It’s an old debate: Cesar Millan or Victoria Stillwell?
Most of us who employ reward based training techniques are tired of the ongoing debate, primarily because it is just so darn hard to convince a devout Cesar follower that the man abuses animals. In fact, I’ve personally found that it’s almost impossible to convince one of Cesar’s avid followers to examine the science-based evidence and recognize the fundamental flaws with his methods.
Let’s look at the facts: Cesar has years of experience. Cesar is charismatic. Cesar has many success stories and at times, offers extremely useful advice to dog owners on TV. Cesar promotes tolerance by advocating for pit bulls and pit bull type dogs.
I don’t think there would be much argument against any of the above facts.
Here are the other facts (remember, by design, classification as a ‘fact’ means that it can be PROVEN): Cesar has kicked, hit, and hanged dogs. Cesar uses wolf pack hierarchy theory as the basis for his actions. Cesar’s techniques primarily employ the use of corrections and positive punishment.
Ok, so do we all agree so far?
Good. Now, once and a while I get fired up (insert sarcasm here) about topics that really shouldn’t significantly affect me like they do. It’s been a few months since I’ve even thought about Cesar and happily shoved the exhaustive, ongoing debate far from the part of my brain that does most of my thinking. But lately his name has been resurfacing which has started to become a slow growing pang in my head- sort of like Chinese water torture.
Most recently I received an innocuously well-meaning email intended only to make us aware of an upcoming Cesar performance in case we wanted to share with our membership.
Below is my first response:
Thank you for sharing the performance information. As you know, part of our group’s mission is to educate the public about responsible ownership hinged on the belief that animals should be treated with compassion and respect. Contrary to popular belief, Cesar Millan’s harsh training methods negate this philosophy, and as a result we strongly oppose his teachings.
We are dismayed to see that animal welfare organizations stand to benefit from show proceeds. We do not support the message Cesar sends to his viewers, and worry that local dog owners will be misled by this endorsement. As a result we cannot promote the upcoming show.
But we’re thrilled that members like yourself are eager to provide suggestions and hope that you will continue to do so in the future!
All the best,
Here is the response I received:
Can you inform [me further about] which part of Cesar’s practices [are] not accepted by dog trainers or viewed as a form or cruelty?
Ok, fair question. As always with emails, it’s a bit hard to get a feel for the intended tone of the message. Typically I’d leave the “hard” email reply to my Co-organizer who seems to always know how to appropriately respond. But who am I to shy away from an opportunity to educate? After all, I AM a teacher. So here is my subsequent response:
I have seen Cesar’s live performance myself and admit that he is quite charming in front of an audience. His wit, sense of humor, and undoubtable experience with dogs gives him the clout needed to positively impact animals. Sadly, he employs methods steeped in a misinterpreted understanding of canine behavior. Here is an article which clearly identifies what aspects of his theories are flawed:
In brief, he incorrectly attributes the behavior of domesticated dogs to wolf pack ideologies. Additionally, his methodology relies heavily upon the use of positive punishment (see this article for a full explanation: http://avsabonline.org/uploads/position_statements/Combined_Punishment_Statements1-25-13.pdf ) which can illicit fear based responses and create anxiety. These techniques, combined with his inaccurate understanding of behavior, create an aversive relationship between pet and owner, rather than strengthen the human animal bond.
There are many trainers that do endorse and utilize his harsh methods. In fact, this troubling fact is what lead us to initially create the Underdogs. We wanted to create a fun, safe way to socialize our dogs with others who share our reward based training philosophy. This is why we so strongly hold fast to positive reinforcement fundamentals.
The “Cesar Debate” is not new and typically those who support him remain avid supporters regardless of the opposing evidence. However, this is what makes the world go ’round! Personally, if I can successfully train my dog and elicit specific desired behaviors in a humane, effective manner, that’s the route I’m going take!
I’m sure that my efforts to educate just one more dog owner about Cesar will prove to once again be futile. But at least I tried.
A very smart woman once bestowed the following words of wisdom to me over green tea and hot chocolate: “What it all comes down to is the humane treatment of animals. Either you choose to treat animals humanely and with respect, or you don’t. Those that don’t can easily defend Cesar and his ways. And there’s nothing you can say or do to change that.”
She’s one smart cookie.