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Cesar Millan: Dog whisperer or dog abuser?

By Drewbles, KPA-DTF


Love him or hate him?  There’s a lot of heated debate about Cesar Millan’s methods (and other “traditional” trainers), with the heat especially intense surrounding alpha rolls, leash pops, hand and foot taps.  At the same time, we are seeing a rise in the popularity of positive-reinforcement only methods.

So which is the right way?  In my humble opinion, as with most things in life, there's no only one way.  I am always a bit wary of methods or opinions claiming they are the ONLY way.  But first, a quick defense of Mr. Millan.  Some call him dog abuser because they see him pin a dog down to the ground, or tap them with his hand or foot.  Because these actions are dramatic and visually striking, this is the only thing that detractors remember about him.  In fact, those techniques are only a few of the things that he does.  A study actually showed that throughout the whole nine seasons of his show, only 10% of the methods he used to rehabilitate a dog’s behavior involved the above.  He often receives dogs who are about to be euthanized because no other trainer could do anything about it, and as a result has saved many dogs lives.  If it does take a few alpha rolls at the beginning to achieve this, is it really fair to label him a dog abuser?

Ok, but he still does those things 10% of the time, detractors might counter.  Now we move into the realm of personal principles, and this is a highly subjective field.  Basically it boils down to the question: do you think some form of physical discipline is appropriate at all, and if so when does it become too much?   This question could absolutely be asked of parents as well!  Some parents spank their kids and some do not.  Are parents who sometimes spank their kids child abusers?  Whose kids turn out to be better individuals?  There is no hard answer.  Again, very subjective. 

Another key issue is that every dog and situation is different, and you cannot use a one size fits all approach.  Positive reinforcement only advocates would have you reward the dog when he doesn’t do the right thing and refrain from rewarding (or ignoring) when he doesn’t.  To some dogs, not getting the reward could indeed be enough to effectively condition him.  To other dogs, they couldn’t care less about the reward or being ignored, rendering it ineffective.  Physical discipline only advocates (they don’t really exist, but for the sake of argument) might hand tap or leash pop the dog to correct him for doing something unwanted.  For some dogs this would be enough to startle him and redirect attention to the handler.  For another dog, it might cause him to shake and run away with fear.

As for myself, I believe using a mix of both is the best way.  When you observe a mother dog with her pups, or a group of dogs playing together, there is always some form of physical discipline being used.  It could be in the form of an inhibited bite, body check, paw swipe or yes, even a pin down.  Sometimes dogs are our best teachers.  They also are very good at dealing out appropriate physical discipline to each other.  Notice that a mother dog will bite a pup with just the right amount of force to discipline him but not physically harm.  So what this tells me is that it is ok to sometimes use physical discipline, but the key is to use it in the right way.  This is indeed very difficult for us humans to do simply because we are not dogs.  Misusing physical discipline can absolutely damage your relationship with your dog.  But if done in the correct way, it is a very natural discipline that dogs understand.

Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but we should be open minded and respectful of others views.  Be cautious with "something-only" methods that claim to be the be all and end all.  We should also recognize that any method whether it be positive only, or physical discipline, if applied at the wrong time, in the wrong place or to the wrong dog, could be detrimental to whatever you are trying to achieve.  So let’s stop the name calling, and instead focus on the appropriate way to use all the methods available to us.  If your dog is displaying behaviors that could potentially cause harm to other dogs, itself or people and your existing methods aren't working, then maybe it's time to put aside your pride and open your mind to some other techniques.  And even if you decide that one particular way is the only and best way, you can still be respectful of others!

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About the Author: 

Drewbles is a part-time dog behaviorist in Hong Kong and KPA-DTF (Karen Pryor Academy-Dog Trainer Foundations) course certified. The course is officially approved by the two foremost dog training and animal behavior consulting accreditation bodies in the world, CCPDT (Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers) and IAABC (International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants).  


The Karen Pryor Academy is a leading educational institution for animal training and behavior, based in the USA. Karen Pryor is a leader in the development of positive training methods and one of the founders of clicker-training.  Her work with dolphins in the 1960s revolutionized animal training by pioneering and popularizing force-free training methods based on operant conditioning and the conditioned reinforcer.



Drewbles uses a mix of traditional and positive-reinforcement techniques, and natural dog psychology to help troubled dogs in his free time.  His own dog is so well behaved that she accompanies him to the cinema and even Michelin starred restaurants!