Eighty years of behavioral psychology says

that Cesar Milan is way off base, and that dominance is not leadership, and that what our dogs want is a leader.

This looks like what some would call dominant behavior on Chico’s part. Actually, he knows from the context that we are about to do something to the wound on his belly and he’s coming to me for comfort.

This great article argues convincingly that Milan and other dominance based trainers are on the wrong track. Prescott Breeden discusses a specific episode of Milan’s TV show where he either cannot read a dog’s body language, or does not do so, and gets bitten: Recently, Nat Geo Wild released a trailer for the final season of The Dog Whisperer called “Showdown with Holly.” In this video, Millan shows the owners of a yellow lab (Holly) how they should handle her resource guarding. In short, Millan instigates Holly to react defensively by intimidating her with hard eye contact (a threat signal to dogs) and crowding her physical space while she is trying to eat from her food bowl . . . Holly gives Millan about ten different signals to ask him for space and avoid conflict. If you watch it in slow motion you will notice all of the following agonistic behaviors: avoidance, crouching/hunkering, ears back, warning growl, snarling, lick lips, look away, relaxed gaze into face, sitting, and snapping teeth. She gives him an abundant amount of information saying, “please give me space,” until eventually, the pressure is built up to a point where she gives an eleventh agonistic behavior and bites him.

The article describes and defines terms like dominance and aggression, and looks at these through the hard cold eye of behavioral science. Breeden explains that positive reinforcement trains dogs by making them want to comply with what we ask of them, that we need to lead through co-operation rather than through dominance.

Leadership is about communication, not dominance, and trust is the foundation of every sentient and gregarious being’s social relationship. It is the foundation of what dictates our ability to communicate and to share a life of cooperation instead of confrontation. You cannot build trust by striking, kicking, and intimidating: only fear.

Breeden concludes by saying These are not safe tools, and with Cesar hitting mainstream media, dog bites are on the rise both in the U.S and other countries. Hospital admissions due to dog bites have risen 59% in some areas (Newman et al., 2010) since his episodes began airing. Television is consistently listed as the source of information where an owner learned to attempt a technique that resulted in their dog becoming aggressive towards them or biting them (Herron et al., 2009).

It is undeniable that Millan has created a highly appealing explanation and philosophy for understanding dog behavior. Before I began studying applied animal behavior, I was Millan’s biggest fan—read all of his books, watched his show, and could not understand why my uncle (a veterinarian) called him a quack. His pontifications are a call to arms, to step up, to be a leader. It is immensely empowering to listen to and read. He takes the romanticism behind the concept of the dog whisperer and tells the world that they can do it too; that as long as anyone steps up to be a leader, behavior problems disappear.

However, dogs do not read poetry, and Millan’s dangerous and abusive methods ignore 80 years of research in animal behavior.

The article not easy reading, it’s definitely an academic paper revised and expanded to make it more accessible for lay readers. If you’re interested in the inside of a dog’s head, it’s worth working your way through it.

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