Veterinary Behaviorists Question Dominance Theory in Dogs

Position Irks Some Trainers

Published: February 05, 2009
By Timothy Kirn

Cesar Millan, television’s ‘Dog Whisperer,’ has legions of fans, including some dog trainers. But a group of veterinary behaviorists is not among them.

The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) issued a new position paper aimed at countering some of the pervasive influence of his show, which airs on the National Geographic Channel, and of Millan's training approach, which is based on what the position statement calls outdated dominance theory.

“The AVSAB recommends that veterinarians not refer clients to trainers or behavior consultants who coach and advocate dominance hierarchy theory and the subsequent confrontational training that follows from it,” the position statement says.

That statement was initiated with Millan in mind, says Dr. Laurie Bergman, of Norristown, Pa., a member of AVSAB's executive board.

“We had been moving away from dominance theory and punitive training techniques for a while, but, unfortunately, Cesar Millan has brought it back,” she says.

Millan’s program began airing in September 2004. It has a large following and has twice been nominated for an Emmy Award for Outstanding Reality Program.

On his show, Millan is invited into homes to work with incorrigible pooches, many that have failed with previous trainers. Usually, he identifies the problem and begins immediate remediation.

He says he is really retraining the owners, not the dogs, and generally notes that his sessions are just a beginning. But he does read the dogs and responds to them with insight and intuition. He often is shown calming and subduing an animal in a short time with minimal effort, communicating with the animal mostly by gaze and posture. Sometimes, the results appear nothing short of miraculous.

Dogs are pack animals and packs are ruled by a dominant alpha male, and that is the problem in the majority of unruly situations he addresses on the show, Milan says. The owners are either milquetoasts or inconsistent, and the dog is lost.

“What I am doing is training the human to meet the needs of the dog,” he has stated. “So, by doing that, we are going to eliminate fear, anxiety and aggression.”

Millan asserts himself with the dogs and uses a number of negative-reinforcement, or correction, techniques such as alpha rolls (the dog is rolled onto its back, a submissive position) and flooding (the dog is exposed to something that causes it anxiety and is not allowed to escape, to desensitize it).

He also has been shown choking a dog on the end of a leash until it fell onto its side, gasping for air.

That is the exactly the trouble with him, say the veterinarian behaviorists. His techniques are likely to have only a temporary effect and may be harmful in some instances.

The American Humane Association sent a letter to National Geographic in 2006, complaining that Millan's techniques were “cruel and dangerous.” The association asked that the program be removed from the airwaves.

The AVSAB position statement says that the ideas that dogs act like pack animals and that packs have a strict, dominant alpha-dog hierarchy are erroneous.

Dogs have lived with humans for 15,000 years, and they evolved as scavengers, not hunters. So it is not legitimate to compare dogs with wolves and wolf packs, which do hunt, according to the statement. The evolutionary pressure on dogs was that the least shy animals were the most successful in ransacking human refuse. Today's free-roaming dogs live in small, less cohesive groups rather than packs and are often alone.

Moreover, the notion that every pack has an aggressive alpha male that rules over all the others originated from observations of captive wolves. But, research on wild wolves suggests that wolf packs are not rigidly controlled by a single domineering male, according to L. David Mech, a senior scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey who has studied wild wolves in Michigan and Northern Minnesota for more than 40 years.

Mech says a pack usually has an alpha pair and that most of the rest of the pack is that pair’s offspring. That means the lead male never fought for dominance but merely reproduced. The lead male does not always lead during hunts or in anything else for that matter.

In fact, Mech says he generally objects to the term “alpha” male — a term he once used — because what it implies is not accurate.

Dominance theory leads to an antagonistic relationship between human and pet and to negative and coercive training methods, the AVSAB statement says. A punishment approach can backfire.

“It won’t change the underlying state of fear, so the fear will come out when the stimulus is no longer there,” says Dr. Sophia Yin, of the University of California-Davis and an AVSAB Executive Board member.

Though Millan has been criticized by a number of different groups and individuals, he has supporters.

A New Yorker profile published in 2006, compared Millan's movements and posture to that of a dancer’s and described his ability to communicate with dogs as masterful. Because of the precision of those movements and the messages they convey, he was equated to a therapist who works with autistic children.

“I have never seen Mr. Millan be abusive,” says Martin Deeley, executive director of the International Association of Canine Professionals.

Millan does not use coercive techniques exclusively, but also uses positive reinforcement, says Deeley, who has worked with Millan and knows him well.

That combination is what most trainers use today, Deeley says. For a while, the pendulum in training approach was swinging toward the exclusive use of positive reward, but now it is swinging back.

“I think what people have found is that positive reinforcement and reward is not working with every dog,” he says. “I don’t think any dog can be trained using only positive reinforcement.”

On the show, Millan says: “I always say my way is not the only way. It is just one way. The people that follow me feel that it works.”

Deeley considers Millan’s instinctual rapport and ability to communicate with dogs astounding and says it is clear that he cares about dogs.

Millan heads a foundation that supports shelters and rescue organizations across the country. Long before he was famous, Millan opened a center for abused and rescued dogs in a rough part of South Central Los Angeles. On his program, he's shown taking walks with his pack of rescued dogs down the streets of South Central and in the mountains surrounding the city.

“I have found his respect for the dogs and his love for the dogs is very great,” Deeley says.

Heather Houlahan is another trainer who backs Millan's techniques.

“Demand for private dog training definitely increased in the two years after his show debuted, and many owners contacting me specifically cited Cesar Millan as inspiring them to do something about their dogs’ behavior,” says Houlahan, of Harmony, Pa., who trains search-and-rescue dogs and works with seized dogs.

Millan speaks in language that the average pet owner can understand, and what is particularly important, he shows the public that even a difficult dog can be taught, she says. The public, therefore, gets the message that training, done properly, will produce results.

“Within the bounds of the medium — which is stupid — he shows results and he communicates well,” she says. “He uses plain English, which I believe is very important, and he has very good chops with the dogs. I think the show has basically done good.”

The AVSAB statement annoys Houlahan. She questions the science behind it and says dogs do exhibit dominance behavior and when they do, need to be corrected.

“They are picking on Cesar Millan, but they are also picking on the entire community of results-based trainers,” she says.

Yin and the AVSAB, however, believe Millan’s influence has led to a greater use of punitive training and to a misunderstanding of canine intent. Yin thinks his teachings lead the general public to view all canine misbehavior as dominance aggression, when that is not the case.

The dog who fails to come when called is not exhibiting an intention to establish dominance over the caller. Rather, dominance behavior is “when animals use aggression for scarce resources,” Yin says. She is particularly troubled by Millan’s use of flooding. The technique is brutal, and it is not the way psychologists practice desensitization, she says. Real desensitization involves exposing the subject to the anxiety-producing stimulus in a gradual, controlled manner and is combined with positive reinforcement, she adds.

“Since he has been using those techniques, they have become more popular with the general public,” she says.

Yin wants veterinarians to warn dog owners to avoid any trainer who uses punitive techniques too heavily and advises practitioners to tell their clients to look for three signs that a trainer is too negative:

1. The trainer continually tells owners that they have to be the “alpha.”

2. The trainer warns owners not to use rewards too much. It is not rewards that are the problem but how they sometimes are not used correctly.

3. In a class, more than 10 percent of the dogs are on pinch collars or shock collars. Shock collars should never be used as an initial training device, according to Yin.

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