Last week, Cesar Millan's 16 year old pit bull, Daddy, died. It isn't often that the death of a dog because of old age makes national headlines -- including a full page article/photo in this week's People Magazine -- but Daddy was different.
In so many ways he represented what many 'pit bull' advocates love about these types of dogs -- and what we know all of them can be when they have good owners. Daddy was often the passive, calm dog when other dogs were not so calm. And many in the nation fell in love with the dog. RIP Daddy.
Seeing Millan and Daddy in People last week inspired me to write this post. While loved by many, Cesar Millan has become highly controversial figure among canine behaviorists and dog trainers. Millan has become the face of what many trainers call Dominance Training for dogs -- and a popular face at that. For the many trainers across the nation more strongly favor purely positive dog training techniques, Dominance training becomes the face of cruelty in dog training -- and they would love to see Dominance Training die.*
* Tip, if you want Dominance Training to die, you can start by at least admitting it CAN be successful but there are better ways. It remains because it can work to rehabilitate dogs. Admitting that first will give you more credibility.
It doesn't take much digging to find articles criticizing Millan's training techniques and calling animal cruelty. The Anti-Cesar Millan facebook group has nearly 3,000 members -- some of who are regular readers of this blog or that I know personally.
And while I understand their criticisms of Millan, I never cease to be amazed at the all-or-nothing attitude that seems to exist in this country where we feel like we have to take polarized views on someone we don't agree with 100%. In reality, Millan has done a lot more good than harm in the animal welfare movement....and even if he's not perfect (who is?!), many animals are in a lot better place now because of him.
Cesar is a celebrity. Millions of people watch his TV program each week, and both of his books, Cesar's Way, and Be a Pack Leader, sold over 1 million copies. He has reached millions of people with his message.
While some may consider this a bad thing, it depends, I guess, on what message he's talking about. And he has many messages - -and most of them are things people need to hear.
1) Dogs are a product of their owners. If your dog is misbehaving, it is because of something that you did - -not something that is the fault of the dog.
2) Dogs need Exercise, Discipline and Affection. In that order. No one would dispute the 1st and 3rd need, but it's the second one that is everyone's hang up. Discipline, to me, means that your dog needs rules, boundaries and expectations. Without them, the dog will misbehave and cause problems.
3) All dogs, even 'pit bulls', can be great dogs with proper training. In fact, I would be hard pressed to find many places that have placed bully breeds in a more positive light.
4) On this front, Millan has been vocal against pit bull bans in various parts of the country. "Banning the dog doesn't solve the problem; it only creates fear and ignorance."
5) All dogs deserve a chance to be rehabilitated -- and usually can be.
6) At the end of every show now he signs off with a note to spay and neuter your pet.
7) Chaining dogs is not an appropriate way to contain a dog and can lead to behavioral issues in the dog.
It's hard to believe that a man who sends these messages out to millions of people through different media could have so many animal welfare people dislike him.
Four years ago, I stood in the doorway of a city council meeting in Leavenworth, KS because the city council chambers was full. After a couple a pretty major dog attacks in the Kansas City area, and a rash of hysteria brought on by the local media, Leavenworth, like many cities in the metro, was discussing potentially banning pit bulls from the community.
At one point, one of the city council members noted that he confessed to not really knowing a lot about dogs -- but he had watched the Dog Whisperer and there were pit bulls on that show that were really good dogs and that it sure seemed like the dogs were just a reflection of their owners. Leavenworth passed a really good dog ordinance that night because they decided to focus their legislation on dog owners, not on breeds of dogs. The positive, and correct message, had gotten through.
Positive dog trainers typically don't like Millan. They see his training methods as often barbaric and cruel. I've watched a lot of his episodes....and it is seldom that I see him doing anything that could be misconstrued as actual cruelty. It's important to note here too, that Millan doesn't start with a small puppy that is completely moldable and just positively training the dog to sit/stay/etc -- where certainly treat training is simple and easy.
The reason he got the call was because someone had so majorly screwed up their dog that it is severely messed up. Often, this shows itself in a form of severe aggression. Often, the owner has called Millan because the trainer they tried to work with said the dog should be euthanized.
He's not working with a blank slate.
While I realize that good positive-only dog trainers are able to curb these behaviors using their positive training techniques, it does seem at least logical, and not abusive, to use some form of corrective behavior in order to get the dog to cease acting aggressively, and begin to focus on other training.
However, positive trainers see quick pokes and alpha rolls and paint him as an abusive trainer.
The truth is probably somewhere in the middle.
What makes the situation worse for these trainers, they end up seeing the dogs that come in because their owner has screwed them up even more trying to emulate Millan. In spite of the disclaimers that owners shouldn't try these techniques at home, people do. We not the most brilliant of species, and we do try what we see on TV -- which is why there are millions of YouTube videos of painful-looking falls of people who have tried to copy something they watched during the X Games.
These dog owners try to do what Millan does -- but lack what is probably his greatest asset which is incredibly quick hands and excellent timing to redirect unwanted behavior before the behavior actually starts. But because they screw it up, their dog becomes worse behaved, not better behaved.
Trainers see these dogs and think it is Millan's fault. In some ways maybe it is. In other ways I wonder if the owners would have ever taken an active-enough interest in their dogs to even try in the first place. We'll never really know for sure. But the end result is that at least the owner realizes that the dog's behavior is bad and it is their job to fix it. Which isn't the worst end result imaginable.
It is often funny for me to read when people write about how Millan only uses dominance training and never uses a positive reinforcement approach. But even that is not really true.
Often, Cesar takes dogs to the "Dog Psychology Center" where the dogs live with Cesar's pack so they can become 'more balanced'. When the owners come to see the dog for the first time at the Dog Psychology Center, he always says to the owner "No Talk, No Touch, No Eye Contact." The idea is that the dog will misbehave at first and the dog won't get what it wants (to be paid attention to) until it settles down. Once the dog is calm again, the owners are then allowed to interact with the dog -- which is pretty classic positive reinforcement.
I don't expect anyone to change their mind on Cesar Millan. I know how passionate people who are involved in purely positive dog training are about their craft....and I can appreciate that. And I realize that when these people see Millan, and folks that tried his methods on their own and failed, he represents everything that is wrong (in their mind) with dog trainers.
But I think it's still important to acknowledge the overarching messages that he tries, successfully in my opinion, to get across in his program. Primarily, your dog is a reflection of you as an owner. If the dog is aggressive, or ill-behaved, it's your fault. Not the dog's.
And meanwhile, it is hard for me to imagine anyone who has had a greater, further reaching impact on how people view bully breeds than Millan. Certainly, very few find themselves with a feature in People magazine with their 'pit bull'.
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.
I say it's fine to discourage the training style, but leave the man alone. His larger overarching message is too good of one to just throw out in your dislike of the methods of how he got there.
One Bark at a Time has a funny story of a family of Cesar Millan fans that come visit the shelter.
Dog Spelled Forward is one of the positive dog trainers who really dislikes Cesar. Eric does a good job in his breakdowns of the episodes and what he sees as good and bad with his training. I don't always agree with his comments, but I at least respect that he actually watches the episodes and dislikes them based on the actual information that is in the shows. Here is one breakdown of an episode "Chihuahuas from Hell" There is a second one with a dog named Bella. I really liked the second one for a couple of reasons: 1) I thought this was a particularly interesting episode of the show when I watched it before seeing Eric's post and 2) I thought it was a particularly interesting read on how much Eric actually AGREED with what Cesar was doing...even though he is a purely positive trainer and typically doesn't like Cesar.
What the Dog Saw - a great article on Cesar from Malcolm Gladwell that ran in the New Yorker and is the title of Gladwell's newest book. If you've never read this article, you should make the time to do so.
Yes Biscuit! - Things I've Learned from Cesar Millan