Reward the Good or Punish the Bad?
There is a quiet battle being fought in dog-training circles. On one side, Cesar Millan. No doubt you’ve heard of Mr. Millan, world-renowned “Dog Whisperer,” known for his uncanny ability to communicate with dogs. He is often seen power-walking large packs of dogs at a time. Millan has captured the national spotlight with his National Geographic television series in which he rehabilitates wayward canines — aggressive, scared, lazy, compulsive and jealous dogs.
Millan’s style and methods sure make good television drama. What are Cesar’s credentials for this line of work? Well, according to Cesar’s website, his “blessed gift - a primal communion with nature - always came naturally to him.” “For me,” Millan says, “it’s just instinctual — I understand how they think and behave, so I can relate to them and communicate with them.”
Cesar has no formal training or education in animal behavior. He draws on his observations of his grandfather in Mexico and his own life experience. He gained Hollywood attention after training guard dogs for actors Will Smith and Jada Pinket. Millan has created an empire of videos, books, blogs, webinars, talk show appearances, and his Dog Psychology Center in Los Angeles. There, with a pack of 50 dogs, he works his Cesar magic.
Millan subscribes to a theory of dogs that fell out of favor with trainers long ago, a dogs-as-wolves pack theory. In his best-selling book, “Cesar’s Way,” Millan writes that there are only two positions in a relationship, leader or follower. His philosophy is that we, as humans, must act as dominant pack leaders, and our dogs must behave as submissive followers. He teaches that, in order to properly fulfill both our dogs and ourselves, we each need to become our dog’s calm-assertive pack leader. “I teach owners how to practice exercise, discipline and then affection, which allows dogs to be in a calm, submissive state,” he explains. “Most owners in America only practice affection, affection, affection, which does not create a balanced dog.” “Training,” says Millan, “only teaches the dogs how to obey commands — sit, roll over — it does not have anything to do with dog psychology.”
Ian Dunbar, though he didn’t ask for this fight, stands in the opposite corner of the proverbial training discourse ring, armed with degrees and scientific study. Dr. Ian Dunbar is a veterinarian, animal behaviorist and writer. Dunbar received his veterinary degree and a Special Honors degree in Physiology and Biochemistry from the Royal Veterinary College (London University), a Doctorate in animal behavior from the Psychology Department at the University of California at Berkeley, and a decade of research on olfactory communication, social behavior and aggression in domestic dogs. On top of that, add decades of dog-training experience. Impressive by any standards, but Dunbar’s opponent in this training controversy is backed by the power of Hollywood and charisma.
According to Dunbar, the return to dominance training such as Millan’s is a disservice to dogs. Though Millan gets results, Dunbar notes that most people don’t have Millan’s strength or skill, and even fewer keep dozens of dogs. Dunbar’s mild mannered, hands-off, reward-based approach is in stark contrast to Millan’s “I’m the Boss” attitude and physical corrections like finger jabs, alpha rollovers and leash pops, to elicit compliance. Instead, Dunbar advocates a trusting and respectful relationship in which our dogs are treated as companions and family members as opposed to a lesser species requiring physical dominance. Dunbar works to dispel the myths that those such as Millan foster. Dogs aren’t wolves, Dunbar says, generations of evolution separate the two animals. “Learning from wolves to interact with pet dogs makes about as much sense as, ‘I want to improve my parenting — let’s see how the chimps do it!’ ”
The soundness of Dunbar’s philosophy and training techniques have been recognized and embraced by trainers everywhere. He is credited with spurring the demise of punitive, punishment-based training. His Sirius Dog Training program has redefined and revolutionized pet dog training. Over a decade ago, he founded the Association of Pet Dog Trainers, an international organization devoted to promoting human-canine relationships based on trust and respect. He has written numerous dog training books and hosted the popular British television series “Dogs with Dunbar”. Dunbar and his wife Kelly Gorman (also a dog trainer), founded Open Paw, a nonprofit dedicated to keeping dogs and cats out of shelters and in loving homes. Dogstar Daily, the online arm of Open Paw, was born shortly thereafter.
With so much dog training success, and the respect of the most renowned figures in dog training and behavior, why is Dunbar still relatively unknown and Cesar Millan a household name? “Cesar works with aggressive dogs, and that’s sexy these days,” says Patricia McConnell. “His methods work well on a limited number of dogs, but in many cases the dogs become shut down. Ian’s methods are successful for the average dog owner, and what’s more, have been used by professionals for years to successfully treat serious aggression problems. And, they’re fun.”
The field’s most respected behaviorists and trainers are concerned that many of Millan’s ideas are unfounded and some of his methods are downright harmful. In Cesar’s world, physical corrections - such as snapping a dog’s leash, finger jabs, and forcefully rolling the dog onto his back - are an effective way to garner compliance and good behavior. One technique often used by Millan to “cure” a dog’s fear is to overwhelm the dog with the very stimulus that terrifies him. Imagine treating your dog’s fear of thunder by locking him out in the yard in a severe thunderstorm. Many behaviorists argue that this technique, called “flooding,” actually leads to further psychological trauma. The dog learns that resistance is futile - his spirit is broken. Trish King, Director of the Animal Behavior & Training Department at the Marin Humane Society observes: “In some of his shows, Cesar tells the owner how ‘calm and submissive’ a dog is, when to me, the dog looks shut down and fearful.”
Nicholas Dodman, author of “Dogs Behaving Badly” and program director for the Animal Behavior Clinic at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University calls Millan’s techniques “abuse.”
Editor of Bark Magazine, Claudia Kawczynska, is one of Dunbar’s many fans. “It’s irritating to see Millan treated as the expert. Ian is an animal behaviorist with decades of experience. He should be where Millan is,” she says. “Millan lived on a farm, so what? He’s good looking, but he’s not smart about dogs. It seems people don’t want their experts to be educated.”
Jean Donaldson, director of dog training at the SFSPCA and author of “Culture Clash,” a book about the human-dog relationship, views the history of dog training in terms of pre- and post-Dunbar. “Ian is the man,” she says. “He revolutionized the field.” She also thinks Millan has tapped into something deeper in the current culture. “It’s a backlash against political correctness,” she says. “People are angry and life is frustrating and [when] someone tells them it’s all about dominating something smaller and weaker? They’ll go for that.”
Writer Mark Derr, in a New York Times editorial, went as far as to call Millan a “charming, one-man wrecking ball directed at 40 years of progress in understanding and shaping dog behavior.”
“All training is negotiation,” Dunbar says, “whether you’re training dogs or spouses.” Dunbar agrees that training is training is training. “You can instill fear in your kids and get them to mind, but they won’t function better in the world and your relationship will suffer greatly,” he adds.
But if the Cesar magic works, who wouldn’t want the magic? That’s what all owners want -the faithful dog that dutifully obeys commands and walks calmly behind us. But does his magic transfer to the average dog owner? Cesar says owners can learn to become better communicators with their dogs, and that his methods teach owners and dogs to become more balanced.
In a letter from Martin Deeley, Owner of the International School for Dog Trainers and Executive Director and Co-Founder of International Association of Canine Professionals (IACP), Deeley praises Millan saying, “Owners are learning to respect their dogs for what they are - dogs. Owners are learning that by understanding what a dog is and does can help them create a long and lasting loving relationship with their dogs without resorting to bribery and child like rewards. Being leader of the pack does not imply strong punishment and corrections but an assertive confident approach where the dog recognizes your leadership.”
Missy Lemoi, owner of Hope Lock Kennels Dog Obedience, is one of Millan’s many fans. “I can only hope that more people will follow [Cesar’s] methods and allow their dogs to be dogs rather than treating them as children in fur suits,” Lemoi says, “as a result, there will be fewer dogs given up for adoption or euthanized as uncontrollable animals.”
Despite the great Hollywood success, numerous testimonials, and a near cult-like popularity, top dog trainers nationwide express dismay that Millan has become the current face of dog training, and most say Dunbar should be the one with the empire. It’s a fundamental conflict in training philosophy: Are results best achieved through rewarding good behavior or punishing bad?
“He has nice dog skills, but from a scientific point of view, what he says is, well … different,” says Dunbar about Millan. “Heaven forbid if anyone else tries his methods, because a lot of what he does is not without danger.” “Don’t try this at home” messages are flashed throughout Cesar’s television show.
American Humane, the oldest national organization protecting children and animals, works to raise public awareness about responsible pet ownership and reduce the euthanasia of unwanted pets. In a letter to the National Geographic Channel, American Humane asked the network to stop airing Cesar Millan’s “Dog Whisperer” citing the training tactics featured on the show as inhumane, outdated and improper. American Humane expressed dismay over the “numerous inhumane training techniques” advocated by Cesar Millan and 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. In its letter, American Humane said: “We believe that achieving the goal of improving the way people interact with their pets would be far more successful and beneficial for the National Geographic Channel if it ceased sending the contradictory message that violent treatment of animals is acceptable.”
Millan supporters say that all of the criticism of Millan is just jealousy from the established dog training community because other trainers have not managed to achieve the same level of notoriety and success.
“You can lead with force, like Saddam Hussein, or you can be a benevolent leader to your dog by choosing a style more like Gandhi’s,” says Tamar Geller, trainer to Oprah Winfrey’s dogs and author of The Loved Dog. “Your approach will determine the type of relationship you have - and whether your dog acts out of intimidation… or respect.”
The shelters are full of dogs whose lives might have been spared if only they had received training. “Without training, the life of a puppy is predictable: chewing, soiling the house, digging up the garden, followed by a trip to the shelter where, if it’s lucky, it gets another try,” Dunbar says, wearily. “Without training, that dog will be dead in less than a year.”
The one thing Millan and Dunbar both agree on — training is critical. It saves dogs’ lives. But that’s about where their similarities end. Indeed, compliance from the dog is the goal of all training. Is it best achieved through fear and physical dominance or positive methods based on trust and respect? Will future dog owners of America side with Millan or Dunbar: will the dominance mentality take a back seat to the reward-based training which promotes understanding and living peacefully with one’s pets? It’s hard to say.