Dear Mr. Millan: What the hell are you doing?


Dear Mr. Millan,

I recently watched this video of you picking up dogs and swinging them around by the scruff of their necks. It doesn’t seem like you accomplish very much.

It was a reminder to me about your strong belief in using punishment. Looks like it doesn’t always work for you. That’s why I thought I’d let you know about a better way of dog training.

Before I knew anything about learning theory and behavior modification I was a fan of your show. In fact, you could even say it played a large part in inspiring me to change my professional career path at the ripe age of 26 – imagine that! I was interested in figuring out how to help owners and their dogs and your show appeared to have all the right stuff. It was on National Geographic and all, how could it possibly be promoting methods that have been scientifically proven to be ineffective and damaging?

As I began to read, attend seminars, and actually work with dogs, I started to uncover the truth about using the alpha/dominance-based theories you promote. I witnessed behavior getting worse from these techniques before my very eyes. I thought: Well, maybe Cesar just hasn’t read the memo yet.

You see, there’s this position statement on the use of dominance-based training methods that the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior released in 2009. It makes a pretty solid case for this “theory” of behavior modification to be discontinued immediately. The AVSAB is a group of veterinarians and research professionals committed to improving the quality of life of all animals and strengthening the bond between animals and their owners. Isn’t this a cause you are committed to as well? I would think this would be worth your time to read.

If you haven’t read the position statement, I’ve reposted the salient point below. It would be great if you could read it and provide educated comments so we can continue to improve the quality of life of our animals and strengthen the bond between animals and their owners. That’s what we all want, right?

Kate Senisi

Position Statement on the Use of Dominance Theory
in Behavior Modification of Animals

(Taken from the AVSAB’s full position statement)

AVSAB is concerned with the recent re-emergence of dominance theory and forcing dogs and other animals into submission as a means of preventing and correcting behavior problems. For decades, some traditional animal training has relied on dominance theory and has assumed that animals misbehave primarily because they are striving for higher rank. This idea often leads trainers to believe that force or coercion must be used to modify these undesirable behaviors.

In the last several decades, our understanding of dominance theory and of the behavior of domesticated animals and their wild counterparts has grown considerably, leading to updated views. To understand how and whether to apply dominance theory to behavior in animals, it’s imperative that one first has a basic understanding of the principles.

Definition of Dominance

Dominance is defined as a relationship between individual animals that is established by force/aggression and submission, to determine who has priority access to multiple resources such as food, preferred resting spots, and mates (Bernstein 1981; Drews 1993). A dominance-submissive relationship does not exist until one individual consistently submits or defers. In such relationships, priority access exists primarily when the more dominant individual is present to guard the resource. For instance, in a herd comprised of several bulls and many cows, the subordinate males avoid trying to mate when the dominant bull is near or they defer when the dominant bull approaches (Yin 2009). However, they will mate with females when the dominant bull is far away, separated by a barrier, or out of visual sight. By mating in this manner, subordinate bulls are not challenging the dominant bull’s rank; rather, they are using an alternate strategy for gaining access to mates.

In our relationship with our pets, priority access to resources is not the major concern. The majority of behaviors owners want to modify, such as excessive vocalization, unruly greetings, and failure to come when called, are not related to valued resources and may not even involve aggression. Rather, these behaviors occur because they have been inadvertently rewarded and because alternate appropriate behaviors have not been trained instead. Consequently, what owners really want is not to gain dominance, but to obtain the ability to influence their pets to perform behaviors willingly — which is one accepted definition of leadership (Knowles and Saxberg 1970; Yin 2009).

Applying Dominance Theory to Human-Animal Interactions Can Pose Problems

Even in the relatively few cases where aggression is related to rank, applying animal social theory and mimicking how animals would respond can pose a problem. First, it can cause one to use punishment, which may suppress aggression without addressing the underlying cause. Because fear and anxiety are common causes of aggression and other behavior problems, including those that mimic resource guarding, the use of punishment can directly exacerbate the problem by increasing the animal’s fear or anxiety (AVSAB 2007).

Second, it fails to recognize that with wild animals, dominance-submissive relationships are reinforced through warning postures and ritualistic dominance and submissive displays. If the relationship is stable, then the submissive animal defers automatically to the dominant individual. If the relationship is less stable, the dominant individual has a more aggressive personality, or the dominant individual is less confident about its ability to maintain a higher rank, continued aggressive displays occur (Yin 2007, Yin 2009.)

Despite the fact that advances in behavior research have modified our understanding of social hierarchies in wolves, many animal trainers continue to base their training methods on outdated perceptions of dominance theory.
(Refer to Myths About Dominance and Wolf Behavior as It Relates to Dogs)

• Dominance is defined as a relationship between individual animals that is established by force/aggression and submission, to determine who has priority access to multiple resources such as food, preferred resting spots, and mates (Bernstein 1981; Drews 1993). Most undesirable behaviors in our pets are not related to priority access to resources; rather, they are due to accidental rewarding of the undesirable behavior.

• The AVSAB recommends that veterinarians not refer clients to trainers or behavior consultants who coach and advocate dominance hierarchy theory and the subsequent confrontational training that follows from it.

• Instead, the AVSAB emphasizes that animal training, behavior prevention strategies, and behavior modification programs should follow the scientifically based guidelines of positive reinforcement, operant conditioning, classical conditioning, desensitization, and counter conditioning.

• The AVSAB recommends that veterinarians identify and refer clients only to trainers and behavior consultants who understand the principles of learning theory and who focus on reinforcing desirable behaviors and removing the reinforcement for undesirable behaviors.


9 Responses

  1. Me

    September 26, 2012 5:21 pm

    Bravo. I couldn’t have said it better myself. Our pets deserve better than to be treated the way that Millan says they should.

  2. Jax

    July 27, 2013 3:29 pm

    I agree with Paul L. Cesar uses “calm assertive,” not exactly dominant. yes, he is the leader, but he’s not overpowering or being aggressive to gain this position. People think the alpha roll is just rolling your dog on its back and holding it down until it calms down. It’s not. He uses it differently, but I’m not sure exactly how he uses it. Anyway, I do agree with you that the techniques he uses can be harmful. I don’t agree with pronged collars or electric ones either. However, the reason I do not hate him for it is because int he end he actually does help the dog and its family. the end result is always good, but he will never do anything to the owner’s dog that the owner is not comfortable with.

  3. May Madsen

    August 29, 2013 9:12 pm

    Well does his methods works? Also by grabbing them at the neck does not harm them, how else would their mother carry their puppies. Ok perhaps some of the things he does is not acceptable for you but what he does works. And that's all it matters. He cure dogs. That was his dream, that's why he came to america to fulfill his dream. He tried suicide when his dog daddy died. What does that tells you. His wife divorced him and he became broke because he did not pay attention about his empire. He is a dog lover 24/7 and his methods have helped both human and dogs. What does that tells you about him.


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