against following Millan’s methods, inserting a warning on screen during every episode that reads: “Do not attempt these techniques yourself without consulting a professional.”
By 2010, an “Anti Cesar Millan” Facebook group was thousands strong. In April of 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 now being given to mainstream criticism of the Dog Whisperer juggernaut. Take this local newscast, for example, which aired in January 2009:
That brings us to the recent protest in Rochester. Dozens of trainers passed out fliers advocating force-free training. Says Simms, the organizer of the protest: “[Cesar Millan is] charming, and 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.”
So, Is Cesar Millan a Bad Guy?
No. In fact, he has done a lot of good for animal welfare, including advocating against breed-specific legislation and puppy mills, and in support of spay/neuter programs.
And Millan is actually right about quite a few 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
As Brent Toellner of KC Dog Blog explains, the Cesar Millan controversy — which seems to polarize so many people on all sides — isn’t so black and white. Toellner says blind 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.”