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Cesar Millan Bitten by NYT

Today’s New York Times has an op-ed about Cesar Millan’s dominance model of dog training by author (of a book on the history of dogs) Mark Derr, called "Pack of Lies." I have just one word, besides "fabulous title, Mr. Derr," and that is: OUCH!

Mr. Derr is not a fan of meeting aggression with aggression (and many animal behaviorists agree, as I discovered after I read Millan’s book and did some research). The discussion of Mr. Millan on Malcolm Gladwell’s blog is a must-read, though you might want to read "Dog Days" in The New Yorker first, as it is what started the blog discussion.

When I reviewed Mr. Millan’s book, CESAR’S WAY: The Natural, Everyday Guide to Understanding and Correcting Common Dog Problems, I noted that my dogs don’t have the kind of behavioral problems that would warrant his methods. And I also noted the controversy.

But let’s look at the positives for a moment.

  • I have friends and neighbors who rarely walked their dogs before reading Millan’s book. Now they walk them, and the dogs are happier, less neurotic, and less destructive.
  • The same friends and neighbors allowed their dogs to run their households, and now they don’t. From my observation, Millan is correct in that the dogs don’t really want to be the boss, as they know what an exhausting job it is. When the people are the pack leaders, everyone seems much more calm.
  • Millan is very clear that there are few bad dogs, but lots of bad dog owners. This puts the onus where it belongs, and more people are seeking behavioral counseling for themselves and their dogs than ever before.
  • Millan is very clear that we have created breeds of dogs that are vicious (e.g., Pit bulls, Rottweilers, German shepherds, and Doberman pinshcers) and it’s tragic that so many are being abandoned and euthanized (not to mention forced to fight one another to the death) because of what we’ve done to them. This is a huge issue, as many cities are trying to ban certain breeds (or have already done so), and in my opinion that’s a dangerous precedent.
  • Clearly, Millan has done dogs a tremendous service in that for some reason it was he, among the thousands of dog trainers and behaviorists, who would captivate the nation, and make them pay more attention to their dogs.

This doesn’t mean we all jump on the bandwagon and tackle our dogs, roll them around, and sit on them, or put them on treadmills until they pass out, or plunge them into terrifying situations to help them conquer said situations.

As always, read with a critical eye. Don’t believe an "expert" until you’ve read lots of other "experts" and you’re comfortable with why they’re even considered "experts" at all.

There’s a lot of Gray Matter, here, and each person must do the work of sifting through it all for her/himself.

23 Comments Post a comment
  1. Excelle points all around!

    Derr's criticism of Millan is not very well grounded, I am afraid. He comes at dog training from a philosophical base, not a practical dog-training base. Guess what? Dogs are not philosophers.

    They are also not human children, and they do not communicate like humans do. This is at the core of Cesar Millan's message, which is targetted to the hyper-educated folks that watch the PBS and The National Geographic channel.

    See my August 31 post at >> for a longer analysis of where Derr is wrong, where Millan is right, and why the audience matters quite a lot.

    A very nice blog!


    September 1, 2006
  2. Joe Banks #

    Indeed, nice blog…this guy Derr is kinda crazy and/or envious…He doesnt recognize the fact that dogs see humans as dogs and that issues arise mostly due to humans treating dogs as humans. Derr is really guilty of being anthropomorphic…he misuses "intimidation" and "aggression" in regards to dog training…he should be using "assertion" and "correction" He also, apparently, believes dogs should be showered with rewards as Chris Rock would say "for doing what they're SUPPOSED to do"

    December 21, 2007
  3. Tyge Brahe #

    Mike Derr is correct. Millan's techniques border on abuse. It all stems from his idea that dogs are dominant and are constantly trying to dominate its human owners.

    Your points about Millan are trivially correct:

    – all trainers and vets advocate more walks.

    – all trainers put the onus on the owner and not the dog

    Millan is under the impression that people can act like dogs and expect dogs to respond. He repeats his idiotic mantras like "You hand becomes a mouth" or "The more mistakes the more we rehabilitate". Frankly no dog is under the impression that when you hit it you hand is a mouth. And the more a behavior is repeated the more it becomes ingrained – in humans or non-human animals.

    Millan's methods seem to stem from a childhood philosophy and like all ideas from childhood they tend to be naive at best or wrong.

    April 3, 2008
  4. dog owner #

    First, those that are critizing Cesar Millan stating that he hits dogs or is abusive to them has obviously not watch his shows. He as never physically hurt a dog. I can say that his techniques are correct and have changed our lives. We have owned 10 Rottweilers, not all at one time. Each of them were from a breeder and raised from a puppy…no problems. However, we adopted a 1 year old and did not know the "baggage" that came with him. Several trainers tried treats and clickers, even our vet said put him down, he is too aggressive. Using Cesars techniques he is a well behave dog with no agression. We never had to hit our dog. Simply touching him, nudging might be a better adjective, was enought to snap him out of it and he would pay attention to our commands. I would not say that we are "pack leaders" but we certainly have more control and respect from our dogs. Exercise, discipline, then affection!

    September 19, 2008
  5. EricoftheNorth #

    Well, it hurts me to see the concern over his methods. "aggression"? What? These people have obviously never actually SEEN the show. "hit"? Meeting an aggressive dog with a tap on the neck or a pop on the collar is not meeting aggression with aggression. Kicking an aggressive dog in the jaw is meeting aggression with aggression. I guess people are just so disconnected from reality they can't tell anger from assertion. Pathetic. You know Darwin was scoffed at by the "experts" when he came out with his theory. F#%@ em' all.

    November 20, 2008
  6. Melanie Boxall #

    The usual crticism of cesar Millan is that his methods are old-fashioned. His critics claim to be following the latest techniques and theories in dog psychology which is all-positive, hands-off and equires largely on treats.

    The exact same thing has happened in child psychology, and we've all seen the results of that. My teenagers come home from a quiet country school complaining about the lack of discipline, lack of respect to teachers, and borderline chaos in the modern classroom.

    My kids, my dogs, and my home benefit from calm-assertive energy, some sensible old-fashioned methods, and none of it is abusive. And it works.

    January 27, 2009
  7. Ted Fiorito #

    In my opinion Derr is either jealous or ignorant. I own a 95 Lb. American PitBull Terrier. If I had not become the Alpha male my life with him would have been pure chaos. He is now 12+ years old and still doing quite well. In short; Cesar is an expert understanding problem dogs. His methods are practical; Derr should remain in the classroom studying theories of dog behavior.

    February 7, 2009
  8. Rosina Kamis #

    I have two main criticisms of Cesar Milan.

    First, is mentioned in one of the articles that is linked – learned helplessness. Anyone who is a real psychologist would know that the theory of learned helplessness was found by Martin Seligman in dogs. Anyway, learned helplessness later became a theory that explained clinical depression. Hence, when dogs have acquired learned helplessness, they probably are not happy. One could argue that only on TV is he appearing to promote learned helplessness but not in real life. But it is what is on TV that many people watch.

    Second, Cesar Milan developed some of his ideas from watching how the dogs on his parents' farm behaved. There are several problems with this. The dogs on that particular farm are not representative of all dogs. There might be something special about these dogs. Hence, psedo-theories developed from observing these dogs can't be used on others. In addition, observational research is not free of bias. The researcher sees things the researcher wants to see. Nowadays, those who do deal with research participants (e.g. observe them) in psychological research usually do not know anything about the research hypotheses. Plus, there is the issue of confirmation bias. Perhaps Cesar Milan seeks out information and recalls things that confirm his theories.

    How can Cesar Milan call himself a dog psychologist when he can't even master the basic principles of psychology (including animal psychology)?

    March 31, 2009
  9. gem #

    I do feal Cesar has some fantastic views on dogs, and he really doesnt deserve the nastiness he gets from people on sites such as this. He is a harmless individual that has done very well for himself. I feel if a person has a problem with Cesar and his methods, that person should ask themselves why it gets to you so much? Is it that traits in Cesar remind you of things in your own personality you dont like? Or are you resentful? Do you like to see the under-dog fail[no pun intended] Is it that you can identify with the so called agressiveness you see?[i certantly dont find him agressive] As a person will only see what they want, with their own angle on it, a good hard look in the mind mirror is needed. In my personal opinion, Cesar Milan has a great attitude to dogs, and then as a ripple effect, to life in general. well done Cesar!

    April 12, 2009
  10. Natalie #

    I'm just frustrated as I want to be a dog trainer potentially, and I have no idea who to listen to. I volunteer at a shelter where they follow positive methods, but all I see is dogs dragging volunteers across the parking lot which is probably why they were given up.

    I can see that positive reinforcement would be a great method for a fearful dog, but as for my Jack Russell/Boston cross ruling the house, things are a LOT better now I followed Cesar's advice. His separation anxiety is even improving now I am not coddling him quite so much.

    Cesar doesn't ban giving out treats, there are just certain cases like on the walk where it just didn't work for me. May do for others but not my overly excited dog. It takes all his concentration and restraint for him to heel and break his habits and the food snapped him out of the calm state of mind I was trying to promote. I went through about 200 treats to try and get the dog to stop pulling which in turn chained the behavior and he figured out that if he pulled and then came back to me he would get a treat.

    All it took was one Halti collar and now we can go for really long long walks without me being dragged all over the place. He doesn't even pull on it, but if he does I just stop walking. No treats. Personally I don't like the choke collars, but the prong collar with rubber, Halti and Sporn Harness all work very well. He gets love and food when we get home.

    Taking control of the walk finally allowed my dog to respect me at home, without a single kick or electronic collar. By establishing myself as the leader of our walks, the dog has finally stopped trying to control me via whinging, jumping, pawing and dominance. We have a treadmill which we use for short bursts and I plan on building up to an hour for rainy days. Saying that a well supervised treadmill is cruel for dogs is insanity.

    Personally, my mom brought me up in a very strict way and it did me no harm at all because she was consistent, fair and loving. Now when I see kids running around places where I waitress (fine dining) with no reprimand from the parents I wonder why people

    I think in any case, common sense needs to be applied. If you watch dogs at the park they are constantly wrestling, fighting for dominance and being dogs. Therefore nudging or making light corrections with a humane harness or collar is no different from the way they correct each other during play. I would never hurt my dog but only reinforcing positive behavior and not reprimanding negative just wasn't working for me as no matter hwo much I ignored it, without structure the bad behavior was not stopping.

    May 26, 2009
  11. zioe #

    I think people are confusing aggression with aversion- Cesar certainly uses aversive techniques- use of the choke collar, "nudging/tapping" a dog may not be an overtly aggressive technique but it is still a form of mild positive punishment. He certainly uses a lot of physical an psychological intimidation.

    June 14, 2009
  12. Cesar M FAN #

    This is ridiculous. Cesar Millan is the greatest person ever known to the canine species. I believe that all of you are just jealous.

    June 23, 2009
  13. Nicola Hamm #

    I would just like to make a small comment with regards to the basis of Cesars dog Phsycology theory being derived from watching the dogs that lived on his family farm. Is it not true tht many of the child theorists that are referenced today are based in pretty much the same way. Many child theorists (such as piaget) based their studies on small groups of children, sometimes their own, or children living under very unatural conditions and yet their theories and findings are used in classrooms and phsycology centres all over the world.

    Cesar Millan clearly cares for the welfare of dogs and it is a credit to him when he defends overly aggressive dogs and puts the blame where it should be on the cruel sadisitic individuals who take pleasure in mistreating their animals.

    August 8, 2009
  14. Erik #

    They say the proof is in the pudding. How many people do you know of that can keep 40-50 dogs together at one time without restraint and keep them calm, social, and non aggresive. There is a time and a place for everything. Positive reinforement very much has a rightful place but it will never alter the behavior of a red zone, powerful breed that shows dog or human aggresion. All that dogs mentality exudes is that the world is his domain. And you cry because Cesar takes authority over the animal, releases calm, loving , powerful energy over the dog and demands a yeilding of the mind? How do you suppose a "red zone" pit bull be rehabilitated? By treats, coddling and lots of love and affection or by redirecting his mind to something else with rewards. The animal must submit first before any reconditioning or training can occer. So the dog is tapped, physically submiited sometimes, he takes authority over the dogs space and items. These techniques are not for novices. These are often extreme causes that demand firm guidance and structure in order to be effective. He intuitively knows where the dog is phycologcly and is very confident in his own abilities. If you don't posses those two qualities I would not even think of doing what Cesar does.
    Cesar has a gift, and it exudes from his heart. After the animal submits it is able to receive life and freedom. The dogs energy is then directed and channeled into constructive physical activities, intellectual challenges throughout the day His pack looks like stable, content, and fulfilled dogs.

    September 2, 2009
  15. Julia #

    The only criticism of Caesar Millan I've yet found I agree with is that, by making a TV show he has opened his methods to abuse. Well unfortunately, all methods are open to abuse when available to the public, does this mean they should just be hushed up?

    There is also a HUGE amount of misunderstanding regarding Caesar's methods, and none more so it seems than by Mark Derr who, it seems to me, has never actually seen or heard anything Caesar Millan has ever said or done. That's the only explanation I can think of for his opinion – it's like he was writing about someone else but accidentally put Caesar Millan's name in instead.

    As for Caesar's methods being 'unscientific' – well yes obviously, he's not a scientist and is open about the fact he's never received formal training. And his methods are NOT based solely on the observation of his father's dogs; they have been honed over time by the observation of MANY dogs.

    If you don't agree with Caesar's methods then I'm sure you're welcome to disregard them. But don't say his methods are wrong just because you don't actually understand them (which it seems most critics don't) or other people misuse them.

    March 8, 2010
  16. Fauster Dawg #

    If you haven't watched the shows and read his books, you really should not be posting. If you have, and are still critical of Cesar, be specific in your critique. General comments are pointless here.
    As far as the collar – he tends not to focus on the type of collar (he often uses a cheap nylon collar)but rather the placement higher up just below the ears for training and correction purposes. This does not choke or cut off circulation to the dog if done correctly. And remember, any of the tools and methods can be done correctly or incorrectly and this isn't Cesar's fault. The collar up high focuses the dog and keeps the nose higher off the ground from distraction – among other things.
    The tap from behind is another way to help the dog snap out of fixating and is not at all aggressive if you watch closely how Cesar does it. He also doesn't use it all the time on every dog.
    He will also simulate how 2 dogs might interact when a dog is aggressive or trying to bite for example, by applying a few fingers to the back of the neck to simulate a dog's corrective nip to another dog. And will bring a dog to lying sumbissive in this way at times as well. Watch for yourself and tell me if the dog experiences pain or is in distress during or after the use of this technique. There are so many other creative and intuitive approaches he uses that can't be covered here. Please indicate specific things he does that are cruel, aggressive, overly stressful or forceful in dog terms? And please please, watch all of the shows and read the books before you criticize with generalities.

    September 24, 2010
  17. i work with dogs daily in large packs and i believe you have to really have this practical experience before having any valid opinion on dog behavior and how to deal with it. no way on earth could i handle a large off leash pack of dogs without any form of dominance reduction and pack humans we use intellect to deal with situations where as dogs purely use their base senses and are masters of opportunity. political correctness has now crept into the animal world and it's laughable!!!

    October 25, 2010
  18. Bridget Donahue #

    I have watched Cesar's show, and whomever said that he doesn't harm the dogs he trains needs their eyes checked. For physical harm, I've seen him use a shock collar on one dog until he actually lunged at his owner in confusion, pain, and possibly fear. I've seen him choke a dog to exhaustion (though he claimed it was submission) with a makeshift leather choke collar. Many of the dogs that he had trained showed clear signs of pain and fear. I don't know about you, And not all harm is so obvious; who knows the psychological damage that some of his students may have gained because of his training?

    That's not even taking account how dangerous his methods potentially are to the owner. There's a reason there's a disclaimer at the beginning of every episode of The Dog Whisperer, as clearly seen on the show. Remember that dog I mentioned who bit his owner when working with the choke collar? And of course you probably should remember those times that Millan himself was bitten if you've watched the show.

    I admit, Millan has his good points. Like any good trainer, he realizes that the problem usually lies with the owner. I have never seen him give up on a dog, and I have to admire him for that. Still, I don't think those few good points are redeeming enough that I'd trust him with any of my dogs, even if they were extremely aggressive or otherwise problematic.

    November 7, 2010
  19. Robert Garcia #

    @Bridget Donahue – I can't take ANY of what you have said seriously. You're observational powers are laughable and without any basis of fact other than what you have "seen" which is based only on your opinion. I'm sure you are one of those "certified dog trainers" who paid thousands of dollars for a certificate which in the end is as meaningless as the paper it's written on.

    I however, do research, on the readily available internet in which you are partaking in this conversation.

    I have worked with dogs exclusively for well over 30 years, and Cesar is a bright spot on the dog training landscape. His detractors are just that, detractors, with no practical experience. I have worked with every type of dog and dog situation, and can tell you that Cesar's techniques not only work, but have been known for many, many, many years to successful dog owners and trainers under different names and guises. Kudos to Cesar for making a name for himself.

    "I've seen him choke a dog to exhaustion" – Not possible. A dog's neck muscles are the strongest and densest on it's body. It got that way by evolution, as a protection from bites and predators which attack the neck to crush or kill. Is it possible to choke a dog? Of course it is, but your rapacious attack on Cesar is without merit.

    Any dog, at any time, can bite you or someone else for whatever reason, no matter how small or insignificant. To use biting as an example to illustrate a poor training technique is not a good method of argument. It's like saying that umbrellas don't work because a raindrop made it though. But we all use umbrella's don't we?

    November 11, 2010
  20. Bridget Donahue #

    @Robert Garcia: I can't say that I'm able to take what you any more seriously than you take me. Do you think that I have no personal experience working with dogs, or just that my experiences are of less value than yours? Do you think that I haven't done a scrap of research? And you say that my observations from the show are simply "opinions", so what does that make your own observations? Tell me, how are they any more credible than my own. Making scathing assumptions does not help argue your views, especially when they're completely wrong.

    "Is it possible to choke a dog? Of course it is, but your rapacious attack on Cesar is without merit." Without merit, hm? So, you're saying that it's possible to choke a dog, but it's not possible for Cesar to do it? I know that a dog's neck muscles are strong, but can you truthfully tell me that a strip of leather looped around the weakest part of their neck and tightened with a material that does not loosen automatically when the tension is reduced will not block a dog's air supply? After the dog fell, he was gasping for breath, his tongue was blue indicating a lack of oxygen in his blood, and his body was very tense and shaky. That's not a submissive dog. That's a recently asphyxiated and clearly exhausted and stressed out one.

    And yes, any dog can bite, especially when they're insecure like many of the dogs that Millan deals with. But, again, there's a reason for the disclaimer that they show on every episode and it's not just the possibility that any dog with teeth can bite.

    November 28, 2010
  21. Adrian #

    That was a bulldog, which are known to exhaust very quickly, and Cesar admits when he makes a mistake. I have seen him use more force than necessary on another dog(not so mush that he's harmed the dog) and the dog retaliated by biting him. If he were really angry and abusive towards dogs… any psych major can tell u he would have immediately retaliated back with full force and no restraint. He apologized to the owner(even though the owner was apologizing for the dog) because he used more force than the dog could handle. Alas, he did just the opposite. Remained calm and assertive… and continued with his rehabilitation(with a leveled energy level) and got the focused bulldog rid of it's "chewin the hose" habit. As much as you disagree w/ Cesar at least he has the honesty and humility to admit when he makes a mistake… show me a dog trainer who has done that on television and wasn't afraid of their publicity being hurt. Most dog trainers and Cesar have one undoubtedly feeling in common, they ALL LOVE DOGS! P.S. Cesar rehabilitates dogs and TRAINS HUMANS!!! FYI

    June 16, 2011
  22. It's not just dogs. I've worked with people who are exactly the same way!

    I wonder if that means I should start reading books and watching television programs about dog obedience training…

    August 26, 2011
  23. David Brewin #

    I really wonder how many of you have actually worked with a pack of dogs. Go out on a hunt sometime and you'll get to see how a pack of dogs "really" operate when they're chasing a boar or a bear. The older dogs teach the younger dogs and if they don't listen, they're disciplined (pretty severely) and they learn from this. They teach these lessons because the dogs are working with humans the way they have worked for thousands of years.

    Cesar has observed these same behaviors in a real pack of dogs and utilizes the same methods. He doesn't choke a dog or mistreat them in any way. On the other hand, I've seen an adult Plott hound beat the crap out of a younger dog that didn't adhere to pack etiquette on a boar hunt. The younger dog probably lived to hunt for another day because of this kind of discipline.

    I guess if you're dealing with couch dogs there's probably some merit to your criticisms. But then, I wish you would post some videos of your training methods and how much more efficient you are than Cesar.

    October 23, 2011

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