Cesar Millan is a Hack and Everything You Know is Wrong
Well, probably not everything, but there are some serious issues in the dog training world right now and with the advent of t.v shows about dog training and social media it’s getting out of control.
First off, why call out Cesar Millan?
Because he’s one of the driving forces behind every misconception I’m about to lay out before you. In a nutshell, he has no understanding of dog behavior, he touts himself as a dog behaviorist when the only actual education on dogs he’s had is being a dog groomer, his training methods are misguided at best and abusive at worst. Most actual canine professionals can’t stand him for these reasons. Many, many professionals have written articles roasting him yet he still manages to hang on to his persona of ‘dog whisperer’ because people who don’t know any better mistake his pseudoscience for fact.
What pseudoscience? Let’s start with the absolute core of his, and many other misguided understandings of dog psychology: The dominance theory.
I hear it all the fucking time. At the dog park “Suzy, get down! Lol sorry, she’s just so dominant” “Aw, he’s so submissive!” “Cody is an alpha, so he’ll try to dominate other dogs at first”. It all makes me want to rip my teeth out with rusty iron chopsticks. Where did people get this idea that dogs naturally fall into dominant or submissive categories? This bullshit all started with, well, bullshit.
In 1974 a man named Rudolf Schenkel decided to study the social structure and behavior of wolf packs not by, idk, observing them in the wild, but by taking random adults from random packs and throwing them into the same zoo enclosure. Real scientific, right? He created the Alpha-Omega (I.E. Dominant/submissive) structure from the ensuing chaos he observed. In his paper, the man constantly compares dogs and wolves and this became an often sited work in studying dog behavior. In reality, wolves do have a complex social structure but it’s more easily compared to a family dynamic because essentially that’s what it is. This isn’t even that relevant to dog training, however, as dogs and wolves behave very differently. (This is, by the way, why the keeping of wolf dogs is extremely difficult and should only be done by professionals). Despite being debunked numerous times, this study continues to be used as a foundation of many dog training methods, and has been taken to truly bizarre and even sickening levels.
Check out these nuggets of “information” from a popular dog website. Not only is it dripping with completely unfounded dominance bullshit, but it also pushes the idea (as does Cesar) that dogs have a pack mentality. This isn’t really the case either. Dogs ARE social animals and having a social structure around them is VITAL, but this ‘pack’ mentality is being pushed in an unhealthy way. It follows the dominance theory and states that dogs must find their ‘rank’ in their ‘pack’ and that hyper-romanticized wolf pack structure “rules” must be followed. Here’s a debunking of them:
1. Dogs literally do not care who’s head is higher. This is a classic example of hyper-romanticized wolf behavior and is contracted many times on this site when they assert a small dog can be “dominant” over a big one. 2. Dogs are curious animals and have usually been socialized to think that humans = play and tummy rubs. Your dog is excited and curious about the newcomer and, if not trained otherwise wants to investigate (and possibly get those tummy rubs) asap. 3. More romanticized nonsense. If your dog acts adversely to being moved from where she’s resting, it’s because of a training issue (and likely lack of proper socialization) and not because she’s being “dominant”.
1. Dogs do not have starring contests. Looking away while being stared at isn’t your dog “submitting” to you. It’s a sign that the dog is uncomfortable and I would be too if someone was engaged me in an impromptu staring contest. It’s that dog’s way of saying “dude, can we not do this?” Also another behavior that I’ve seen people interpret as ‘submission’; opening the mouth and/or panting. This is indicative of stress. Think of how you might begin to sweat if you’re stressed. Same basic principle. 2. Dogs want to sleep in bed with you because the bed is comfortable and they like being around you. The position literally does not matter, though you may want to make the bed invitation only just as a general part of training. 3. This is a matter of preference. Personally, I allow my dogs to roughhouse with me and me alone because I don’t mind it and I can teach them a biting threshold so that they never hurt me. I find this lays a good foundation to make sure they’re gentle when I train them to bring me things, etc.
Ever seen a kid fall down, but not start crying until his mom freaks out? Same basic principal applies here. Your dog isn’t “instinctively understanding you’re the alpha”. You’re projecting confidence and because your dog looks to you to help her understand the world, you’re making her feel safe and assured. On the other hand, if you act fearful, like the kid who looks to his mom after he fell, your dog will look to you and see that something is not right and it’s time to be fearful. “Mom is upset and on edge so I should be too!”.
1. Good feeding habits are a must, but eating before your dog is not. Dogs are not wolves and even wild wolves (and lions for that matter) the leader usually eats first along with the pups/cubs and they usually don’t eat their fill before the others are allowed to eat. 2. Appearing to eat out of his bowl is completely unnecessary and is usually only done when trying to correct resource guarding behaviors. 3. There’s a difference between begging for food/being disruptive and not even allowed to be excited to eat. This is the line that made me want to punch this woman in the face. Imagine being psychologically abused to the point where a dog isn’t even allowed to wag it’s tail when it knows it’s about to be fed. A dog who sits down without intensely staring or turns away isn’t being ‘respectful’; in this case it’s likely been abused and is avoiding a stimulus that’s been paired with abuse (the preparation of food).
Using these methods to train a dog can produce a well behaved dog like child abuse can produce a well behaved child. They may appear to work, but the subject in question will not be happy or well adjusted.
Why do people keep flocking to this bullshit? For the same reason they love to reblog outlandish “facts” on this hellsite (Like, does anyone else remember that “did you know” post that claimed there was a recessive gene that made a woman’s eyes purple, have no period yet be fertile, and grow no body hair? Seriously) and unfortunately some people flat out use it to justify abusing their dogs. It puts people as the “alpha” and makes them feel powerful. It sounds scientific to people who don’t know any better. Mr. Dog-groomer chinstrap says it’s good on T.V.
So what’s a better frame of mind to be in when you train dogs? Remember there’s no one set of ‘rules’ that will result in the perfectly trained dog and remember that every dog is different. Do all the research you can and remember your dog is…a dog. Your dog is not going to plot vengeance, nor is it always going to understand things that seem perfectly logical to you. Be patient, ask for help if you need it, don’t lose your shit, and again, learn absolutely everything you can.