Dog Whispering

I’d like to say a few words about Cesar Millan.

I appreciate his focus on exercise, structure, and leadership. And I can’t get through an episode of The Dog Whisperer without shouting at the TV.

Truth is I don’t indulge very often, despite the professional interest I presumably should have. And I do shout at other TV trainers, notably Victoria “Why-let-never-owning-a-dog-get-in-the-way-of-a brilliant-career?” Stillwell, and that Canadian fellow whose modus operendi seems to involve an intensely creepy home-search. But Cesar’s overwhelming popularity and unofficial status as the patron saint of balanced trainers earns him special consideration.

Many dog trainers will tell you that Cesar Millan is not a dog trainer. I’ve said it myself. Cesar has said it himself. But to non-trainers, that assertion comes across as a nonsensical cop-out, and maybe it is. What is certain is that as long as he keeps showing up on Animal Planet National Geographic Channel doing something that for all the world is indistinguishable from dog training, real-life trainers will be called upon to address Cesar’s message, methods, and towering success.

I usually begin by pointing out that Cesar is not so much instructive as inspirational. He presents a compelling example of how one might–or even ought to–live with dogs. It is an entertaining illustration of what is possible (and also occasionally of what is not, even for him). It is great television. It is good business.

It is not a training method.

A method is systematic and reliable, if not universally applicable. Socrates had a method. Lee Strasberg had a method. Bill Koehler had a method. Cesar draws on something closer to a style. His style works for him, at least by and large, but that success depends heavily on a particular dynamic existing between himself and the dog (not to mention skilled editors and a dynamite publicist). In its absence, Cesar’s way yields less reliable results, and few of his signature techniques remain advisable.

A sound method, by contrast, should function independent of extraordinary powers of calm assertion and physical prowess. Mind you, both help a great deal, and may in fact be prerequisites in some cases where the stakes are especially high. But they are arguably more gifts than skills, and thus challenging to teach, develop, or codify.

I know, Cesar doesn’t train, he rehabilitates. So are we talking apples and oranges? Charting new territory? Or just flying blind?

I find that rehabilitating aggressive dogs is less linear than straight obedience training, and that a lot may be accomplished without teaching formal skills. I still call it dog training, and suggest method is no less important in these cases. In fact, every aspect of dealing with dangerous dogs argues strongly in favor of a reliable, systematic approach.

The fact some number of exceptional people are capable of going it alone into the void, relying on instinct to carry the day, and coming out unscathed, does not persuade me of the existence of an alternate model. But it is sound entertainment to be sure.

Many experienced trainers take cases similar to those featured on The Dog Whisperer, but it’s rare that made-for-TV drama ensues. Real-life trainers are mostly not showmen, but rather engineers. We lay a solid foundation and build skills overtop. We teach first and apply second. It’s less sexy, takes longer than an hour, and is rarely televised. It is methodical, and we generally do let you try it at home.

© Ruth Crisler and Spot Check, 2010.

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  1. SmartDogs’s avatar

    “Real-life trainers are mostly not showmen, but rather engineers. We lay a solid foundation and build skills overtop. We teach first and apply second. It’s less sexy, takes longer than an hour, and is rarely televised. ”

    Amen sister. I posted a while back that contrary to what one sees on The Dog Whisperer, observing the progress in *real* dog training is typically like watching paint dry — and it doesn’t make for good television.


    1. ruthcrisler’s avatar

      Too true, and can’t be repeated too often.


  2. EmilyS’s avatar

    You guys should hate the way he misuses physical correction, applying it in dishonest and sometimes sneaky ways (the oft-youtubed episode in which he hides an electric collar controller). Choking a dog into submission and forced helplessness isn’t training in anyone’s book.


    1. ruthcrisler’s avatar

      Cesar’s dallyings with electronic collars are admittedly disturbing. As for his over-reliance on force, I’m reminded of Maslow’s Hammer.


    2. nokilladvocate’s avatar

      Cesar is not sneakily hiding the controller; he explains that the dog should not identify it, the vibration correction, with you which is why he is hiding it in his hand out of the dog’s view. That makes perfect sense. This worked very well with the cattle dog that was biting farm equipment tires and lost an eye. Two vibes and she got it – the tires are off limits. Not associating the correction with the owners, priceless. Dishonest? He’s the most honest person I’ve seen in decades openly sharing his gift of communication and common sense when reading body language and diagnosing the real issue.


      1. ruthcrisler’s avatar

        Here is a link to a FB page featuring clips from the episode most folks are likely referring to when they bitch about Cesar’s crappy Ecollar use.

        Mind you, I’m not anti-Ecollar. I use them liberally and productively. Cesar doesn’t, as far as I can tell.


  3. SmartDogs’s avatar

    I tell my clients that Cesar is a textbook example of how not to use an e-collar. And like Ruth, on the rare occasion when I watch his show, I’m torn between bits of admiration and bouts of cringing.


  4. Viatecio’s avatar

    So my question is, how come Uncle Matty didn’t get so much attention from his show, especially since he uses collar corrections and was able to work with aggressive dogs as well and get visible results in a relatively short time? Is it because it was aired mostly on PBS, or perhaps the lack of the type of publicity Cesar has?

    Despite his (Cesar’s) shortcomings, it’s almost praise-worthy for the things he’s helped people understand, such as dogs are not furry children, exercise, discipline, affection and also no talk, no touch, no eye contact. The THEORIES (or at least the quotable quotes) are dead on here, and like others here, I too find the execution a bit off. Which is why I call myself a supporter of the man, rather than a fangirl.

    And admittedly, Smartdogs, I would rather watch the progress in *real* dog training than sit through session after session of lure and click/treat. But that’s just me :)


    1. ruthcrisler’s avatar

      So my question is, how come Uncle Matty didn’t get so much attention from his show[?] –Viatecio

      Probably for the same reason many real beauties don’t get the same attention as Paris Hilton.


  5. Pooch Professor’s avatar

    Uncle Matty wasn’t as clever as Cesar when it came to talking to owners.

    Cesar is attractive (if you like that look), smiles a lot, and doesn’t make outright fun of his clients (wink, wink). They don’t know he is making them look silly on TV. And he doesn’t do it on purpose, I don’t think. He seems genuine in what he does as far as wanting people to think differently about dogs–and themselves.

    I agree with all the prior comments about him as far as his “methods.” Cesar uses techniques that supress behaviors more often than not, and suppression can and does work (boy, is it great for TV as long as you don’t know what concern in a dog looks like), but it does not train a dog to behave in alternative ways.

    And I think, to his discredit, that he doesn’t realize that suppression doesn’t translate well to owners. It seems so obvious to him (and to those who work with dogs and aren’t afraid to use lots of tools) that it is working when HE does it…how come it doesn’t last?

    Of course, sometimes it does. I no longer watch the show, and I’ll always support his main messages and give him credit for making dog owners sit up and realize that training is necessary. But not a fangirl here, either.


  6. DogTrainerRW’s avatar

    I do agree that Cesar Millan deserves credit fro bringing more attention to dog issues and and owner responsibilities. He has very good messages (mentioned above) and connects well with people. As he has been way more successful than others, he draws more criticism, I guess that is just how we people are. If his methods wouldn’t work and his messages weren’t good, he wouldn’t be as successful as he is so I am happy for all dogs he helps and don’t have a problem with his success.

    I want to say a word about shock collars. I don’t believe in absolutes. These are training tools which have their place and time. A shock collar is however an advanced tool which you need to learn how to use properly.

    Before ouright dismissing it, consider this caseof mine. A 90 pound, dog aggressive German Shepherd who’s attention and focus on ‘prey’ (any dog or cat) can’t be broken with any normal method was in need of learning to leave cats and dogs alone. The owner tried positive reinforcement methods and trainers and was actually told to put his beloved dog down. The dog is great with people just very animal aggressive. He was a rescue the owner did not create this problem himself. After trying pretty much everything else I discussed using a shock collar with the owner and he agreed to allow me to try it. Now the German Shepherd leaves cats alone, is ok with most dogs and on his way to pass a Canine Good Citizen test this year – it’s a much better outcome than killing him in my view. We didn’t need many shocks. We just needed to get through to him, condition the shock to a verbal cue and leash correction and were able to leash correct the rest without shock collar. German Shepherd are ‘unshockable’ in their focus and once bad behavior has been established over many years, breaking them out of it can require more advanced tools.


    1. ruthcrisler’s avatar

      Thank you for your comment. There are a number of points I want to address.

      First, I appreciate your open-mindedness with regard to training equipment. It’s true that different tools have different applications, or at least different strengths. I know talented trainers who manage to get by with a single tool in most cases, and I’d like to think that I could manage to train nearly any dog under nearly any set of equipment-related constraints, but the fact is that given familiarity with a wide range of tools, a wide range of dogs, and a wide range of problems to solve, the pragmatic trainer recognizes that this or that tool is the logical choice for this or that situation.

      That said, I dearly wish that we could move beyond the widespread supposition that the natural application of electronic collars is as the tool of last resort, either being reserved for the worst of the worst cases or being called into service only after all other options have been exhausted.

      Clearly, it’s possible to shock most dogs out of pursuit of prey, for example. And if you do it right, the stress on the dog should be fairly minimal. I’m on board with that, don’t get me wrong. But the greatest utility of remote collars in my opinion, is in foundation work., where undue stress can be a real deal breaker, and a quality low-range remote collar can provide an incredibly efficient and effective means of encouraging and enforcing attention to body language and voice cues over distance.

      Second, I agree that it is critical to use remote collars properly, more so than with some other equipment perhaps, but I do not equate that with their being an “advanced tool”. I find it very easy to teach most people how to use remote collars humanely and effectively, and I don’t believe using one requires any more skill than using more traditional tools.

      Here is the problem I have with electronic collars, or, more accurately, the problem I have with their widespread promotion. Unlike traditional leash work, remote collar work allows unskilled and/or unethical trainers an avenue to dish out potentially undeserved punishments without providing a tight feedback loop. In other words, a very poor handler has the means to do harm, without harm coming to him, by virtue of the dog’s misunderstanding from whence the punishment stems.

      Ironically, this is one of the great virtues of remote collars, as they allow the handler to step out of the equation at will, and allow corrections that are more consistent and less personal.

      I use remote collars liberally and unapologetically, but I rarely use them for punishment.

      I’m very glad you had success with the GSD you mentioned. Sounds as if you made the right call. But a good remote collar has plenty of utility beyond punishment. In the right hands, it can be a gentle tool capable of subtle, stress-free communication.

      Last, I prefer not to call them “shock” collars. “Electronic” and “remote” may be less colorful, but to my mind they are both more accurate.


      1. Viatecio’s avatar

        “That said, I dearly wish that we could move beyond the widespread supposition that the natural application of electronic collars is as the tool of last resort, either being reserved for the worst of the worst cases or being called into service only after all other options have been exhausted.”

        I completely agree with this.

        What’s being heard in most training circles today is to start with the softest “method,” and most people take that to mean “buckle collar.” Unfortunately, a buckle collar for some hard-headed trainees is not enough…but that’s what I love about training collars: they can be either one step up and give some communication that is much clearer, yet still almost as subtle, than a flat collar, or they can give a stronger message as needed.

        I’ve found that most types of training collars have fallen victim to the “Let’s jump to the worst conclusion” syndrome, in which people assume that any dog wearing them is jerked or shocked into oblivion. Far from it!

        And by the way, my 280 arrived, and I predict many happy years and some well-trained dogs with it!


    2. Jokovic’s avatar

      No matter how old the dog is MAKE SURE HE OR SHE KNOWS WHAT YOU WANT HIM TO DO berofe you use the e-collar..and most of that is yard work and check cord work berofe you use the collar .and you always want to use the lowest settings on the collar to start out with and see how the dogs takes it if the dog is doing ok with it but still not doing what your asking then move up to the next setting .its called conditoning the dog to the collar .at some point the dog well understand .most of the time 1 or 2 on the collar will be all you need .only if the dog is a hard head would you have to go higher .


  7. Eleanor Sobkowiak’s avatar

    I think the two most admirable messages that Cesar brings to the masses are 1) that dogs ARE rehab-able. “If he can fix *that* nasty/crazy/rotten dog, surely I *can* find help with Fifi,”(beats the heck out of taking thedog to the pound / vet to be put down) and 2) that it is neither necessary nor desirable to train dogs using only half the available quadrants.


    1. ruthcrisler’s avatar

      I agree with your first point unreservedly. It’s what I mean when I call Cesar “inspirational”. And I can point to a number of clients that were literally inspired to call a trainer after watching Cesar on TV. As for the second point, I guess I’m of two minds. On the one, I’m happy to see any demonstration of relationship-building between man and dog that does not rely on a clinical, Skinner-school approach. On the other, I wish he made that point a little more persuasively, and without so many errors of judgement.



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