It’s the Dog House for Cesar Millan

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I’ve never been comfortable with Cesar Millan’s dog training methods. Negative reinforcement and establishing dominance are truly old school and often backfire in the hands of people who aren’t as dog savvy as Cesar. In fact, sometimes such training methods even backfire on him as was the case in a recently televised National Geographic episode featuring Cesar, a French Bulldog mix named Simon, and some pigs. (When you watch this video, I encourage you to turn the sound off. It is distracting and rather obnoxious.) Why Nat Geo and Cesar chose to publicly display such a training fiasco is beyond me. In fact, the show has prompted an investigation into animal cruelty charges against Millan.

In the episode we learn that Simon has killed a couple of pot-bellied pigs. Cesar’s attempt to “reprogram” Simon is disastrous for this poor dog, one of the pigs, and Millan’s reputation.

A follow up episode, (the one that National Geographic has not pulled off the Internet), features Cesar’s good idea- He forces Simon to be walked by a pig. Poor Simon is literally dragged around by a tether connecting his neck to a harnessed pig. Millan then forces other farm animals upon Simon. Throughout this barnyard experience, Simon’s facial expressions and body language convey clear distress, yet Millan interprets all of this as a problem fixed.

I contacted dog trainer Jill Breitner to get her take on these videos. I’ve worked with Jill over many years. More than anyone else I know, she has the remarkable ability to think like a dog and is a master at interpreting canine body language. She has developed Dog Decoder, a very successful app that teaches people how to read canine body language.

Here’s what Jill had to say about Cesar Millan’s interactions with Simon:

Me: Do you think Cesar believes that he accomplished something positive with Simon?

Jill: Most definitely.

Me: What are the mistakes Cesar made with Simon?

Jill: Cesar completely misinterprets Simon’s body language. What Cesar interprets as a dog who is calm and relaxed is really a dog who is shut down. Throughout the episode, Simon’s body language shows that he is stressed and anxious. Simon and Cesar never became engaged with one another, something that should have been accomplished well before exposing Simon to the pigs.

What Cesar did with Simon is something called “flooding” a very negative way to try to desensitize an animal. Flooding is forcing an animal to be in very close contact with something that is scary or unpleasant. Flooding causes profound stress and anxiety, a state that makes it impossible for an animal to learn.

Simon should have been muzzled so that there was no chance of inflicting injury to the pig. When Simon came after the pig, the pig should have been released so it could get away. Lastly, Simon should have been trained with a leash attached to a harness, not a neck collar.

Me: Does what happened with Simon fit with Cesar’s typical training methods?

Jill: Absolutely.

Me: How would you have worked with Simon?

Jill: To begin with, I would have worked with Simon in a harness and not a neck collar. I would have started with some basic training involving obedience work, play, and rewards with treats and games (playing with a ball, tug of war, etc.). The goal would have been for Simon to really engage with me as a result of positive experiences.

Once Simon was fully engaged (might take weeks to months), I would have started the process of gradually exposing Simon to the pigs. When slowly approaching the pig enclosure, I would have looked for that moment when Simon was just beginning to show reactivity or stress in response to the pigs. At that point we would have turned away and restored getting Simon engaged. It doesn’t matter whether we were 50 feet or five feet away from the pigs, I would have proceeded the same way. We would continue to advance towards the enclosure only as quickly as Simon permitted. During this advance and retreat, I would have been watching for Simon to look at the pig and then immediately look at me. This is called “capturing” and would be rewarded with a treat or game. I would always end the training session on this kind of positive note. I emphasize that this process doesn’t happen in a day. It can take weeks or months to accomplish.

Whether or not we would have ever entered the pig enclosure would have depended on Simon’s responses. My goal would have been to always avoid putting Simon in a stressful situation. This gradual, stress-free approach is the opposite of the “flooding” we saw in Cesar’s video.

Lastly, I would emphasize to Simon’s owner that, once a dog has killed or seriously injured another animal, there is never a guarantee that it won’t happen again. With situations like Simon’s, the goal is to “manage” rather than “cure” the problem. In Simon’s case this might require maintaining a secure physical barrier between the pigs and him. When in physical proximity to the pigs, Simon would need to be very closely monitored and immediately removed from the situation if his body language indicated that he was becoming stressed.

After watching the first and second videos of Cesar and Simon, how do you weigh in on this issue?

Best wishes,

Nancy Kay, DVM

Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine
Author of Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life
Author of Your Dog’s Best Health: A Dozen Reasonable Things to Expect From Your Vet
Recipient, Leo K. Bustad Companion Animal Veterinarian of the Year Award
Recipient, American Animal Hospital Association Animal Welfare and Humane Ethics Award
Recipient, Dog Writers Association of America Award for Best Blog
Recipient, Eukanuba Canine Health Award
Recipient, AKC Club Publication Excellence Award
Become a Fan of Speaking for Spot on Facebook

Please visit http://www.speakingforspot.com to read excerpts from Speaking for Spot and Your Dog’s Best Health.   There you will also find “Advocacy Aids”- helpful health forms you can download and use for your own dog, and a collection of published articles on advocating for your pet’s health. Speaking for Spot and Your Dog’s Best Health are available at www.speakingforspot.com, Amazon.com, local bookstores, and your favorite online book seller.

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18 Comments on “It’s the Dog House for Cesar Millan

  1. I can’ watch another Cesar video but based on your notes, Jill’s thorough approach to trainng and all the comments I can clearly imagine the distress of pig and dog.
    Reality TV requires that there be extreme tension and conflict and Cesar has made a mint on just that at a considerable cost to modern training and the dogs/humans involved.

  2. I’ve despised Cesar’s training techniques for a long time now. I’ve seen videos of him setting dogs up to fail, choking dogs by their collar, kicking dogs…. The worst was seeing his encounter with Holly, the labrador. He completely misread that dog, got bit in the process even though she was telling him in a thousand easily recognizable ways that she was over her limit. He forced Holly into the unenviable position of biting him even though she clearly did NOT want to bite. (Of course, I’m sure she was abused harshly off camera for doing that.)

    While I applaud Cesar’s financial contributions to dogs in need, I am deeply troubled that he does not find time to educate himself on modern methodology that does not incorporate abuse as a tool. I also find it troubling that he seeks out high recognition problem dogs as showpieces for his program (such as the dog that hunted a boy who ended up being saved by the family cat).

    It is even more disturbing to see his many supporters and defenders cheering his bullying of dogs. I wonder if those fans abuse their family members in the ways that they advocate abusing dogs.

    Anyone who trains dogs these days knows there are many methods for training, some positive, some balanced, some aversive. Regardless of where you fall on that spectrum of training, setting a dog up to fail by winding them up then baiting them into bad behavior is NOT an acceptable training technique. And that’s exactly what Cesar does, whether you see it on camera (like we did with the pig) or not. In the big picture, it’s more than just flooding. And the dog always pays harshly for the mistake, even though it is almost always Cesar’s fault.

    Some people might argue that what Cesar does is proofing, but it is not. When proofing a skill, the dog is well trained FIRST.

    I wish Nat Geo would get that clown off the air and replace him with someone who actually knows what they are doing, actively seeks to improve their skills and training, and has the slightest clue about canine body language. Cesar Milan is a disservice to the dog-owning public and a blatant abuser of dogs.

    Heh Cesar: TSssssssssssssst!!!!! OUT!!!!!

    ps apologies if appropriate, but I spend way too much time rehabbing rescue dogs who are treated to this kind of treatment to be anything other than direct about my feelings.

  3. The popularity of trainers like Cesar speaks to a bigger issue for all of us who embrace force free training. That is, pet training is an unregulated profession. Read a Cesar book or watch his TV show and you can call yourself a dog trainer. Take Cesar off the air and another one will come along until we require trainers to be certified by some regulatory body. Nancy, imagine veterinary care practiced by virtually anyone. Whereby you tend to the physical health of animals, trainers are the caretakers of their emotional health. Clearly, we are doing our animals a disservice.

    Cesar’s antiquated methods are based on the behavior of wolves in captivity. He then takes this flawed research and applies it to a different species. Tell me, do your readers base their parenting techniques on that of Chimpanzees? Why not? We’re both primates. How much sense does that make?

  4. Dr Nancy, thank you for posting this so quickly. Milan and his training methods are very scary to those that cannot read dogs, which is the majority of the population. They believe the “dog whisperer” – which he is NOT. That would be Ian Dunbar and Jill and a dog trainer friend of mine, MB Donnelly, all who can think like a dog.
    I remember some years ago Milan was on Oprah, “working” with her dog aggressive Springer Spaniel Sophie. After he “fixed” her problem, he was walking with Sophie and 3 other dogs and it was so obvious she was still quite adgitated – ears back, eyes wide open, panting, stiff; definitely not relaxed. She was just holding on, waiting for the session to be over.
    Though I am not a professional dog trainer, I have worked at 2 service dog schools and been around the training there for 21 years. I have seen Bob Baily do his chicken clicker training at one of service dog schools, training the trainers. I know what bad trainers look like. Milan is one of them.

  5. I have trained dogs since I was in my teens… and I’m in my 60s now. I completely agree with Jill’s assessment and the training method she would have employed instead. I also believe it’s time that Cesar should be taken off the air; He is not in tune with the animals he works with and his methods are often deplorable… as in this case.

  6. Thank you for sharing this value information- especially including Jill’s description of how things should have been done. As a RVT, CPDT-KA and KPA CTP I would have done exactly as Jill describes and it is time that Cesar is taken off the air!

  7. I just don’t understand how any sane person can watch anything this man does and then defend him as a great trainer! Caesar Milan has never been a qualified trainer and it is about time that he is exposed for the fraud that he is. Shame on National Geographic and the public for accepting his inhumane techniques. All because our society wants instant results. Never mind it takes most humans twelve years of school to be able to get a job at McDonalds! We want that dog to learn/change now! So many people have unrealistic expectations of animal training and fall prey to scammers like Milan. I am not a trainer but have had many dogs and have volunteered with LA based dog rescues. The information on positive, humane training is available to anyone who has basic reading skills. And there are a lot of legit, certified dog trainers who take their profession seriously by continuing their education and only using humane methods. Caesar Milan is not one of them.

  8. Thank you Dr. Kay for this post. As a CPDT-KA, and boarding kennel owner, I have heard from many people how much they have enjoyed his program. I always try to educate these people about what they see on the show, as well as what is on the cutting room floor. Having met Cesar and spent an evening with him, I feel he does not actually mean to harm, however, he has indeed done a great deal of harm. This case is one incident. I had hoped that when he included Dr. Ian Dunbar’s and Bob Bailey’s comments in one of his books that he would have embarked on an educational track. Evidently that hasn’t happened. Thank you for not just posting about his approach to the issue but providing such a well written documentation of a more humane approach, the one I, too, would have used.

  9. In the 70’s when i started training this would have been fine–we have advanced in some areas. i did 40 years of research (Master Trainer & PhD in education) and developed a communication based dog control method for all breeds. no force, some food, basic signals that really communicate. That dog needed the basics with a good chain breaker (hand command) foundation to explain without upset that chasing pigs was out. we don’t correct because it generally gets the Caesar results and just ends up by upsetting the dog. the OPT (Optimum Placement Technique) is easy to learn, easy to teach, and the dogs adore it. wish all trainers could be exposed to it to add to their communication skills.

  10. I totally agree that it is about time that Milan and his methods were taken off the air. This man requires some serious retraining and shouldn’t be allowed near animals until some mandatory training has taken place. Of course I know this will never happen and I see what people’s reactions are especially on FB. The majority and it shocks me, don’t think that animal abuse occurred and that we (bleeding hearts) should get over it. Until we change this mindset, I don’t see much happening to Milan. It really saddens me…:(

  11. Having trained dogs my entire adult life I totally agree with Jill’s remarks. People are always asking me about Cesar and my response is that I don’t like his methods and I don’t feel he is a good trainer. He only has a name because of Oprah and obviously she was not knowledgeable about dogs even though she loved them.

  12. The fear and distress of the pig is at the front of my mind and I am a trainer.

    Trainers should never deliberately cause fear and distress…to people or animals, no matter the species.

    Several obvious things jumped out at me about the whole premise:

    1. If you have a dog with a history of predatory behavior toward pigs – as in viewing them as “lunch” as opposed to “fun to chase” – how hard is it really to keep that particular dog safely away from a pet pig?

    2. If, as an animal trainer or “rehabilitator,” you KNOW a dog has killed a pig, why in the world would you let that dog off-leash around a pig without anything to protect the pig? There is no concern for anyone’s safety in that scenario. It makes no sense whatsoever.

    3. Why on earth would you bait this dog, knowing what you know, by lifting up the pig to make it squeal? That is where the law comes in as far as California law as I read it. That is cruel and sick behavior on the part of the human.

    4. When Simon the dog was on the leash and showed avoidance of the pig, he received no feedback indicating this was desired behavior. Instead, he was baited and let loose on a squealing pig.

    5. Predatory behavior is instinctive behavior. There is a STALK-CHASE-KILL-CONSUME sequence. In domestic dogs, this sequence is supposed to be inhibited. This means that at some point during the sequence, the dog stops short of killing. Without this, dogs would kill any animal – a Border Collie on sheep, a Cattle Dog on cattle, even a Labrador would squish a bird before returning it after it was shot. Unfortunately, a screaming infant or a shrieking child is often killed by a dog. Cesar should know this! Instead, Simon was set up to fail so he could be punished.

    6. After an animal has killed another animal, we need to think about the risk that animal poses to others. If triggers for that behavior can be avoided and the dog’s owner can keep the rest of the world safe from that dog, fine.

    7. There is an old wive’s tail about how to deal with a dog who kills chickens. Tie a dead chicken around the dog’s neck to “teach it a lesson.” This tethering the dog to another animal is a variation of that. I have never heard of that working but I once saw a dog with a chewed outdoor lounge cushion tied around its neck. I can tell you for certain that this did not discourage that dog from eating couch cushions, even while the other cushion was affixed to its neck.

    So far I’ve learned from watching him that what he has is this: off-camera conditioning a dog to be cowed (for the moment) by poking and making the “tssst” sound; physical intimidation in the form of holding the dog down against its will and getting the dog to temporarily give up the struggle, which he calls “calm-submissive”; flooding the dog with what it fears and dragging it around; set-up situations where he can punish the dog for its failure; shock collars inappropriately used for aggression and with abysmal timing; stringing up; and kicking the dog (however lightly, he calls it a “tap”) between the bottom of its rib cage and its groin.

    Otherwise, he’s awesome sauce and really loves animals.

  13. Since Rupert Murdoch bought Nat Geo, this is not as surprising as it would have been when Nat Geo stood for quality.
    I agree with everything that Jill wrote. I used to watch Cesar’s show, but stopped several years ago when I watched him beat the crap out of a small dog in the name of training. He lost all my respect in that 1/2 hour. Since then I have seen other videos of his terrible work, that has on many occasions led directly or indirectly to dog deaths. In the following video, the dog showed remarkable restraint; I would have bitten Cesar much sooner. He recommended that the dog be killed; I’ve heard both that the dog was killed and not killed, so I am not sure of this outcome; but this is NOT training, it is abuse:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hQdn6wKlRaE

    This is an excellent article re Cesar’s “training” methods discussed by other knowledgeable trainers:
    http://www.livescience.com/5846-critics-challenge-dog-whisperer-methods.html

    And for icing, this is from last year when Cesar was banned form “training” dogs in Germany because he failed their test:
    https://www.thedodo.com/community/dogsandethics/cesar-millan-fails-german-dog–730677947.html

    I fervently hope that Cesar (and Nat Geo) are charged and convicted of animal cruelty, which is now a felony in every state. He should be banned from going near any dogs that are not his own. I have no doubt that he loves his dogs, but the man is a menace to the canine kingdom

  14. I am a CPDT-KA ( certified professional dog trainer knowledge assessed.). Jill got it right. In cases like this we want to desensitize the dog slowly and counter condition the dog, so the object of fear is no longer stressful.

  15. Milan’s methods have been condemned for years by all the rewards based, humane, positive dog/ animal trainers we know. It is disgraceful and appalling that an abusive trainer, who, I think, has been in trouble before can continue for so long. It breaks my heart to think of the dogs who have suffered under his way of “training”. He caught on with the celebrities and there are so many people so don’t care how an animal is trained as long as there are results, even if the animal’s spirit is broken in the process. No doubt there are some animals who have learned when in his hands but there are many cases that reached the press, or those in the animal training field, of abusive methods.

  16. It was excruciating to watch the video in which Simon repeatedly harasses and attacks the pigs — excruciating even more for the pigs’ sake than for Simon’s. As for the second video: What happened to Simon in between those two sessions? He went from actively attacking pigs to being reluctant to so much as look at them. I have my suspicions, as I think does every other attentive trainer.

    I’m glad Millan’s finally getting into legal trouble as a result of his animal abuse.

    One final point: As Jill remarks in your interview, no dog who has injured or killed other animals can ever be guaranteed not to repeat the behavior. In fact, of course, this is true of any dog — proverbially, “The only dog who can be guaranteed never to bite is a dead dog.” Which is why ethical trainers don’t guarantee our results, only the quality of our methods.

  17. My thoughts on this whole fiasco have not changed over the last few days. Nat Geo has opted for ratings over quality of content once again, only this time they crossed the line. People all over the world have responded, asking for accountability in the actions of both Cesar and the executives of Nat Geo.
    I find it abhorrent that a reality TV show would find animal abuse and cruelty good television, but don’t have much hope they will “get it” anytime soon. Money trumps doing the right thing, again and again.
    At least, with this last, and most ridiculous screw up on Cesar’s part, the world is going to be watching much more closely. The word is out, the game is up. Everything Cesar does from now on will be viewed under a microscope. Hopefully, this will keep some of the more serious cruelty in check, and just maybe, the pressure will be too much, and this man will retire from TV.

  18. The feelings of the pigs should also be of concern to trainers.

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