Is Cesar Millan a Fraud? - Simply For Dogs
Is Cesar Millan a Fraud?

Is Cesar Millan a Fraud?

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Unless you’ve been living in a cave over the past 20 years or so, you have heard about Cesar Millan, the supposed “Dog Whisperer.” I freely admit that I am a big fan of Cesar Millan, and employ a lot of his training tips and strategies with my dogs. But there are people out there who will tell you that he is at best, a fraud, and at worst, a really lousy dog trainer. Where does the mythology end and the truth begin?

Recently, Mr. Millan faced animal abuse charges when a pig he was using in his show was bitten by a dog. The charges were ultimately dropped. But this put Mr. Millan in the spotlight, and caused people to ask whether the methods he uses for rehabilitating dogs are actually humane, and even if he really has a handle on dog behavior at all.

Millan has also taken a lot of abuse because of circumstances in his personal life, which I will not go into here. It’s not relevant.

Two Sides to Every Story

Cesar Millan seems to have a nearly supernatural ability when it comes to communicating with dogs. Over the course of his career, he has been able to rehabilitate aggressive dogs, frightened dogs, and dogs with any number of other issues. Certainly he makes for good television – Mr. Millan is very photogenic and charismatic. But does he have any actual credentials? And if he hasn’t, does that really matter?

No Credentials

No, Cesar Millan has no credentials. He is not a veterinarian. He is not an animal behaviorist. He is just a guy who claims to know how dogs think and behave. He claims that “it’s just instinctual.” He just relates to dogs. His only training, if you can call it that, comes from his Mexican grandfather, who also was apparently a “dog whisperer.” Millan now works with over 50 dogs at his Los Angeles compound, and conducts webinars, films videos, and appears on talk shows espousing his own special methods of training dogs.

Is that good enough?

I’m not sure. Honestly, I know a lot of people who seem to have an instinctive understanding of dog psychology and who can make dogs behave in ways that most of us can’t. I don’t know how “real” any of it is. Cesar sure seems to have it nailed down, though.

Obsolete Knowledge?

One thing I do know is that Cesar Millan believes in a theory that has long since been debunked. It’s the idea of the alpha in the dog pack.  Millan suggests that in order to have good dogs, you have to be the pack leader, or the “alpha.” Any other dogs in the pack must submit to you. He takes this from old research on wolf packs, suggesting that there is an alpha wolf and then the subordinates. Current research, though, suggests that wolf packs work more cooperatively than we once believed – there may actually not be an alpha, just a group of wolves who work together for the good of the pack. And there may be no need for dominance – simple affection may get the job done.

The Other Side of the Coin

On the other side of the dog behavior and training equation, we have Dr. Ian Dunbar, who considers himself to be the “Anti-Millan.”

Dr. Dunbar actually does have qualifications, with a veterinary degree and a doctorate in animal behavior. He also has decades of experience in animal training and behavior. What he does not have is Cesar Millan’s television presence and charisma.

Dr. Dunbar does not like Mr. Millan’s approach to training, with alpha rolls and an insistence on submission. He notes that such tactics will not work for most people – a large, aggressive dog is difficult to subdue, and physical confrontation may not work. Dunbar advocates a more respectful approach to animal training, in which we treat dogs as our equals as opposed to subordinates. Dogs, he maintains, are nothing like wolves – he likens Cesar Millan’s wolf/dog approach to saying “I think I want to be a better parent, so I guess I’d better figure out how chimpanzees do it.”

Trainers everywhere seem to embrace Dunbar’s approach, and he is often credited with facilitating the trend away from punishment-based dog training. He has had great success with dogs that have had aggression problems.

So, What’s Wrong With Cesar?

Animal trainers and behaviorists and trainers overall are worried that Cesar Millan’s techniques are not founded in good science, and some of them may actually be harmful. He uses techniques like alpha rolls, yanking on the leash, jabbing with fingers, and other physical corrections. He also believes that if a dog is afraid of something, “flooding” may be the best cure – for instance, if a dog is afraid of thunder, put him outside in a storm and make him face his fear.

Okay, now this is me talking. This is one thing that I absolutely disagree with Cesar Millan on. I’ve said that I’m a fan, but when it comes to this, Cesar’s got it totally wrong. How would you feel if you were scared to death of thunderstorms, and someone put you outside in one? I’m thinking you wouldn’t react well. Wouldn’t it be so much better if someone just didn’t react to the storm at all? And let you figure out on your own that you weren’t in danger? Flooding my arse!

Another dog behaviorist, Nicholas Dodman, a professor at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, claims that Cesar Millan is abusive. And the list could go on.

Claudia Kawczynska, the editor of Bark Magazine, reacts with glee at Dr. Dunbar’s assessment of Cesar Millan, saying that “It is irritating to see Millan treated as the expert.” She states that Dr. Dunbar has much more experience, and should be the one elevated to the level of expert, not Millan. “He’s good looking,” she says, “But he’s not smart about dogs.”

Back to Ian Dunbar, Jean Donaldson, who is the director of dog training at the SFSPCA, says, “Ian is the man. He revolutionized the field.” She further suggests that Cesar Millan has simply taken advantage of something in our culture that leads us to want to be “dominating something smaller and weaker.”

It gets even worse. Mark Derr, a New York Times writer, calls Cesar Millan a “charming, one-man wrecking ball directed at 40 years of progress in understanding and shaping dog behavior.”

Wow

It seems like a lot of people really don’t like Cesar Millan. But the fact is, a lot of the time, his methods work. He tells us how to communicate with our dogs, and often, we end up with better, more balanced dogs as the result.

The Other Side

Not everyone hates Cesar Millan. Martin Deely, who is the owner of the International School for Dog Trainers, and also the cofounder of the International Association of Canine Professionals, offers high praise for Mr. Millan, saying that thanks to Mr. Millan’s efforts, “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.”

Another fan is Missy Lemoi, who owns Hope Lock Kennels Dog Obedience. She says, “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. As a result, there will be fewer dogs given up for adoption or euthanized as uncontrollable animals.”

Cesar or Ian?

Indisputably, Cesar Millan has achieved great success on television, and many dog owners swear by his methods. Other trainers seem to be dismayed that he is considered to be the ultimate authority, and believe that Ian Dunbar ought to be the final authority on dog behavior and training. So, who is right and who is wrong? Is Cesar’s belief that we should be the ultimate authority over our dogs the right approach, or is Ian’s kinder, gentler approach the right way?

American Humane, which is dedicated to protecting animals and children, actually wants Cesar Millan’s “Dog Whisperer” television show cancelled, stating that his tactics are outdated, inhumane, and improper. American Humane is the oldest national organization protecting children and animals and 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. They even accuse him of violence against animals.

On the other hand, Cesar Millan’s supporters maintain that the invective comes from other dog trainers who are simply jealous of his success.

Any Training Ss Better than No Training

Whether you agree with Cesar Millan’s training methods or not, one thing is known – animal shelters are filled to the brim with dogs that might have had a decent life if they had any training at all.  An untrained dog is going to mess in the house, dig up the yard, be badly socialized, and probably end up on a one-way trip to an animal shelter where it will likely be put to sleep. We can debate all day about the merits of Cesar Millan’s training program versus that of other trainers, but one thing is sure – if a dog is not trained at all, he is probably not going to live.

The Final Word

I find a lot of value in Cesar Millan’s training program. I don’t agree with everything that he advocates, but one thing is for sure – he loves dogs and wants what’s best for them. In that, we’re in full agreement. The last thing I want is to see a dog end up in an animal shelter because he had no training at all. So whether you love Cesar Millan or hate him, one thing you have to agree on is that dogs have to be trained.

For myself, I think I’ll keep on using a lot of Cesar Millan’s training methods. He might not be professionally trained, but that doesn’t matter to me. Just because you have no formal training, that doesn’t mean you’re not smart, and it doesn’t mean that you don’t know what you’re talking about. Just my opinion, of course.

About the Author Ash