The good, the bad, and Cesar Millan

A Time Magazine article posted just last Friday substantiates what a growing number of animal experts have been saying for years: Dog training born out of “dominance theory” – a technique which includes alpha rolls, physical corrections, and flooding – is based on a now-debunked premise around wolf hierarchy.

Among the main ideas of the article:

– Physical corrections and alpha rolls trigger a dog’s instincts to “shut down,” which should not be mistaken for calming down. This stress actually produces the opposite effect: the dog beomes more fearful.

– Fear leads to increased cortisol levels, which leads to long-term health issues.

– Most house pets’ misbehavior is a result of poor training or inadvertent reinforcement for the unwanted behavior – not an attempt to show dominance.

– Dominance and submission describe relationships, not a particular individual’s static role. Most animal-animal and animal-human relationships are fluid; each situation can be interpreted differently – even among those in the relationship.

This is not to say that Cesar Millan, the most famous of the dominance trainers, is a bad guy. I applaud much of what he stands for: He’s a rescue advocate, especially for my favorite breed, Pit Bulls. He clearly understands the value of mental and physical stimulation. And he knows that dogs are not people, and require different teaching and coping mechanisms. But when he gets it wrong, particularly when he resorts to flooding instead of desensitization, the results are heartbreaking.

Millan supporters sometimes accuse his critics of being jealous. They may say he’s “rehabilitating” dogs, not “training” them, on his show (even though the methods he uses on tv are also promoted in his books, which are marketed as training guides for the general public).

But I think equating disagreement to jealousy is shallow, not to mention erroneous. Personally, I have no more reason to question Cesar Millan’s methods than I do to support Victoria Stilwell’s — or other positive-reinforcement based trainers. (Do your own research if you’re curious as to what most successful, experience, educated, and forward-thinking experts say.)

And because Millan has put the importance of dog training on the radar of the American public, I wish him continued success. I just wish he’d achieve that success by abandoning his harmful and unnecessary tactics with solutions that are just as effective, infinitely less dangerous, and accessible to all. Millan’s natural abilities and ease with both dogs and humans are rare gifts. With the following he already has, imagine the strides we could make…