I had the privilege of being invited to Quest Headquarters to participate as an audience member of the talk show "Inside Quest.” This day’s guest happened to be the one and only Cesar Millan (“The Dog Whisperer”). Once the episode started, it was very clear to me why Cesar has had so much success in his career. He is very charismatic and has a great sense of humor. I found myself breaking into laughter on more than one occasion. However, charisma aside, I think it’s important to take a critical look at Cesar Millan’s training styles from a professional perspective, as I’ve discovered many dog owners who swear by Cesar’s techniques outlined in his books and TV episodes.
During his lecture, I had a chance to ask him my first question, which was whether he considered himself a dog trainer or an animal behavioralist. What I found very interesting is that he does not consider himself either such title; rather he calls himself a “human trainer.” I can see why he answered this way, because he knew that I was a dog trainer, and a well-known saying in the dog training world is: "The only thing two dog trainers can agree on is that the third dog trainer is wrong." With that being said, without claiming one or the other, he can choose what works for him without being pigeon-holed into a particular style, and I can respect that. As a trainer, teacher, instructor or mentor, it is one’s responsibility to take subjects that seem complicated to others and simplify them, rather than taking something simple and complicating it. That’s where human-training comes into play.
So for example, if I have a client that is struggling with their dog's daily walks, and I can solve that problem in one quick session, then I've done my job. If it takes me months to fix this issue and the owners can't reinforce my training, then I'm failing not only my client but also my client's dog. However, just how talented is Cesar really at training the human owners? In this article, I’ll try to demystify some of Cesar’s techniques, and take a critical look at his philosophy—which can hopefully be of benefit to readers and their dogs.
After the talk, I hoped to begin investigating more of what makes Cesar tick, so I had a chance to ask him a few more questions. What I discovered is that Cesar uses a kind of holistic training approach that depends heavily on assessing the “energies” of the dog. Clearly, it works well for Cesar and his dogs. However, I’m not sure how well this compares to the more scientific approach that trainers who graduated top academies use. It’s important to understand that Cesar’s techniques are very different from how traditional trainers operate.
An example of this holistic approach is that he doesn't teach obedience commands, such as sit down, come, heel and so forth. Therefore, Cesar seems to believe it’s better to rely on the energetic interpretations of the dog’s behavior. Again, this has very little in common with how trainers such as myself approach things from a scientific perspective.
Before we begin dissecting Cesar’s terminology to understand more clearly how he trains, let me share what happened during a training session that Cesar did with a Pomeranian that belonged to the host of the show, Tom Bilyeu, and how he uses his holistic approach. The goal was to socialize the dog with Cesar's dog and get the dog more comfortable with other dogs. In this training session, the dog was full of excitement, jumping, and barking at the people and the other dogs in the room. Cesar immediately jumped into his standard sayings, "first we need to have calm-assertive energy; we need to show the dog that we are the pack leader.” He then went on to explain how the dog's energy is moving towards the other dog, and that is creating a habit, so every time the Pomeranian sees another dog, she will act out this high level of energy and excitement. Next, he explained that we as the pack leaders need to create a relaxing degree of energy. Once the dog matches the energy and submits, then we can start to move the dog towards the other dog to meet. If the dog is to re-engage the high level of energy, we must stop and wait for the energy to go back to a calm, submissive state.
Finally after all the talk about energy, being calm-assertive or calm-submissive, the dog walks to Cesar's dog, and they are introduced. Everyone was amazed at the magic that Cesar just did on this dog. As an experienced trainer observing the situation, I found that what Cesar did was incredibly simple—however, he made it seem more complicated than it needed to be. Although he created a lot of amazement, the issue with the over-complication is that the dog’s owner, Tom Bilyeu, may not be able to emulate the training and get the same results as Cesar did on stage, unless he is somehow able to tune himself to the dog’s energetic disposition the same way Cesar apparently can. This is no fault of Tom, but the fault falls on Cesar for not being able to simplify what he did. As a result, Tom is going to be more focused on his energy instead of trying the simple actions needed to get the desired results.
So, what was it that Cesar actually did (minus his constant "Tsch" sound)? He first made the Pomeranian sit by lifting on the leash and pushing the dog's butt down into a sit. Every time the dog got up; he placed the dog back into a sit. While Cesar was talking about energy for an extended period, the dog became bored. Cesar then started to move with the Pomeranian towards the other dog. When the Pomeranian went ahead of Cesar, he placed the dog back into a sit and waited for the dog to calm down. The dog was learning that if he stays relaxed, he will be able to make his way to the other dog—simply cause and effect. In other words, the Pomeranian wanted to move forward, but learned that the only way to do that was to perform a nice sit. Once the dog realized this, it became clear and easy for the dog.
Long story short, the secret behind his performance was that he made the dog sit (even though he claims that he doesn't teach sit, stay, come or heel.) Once the dog was doing and acting the way he wanted, he then gave the dog what the dog wanted. As simple as that.
Now to decode some of the terminology that is constantly being quoted by Cesar. First, we have calm-assertive energy, He says that this is the energy that you project to show your dog that you are the pack leader. My critique of this technique is: how can you have calm-assertive energy when you don't know what actions to take? People don't become leaders because they have good calm-assertive energy, but more so because they have studied and practiced their profession and developed their skill, and they always know what action to take regardless of the circumstances that may arise. If you are confident in your actions, then calm-assertive energy comes secondary. I don't care how many times you tell yourself to have calm-assertive energy—if you lack the confidence in the required actions, the dogs will see right through your false assertiveness. Stop thinking about your energy and start thinking about the proper steps to take in any given situation. Actions dictate energy!
The next one you hear quite often is calm-submissive energy. His definition is that this is the correct energy for a follower in a dog pack. He says this is the energy that a dog should demonstrate in a human household. That the signs of calm-submissive energy are a relaxed posture, ears held back, and an instinctual or automatic response to the pack leader’s commands. First take a moment and think about this: does a dog with his ears held back look confident, let alone happy? Of course not. We need to remove this term from all dog training or animal behavior definitions because it's bad advice. On many episodes of The Dog Whisperer you can see Cesar holding a dog on its back and making it "submit" by placing it in that supposed "calm-submissive state." This is called "alpha rolling" and it's one of the worst things you can do to your dog. It makes them lose trust in you, lowers their confidence, and it makes them think, "Look how small I am, please don't hurt me!" Why would we ever want our dogs to feel that way? Further, some mentally stronger dogs will fight back and bite the person for trying this. In that case, I 100% blame the human for putting the dog in that position.
The next lesson he teaches is how to create a happy, balanced dog with this three ingredients: exercise, discipline, and affection. This is something that Cesar and I agree on. However, I choose to use different terminology because the psychology between humans and dogs are very comparable. What are the four things that we as people always need to be fulfilled and happy? We need mental, physical, emotional and spiritual satisfaction. It's the same for dogs minus the spiritual. We need to provide them with daily physical and mental exercises, we need to show that we are their companions and that we are there for them. They, in turn, build confidence because they know we are standing by their sides on the same team. We need to be our dog's loyal friends, in contrast to being the master of a submissive dog.
He has many other quotes he uses often, but I'm going to finish with this last one, because, again, providing wrong information can be dangerous. He says that he trains people and he rehabilitates dogs; he also says that it's the person causing the problems, and that it's not the dog or the breed. While he was being interviewed on "Inside Quest", he brought in his pit bull and told Tom that he has a pit bull because the breed has received a lot of discrimination. So he wants to show the world that they can be well-balanced dogs. As an example, he said in the 70's everyone had a problem with the Doberman, in the 80's it was the Rottweiler, and in the 90's it was the German Shepherd. He then said, "That goes to show you that it's not the breed." Now I agree that it's the humans that cause most of the problems, but to say that the dog or breed doesn't matter is not only ignorant, but it's also dangerous misinformation.
If it’s all about how you raise them, then why is it that the police and military primarily use the German Shepherd and the Malinois? Is it because they like the way the dogs look, or is it because the dogs were specially bred to perform exceptionally at that job? The Doberman used to be considered one of the best working dog breeds, but it's almost never used for military or police work anymore. According to people that say the breed doesn't make a difference, would they ask us to believe that they just got tired of the way the Doberman looked? Or maybe people started to breed the dog to be a pet, and after decades of breeding the most "calm-submissive" Dobermans, we now have a bunch of weak Dobermans that can no longer accomplish the tasks needed to be working dogs.
Don't get me wrong; nurture plays a huge role in the development of a dog, but nature can play an even bigger role. This is a big reason why I highly advise against most first-time pet owners getting pit bulls. Sure a lot of them seem sweet, but it's because they were bred to be good with people and aggressive towards dogs. So someone can have what they think is a cute "calm-submissive" pit; and then one day it kills another dog because of its basic genetics to be dog aggressive, and the owner was not capable of controlling or preventing the dog’s attack because the pit bull was too strong for an amateur dog owner to handle. I'm not saying all pit bulls are dog aggressive because you can certainly find ones that are very well-balanced dogs, but it's just not a risk worth taking for an amateur dog owner.
In closing, Cesar Millan has good intentions, but I believe that sometimes his judgement falls short. Since so many people watch Cesar and think he's the greatest dog trainer that ever walked the earth, they copy what he does, not knowing the real consequences of their actions. Let me put it bluntly: he's far from the greatest trainer that ever walked the earth (and I’m sure even Cesar would agree with me). Saying he is the greatest dog trainer because he's on TV is like saying Wesley Snipes is the greatest basketball player because he was in the movie "White Men Can't Jump." I'm not saying Cesar is bad; I'm simply saying we need to be careful who we learn from. It’s better to use techniques that will make our dogs confident and capable, instead of submissive and timid.
Remember that all of his shows are designed for entertainment, not for educational reasons. If you really want to learn how to train dogs then contact a local dog trainer who has graduated from one of these dog training schools; Tom Rose School, Starmark Academy, or Michel Ellis School for Dog Trainers. If they didn't go to a school, check to see if they train in any competitive dog sport, such as AKC Obedience, IPO, Mondio Ring, French Ring, PSA, Competitive Nose Work, Agility, or many others that I haven't mentioned. Just because someone has owned a couple of dogs and read a Cesar Millan book does not make them a real dog trainer.
You can also learn a lot online, I would suggest checking out the dog training videos by the Tom Rose School located on my website, or you can find great training videos by Leerburg University.
Finally, if you have some spare time, check out "Inside Quest," It's a fantastic talk show that emphasizes becoming more successful in everything you do. I've become a huge fan of the show and find myself watching an episode every day! If you like TED Talks, then you'll Love "Inside Quest", It’s similar—only better!
Author: Nathan Schoemer
Editor: Cyrus Kirkpatrick
Inside Quest: http://www.insidequest.com/
Glossary of terms from "Cesar's Way":
Video of Cesar Millan alpha rolling a dog:
This video explains that today's Doberman is being bred to have a less aggressive temperament. Stating that four generations (about ten years) have been bred away from aggression: http://www.animalplanet.com/tv-shows/dogs-101/videos/doberman/
Additional supporting information about pit bulls: