Aversive dog training: why I won’t fall for it

Cesar Millan has over six million likes on Facebook. Why? Because people will always fall for the quick fix lie. People want to believe that dog training can be done quickly, with little effort on their part, and that someone will just wave a hand and their dog will miraculously behave like an automaton and do exactly what we want them to do every time.

Cesar Millan’s training methods are aversive. This means they use punitive, negative reinforcements throughout, to force a dog to do what you want it to do against its will. This is different to coercive, positive training, as practiced by most of the world’s leading, qualified dog behaviourists and trainers.

The dominance/pack theory myth has a lot to answer for. Cesar Millan’s training entirely revolves around the pack theory. This is the theory that dogs are the same as wolves and require a strict pack hierarchy. We are the leader of the pack and, therefore, we must constantly assert our position as #1 top dog in order for our dog to be happy and well behaved. In fact, this theory has now been widely disproved, and the original research that the idea was based on has been shown to be very flawed.

Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science: A Fresh Look at the Wolf Pack Theory (PDF)

Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors: Why won’t dominance theory die?

Welfare in Dog Training: Debunking Dominance Theory

Dogs are not wolves. Dogs have evolved, branched well away from wolf lines, and existed alongside humans for thousands of years as companion animals, trained to perform a myriad of functions demanded of them by humans including guarding and protecting other animals, and forming strong bonds with their human owners. There is so much ongoing discussion on this subject, and I’m no expert; hopefully the links above have outlined the problem with pack theory/dominance theory. There is a lot of online discussion about Cesar’s training methods, some of which I’ve linked to here. Even human psychologists tend to agree that Cesar’s methods constitute little more than bullying.

Psychology Today: Cesar Millan and the tradition of Pack Bully as Leader

New York Times: Pack of lies

Esquire: The Dog Whisperer Should Shut Up

USA Today: Dog Whisperer Sued by TV Producer

Beyond Cesar Millan (a website that was set up to attempt to educate dog owners and animal workers, and collate information about Cesar’s training methods)

Talented Animals Blog: What do I think about the Dog Whisperer?

‘First Do No Harm’ By Dog Worshiper Richard Belzer

New Study Finds Alpha Dog Training Techniques Can Do More Harm Than Good

Welfare in Dog Training: What are the implications of using training techniques which induce fear or pain in dogs?

I have AR and vegan friends who admire this man. These are people who fight for the rights of animals to equality and freedom from abuse and suffering, and they like Cesar. *facepalm* Hell, six million people liked this man on Facebook. The showbiz sparkle, world tours, and endless tricks and use of meaningless language have obviously fooled a LOT of people.

Personally, all of my instincts screamed “NO” the first time I watched Cesar Millan on TV. His methods involved pain, punishment, correction, and blatantly dangerous and ridiculous ideas (e.g. “alpha rolling”, highly aggressive body language, hanging a dog from a tree, choke collars, prong collars, ‘flooding’ technique, etc.). Why on earth do so many otherwise kind and gentle (I’ll assume) people, who probably adore their dogs, think that these actions are acceptable? Why do so many NOT question his methods? Why do his fans see these aggressive methods used, but forgive it, and allow themselves to be assuaged by the glamour and feel-good bullshit used in his TV shows? If Cesar is so great at training difficult dogs, why does he sometimes take people’s dogs away and replace their loved family pet with another dog? Surely that’s 100% dog training fail right there.

Ok. Let’s face it “The Dog Whisperer” sounds bloody great. We all want to think there is someone in this world that can just lean down and gently whisper into our dogs’ ears, and instantly unleash (pun intended) the miraculously contented and extremely well-behaved dog we all want. It’s bullshit. He doesn’t exist. In fact, Millan has no recognised formal dog training or dog behaviour credentials at all. Amazing how so many of us are happy to use the dog training methods of a man who actually has no qualifications or recognised training to do what he does. Do we have so little true regard for the happiness and well-being of our dogs?

I think laziness is to blame; we are a lazy species who seemingly commonly want everything to fall in our laps without much effort on our part. This apparently includes dog training. Well, quick fix doesn’t work with dogs. They are complex, like us, and need conditioning. Conditioning takes time, and patience, and expert guidance. You CAN condition a dog quickly, using brutal methods, but like anything done in a rush, on the cheap, the effects aren’t predictable and won’t last. Indeed, instant, aversive conditioning (either deliberate or as a result of an incident) is usually what has caused a behavioural problem in the first place. Quick fix dog training is dangerous, unpredictable, and will potentially (I would suspect always) have consequences, even if that is simply the loss of trust and genuine affection between you and your dog. Worst case scenario, the consequence is your dog mauling someone without any warning that it was unhappy, because you taught it to shut up and shut down when it was unhappy.

Your dog may do what you want it to do today after using Millan’s dog training methods, but if its doing it with a look of fear and lack of trust in its eyes (look deeply), then is the lazy, aversive methods used worth it? That’s the kind of dog that bites you, or someone else, when you least expect it. It won’t tell you its unhappy, because it fears you. It won’t tell you it doesn’t like or want to do something, because it has learned you won’t accept that. No warning, no true communication, no trust = dangerous dog. You might as well have no dog, because the true joy of owning a dog has gone at that point, whether or not it outwardly appears to be a ‘well-trained, well-behaved, healthy dog’.

I would love to know how many of the dogs who resort to biting and mauling people, including children, have been on the receiving end of Millan’s training ideas? We will probably never know.

For some recommended reading on dog behaviour and training methods, by highly qualified and experienced organisations, try here:

International Association of Animal Behaviour Consultants: further reading

Association of Pet Dog Trainers (UK): recommended reading list

This is Cesar’s training. Shocking. Shocking. Shocking.

Strangling a dog until it almost passes out? He is utterly out of control, and his ‘methods’ are purely those of physically overpowering an animal. There is NO science involved. There is NO skill involved. The use of language “energy”, “dominant”… it’s all bullshit. Even Cesar’s understanding of this dog’s body language is flawed. This dog, Shadow, was later taken back by the rescue he came from and was adopted by a family who use only positive training methods. They claim he still has issues as a result of Cesar’s ‘training’ methods.

I’d like to add that I’m the owner of a reactive German Shepherd dog who has definite aggression issues. I’ve worked with her since an incident with a man hitting her in a park, as a pup, conditioned her to distrust all strangers, especially men. She was also conditioned, over time, to react badly to the noise of kids screaming and playing. As a result, she can’t be out alone with kids, and she has to be muzzled around strangers. Those are the safeguards. No arrogant ideas that I shouldn’t have to use a muzzle (poor me – it’s so much hassle to put one of them on my dog); I use the muzzle, the risk is averted. Short-term problem solved.

In the long-term, I use entirely positive methods of training and conditioning, and my dog is almost unique among dog owners I know in being ridiculously affectionate and attached to everyone she knows. She is a walking, fluffy cuddle machine! She is a member of my family, and like a second child to me. She has a place in this family, and that won’t change no matter what issues she has.

I have read many books in my effort to help my dog lose her ‘fear aggression’, including ‘Scaredy Dog’ by Ali Brown (which I cannot recommend highly enough – it’s a revelation of a book). They’ve all helped, as has using clicker training (incredibly powerful) and reward-based, positive training in general. It’s working, she trusts me, and we’re both happy and healthy. I can’t imagine kicking her, strangling her, holding her down, and just generally being constantly at odds with and physically challenging my dog. We simply would not have the relationship we have now, if I treated my dog like that. In fact, given the severity of her aggressive behaviour in the past, I believe she’d have had to be PTS if I’d used Cesar’s aggression methods on my dog.

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About Obscure Thing

Londoner. RHS trained Horticulturist. Vegan. BSc (Hons) Zoology and Film.

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