Veterinary Behaviorists Question Dominance Theory in Dogs
Position Irks Some Trainers
February 5, 2009 (published)
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on what the position statement calls outdated dominance theory.
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.
program began airing in September 2004. It has a large following and
has twice been nominated for an Emmy Award for Outstanding Reality
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.
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
He also has been shown choking a dog on the end of a leash until it fell onto its side, gasping for air.
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.
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
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.
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
“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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
VIN News Service commentaries are opinion pieces presenting insights, personal experiences and/or perspectives on topical issues by members of the veterinary community. To submit a commentary for consideration, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Information and opinions expressed in letters to the editor are those of the author and are independent of the VIN News Service. Letters may be edited for style. We do not verify their content for accuracy.