“Oprah Winfrey is my role model, the perfect example of a calm and assertive leader,” says Cesar Millan, a Los Angeles, CA-based dog trainer famed for his show The Dog Whisperer, which has just kicked off another season on the National Geographic Channel. “She’s a calm person who is dominant. Dominance in the animal world is not a bad thing. It is a necessary thing,” Millan comments were made in an interview which aired on my WGN Radio Show, Pet Central (October 22, 2006).
Dr. Debra Horwitz, president of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists, appeared on the radio following my interview with Millan. She countered, “Of course, providing leadership and showing the dog what you want the dog to do is appropriate. We believe you can control dogs without being confrontational. There’s a big fallacy about the dominance theory. When you look at wolf packs, which is a comparison dog trainers often make, there’s not a lot of domination. The leader leads by example. Dominance is also a quality of the relationship, not a quality of an individual. You may be a dominant individual in one relationship and not in another. You don’t carry your dominance all around. So, dogs will have different relationships with different people in the household, and will have complex relationships between one another if there’s more than one dog.”
Another guest on Pet Central following Millan was Dr. Sophia Yin, who teaches at the University of California School of Veterinary Medicine – Davis, and is a member of the American Society of Veterinary Behavior. “Yes, owners should be calm and assertive and it’s true to help dogs, we need to be in charge. But dominance and leadership are two different things. Dominance is defined as the use of force to gain priority access of the things you want, so animals compete for food, toys and favorite resting areas by fighting. Leadership is the ability to convince others to do things they normally wouldn’t do otherwise. A person can be a leader by bullying, or by providing incentives and rewards; in other words convincing followers you’re working for the same goals. Would you rather follow a leader like Castro or Ghandi? It’s no different for dogs.”
How your dog responds, according to Millan, depends on the energy you project. “If you’re nervous, that’s the energy you’re projecting. In the animal world, you are energy. Only calm and assertive leaders can lead a pack. You can still love your dogs – but you must always be dominant.”
He steadfastly maintains good human/canine relationships are all about who’s the boss. He said we often unknowingly create our own problem dogs by encouraging dogs to dominate us by loving them too much. “It’s amazing how much affection, affection we give. And this creates a non-stable dog. That means those humans do not tell the dog “stay there,” and if they do, the dog won’t listen. The dog is in charge; the dogs believe the house belongs to them. A lot of times I come to people’s homes and the dog is on the couch and growling. Why? Because he’s claiming the territory. Remember Emily the pit bull (from an episode of “The Dog Whisperer”)? She was confined in the backyard for six years. The dog didn’t receive discipline or exercise. She only received affection, affection. I mean she was never abused by being hit. But I think she was abused, that’s what too much affection is.”
It seems, according to Millan, nearly everything dogs do is about dominance. On TV and in his book (with Melissa Jo Pelter), “Cesar’s Way: The Natural, Everyday Guide to Understanding & Correcting Common Dog Problems (Harmony Books, New York, NY, 2006; $24.95), he says, for example, dogs that greet us by jumping up on us are trying to dominate.
“Well, dogs greet one another face to face,” said Horwitz, “And those dogs who jump don’t know another way (to greet us) because they haven’t been taught, or simply are ignoring what they’ve learned – but not because they’re dominant – because they’re being reinforced for jumping. It’s an effective strategy for getting what they want, which might only be attention.”
Horwitz, who also sees problem animals in her practice in St. Louis, MO added, “I have many owners who are calm and assertive, who are clearly in charge, and still their dogs are exhibiting behaviors which are abnormal, objectionable or unwanted. Mr. Millan might be able to effectively get a dog to something on TV. But that’s vastly different than what people can be expected to do on their own.”
Even though there are disclaimers asking viewers not to try Millan’s techniques, Horwitz says she knows people do try them. If there’s a bite, not only does someone get hurt, but the dog may be the ultimate loser by being euthanized. Horwitz is particularly concerned about children who watch The Dog Whisperer and then attempt to do it the Cesar way.
“I am aware that many don’t like it (his training techniques), but this is what works for me, there are many ways,” Millan said. Still, Millan’s website and books are all about Cesar’s way.
“I won’t say he’s always wrong, not at all,” said Horwitz. “But what he is able to do on TV may be vastly different than what an owner can do at home. And issues are sometimes more complicated than projected on TV. For example, a veterinary behaviorist will consider if there’s something physically wrong with a dog contributing or causing the (behavior) problem. No amount of training will matter unless an underlying physical problem is treated.”
As for Millan, his position is clear. “I love the dogs; I help the dogs; I save the dogs. There are 60 million dogs in America. There’s room for many philosophies. I’m just one.”
The only problem is that one is endorsed by the National Geographic Channel and by the ultimate arbitrator of all the good in the world, Oprah Winfrey.
Next week: My views on Cesar Millan, which will be expressed in calm and assertive prose.