My ever-evolving opinion of Cesar Millan

It was Malcolm Gladwell who first introduced me to Cesar Millan in his 2006 New Yorker piece. Soon afterwards, I saw Cesar Millan featured on Oprah. Intrigued by the endorsements of two very different people, I started watching The Dog Whisperer. From the first episode, I was hooked. Everything Cesar did looked so effortless. Everything he said sounded so simple. “What was wrong with all of these dog owners?” I thought. “It looks so easy! Anyone could do that!” With just a few catch phrases, “Exercise, Discipline, and Affection” and “Calm and Assertive Energy”, even I felt like I could rehabilitate troubled dogs. Clearly, this was before I got Loki.

Throughout Loki’s first year, I ardently stuck with Cesar’s philosophy and defended it. I watched his show and read a couple of his books. I had faith in his philosophy and raised Loki on his principles. However, when Loki’s behavior didn’t go according to plan, I was crestfallen.

Cesar teaches that there are no bad dogs, only bad owners. “Well, what about me?” I thought. I am typically neither calm nor assertive. I’m often stressed, anxious, and submissive. Does that mean I should be barred from owning a dog? Maybe. But my emotional states aren't that out of the ordinary.

When Loki began to exhibit aggressive behavior, I felt terribly guilty. In fact, to this day I haven’t been able to fully let go of that guilt. We’ve had Loki since he was 8 weeks old. All of his behavior problems must have been caused by us. If some other people adopted Loki without knowing his history, they probably would think that he was abused. I’ve tried to reconcile my guilt by telling myself that we did the best we could, that I put in tremendous effort, and that we are still continuing to do what we can.

Of all of Cesar’s teachings, the one that has most drastically changed my opinion about him is the touch, otherwise known as the hand-bite. Cesar claims that the touch is supposed to replicate a dog bite, and it is supposed to snap a dog out of it. We tried it and tried it, but in retrospect, both my husband and I think that this technique actually caused more aggression issues with Loki. Interestingly, we disagree on how it caused more issues with Loki, but we both agree that it did more harm than good.

The touch does not and has never snapped Loki out of anything. Instead, it has caused him to react with more aggression, and if I remember correctly, it might have even caused some bites. I think that every dog and owner combination is unique, and perhaps the touch works for Cesar and most dogs. Maybe the touch works for you. But it doesn’t work for all owners and it doesn’t work for all dogs. It definitely doesn’t work for us and Loki.

After I started becoming disenchanted with Cesar Millan, I also started becoming more critical of his TV show. Most dogs’ behavior problems cannot be neatly packed into 15 minute clips. Most dogs’ problems are not TV-material; they are not sensational enough to capture an audience’s attention and cannot be resolved quickly.

Additionally, the more episodes I watched, I realized that Cesar gets bitten quite a lot. To his credit, he does take on some serious aggression cases, and he doesn’t care about getting bitten. But I don’t want to get bitten at all.

Every time a dog bites, it learns a little bit more about how to bite -- about how hard to chomp down, about whether to shake its head side to side, about how long to hold the bite down for. The dog learns exactly how to perfect that bite to get the response it wants from you. It’s always in your best interest to minimize the chance of a bite, if not for your own sake, then for the sake of not giving the dog the opportunity to practice its biting skills.

At this stage, I am not anti-Cesar Millan. I am still a fan, albeit a lukewarm one. Many of his teachings are innocuous and many of his teachings transcend the realm of dogs. You can’t really go wrong with trying to project a calm and assertive energy. This is good advice for everyday living whether or not you own a dog. Similarly, you can’t really go wrong with exercising your dog more. Everyone could use more exercise, not just dogs. We could all be healthier both physically and mentally if we got an hour’s worth of exercise everyday. But, although his catch phrase sayings are helpful, they are also not solutions to any serious canine behavior problems. You aren’t going to be able to fix an aggressive dog with exercise and positive energy alone. Yes, exercise helps, but you’ll need a whole lot more. Cesar is a charismatic speaker and he’s easy to love, but take him with a grain of salt.

12 comments:

Wilson said...

I think it depends on the situation. Perhaps the "touch" works only for a dog already respects you as an alpha. For a dog is more on the dominating and aggressive side, I think it will only provoke a reaction. Thoughts?

Ting said...

I'd like to see a Shiba on his show before I pass judgement on his philosophy. More specifically, an urban Shiba so that I may relate.

Thank you for your blog and congrats on the new addition to your family!

Vi said...

Wilson --
I think the touch doesn't work for fearful dogs, especially those that choose fight over flight. When under stress (either real or perceived) Loki goes into the "fight or flight" mode, and most of the time, he chooses fight.

At least that's my interpretation. I could be wrong.

Mongoose said...

Oh, I think his way absolutely works on serious cases. I don't have any dangerous dogs in my life but I can turn my neighbours' out-of-control dogs into pleasant pets just by showing up. And I'm not just saying that. I don't have any of the problems the owners have with their dogs, and I don't have to do a thing about it. I'd actually quite like to try it on some much more severe cases and see what I can do.

It is true that Cesar's way doesn't work for everyone, but anyone I know in person who isn't getting results, is actually doing it wrong. Way wrong, too, not "a little wrong." You can just see they're not at all in touch with the dog's mind. And the same is true of horses... I used to train horses and it's the exact same thing. You can just see how a person's energy changes their horse, or their dog, or the people around them. But I think it's like auras, some people see them and some don't.

As for the biting, I really don't think dogs need practice. It's what they're born to do. Their whole evolutionary strategy is to have a fearsome bite (well, that and look really cute). Dogs known how to bite like they know how to breathe.

Rachael said...

I personally think Shibas are a bit of an exception to the rule. Their general personalities tend to hold a bit more of an independent streak than what I call "user-friendly" breeds (your labs, retrievers, etc.). In my (albeit limited) experience, they DO NOT react well to the "dominance roll" theory, or any forceful show of overtly obvious dominance, or attempts at confinement for that matter, but that's another story. Our training approach was all about trial and error with Saki. We got better results when we actually started treating her a little more like a cat. The "touch" method seemed to create an association in her mind with us as "attacker" and her as "attacked." She would retreat and become aggressive if cornered or pursued. Maybe we WERE doing it wrong, but it just wasn't right for her. We got a better response when the negative response to say, chewing, barking, or jumping was not associated with the humans in the house. Water pistols and mini coffee cans full of beans worked wonders. (NOTE: we DO prefer positive reinforcement, but a sharp sound, moving object or water gun REALLY helps get the point of a sharp "NO" across with a stubborn dog). It also helped when we outsourced EXTREMELY unpleasant task of claw trimming/filing to the groomer. It made her trust us less because she saw us as adversaries for days afterward. She screamed so loud in protest--NOT pain, that our neighbors threatened to call child protection services because they thought we were killing our toddler. Dogs are like kids, what works for one may not work for another. I don't necessarily believe in one-size-fits-all training strategies.

Jen said...

Vi - I'm right with you here. With my first "living on my own" dog, I royally F'd it up trying to emulate the Cesar stuff. It wasn't beyond my realm of understanding, I studied psychology as an undergraduate. And I jogged, so the exercise was there already.

However.. and I truly believe this... the dog was above my understanding. The dog just sincerely wanted to trust me, wanted a relationship with me. Wanted to work WITH me, not against me. Yet, I saw everything as a 'play of dominance' from him, which naturally pits you against your dog... forms a struggle. As a Border Collie, it was my lack of breed and temperament understanding, not dominance/alpha stuff at all. Not at all.

I think I ruined that dog. I feel guilty to this day. I think thats why, even though it drains me, I foster for rescues.. as penance.
Bodhi is happier now though. He found a family that is active in agility and treats him like a family member, not an opposing force of nature looking to undermine them at every step. I just don't believe domestic dogs living in the human world care about hierarchy. I could be wrong, but this is now my conclusion.

So, from there I found Dr. Patricia McConnell, a real canine behavior expert with degrees in the subject, not just a TV show.

I read "The Other End of the Leash" and I read Jean Donaldson's "Culture Clash". I was forever changed. It made more sense to me, to treat a dog like a dog. And to me - a dog is a part of my family. Something to nurture, to provide for, to bond with, to understand, to appreciate, to look out for, to love.

You might actually enjoy reading Dr. McConnell's take on Cesar's "aura": http://www.theotherendoftheleash.com/cesar-millan-and-merial/

My Kitsune is a fearful dog. More than that, he is an un-confident dog. A dog without stability of emotions and lack of trust is lethal - they either hide under the bed or feel pressured (and then relief) from biting.
I would not trust him around children, but I hope when the time comes I can find a behaviorist that believes what I and Dr. McConnell believe to help him over that confidence issue. For now, he DOES trust my husband and myself. We can handle him any way we like, he looks to us when he is fearful and relies on us... best. feeling. ever.
I have accomplished what I failed with Bodhi and I am convinced that Cesar's methods are certainly not for me... and I suspect most dogs would agree.

Good luck. Loki (and Juju) are very luck dogs.

Jen said...

Oh, btw - we are working to reverse the results of alpha rolling right now with a 13 week old puppy. For the first 6 weeks of his life (yes, the bought him via the internet at 6 weeks old) they began to poke/shush touch him when he was too rambunctious and would alpha roll him, and hold him there until calm, when he would bite them.

He's not trying to be alpha, he just didn't have enough appropriate stimulation for a beagle mixed puppy.

So... now, I have to start from scratch with this puppy to associate hands on his neck and back as reassuring and not threatening. I have to teach him to appropriately explore his world (puppies do so with their mouths, but biting humans is NOT normal) while teaching him that hands are not toys (by replacing with real toys or timeouts).

He's responding quick... puppies rebound faster than adults behaviorally. I think in a few weeks time we'll have him trusting again. And I even think he'll be happy to be picked up in time, and voluntarily roll on his back for belly rubs (he is starting to after 3 days).

I don't want to get bit, and the more he bites, the more he will view it as an acceptable practice to get what he wants. We are working to avoid that pattern and give him the tools to make choices that result in GOOD things, like treats instead of time outs. It is working :)

Mongoose said...

I was thinking about this again earlier and just wanted to add something... No, you should not be barred from owning a dog, however, you need a dog who suits you. All these problems you're having with Loki, you don't seem to be having them with Jujube. It's like people... why is it that people I can't stand have lots of friends? Because not everyone likes the same things in people. So likewise with dogs, you're doing better with Jujube than with Loki, and probably Loki could do better with a different person. If you can't seem to make progress and you're getting stressed out and demoralized, you might have to think about re-homing him.

The Shiba said...

I remain by my stand that the only breed that ever bested Cesar was a Shiba, and that he has stated openly that he believes that pit bulls are better dogs than Shiba Inus.

Why?

Because you don't dominant a Shiba or an Akita. The two of you learn to work together.

Vi should not have to give up Loki because he bites; over their time together, she and her husband have worked wonders with Loki. They recognize the signs, and work with him on helping him to overcome his fears. They made errs of judgment in the beginning; they are rectifying that now. Placing Loki elsewhere would be a disaster for Loki who is well bonded to his family and lifestyle. He is a good dog for the two of them; he just needs different attentions than Juju.

While I can appreciate people's allegiances to Cesar's philosophies, I stand strong by also stating we have a responsibility to those animals which we bring into our household. I have a semi-feral cat that we adopted at 8 weeks. She is sorta bonded to us, but never gotten completely over her fear of people- and periodically spazzes out to her feral nature. Should I give her up because she is not the cat we wanted (lap cat, etc)? Absolutely not. I have given her a safe place to be herself and she will live out her strange life with us until she passes away. Giving her away would be more tramatizing than forcing her to be a lap cat when she does not want to be.

Accept the animals as what they are, and work toward agreements on what is acceptable behavior. Accept responsibility for what you do and make amends for any mistakes. While some dogs are need more than their owners can provide (as Jen tried so hard with Maisy), Vi is giving Loki what he needs. Loki will come around on his time, and as Vi returns to her self-confident nature, they will once more be a good working team.

Jen said...

I also do not believe that the solution here is giving up Loki. He is home.

Though, as the baby comes and perhaps its not safe at that point - I'm not there so I have no idea what that would be like...

But Vi - I have to give you much props for how far you have come with Loki. Like I said, he is an extremely lucky dog.

Have you considered something like melatonin for him? to take a bit of the anxious edge off? We got super far with Hachi's fear of my husband with aid from melatonin.

Vi said...

I have to make a few clarifying remarks, because these comments have taken on a life of their own.

This post was intended to be about how my real-life experiences affected my opinion of Cesar Millan, not about how I feel about Loki.

The point was that a dog owner or potential dog owner should take Cesar with a grain of salt. And that his methods don't work for everyone. I should have clarified in the post that we have found much more success in other methods. Trying to re-direct his attention into play has worked. Using positive reinforcement has worked. Having a consultation with a dog behaviorist also worked. We have already made tremendous progress with him using different methods. And these methods can successfully work without trying to first achieve a zen-like balance within oneself.

I wasn't complaining about Loki's behavior. I was complaining about some of Cesar's methods.

Lindzv123 said...

By your own admission you're often stressed, anxious, and submissive. Do you think perhaps this is why your dog never responded to you the way they do to cesar?

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