Thoughts about Cesar Millan

Cesar's Way, by Cesar Millan and Melissa Jo Peltier

Self-proclaimed “dog whisperer” Cesar Millan is arguably America’s most well-known dog trainer, thanks in large part to his TV show, “The Dog Whisperer,” on the National Geographic Channel. I have watched his show many times myself, interested in seeing how this well-known man was purportedly rehabilitating problem dogs.

When I started my project of researching dogs, many people told me that I should read Cesar Millan’s books and watch his show. I see dog owners making that “pssh” sound and poking their dogs in the side like Millan does on his show. The general dog-owning public seems very fond of Millan and his methods.

But I’ll be honest. Based on what I had seen from his show, I was reluctant to read his books. This is because I didn’t really see Millan as a trainer. I couldn’t divine what his actual training techniques were, apart from physical corrections and murky statements about “calm, assertive energy.”

Having started my dog research among other positive training books, I quickly realized that Millan is not held in high regard among behaviorists and positive trainers. The more I watched his show, the more I realized that they were right. Millan, while well intentioned, advocates negative reinforcement and physical punishment techniques to an untrained general public.

I decided to read Cesar’s Way because I felt that I should at least read what he had to say before I completely dismissed him. My friend Liz gave me a copy of his book. I read it quickly, as it was not difficult to get through.

On the whole, I was impressed with Millan’s rags-to-riches story. He came to America as an undocumented immigrant and worked his way up from a car washer to a dog trainer. He got his big break when he was picked up by Jada Pinkett Smith, who sought his help in rehabilitating the family rottweilers. It is a nice story and as the reader, you are pulling for him to succeed and beat the odds. He certainly did.

The one other thing I liked about this book was Millan’s emphasis on exercise. Americans themselves don’t exercise nearly enough, and so it’s a no-brainer that our dogs probably aren’t getting any exercise, either. Cesar’s Way devotes a whole chapter to the importance of “The Walk” and the daily communion with your dog outdoors. I am a huge proponent of this idea and the notion of walking your dog being a time of companionship and communication certainly resonated with me.

Cesar Millan and Tony Cardenas at the League of CA Cities 2010 Conference & CA Latino Caucus
Source: Flickr, user gocardenas

But my admiration for Millan’s training recommendations ended there.

One of my main issues with Millan’s philosophy is that he is constantly comparing dogs in America to dogs in Mexico. Dogs in Mexico roamed free in packs, leash-less, without any training. I don’t deny that that sounds like an ideal life for any dog, but that kind of lifestyle is simply not feasible for canines in 21st-century America. We have leash laws. Dogs need to be neutered. They need to be trained how to walk on streets and greet people in public. Millan’s Dog Psychology Center in California is a nice idea, but it is thoroughly unhelpful to anyone who doesn’t live with a roaming pack of 30 dogs (which I imagine is most people). It’s nice that he’s able to make the dogs get along in a massive pack, but that is not how those dogs will be living on a daily basis when they get back home. Trying to make American dogs into Mexican dogs is not the solution. But that is what it seems that Millan keeps trying to do.

My second issue with Millan is his unabashed use and promotion of negative reinforcement training and physical punishments. In Cesar’s Way, he acknowledges that he is unpopular among positive trainers for his reliance on these dated methods, but he insists that they are effective. He even devotes a section of the book that recommends doing an “alpha roll” on a dominant dog, which absolutely floored me. I thought this medieval form of punishment had disappeared in the dark ages of dog training, but apparently not. This is one of the real dangers of Millan’s popularity, in my opinion. I’m not the only one who thinks so. Dr. Nicholas Dodman, famed veterinarian and writer, had this to say about Cesar Millan:

Cesar Millan’s methods are based on flooding and punishment. The results, though immediate, will be only transitory. His methods are misguided, outmoded, in some cases dangerous, and often inhumane. You would not want to be a dog under his sphere of influence. The sad thing is that the public does not recognize the error of his ways. My college thinks it is a travesty. We’ve written to National Geographic Channel and told them they have put dog training back 20 years.

Dr. Nicholas Dodman, director of the Behavioral Clinic at Tufts University, Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine

Another issue I have with Millan is his reliance on the old-fashioned paradigm of dominance and pack mentality. Millan would have us believe that our dogs are out to get us and always looking for an opportunity to usurp us. I simply don’t believe this is true, and I’m not the only one. Cognitive researcher and animal behaviorist Temple Grandin wrote directly about how Millan’s techniques are outdated and simply wrong in her book Animals Make Us Human. Dogs do not live in packs, Grandin points out, and it’s a misinformed way to think about a dog’s social unit. Rather, like wolves, dogs live in families where parents care for the pups in a partnership. Treating dogs like they are obsessed with dominance is a grave injustice to our canine companions. For more on this, I highly recommend an article published in 2006 in the New York Times by author Mark Derr, “Pack of Lies.”

The good thing I will say about Millan is that he has been successful in raising awareness of how we have failed our dogs in training and teaching. The bad thing is that the methods he advocates are archaic, cruel, and generally unhelpful to most people. But don’t just take my word for it: See a collection of qualified opinions about how we need to move away from this “Dog Whisperer” at the website Beyond Cesar Millan.

What do you think about Cesar Millan? Is he awesome? Overrated? Misunderstood?

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26 thoughts on “Thoughts about Cesar Millan

    1. I think your comparison of Milan to academic over achievers, like Temple Grandin and Dr. Nick Dodman, is really unfair. I have deep gratitude and respect for both Grandin and Dodman, however what you really should be focusing on is the realms in which they have chosen to deliver their information. You don’t really have much ground to stand on when you think about it this way. Grandin and Dodman have been on the scene for much longer then Milan, however I don’t believe they’ve had much success with connecting to lower/middle class minds in the same way Milan has. So what did you expect? There are better ways to do a lot of things – but if you can’t connect the info with people who need it, then why complain about who they do connect with.

      What you’re actually projecting in your article is a disapproval of Milan’s popularity. It hasn’t got anything to do with the welfare of dogs, or a genuine desire to help all people learn how to build respectful animal – human relationships, it represents an angry prejudice against people who latch onto the most accessible resources to keep their lives together. What you really need to ask is why you have the knowledge you do, when the general public do not. And how you could help bridge the gap.

      Someone like Milan is inevitably popular because of his ability to relate to the overwhelming need, that is all too often, common to the lower to middle class mind (and don’t get me wrong – this includes the celebrities too!). Sure, if you’re sitting around on your computer, whilst you’re pure-bred, organically fed, doggie day care sitted, fur baby is mooching around in the background with his certificates in file right next to the one with your P.H.D in animal behaviour management in it; then its easy to look down from your ivory towers and scoff at the underlings who have not been afforded the background,(monetary or educational) to be able to treat the dogs they own in the same way you have been blessed with.

      Milan is on the ground, with no academic history that I could find. However he does have experience with many, MANY dogs and in numerous kinds of situations. This should count!!! His ability to control the dynamics of situations, between people and animals, is not something that just anyone would be capable of. In this way, you have to admit; the man has a gift. Those with knowledge should be collaborating with him, offering advice, support and mentorship. Breeding an “us and them” culture is never a helpful move.

      Think Bigger, don’t be small minded.

  1. Great job, Abby. You outlined the issues with Milan’s methods without getting hysterical. Because he’s so influential, I think it’s important that we can talk rationally about better methods with people who follow Milan devotedly.

    I expressed some similar thoughts when I wrote a post earlier in the year called Sometimes Cesar is Right. http://www.somethingwagging.com/2011/01/22/sometimes-cesar-is-right/

    But it’s a fact that many people can’t hear his name without going insane. We have to keep the lines of communication so people can learn there are better ways to work with your dog than by using shock collars and alpha rolls.

  2. I never thought about the mexican vs american dogs…great point! The reality is that dogs roam like this here (Canada) in isolated commuities in the far north and the results are not pretty or idyllic – for the dogs or the people!

  3. I admire you for disagreeing with Millan but going ahead and reading his book with an open mind. It’s not easy to do.

    I don’t hate Cesar Millan. There are far bigger enemies than him to fight. I like that he tries to remain objective and when his traditional methods don’t work he will try something else. That something else is sometimes positive reinforcement. While he does stick to his dogma, he is willing to adapt and he acknowledges the use of other methods.

    Before I adopted my dog, I read one of Cesar’s books. Not the one you have reviewed here, but one that came out later, having to do with incorporating dogs into the family. The chapter I was most interested in was the one written by his wife. She elaborated on their early relationship and how Cesar struggled to understand that he could not treat his wife the same way he treated his dogs. It explained his background and really helped my understanding of where he came from. He has changed a lot from the person he used to be. I have to respect that.

  4. Thanks for this thoughtful, and thought-provoking article. I’ve never watched much of The Dog Whisperer so I never noticed the connection Milan tries to make between Mexican dogs and US dogs. Having a Sato dog from Puerto Rico, and familiar with the plight of “street dogs” in Mexico and the Caribbean, that point really stirred my interest.

    While free roam street packs may seem an idyllic life for a dog, reality is a far, far harsher scene. I hope your readers will visit the following web pages for a quick glimpse into the life of these poor dogs: http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/unleashed/2009/01/mexico-dogs.html and http://www.hsi.org/issues/street_dog/factsheets/street_dog_welfare_mexico.html

    Thank you again for a very informative and open-minded review.

  5. I’ve read Cesar Millan’s books (in a “know thy enemy” sort of way, I confess) and watched one episode of his show. That doesn’t make me well versed, necessarily (on the books, yes, the show, less so [obviously]). I’ll say, if somebody did to my dog what those people invite him into their homes to do to their dogs, I’m not entirely sure what would happen. Probably not violence, but certainly yelling. And ejection from the premises.

    I feel very uncomfortable with the handling that I see Cesar Millan performing on dogs. I do not feel slip leads are necessary, I do not feel that things like letting a dog on the couch or playing tug with a dog make him feel like he’s the “pack leader”. I do not, in fact, feel like that whole “pack leader” thing applies, necessarily. Maybe if you do, in fact, have 40 dogs, but not when you have just one. If we must model our view on dogs after wolves, then let it be in the realistic way: family units. If it’s myself, my fiance, and the Elka dog, we’re a family unit and that’s how we function.

    Things like Alpha Rolls get people bitten (and even the Monks of New Skete have included this in their more recent volumes). Things like flooding and intimidation make a dog shut down, but don’t necessarily extinguish the behavior entirely; rather, it can re-emerge with a horrible vengeance. It’s true that Millan seems to work with many dogs whose only other option is euthanasia (or at least, that sort of phrasing gets bandied about), and so desperate measures are framed in a literal “do or die” sort of light, making Millan a hero rather than a bully. Real, lasting change and results take time and patience, I feel. And have a much better emotional payoff.

    So, thank you for the insightful post and venue of discussion. Cesar Millan is certainly a polarizing topic in the dog world, but rational discussion is what gets things done.

  6. I have read all these reactions to Cesar Millan and his methods, and feel you all are certainly no wiser than he, regarding dogs. First, I would like to say a few positive things about Cesar Millan. Perhaps you haven’t considered them.

    Cesar Millan is an adorable human being who treats his clients gracefully and without shame. He has a most beautiful spirit and it shines in all situations with all dogs and people. When a person is not questioned about the methods they are currently using, it would be
    impossible to figure out what is going on in the homes he visits. This bright spirited man is only baffled when he encounters negative people. And of course, the people are the one’s who need changing. We live in a very negative world. People can be so negative they are
    revived and made happy by the changes they see in themselves in the long run. Direct talk to these types of persons is a must. Time is never wasted with Cesar.

    Cesar’s success is remarkable, and widespread for a reason. . .he KNOWS about what he speaks. Cesar would not be as successful as he is without the experience he has, let alone his challenge to find what will work with the more troubled dog, when he has never experienced a problem. His fast mind and creativity astound me, and I am glad to know he is alive and contributing to the dog world at large. Cesar’s success is based on so many things that it would be ridiculous to call him on the rug for anything.

    I had a Doodle that a trainer here was very firm and ugly to. The attitude, the tone, and the direction was inappropriate and cruel. Later that trainer sold my dog behind my back to make money off a beautiful living creature. There were no laws that protected me as a
    dog owner, so I lost Ty forever. I’ve been known to cry deeply on many occasions, because of his cruelty to both my dog and me. I know Cesar would never do that to me.

    Lying a dog on his side is what I am assuming you all are talking about when it comes to the Alpha Roll. That is not a cruel action, no matter how you cut it, so forget about it already!
    Anything else Cesar does is simply too right, and addresses each problem most effectively. I know there are always people on the internet who call people out for one thing or another, but there is really no reason to do that with Cesar.

    As I say, Cesar is an adorable man with oodles of love in his heart for the dogs his works with spiritually and physically. I admire him and will go to visit his facilities in both San Diego and Los Angeles soon. If there is anyone I can learn with it would be Cesar.

    You may continue to oppose him, but why really? Jealousy rears it’s ugly head when one has not found his niche, or simply isn’t living his dream. Your opposition shows ignorance, not better tutaledge. Sorry.

    Belle

    1. I happen to think this book review has been written by someone who has come to a conclusion after researching things more than most would. I would not say the authors opinion has anything to do with ignorance – just the opposite!

    2. “Cesar Millan is an adorable human being who treats his clients gracefully and without shame.” — He certainly abuses dogs without shame, as he sees nothing wrong with using shock collars, prong collars, strangulation, kicking, smacking, poking, and forcing dogs to the ground and pinning them there until they lay frozen in terror.

      If you think any of this is “adorable,” there is something seriously wrong with you.

  7. I disagree with this. Dogs are very instinctual, so we have to teach them based on this. The alpha roll is a technique I have used successfully. It works in my home because it worked when dogs were wild. I have also used negative reinforcement successfully, scolding bad behaviour, tapping their nose when they do wrong. Dogs aren’t humans, so we need to stop apply human psychology training to them. Cesar, in my mind and in many people I know, is a brilliant dog trainer.

  8. Cesar is,without a doubt, a saving grace to countless dogs and dog owners throughout the entire world!
    Cesar is never cruel to these animals he truly loves dearly. He only uses physical reinforcement to snap dogs out of the ruts they trap themselves in. If you argue with his methods than you are arguing with the instinctual methods of dog mothers for both share the same intent and delivery. Cesar would devote time to nurturing his God-given gift of helping misunderstood dogs even if it would only bring him a single dollar. Although I am expressing my opinion, in which I will forever be entitled to, the aforementioned is not solely the opinion of myself and millions of others, it is raw truth proven by Cesar’s past and present.

  9. Cesar isn’t so bad. Wish he could perform some of his “cruel” methods on kids these days. Oh wait that would be abuse. Pansies. Consider this while you’re sitting here writing his cruel tactics… dogs are considered food in other countries so get a grip. The American point of view isn’t the only point of view regardless of how narrow minded us Americans try to be. Get over yourselves.

  10. Cesar has gone through a big change when “Daddy’ died and his marriage broke up. i think you should take a look from season 5 and see his humbleness and his love for his dogs. His first season he was macho and tried to overpower dogs. But now he tries to reach them emotionally, and do what is best for them. People change watch his shows now and see that change

  11. I have extensively used cesars techniques when correcting dogs. When you spend time in large packs of dogs (30-100) you learn his techniques on your own. I am new to cesar millan and i can fully relate to what he does. I worked at boarding facility that housed up to 80 rescue dogs, many of them unnuetered. They all spent time in a large yard similar to his place in california. The only way to handle that many unpredictible dogs you must become the alpha. There is no time to sweet talk 2 pitbulls fighting while 20 other dogs are jumping in biting you and bystanding dogs. I have delt with just as many agressive dogs as he has. Been bit and attacked many times over food, toys, water, humping, ect. You name it and i have personally been involved. You must become the alpha dog or you will get run over. But being the alpha does not mean you scare or abuse them. You must touch dogs as if you are a dog. Its a language they all understand. And cesar knows that.

  12. Thank you for this article. I just finished reading Cesar’s Way and I have to admit, his methods don’t work for me. They make sense to me, but I absolutely cannot overcome my husky puppy’s (7 months) energy level when I take him on walks (my husband has to take him instead).

    According to Cesar, you have to promote your calm assertive energy on your dog and correct when rules are broken so that he submits to your authority. Well, it all works fine in the house and at each point up until we get to the outside gate. Then my dog’s pure excitement of getting to go on a walk breaks loose and there’s absolutely no way he’s going to calmly walk behind me. My husband has to hold his leash very short and at his side to keep him in line at the beginning of the walk, even.

    So I have come to the conclusion that Cesar’s methods work for very high-energy individuals who have flexible schedules to be able to exercise an animal for at least 4 hours per day. But for the majority of dog owners, we have to work 8 hours per day (plus transit), which tires us tremendously. The thought of having to exert calm assertive energy whenever I am around my dog is honestly exhausting.

    Yes I understand that having a dog is a responsibility, but I don’t see how anyone can live in peace with their dog if they ALWAYS have to be the ‘pack leader’ just so the dog doesn’t ‘take over’ and run amuck. I guess I’m moving on to a different methodology. Sorry, Cesar.

  13. Abby, you clearly did not comprehend, or even fully review how Caesar walks dogs. Also, Caesar does not train dogs, he helps humans understand the dog culture; humans are much more advanced than dogs and able to adapt to other cultures, whereas dogs have a certain way of life that has evolved significantly slower than ours.

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