The Methods of The Dog Whisperer Cesar Millan and his Critics

I am a dog trainer myself and have read several of Cesar Millan's books, watched most of his DVDs and I am a regular viewer of the Dog Whisperer TV Show. I have seen several other dog shows on TV as well but prefer Cesar Millan as he teaches us about the true nature of dogs and how to restore their natural balance. His insight have made me better at what I do and it helped me develop a better understanding of the differences between dog rehabilitation and dog training; two concepts many people get confused. His approach of working with nature is in my experience a much better way to help dogs and their owners. He draws his insights from experience with and growing up around dogs. That he doesn't have any formal degrees, which some criticize, works in his favor in my view. He is not constrained by one particular paradigm and doesn't try to reinvent or improve nature like so may dog trainers or behaviorists with degrees. I do appreciate real-life experience over book knowledge when it comes to dogs. Cesar Millan 'gets' dogs and many bookworms just don't. Don't get me wrong. There are many great books on dog behavior worth reading but it doesn't substitute for 20+ years of hands on experience, like in Millan's case.
Cesar Millan returns dogs to a calm, stable state of mind by applying natures principles. Dogs by nature are calm, balanced animals. Only when they live with people do they develop all these issues you see and hear about so much, because most people don't understand how to effectively communicate with their dogs and what their own state of mind does to their companions. Cesar Millan helps them understand how they are affecting their dogs so they can change and as a result, improve their dogs state of mind and behavior.
I often hear Cesar Millan's critics, praise Victoria Stillwell and I would at some point like to see a compelling argument for Victoria Stillwell's approach of 'positive reinforcement only'. In one of Stilwell's 2009 episodes I saw her advocating—together with a vet—that a particular dog with separation anxiety should be put on anti-anxiety medication. In my view that is true animal cruelty and a complete humanization of an animal that is really not to its benefit. Anyone who thinks that it is a 'positive' approach to drugging a dog your methods don't work on, should really take a look at the Cesar Millan DVD 'Common Canine Misbehaviors', where he shows how to address separation anxiety with calm-assertive leadership. He teaches the owners how to bring their dog back to balance and resolve this issue and he doesn't touch the dog even once. Same issue, different methods, which is healthier for the dog?
Also, in the episode 'Untamed and Untrained' from 2008, Victoria Stillwell diagnosed two dogs—Olivia and Sophia—as never be able to be together in one room, alone, off-leash as one was attacking the other. She also spoke of the dogs being 'emotional' in each other's presence. I have to say, she is not a very impressive trainer. These dogs can absolutely be returned to a balanced co-existence and dogs are not emotional about other dogs in ways like 'they don't like each other.' Stillwell did make some progress with Olivia and Sophia but didn't seem to fully understand that this was just the beginning of where this can be taken. If she would have only been able to teach the owners how to be true calm-assertive pack leaders and reclaim the position, they lost to their dogs, they could have made it all the way. Stillwell doesn't really seem to understand the true nature of dogs and once again humanizes them—although she claims she doesn't. Instead of criticizing Cesar Millan on a regular basis, she would benefit from getting some lessons from him on how to deal with imbalances in dogs properly. She showed some good positive reinforcement techniques—which Cesar Millan uses too where appropriate—but would really do herself and her clients a huge favor by not denouncing things she clearly doesn't understand. If I knew who these poor people where, I might go there myself just to help them, as I feel really sorry for them having to think, their dogs can never get along—Stillwell should really be ashamed of herself.
In the western world people have a tendency to view their dogs as another kid of the family. In my work I find that to be one of the biggest problems. People spoil their dogs based on their own desire to shower them with love. And while most people have the best, most loving—from their point of view—intentions, they do not really love their dog in the true meaning of the word. Loving your dog means to accept its nature and provide what it needs—not what we think they should enjoy. This is what Cesar Millan advocates. Based on this, it is not surprising that we have a lot of people that find positive reinforcement training methods better (or more modern) because it is essentially an extension of our tendency to spoil our dogs and not correct them when called for. But just because more people find it 'nicer' doesn't mean they are correct. And just because the true nature of animals is something we don't want to think about, doesn't mean ignoring it delivers better outcomes—quite the opposite.
Cesar’s critics would be well advised to keep an open mind and re-evaluate their myopic views. Cesar Millan does have insights many don't quite get but if you work with dogs like I do, you just see every day that he is spot on—something I can't say for many 'formally' educated trainers and authors who have a made-up degree from a self-proclaimed animal behavior school.
Let's try to understand and admire dog's true nature as animals and dogs first—there is so much we can learn if we just open our eyes.
If Your Dog Could Talk
If Your Dog Could Talk is a "straight-forward" guide to understanding your dog.
If you ever wonder what your dog is thinking, this book is for you. Dive inside your dog's mind and read in plain English how your dog sees the world and you—its pack.
Learn what it means to be a dog and how dogs relate to other animals and the people around them.
Understand how dogs learn, how their minds function and the foundation of all dog training and behavior modification.
If Your Dog Could Talk helps you understand your dog like never before!
Ralf Weber is a certified dog trainer (IACP CDT, CDTA) and behaviorist. A professional member of the International Association of Canine Professionals (IACP) and an AKC evaluator for Puppy S.T.A.R., Canine Good Citizen, and Community Canine certifications.
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