Is the Dog Whisperer, Cesar Millan, teaching us an outdated, mean philosophy?

Via elephant journal
on Apr 16, 2010
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Bad Dog Whisperer!

Cesar Millan has long been one of my idols—he helped me learn how to be a guardian and friend to my rescue pup, Redford, and to learn that aggression or anger doesn’t help—it’s a sign of weakness (besides, it’s mean to be mean).

There’s an anti-Cesar Millan Facebook Group, which is full of angry dog trainers who seem to cherry-pick videos that slo-mo Cesar in his most intense situations—my reaction is, well, at worst, no one’s perfect, and Cesar never claims to be. I do agree that the “dominance theory,” based on wolves, may be a bit outdated—dogs are domesticated, more or less, after all.

My invitation to Cesar’s critics:

Picture 351

It seems strange, though, that whenever I share a personally-helpful video via Dog Whisperer I get (aggressively!) shouted-down on our Facebook Page. So I’m trying to learn, and see if Cesar and his show aren’t telling us everything.

But, so far, I just see a lot of talk about all-positive reinforcement. I don’t know. You can’t offer just “the carrot” all the time—not even with children, who of course can better understand, generally, what you’re saying.

Is it possible to discipline out of compassion, without being at all abusive? I, for one, think so.


And one from his show:

Here’s a video about positive reinforcement:


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12 Responses to “Is the Dog Whisperer, Cesar Millan, teaching us an outdated, mean philosophy?”

  1. via our fans, too busy to comment here

    I love Cesar millan. I implement his techniques a lot. It is not abusive!!

    Erik Tieze
    Is the Dog Whisperer, Cesar Milan, teaching us an outdated, mean…(echo echo echo)

    Alexandra Gordon
    Everyone needs to see the movie Mine

    Susan WinterChill
    I like Cesar and I think he is on to something. Too many people are humanizing dogs way too much.

    Janet Auty-Carlisle
    Well I have followed his work for a while becuase I have two husky pups who like to run away. I recently met a dog trainer, who is amazing at her work, and she said she does not like the idea of "pinning" down a dog when it gets aggressive. I was surprised by that until she told me her thoughts behind it. She believes that the pinning of a dog only… See More teaches it that someone else is more aggressive than they are and does not address the behaviour. It sounded quite logical to me and, after pondering it for a while, I agree with her. Now, she did NOT say he was not doing good work, she just said she didn't like the "pinning" part….

    Lysa Glaeser
    His techniques might work for him and others but that is not my way or how I work with our 3 dogs.

    Do I think he is abusive or cruel… nope.

    Do I think his methods are not the best for the average person or for people who have not background in training…yes. … See More

    Each to their own though

    Christina Mims
    My significant other raised his shepherds this way and thus became alpha male. When the woman who works for him took the female to the vet she asked the vet why The male never mounts the female when she's in heat. The vet confirmed what she had already been told. Because he is not the alpha male. They are siblings. The alpha male let him know we … See Moreare not interested in banjo playing puppies and the dog respects that.
    I can't say I think all dog owners should or could practice this. I do think it's respectable.
    These dogs have a six hundred word vocabulary which seems to be more than I can say about some of the people who own dogs.

  2. pinkelephant says:

    His techniques might work for him and others but that is not my way or how I work with our 3 dogs.

    Do I think he is abusive or cruel… nope.

    Do I think his methods are not the best for the average person or for people who have not background in training…yes.

    Each to their own though

    I am fan of Cesar Millan, i have not hate or anger for him.

  3. Rachel says:

    This is a very one-sided article. "Dominance theory" is not "outdated", it is incorrect. Moreover, physical punishment does not work because dogs do not understand it. They do not learn appropriately from it because it does not tell them they did something wrong because they don't conceptualize their actions like we do. Dominance theory-based punishments or "discipline" as some like to call them are dangerous in the hands of laypeople, both in terms of danger to the person and the dog. Those of us who work with animal rescue groups see all the time the results of this type of training: fearful and dangerous dogs who have learned that people are their enemy (if they are lucky enough not to have already bitten someone and be destined for euthanasia). And yes, I have watched many an episode of The Dog Whisperer, and I find the majority of the time he provokes those dogs into behaving as they do. I usually find Elephant Journal to be a thoughtful site about mindful living, but I'm saddened by the Cesar love and the implication that those who do not believe in his methods are "angry dog trainers who seem to cherry-pick videos that slo-mo Cesar in his most intense situations".

  4. Rachel, we're not about being fair, presenting both sides…but rather just doing our best to simply express our honest personal opinions. I'd be honored if you'd do the same–you're more than welcome to send us an article about dog training or about your questions about Cesar…editorial at elephantjournal dot com.

  5. Bio Babe says:

    If you actually have ever worked with dogs, then you know that some dogs can be so hyper and completely unresponisve to any sort of "positive" reinforcement that a more stern approach is needed. I don't mean a stern approach by just anyone I mean someone who has experience with these methods. While I do not agree with shock collars or choke chains, I do believe that "tough love" is often necessary. In my experience working with animals in situations where I would have 10 – 20 dogs in one room together, handing out treats for "good behavior" was dangerous. In pack dynamic situations (such as those seen in many dog day cares) the dogs needed to know that I was in charge and I would not tolerate mounting or growling (among other behaviors). I never hit or yelled, but remained calm. I let the dog know when the behavior was not appropriate in a strong voice or if they did not respond to this, we had time outs. When a dog does a behavior that can't be tolerated in pack situations they were immediately taken out of the situation. I could go on, but needless to say those of you who think treats and "good dog" will work ALL the time are living in a dream world.

  6. […] Is the Dog Whisperer, Cesar Millan, teaching us an outdated, mean philosophy? | elephant journal […]

  7. Patrick says:

    So far what I can see the anti Millan people seem to be adding human qualities to dogs, sorry thats not how it works. That is a lot of the problem. I have never seen a nearly abusive thing he has done, I have never witnessed a dog express any sort of real pain or physical discomfort from his training. Dogs can whine and squeal when they are not in pain, and do so much like a child would when not wanting discipline.

    Regardless if you agree with his methods the fact is that the animals listen to him and respect him, definitely does not show any signs of abuse. Gee people have you actually seen what a real dog pack does to discipline each other?? Much worse than most humans (ya there are exceptions – humans can be mean to anything).

    Honestly I think there are a lot of jealous dog trainers that dislike Cesar because of his publicity and true ability to communicate with dogs. Also some people probably are in denial that treating their beloved pet like a human isn't accomplishing much good… they want to give the dog human qualities, and are coming up with excuses to make Cesar look bad just so they can feel good about treating the dog like a lost child. get real, people can fault in anything, then fight things they need to embrace, could we just get real and quit whining about everything? Seriously if he was really abusive he would not be as respected by the families and pets he has helped.

  8. Troy says:

    I think a lot of people are forgetting that Cesar is not training for obedience, in fact he's not "training" at all… he is rehabilitating. The methods he uses to rehabilitate aggressive behavior from a 60lb pit bull are not the same techniques you'd use to teach an Aussie to sit, stay, jump or fetch. Dogs have a VERY high threshold for pain and none of the techniques Cesar uses cause physical pain. His pokes and touches are the equivalent of someone poking you in the arm or the ribs to redirect your attention. Some people (trainers) just have a need to criticize others and its usually because they are unable to get the same results that Cesar gets.

  9. Casey says:

    Hey folks,

    I can understand being confused about wolf pack theory, as it is unclear as to what degree this pertains to domestic dogs and to a degree how it functions in wild Canids. Though I disagree, I could understand why it is distressing for people to see others being physical with animals; animals have doubtless been (and are) horribly abused and mistreated throughout human history. And I could plausibly see why people could feel Cesar's methods would produce fearful dogs..or those forced into a abused helpless listless state of mind like rats in a skinner box. I could understand people fearing these results.

    Thing is…his methods DON'T produce these results. All of his own dogs, and the dogs that he works with remain alert and affectionate. Watch him walk into pack at his center – they all approach him adoringly, tail wagging…they follow him off leash…they follow him over bizarre obstacle courses.

    And regarding corrections and the strength of corrections:

    1) Dogs, like all social animals, communicate in a tactile manner. Should you not buy pack theory, a mother dog will use physical touch on a puppy exhibiting behavior she doesn't like. Chimp A will smack Chimp B if Chimp B plays too roughly with a Human or Chimp C (;similarly, Dog A may nip Dog B if Dog B engages too roughly with even an unknown human – I always found this rather touching). Dogs use touch. To not use physical touch to communicate ignores their nature. That does not mean we are hurting dogs; it means we are communicating with them in a language that makes sense to them. Pups do not become afraid of their mothers when she nips them, nor do dogs become afraid of Cesar when he corrects or dominates them.

    2) The corrections Cesar makes are not forceful enough to cause harm to the dog, and are generally not forceful enough to cause pain to the dog. Part of what he advocates is precision timing, the quicker you catch the brain beginning to fixate or do something bad, the less effort it takes to snap the brain out; most of the time, corrections can be given with the strength of a few fingers. Often the force or possible pain of corrections is not even comparable to the pain of the unwanted behavior. TAKE THE WALK FOR EXAMPLE, THE MOST IMPORTANT OF CESAR'S FOCUSES. For those fearing bruised tracheae: watch the way dogs pull their owners about on leashes (like the majority of American dogs do) prior to being corrected, their whole body weight thrown against their necks. The quick sideways pull Cesar gives to change this behavior exhibits MUCH less force than the dogs were putting on their own necks when pulling before!
    ( I have a lovely 6 yr. old Pomeranian, for example, who when walked willy nilly on a flexileash by my mother will run to the end of his leash at cars and rabbits to snap after 20 some feet and whirl around by his neck. It's horrendous and heartbreaking to watch, and I suspect he has spinal damage from it. I've been trying to get my mother to walk Nik in a more Cesar-like manner like I do, where he is on a few feet of loose leash, by my side. Not only can he not run 20 feet and snap at the end of a leash like this, cars and rabbits are but interesting scenery; he sees them, and may perk his ears for a moment, but doesn't try to lunge – and he's not exhibiting learned helplessness – he's still playful and loves to seek out cuddles (nor is he fearful and aversive, he watches cars and rabbits out windows with great interest, I just monitor the level of excitement). The more my Pom is walked like this, the more he follows me around and lays calmly at my feet. He also purportedly constantly humps my mother's leg, but I've never even so much as seen the behavior; he 'mysteriously' won't do it in my presence : )
    And again, Cesar's corrections are generally milder than what would be inflicted by other dogs.

    Cesar helps dogs that are SUFFERING from uncomfortable problems. He gives people the tools and understanding to help their companion animals. These tools are physical, they involve submission and possibly a cathartic moment or two, but the dogs' well being – the interest of all of us – is improved for it.

    I do not think Cesar's clients/fans, etc. based on societal frustration, desire to fix their problems by dominating something weaker; look at how doting and non-dominant all of his clients are. Regarding this being part of a flashy, masculine, anti-science trend…I don't think so. I don't think most people who are Cesar fans belong to those camps.

    Take me for example : )

    A nature loving, animal rights advocating, vegan, generally-not-overly-into-flashly-Hollywood-stuff, fiercely feminist, science-loving biologist. And best pal to a Pomeranian named NikNik.

  10. Ashleigh says:

    I have worked in Animal Control for almost 12 years now. I also am very involved with local rescue groups, I compeat in Agility, and I also am an assistant trainer at a training hall. I am also what you call a "cross-over" trainer. For those of you who don't know the term, it means that I started with correction based training and switched to positive methods. As someone who has used and understands the CORRECT use of both methods, I hands down would never now choose to use correction training. The dogs that Cesar works with are not "red zone" dogs, in fact for most trainers they are fairly common complaints.

  11. Ashleigh says:

    I have had the unique oppertunity to experiment with the shelter dogs when it comes to testing which methods REALLY work. Positive reinforcement and clicker training WILL work on even the most aggressive dogs and will trump correction methods every time. Most people don't feel that these methods are abusive because they don't know how to really read dog body language. When I see the show all I see are dogs in avoidence, shutdown, or pushed to severe reactions because of the stress he causes them. What the Dog "whisperer" says and what he actually does on the show are two compleatly different things, He does not rehabilitate dogs, he SURPRESSES and teaches LEARNED HELPLESSNESS.

  12. Ashleigh says:

    I have had the privilage of being shown a better way, and instead of defending my use of correction training I had enough sense to actually research, learn about, and understand why positive is far more powerful and certainly more humane. I challenge the Cesar followers to take the time and make the effort to read into and learn about why so many respected trainers speak out about his methods. Learn about Calming Signals, Operant Conditioning, and Classical conditioning. I have helped far more dogs now with positive training than I ever could have with correction training. I just wish I have learned it earlier.