Why veterinary behaviorists can't stand Cesar Millan

A few years ago one of my close relatives took a bad dog bite to the face. Plastic surgery––the works. Strictly speaking, there was no doubt it was her fault. He growled at her...and she bit him. 

Yes, you heard right. After years of dealing with this dog’s seizure/personality disorder by the book (neurologists, behaviorists, trainers, acupuncturists) his owner lost it and bit him. On the ear. It was a corrective kind of a bite he might have expected from another dog. Hence his reaction: A swift, punishing bite to the face.

I offer you this close-to-home story by way of explaining how easy it is for humans to become emotionally overwhelmed by a dog’s aggressive behavior. That’s when all of us feel the natural drive to turn around and treat our dogs on the violent terms we can all understand. Sure, we may not act on the impulse, but we undeniable feel it.

Problem is, while aggression may be a natural, universal language, its interpretation is typically species specific. Thus, a dog cannot read human signs of aggression anywhere near as well as he reads his own species’ dialectical subtleties. Nor can he be expected to. Ultimately, even our sophisticated human attempts to convey our emotions at the canine level are likely to be misread by a large percentage of even our most docile dogs. 

Enter Cesar Millan "The Dog Whisperer" and his ilk. Promising almost immediate success through basic dominance-based concepts any human can understand makes the message compelling. The entertainment factor and deliverer’s charm gives it traction. And the media massage of our basest instincts allows for ready acceptance of an almost irresistible idea: Great behavior through good pack leadership skills.

It’s not a wrongheaded concept in and of itself, of course. Many trainers and vet behaviorists use it to great effect. Fundamentally, however, expressing canine “leadership” through the prism of our humanity is not as DIY as it sounds. There’s just too much room for misinterpretation.

A recent article in The Journal of Applied Animal Behavior (sorry, no link yet) agrees with this latter premise. But it offers us the dark side of these Cesar-esque tricks far more scientifically than intuitively, helping highlight how simple corrective measures conveying dominance can be futile, misconstrued, prove counterproductive, and often result in bodily harm to humans. 

According to lead study author Dr. Meghan Herron at the University Pennsylvania (my peeps), 

Nationwide, the number-one reason why dog owners take their dog to a veterinary behaviorist is to manage aggressive behavior. Our study demonstrated that many confrontational training methods, whether staring down dogs, striking them, or intimidating them with physical manipulation, do little to correct improper behavior and can elicit aggressive responses.

Dr. Sophia Yin, a veterinarian, applied animal behaviorist and newbie veterinarian blogger in San Francisco (check her out at!), clued me in to this research and urged me to help foster pet owner interest in pursuing non-punishing, non-confrontational, less Millan-ish ways of handling basic and problem behavior, alike. 

Her website, citing the Penn-based research, compiles a list of dominance-based approaches to canine aggression that fan the flames of these unwanted behaviors.

The highest frequency of aggression occurred in response to aversive (or punishing) interventions, even when the intervention was indirect.

  • Hitting or kicking the dog (41% of owners reported aggression)
  • Growling at the dog (41%)
  • Forcing the dog to release an item from its mouth (38%)
  • “Alpha roll” (forcing the dog onto its back and holding it down) (31%)
  • “Dominance down” (forcing the dog onto its side) (29%)
  • Grabbing the jowls or scruff (26%)
  • Staring the dog down (staring at the dog until it looks away) (30%)
  • Spraying the dog with water pistol or spray bottle (20%)
  • Yelling “no” (15%)
  • Forced exposure (forcibly exposing the dog to a stimulus – such as tile floors, noise or people – that frightens the dog) (12%)

Again citing the research, she reports that:

In contrast, non-aversive methods resulted in much lower frequency of aggressive responses:

  • Training the dog to sit for everything it wants (only 2% of owners reported aggression)
  • Rewarding the dog for eye contact (2%)
  • Food exchange for an item in its mouth instead of forcing the item out (6%)
  • Rewarding the dog for “watch me” (0%)

Though science and soothing is undoubtedly less sexy to the average pet owner than Millan’s testosterone-fueled fare, studies like this are necessary to help explain the potentially damaging effects of “pack leadership”-based training methods. 

Back to my relative: After two years (and $20K-plus) of hard work the right way, one small bite based on the concept of pack mechanics undid it all. Her beloved (and I mean one really adored dog) was euthanized in the aftermath. 

It may take a while for these more subtle methods to reverse the muscly trend Cesar Millan has espoused, but it’s crucial to remember: Confrontation? It can kill...and almost always, it’s the dog that suffers in the end. 

You Might Also Like