Celebrity dog trainer Cesar Millan, best known for his award-winning National Geographic show Dog Whisperer, has had a tough summer. First, his wife of 16 years filed for divorce, citing irreconcilable differences. Now, animal behaviorists and other professional dog trainers are arguing that some of Millan’s techniques are cruel and ineffective, Time reports.
Of course, Millan’s methods have been attacked before
. Based on dominance and hierarchy, the technique prescribes that an owner should demonstrate to her dog that she is the pack leader, in order to command the dog's respect and submission. Animal behaviorist Rudolph Schenkel introduced dominance theory after a series of 1940s studies of captive wolves seemed to show that canines naturally compete for status. However, L. David Mech, founder of the Minnesota-based International Wolf Center, has illustrated that those studies were flawed, and that in the wild the pack's hierarchy does not involve anyone fighting to the top of the group.
Critics of Millan, including dog trainer Victoria Stilwell, are once again saying that some of his methods — such as the alpha roll, in which he pins a dog on its back and holds it by the throat to exert dominance — are dangerous and counterproductive.
"Discipline doesn't come in the form of screaming at your dog, hitting your dog or putting it into an alpha roll," says Stilwell. "When you do that, instinct tells the dog to shut down, which is mistaken for calming, but really you're making the dog more insecure."
Meanwhile, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) agrees that this approach to dog training might be misguided. In a statement issued by the organization last year, the AVMA argued that “dominant-submissive relationships that do occur in nature are a means to allocate resources — a problem that rarely exists between dogs and their owners.”
Simply put, if your dog is misbehaving, it’s most likely not because he wants to dominate you, but rather because he has not been appropriately trained to act differently.
While many critics are taking issue with Milan’s training techniques, it should be said that this is not a complete attack on his approach. As Time.com reports
"To be sure, Millan's approach to retraining is sometimes warm and fuzzy, and he has much common ground with positive-reinforcement trainers like Stilwell. Both trainers strive - as much as possible with a nonspeaking animal - to determine the psychological cause of a pup's misbehavior. Both encourage people to ignore dogs' annoying habits so as not to accidentally reward them with attention. Both agree that punishment is only effective during or within half a second after the offending behavior: yell at Butch for peeing in your kitchen after he's already walked away, and Butch will think he's in trouble for walking away. Both trainers obviously love animals."
More than anything, it seems that leadership by showing a good example — for example, by adhering to Millan’s oft-quoted mantra "Rules, Boundaries, and Limitations" — and not dominance gained through anger, aggression, or abuse, is what dog owners should be striving for with their canine companions. Surely Millan, Stilwell, and anyone who loves their dogs can agree on that.