The Dog Whisperer, Cesar Millan, has built a media empire on his ability to tame and train the most incorrigible of canines. Millions watch his show on National Geographic each week to see the charismatic star teach hapless owners to cure barking, jumping, aggression and fear in dogs.
But could his forceful methods be ineffective, even dangerous? Some think so. There is a growing backlash against Mr. Millan from dog-behaviour experts and dog owners who fear that he could bring punitive training back in vogue, despite long-established evidence that positive, reward-based training works.
“It was a surprise to a lot of dog trainers to suddenly see this very old-style training, and to find that it caught on so quickly,” said Stanley Coren, psychology professor at the University of British Columbia and author of several books about dogs, including How Dogs Think: Understanding the Canine Mind and The Intelligence of Dogs.
There’s no denying that Mr. Millan and his techniques make great television. Every episode of The Dog Whisperer features Mr. Millan swooping into the home of someone with a misbehaving dog, camera crews in tow. He certainly seems to have a magic touch – a few firm “tsch!” sounds and leash tugs from Mr. Millan and the former devil-dogs trot placidly to his side, gazing angelically at their stunned owners. The real entertainment value of the show is watching Mr. Millan teach those owners how to become, in his words, “pack leader,” dominant over their own dogs.
“I rehabilitate dogs,” Mr. Millan says in the voice-over before every show. “I train humans.”
Dog Whisperer Cesar Millan’s dominance-based approach to obedience training has unleashed a backlash from dog-lovers who say the alpha male idea is all in humans’ heads.
It’s the wrong kind of training, critics say, and any rehabilitation may be short-lived once the cameras are gone.
“Practices such as physically confronting aggressive dogs and use of choke collars for fearful dogs are outrageous,” said Jean Donaldson, director of the SPCA Academy for Dog Trainers in San Francisco, in a widely disseminated critique of the show. “A profession that has been making steady gains in its professionalism, technical sophistication and humane standards has been greatly set back. … To co-opt a word like ‘whispering’ for arcane, violent and technically unsound practice is unconscionable.”
Dr. Coren said the methods used by Mr. Millan – who has no formal training in dog psychology or animal behaviour – are a throwback to those used to train German military dogs in the 1940s. “The basic flaw in his technique is relying on the notion that dominance is established by force, and nowadays we know that’s not the case.”
“The leader of the pack is the one that controls the resources,” Dr. Coren said. Thus a well-timed treat to reward good doggy behaviour (for example, not freaking out when the doorbell rings) can be more effective than 10 of Mr. Millan’s physical “corrections” aimed at curbing bad habits.
The dangerous part of Mr. Millan’s methods, critics say, is that they may get a dog to stop growling or lunging, but they won’t cure the underlying fear or aggression, thus creating a dog that’s more likely to strike without warning.
(For his part, Mr. Millan has pointed out that his training goes further than the corrections seen on TV that his critics denounce.)
Respected veterinarian and dog behaviorist Ian Dunbar, who heads Berkeley, Calif.-based Sirius Dog Training, has called this technique “removing the ticker from the time bomb.” He and Ms. Donaldson feel so strongly about Mr. Millan’s approach that they have produced a DVD titled Fighting Dominance in a Dog Whispering World.
The National Geographic channel runs a “don’t try this at home” warning before each episode of The Dog Whisperer. “The telling thing is this disclaimer,” Dr. Coren says. “What makes good television doesn’t necessarily make good science.”
Mr. Millan shrugs off the criticisms, saying his training methods are natural and humane.
“It’s the difference between going to school and the dogs being your school,” Mr. Millan told a National Geographic interviewer. “One is the intellectual knowledge, the other one is instinctual. I am instinctual.”
His pop-culture juggernaut rolls on: In addition to his TV show and DVDs, he has a magazine, bestselling books, a line of dog products and even human clothes for sale.
At a recent pet show in New York, people lined up for three hours to meet him. Jackie Comitino of Long Island, wearing a T-shirt that said “Tsch! Be a pack leader,” waited with her two dachshunds, Dylan and Cody. She said Mr. Millan’s teachings had changed her life as well as her dogs’.
“Every dog owner should read his books,” she said. “I follow his method to a T.”