I recently wrote a post featuring a video of clips of Cesar Millan kicking dogs on his Dog Whisperer show. These were not outtakes; they were carefully sliced together pieces from the National Geographic Channel program, made by someone who spent many hours watching The Dog Whisperer–which is a difficult thing for many people to do.
After I posted the video on The Huffington Post, the National Geographic Channel claimed copyright infringement and asked YouTube to take it down.
In looking to find something else to demonstrate the unnecessary harshness of Millan’s techniques, I found this 2009 news clip from Seattle’s Komo 4 News. It doesn’t show kicking; it does show a whole host of other methods of dog torture.
This excellent segment quotes Washington University professor of animal behavior, Dr. James Ha:
“What Cesar Millan is doing is creating something called ‘Learned helplessness.’ They’ll become aggressive towards someone else. Maybe to other people. Maybe the cats in the house. They’ll redirect the behavior….It’s a ticking time bomb.”
Redirecting behavior is something common in stressed dogs. It’s common in stressed humans too; unlike what Millan suggests, I believe we have behavior patterns that are the same in many more ways than they are different. In people, redirected behavior usually results in some kind of release of energy that doesn’t actually have anything to do with the thing that’s bothering you. It’s displacement. Like punching a wall because you learn your partner is cheating on you, or yelling at your boss when you’re really mad at your sister. Don’t you know that precise feeling? We can’t get into a dog’s brain to see what’s going on, but our best guess is that this is roughly what is happening when a dog gets anxious about another dog approaching and then turns around and bites his owner (which is what happens in this video around 1:12–and in several episodes of The Dog Whisperer that I’ve watched–squintingly).
I don’t know Dr. Ha. Never heard of him before. Still, I trust him more than I trust Millan. One of these men is a doctor who uses science. He had to pass some kind of exams at some point. At the very least, he’s read some books. The other is a personality who instructs people using “the knowledge [he] was born with.” Because he was communing with dogs while in the womb.
As a professor, I’m guessing that Dr. Ha doesn’t make it his job to regularly film dogs biting people, let alone inciting them to bite by orchestrating situations where animals are pushed to their limits. I feel it’s a dog trainer’s duty to make people more safe, not less. That means encouraging only the best behaviors. I don’t want a demo of all the terrible things your dog does–I’ll take your word for it. Biting (like jumping, barking, counter surfing and a million other common issues) is self-reinforcing to a dog; every time he does it is one more time he’s being rewarded for that behavior. As a dog trainer, I don’t want to ever encourage biting. This means working to set up an animal for success, not failure.
But, on The Dog Whisperer, everything is stacked against the dogs: Millan puts animals in what’s already a stressful situation (like in this video, putting an excited dog in a room with a cat), and then he adds even more stressors: cameras and camera people, producers, an audio crew, and lights. Hell, there’s probably even a craft services table in the room. All things the dog has probably never encountered before. Then, instead of acclimating them to the situation, he straps a shock collar onto their necks.
Hey, we all participate in some form of animal abuse. I’d argue that most of us support a system that does far worse things to chickens and cows than Millan ever does to a dog. Yes, I wish we lived in a world without suffering. But, uh, where does one start? In my moral schema, I’d at least rather an animal suffer (out of my sight) for the sake of a yummy omelet than have one getting publicly tortured for the sake of cable entertainment falsely billed as educational material. Especially when kinder, more effective ways of training are so accessible and effective.
What does Millan have to say to those who suggest his methods are cruel?
“It’s their opinion,” he replies in this video when the reporter asks him about The American Humane Association’s accusation that he is suffocating dogs when he wraps a tether around their necks and then lifting them off the ground (which can be seen in parts in this video, starting around at 1:28). A dog is either breathing or not breathing–where is the opinion there? The dog had no comment on the matter. Because he was being hanged by his neck.
He also says: ”I always say my way is not the only way. It’s just a way.”