To Whisper or Not To Whisper……

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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,

Maggie

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:

http://beyondcesarmillan.weebly.com/avsab-2.html

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!

Take care,
Maggie

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.

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3 thoughts on “To Whisper or Not To Whisper……

  1. I would just like to say that I HIGHLY disagree with you!!
    Cesar using the “Alpha dog method” never ever raises his voice, puts forward a negative attitude, or hurts the dogs intentionally.
    “He chokes them with choke collars” – Seriously? He is holding the collar, the dog must learn not to go forward when he is telling it to stay! So is it really his fault!? Or would a dog not go “Ouch, I’m hurting myself by going forward, maybe I should listen to my handler and just sit rather.”
    He teaches the owners how to handle their out of control dogs so clearly the owners did something wrong, not knowing how to handle their dog properly.
    Dogs are pack animals – it is built into them and therefore this method is proven successful over and over again.

    I think people like you just want to complain about something. Stand for something, anything.
    The evidence you sited is extremely one sided.
    I am an animal lover and do the best I can, but people like you just make us look crazy and New Age.

    • Hi Shana. I’d like to respectfully point out that your response in itself proves my point regarding Cesar advocates. Cesar fans will defend him until blue in the face, using his methods’ high success rates as their platform. Well I’m not arguing that they work. They do stop undesired behaviors- but with a host of consequences often not recognized for years. Moreover, as I clearly pointed out in my original post, why would I want to create an adversarial relationship with my dog when I can accomplish the same training goals using a method that strengthens the human-animal bond by building up trust?

      I also stand behind the statement, “He chokes them with choke collars”. What else would you call choking? The most infamous episode displaying this abuse was when he hanged Shadow, the Husky
      (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qh9YOyM2TAk). Watch carefully for the leash jerk and kick given by Cesar immediately before the Husky tries to bite him. What other reaction should we expect from a dog? Abuse is abuse, no matter what excuses you attempt to provide as justification. So that argument is pretty much a moot point.

      “Would a dog not go ‘Ouch, I’m hurting myself by going forward, maybe I should listen to my handler and just sit rather?” The answer is NO. First, dogs do not think or reason like humans. In fact, if a dog is too over aroused, s/he will most likely not respond to (or notice) any pain or discomfort caused by the collar. Additionally, this type of handling can cause severe physical trauma (Brammeier et al. 2006).
      I could go on and on, individually addressing each of your comments, but it’s clearly pointless until you better school yourself by reading real, scientifically proven research rather than spewing baseless accusations. If you one day decide to take some time to educate yourself, I suggest starting with the Welfare In Dog Training site:

      http://www.dogwelfarecampaign.org/implications-of-punishment.php

      In the meantime, I will forge on “complaining” about Cesar’s abusive techniques and promoting reward based training- because your reply itself proves that someone is clearly listening.

      Brammeier et al. (2006) Good trainers: How to identify one and why this is important to your practice of veterinary medicine. Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 1, 47-52.

  2. Hello! Thank you very much for your article, and the link to scientific literature! I am looking to adopt my first dog as an adult, and am busy educating myself in dog training before I take the plunge. I am not a domineering or dominant person, but like everyone else I would love for my future pet to be well-behaved. Whilst I also agree that some of Cesar Milan’s principles seem sound at first, I agree with you that it places the owner at odds with their pet. I cannot vouch for the pet, but I know that would certainly strain the relationship from my side. I would rather be loved than feared.

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