Posted on March 13, 2016
It’s the Dog House for Cesar Millan
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?
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.
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
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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.