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Does mimicking Cesar lead to dog bites?

Is “Dog Whisperer” Cesar Millan contributing to the number of dog bites?

That question is posed in an interesting piece by Sophia Yin in the Huffington Post, and it brings a long-simmering debate between two schools of animal trainers into the spotlight — right in the middle of National Dog Bite Prevention Week.

Yin, a veterinarian and applied animal behaviorist, cites experts as saying that “Dog Whisperer” watchers trying to mimic the dominance-based techniques Millan uses may be — as the phrase goes — asking for it.

The article includes an anecdote from Dr. Kathy Meyer, president of the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB), which is on record as opposing such techniques.

“Last year I consulted with an owner who was having trouble with his Shar-Pei becoming aggressive toward the dog-walker when on walks. The owner had no trouble with his dog on-lead outdoors, but the walker complained of escalating aggression. Upon further discussion, it was discovered that the walker claimed he was utilizing some methods demonstrated by Cesar Millan on the Dog Whisperer. Instead of walking the dog on a loose lead, he would place a choke collar high up on the dog’s neck, where it is the most painful and can shut off the airway…

“When the dog didn’t respond to a command, he would punish the dog by tightening the collar, even lifting the dog’s front feet off of the ground. As the punishment escalated, the dog began to growl, snarl, and snap at the walker. The walker even began to take a tennis racket on walks to try to subdue the dog when he became aggressive, a technique he saw on Millan’s televised show. My advice was simple. Find another dog-walker who knew how to calmly walk the dog on a loose lead and did not try to intimidate him. A new walker was introduced and the dog continues to do well, with no aggression on walks.”

The article also cites a recent study published in The Journal of Applied Animal Behavior (2009) that suggests those who take an aggressive approach with their dogs might find their dogs being aggressive too.

“Our study demonstrated that many confrontational training methods, whether staring down dogs, striking them, or intimidating them with physical manipulation such as alpha rolls, do little to correct improper behavior and can elicit aggressive responses,” said Meghan Herron, DVM, lead author of the study,

Millan routinely demonstrates alpha rolls, dominance downs and forced exposure to things that cause fear or aggression, Yin notes.

Millan and others who support the dominance approach attribute undesirable or aggressive behavior in dogs to the dog’s striving to gain social dominance. They advocate owners establish themselves as “pack leader.”

The AVSAB, meanwhile, believes undesirable behaviors in dogs are most frequently due to owners inadvertent rewarding them, and a lack of consistent rewarding of desirable behaviors.


Comment from Shaamex
Time May 20, 2009 at 11:26 am

I am still surprised at how much information and nuance is missed when someone watches Cesar Millan. If he does one thing he is doing many other things at the same time.And in most articles written that disagree with Cesar or Cesar’s methods because sometimes the difference is not clear, they usually hone in on one thing to the exclusion of others. Walking the dog for instance, the person clearly saying they used some of the methods learned from Cesar, but did they apply the calm side of the application. Did they breathe,did they become frustrated or have a little bit of anger when the dog didn’t respond? If you watch the show it has the suggestion of finding your own professional trainer so if you can learn some of Cesar’s methods you can maybe admit when you need a professional to move the process along. We can learn how to prepare food from a cooking show, so its not a leap to learn some training tips. I never blame Rachel Ray if I get burnt in my kitchen.

Comment from Annie
Time May 20, 2009 at 12:29 pm

There’s a HUGE difference between domination behaviors and aggressive behaviors when dealing with dogs – that dog walker was being aggressive, not dominant, I’d have tried to bite him, too, if he’d done that to me, he didn’t know what he was doing, or fully understand the dominance and behavior techniques Ceasar Milan uses. Milan uses domination techniques when appropriate and in appropriate doses, and tailors his techniques for individual dogs. Anyone who isn’t WELL versed in using such techniques with a wide variety of dog breeds and personalities is, indeed, inviting trouble. That doesn’t mean these techniques don’t have their place, right alongside reward-based training techniques. Depending on each dog’s individual needs and issues, both techniques can be utilized together in varying degrees.

Comment from CJ Anderson
Time May 20, 2009 at 1:06 pm

Thank you for this opportunity to respond with my success using Cesar Millan’s solutions.. Many challenges occur when communicating a jargon specific language to those who are outside the culture’s context and symbols which are being communicated about. The errors in this article come from this position, from people who inappropriately/ inaccurately try to apply what they believe to be “Cesar’s way” or who have not studied nor successfully utilized those applications to rehabilitate dogs, destined to be abandoned to shelters or euthanized for their problems.

My favorite teaching example is the word “bike”.
What picture just flashed into your head? A bicycle? A motorcycle? What if what I was communicating was an exercise bike? We all think that we are speaking the same language, symbols, context and culture.

Many professionals ignore these facts, to present Cesar in a negative light, in my experience. Cesar’s own approach/concern: “ALL ways are good, that do not harm the dog”. This encourages people to first apply the most gentle solutions. . He encourages people to correctly assess their level of knowledge/skill to handle the problem safely, effectively, then “seek professional help” for both safety and jumpstart change.

On my youtube.com/cjanderson site, are many of the over 40 last chance rescue dogs brought to me, (overweight, 55 year old college teacher) to help change problem behaviors or face being euthanized.. Public archives of my Dog Whisperer Fan 3,000+ member email list, have success stories about how Cesar’s solutions were appropriately applied.

Comment from Suzie
Time May 20, 2009 at 1:25 pm

Hi, Since following Cesar’s Way of being the Pack Leader my own dogs have become balanced contented canines, all 14 of them who live with me in the home!

I have seen real dogs in a pack correct eachother, they do use their mouth to hold down another but they do not use this way with aggression or cause harm, it is merely a way to correct another. I also see dogs volunteer submission by rolling over to a higher ranked dog. This is what dogs do it is not punishment that is a humanised way!.

The problem as I see it is when people try to copy professional methods without the skill/training and the right energy, most I find who do this are angry or frustrated, not calm assertive like Cesar is. So the results of mis-use of any method would be much different from professionally/correctly applied and can indeed escalate aggression – mis-use a method and it can go wrong even positive reinforcement! Another problem is that people mis-diagnose their dogs so then any method may cause escalation! The DW show clearly states to consult a professional.

Cesar saves many dogs who others will not help, inspired by Cesar’s Way so do I now and I have success here in the UK with leadership and rehabilitation methods, so long as the people are correctly trained any method that does not harm the dog is good.

14 dogs here are proof, 3 were redzone cases now successfully rehabilitated, they respect me, trust and love too, We are a pack who follow Cesar’s Way, Cesar has my 100% support both personally and professionally.

Comment from Anne’n’Spencer
Time May 20, 2009 at 2:35 pm

Hmm. I’ve been thinking about this because I’m a fan of the show, though not necessarily of all the methods. I’m also not a professional dog trainer, though I can boast of a succession of reasonably well behaved, happy dogs.

Cesar Millan clearly states on every show, “I rehabilitate dogs. I train people.” I think that’s the crux of the matter. People watch his methods and decide to apply them, never dreaming that they may be a large part of whatever problem exists with the dog. People with big egos and small brains may decide to establish themselves as the dominant member of the pair, never realizing that this requires them to change their attitudes as well as their dogs’ external behavior.

Leaving the more spectacular “redzone” cases out of it, a lot of what he says is just common sense: Take a walk with your dog every day. Try to appreciate that it’s a dog, not a human in a dog suit. Be decisive, calm, prompt, and above all consistent in correcting undesirable behaviors. Try to establish a mental and spiritual connection with your dog.

I think in some odd way, Cesar Millan gets a bad name in the same way the “large, aggressive” breeds he favors have a bad name. In some cases, genuine idiots with ego problems gravitate to the Rottweilers and Pits of the world–with results that spell disaster for the dogs. In the same way, the same idiots with ego problems will latch on to the “alpha male” thing and steadily ignore the rest of the good advice.

Comment from Joanne
Time May 20, 2009 at 2:40 pm

I too have had success using Cesar’s methods with my own dogs and 180+ fosters over the years. His methods have worked on every problem behavior I have worked with from slippery floors, to aggression and fear of fireworks. I have never been bitten and have never had a dog become more aggressive – just the opposite.

Cesar never “punishes” a dog and explains the difference between “punishment” and a calm “correction” or “redirection” in most of his shows. He did use a tennis racket simply to block an aggressive dog’s bites on his shows – wouldn’t we all use something? He did not subdue a dog with it so this dog walker was clearly NOT using Cesar’s methods. Cesar teaches calm assertive leadership and tells people that their anger or frustration is likely to make the dog worse like it did in the case of this dog walker. You have to earn a dog’s respect and be its leader before you work on problem behaviors.

I have a very prey aggressive dog that I am working with now using Cesar’s methods. The only way to introduce her to another small dog or animal is to lay her down and wait for her to be calm. I don’t alpha roll her, I just lay her down like a vet would to do for an examination and ask her to stay there. I don’t even hold her down and just correct if she tries to get up. Once she is totally calm I can introduce a small dog to her and help her stay calm during the process. She could not stay calm when in a standing position but can easily stay calm when laying down. After getting used to the dog in a laying position she can be introduced to the same dog in a standing position and can maintain the same calm behavior. This HELPS her be successful and is not a punishment or upsetting to her in any way. Laying a dog down is a valuable tool that I learned from Cesar when working with extremely prey driven dogs. It WORKS and makes it easier for the dog! I don’t get bitten and can teach a dog how to control itself around small dogs and other animals so they are adoptable and able to be out in public.

When Cesar gets bitten on his shows he always says it is because he made a mistake – not the dog. There is so much good information on Cesar’s shows that I will continue to watch and learn. If at some point I do get bitten it won’t be Cesar’s fault it will be because I made a mistake or chose not to hire a professional like all of Cesar’s shows recommend.

I have 3 wonderful well behaved dogs because of Cesar’s methods. They are loving and happy and fulfilled as dogs. I have had 180+ fosters that are the same. There is a book out with a follow up on the dogs that Cesar worked with on his shows. Having access to watch Cesar, has given me the knowledge to help many dogs that would not have had a chance otherwise.

Comment from Carolyn
Time May 20, 2009 at 5:46 pm

A problem I see with your information is the term “aggressive”. Cesar is not “aggressive” with the dogs. Aggression denotes anger/frustration. Cesar insists that one needs to be calm and assertive – not reacting or acting in anger. That is key. If you act in anger, you may very well get bit. He helps the humans that he works with to achieve this. He tells them to breathe…. to think of a positive time…. to relate to someone with calm confidence…. etc.

It’s unfortunate that there are trainers out there that are misinformed about what Cesar is doing (or not doing).

Thanks for the chance to respond!

Comment from Kaelinda
Time May 20, 2009 at 5:50 pm

Cesar is not a dog trainer. He DOES train people, though. He rehabilitates dogs. He uses only as much energy as the dog requires, matching (not exceeding) the dog’s energy.

My own two dogs have been raised Cesar’s Way. I got one of them as a rescue with a lot of problems – she was super-aggressive toward other dogs and toward people, she barked almost constantly, she was food possessive, and she didn’t know how to walk on a lead. It didn’t take long to correct her behaviors, Cesar’s Way, and she’s a much happier, more balanced dog for it. My other dog was acquired as a baby – he’s always been well behaved. Cesar’s Way works. And it doesn’t hurt the dog, either short term or long term.

Comment from Simon
Time May 20, 2009 at 6:07 pm

I have to agree with CJ. I have read Dr Dunbars criticism of Caesar and I have watched the Dunbar video’s and I see very little difference. Dunbar is a trainer and Caesar really does not spend much time teaching basic sit, stay etc. The basics of both are consistency, calmness, patience, and focus. I cannot see the controversy.

Comment from Indy Rich
Time May 20, 2009 at 10:37 pm

I want to thank you for this opportunity to ask this question from your blog quote: “The AVSAB, meanwhile, believes undesirable behaviors in dogs are most frequently due to owners inadvertent rewarding them, and a lack of consistent rewarding of desirable behaviors.”

My question is since when does political correctness favor “ignorance” by an inadvertent reward… you guys are kidding right? A human mindset as “inadvertent” reward to an undesirable dog’s behavior? People have for centuries been serious mauled by that conclusion. “Knowing” how to be a calm & assertive pack leader works especially when you leave out the inadvertent part…
This selective-ism by the AVSAB concerning Cesar’s-way tells me that not only has our education system failed those AVSAB members but a refresher course must be in the offering to re-establish what the Zen Master’s have taught for over 10,000 years. You are what you attract… Be a Calm & Assertive pack leader your dog will understand… nothing inadvertent about it..

Indy Rich
QiGong & Meditation Master
PS: remember our dogs can learn through your energy either good or bad, for they don’t have American Idol to follow…

Comment from Kevin Myers
Time May 21, 2009 at 11:33 am

The position of Dr Yin and the AVSAB are valid. Especially when you consider that many people do not have the ability to be a strong assertive pack leader without crossing over to anger and aggression themselves.

Being calm and “confident” around animals is always the best way to interact with them. Calmness and confidence are easily read in body language which is the natural language of dogs. But when someone who is not calm and confident, tries to employ the methods promulgated by Caesar, can anyone really be surprised that a dog would bite in reaction? There is a difference between fear based aggression and aggression based on dominance. Treating them the same is an invitation to be bitten or worse.

I think we have a responsibility as the “more intelligent” species to use humane, positive, reward based training as our preferred method of behavior modification for our dogs. I admit that Caesar’s way, does work for some dogs and owners, but I would argue that for most there is a better way. One that is safer and more humane for both dogs and humans.

Comment from Sue C
Time May 21, 2009 at 2:43 pm

Kudos to all of you who have successfully used Cesar’s methods with your dogs.

But, as a professional trainer, I can tell you that the vast majority of dog owners who have problem dogs HAVE gotten in that position be “inadvertantly” rewarding or allowing the dog to be rewarded by the wrong behavior.

The posts here would suggest that those of you who have written are good students of both dog and human behavior – you can read “doggie” signs and you understand the nuances of Cesar’s preaching about calm assertive energy.

But, the everyday dog owner that I see, can not read the dog, they have escalated aggression by “trying” to mimic the corrections that they see Cesar using. And they are using corrections out of anger and frustration.

They are getting bit!

There is a reason that NatGeo runs the “don’t try this at home” disclaimer! This stuff can be dangerous to dogs and to people. (BTW, that disclaimer didn’t work for Jackass and it doesn’t work for Cesar – dummies will try it anyway.)

I don’t use Cesar’s methods, I prefer to look to scientifically based methods of behavior modification. These too work and have much less chance of getting my clients bitten.

Comment from Shaamex
Time May 21, 2009 at 11:41 pm

Maybe there is a way for people to learn to apply Cesar’s methods properly so “Dummies” don’t get bit. It would probably be easier that getting the oh so scientific crowd dissing Cesar to understand he is no more at fault for others behavior than is Martha Stewart is if someone gets burned in their kitchen for trying out her recipes.

Comment from Jackie
Time May 23, 2009 at 11:23 pm

I agree that many people who watch Cesar Millan don’t always get the whole picture of what he does and either try his techniques in the wrong way or else see him as punishing or hurting the dog. Both these perceptions are wrong. Cesar is a total package — technique, philosophy and energy projection all form a total enrivonment in which he rehabilitates dogs. I am happy to hear others point out the Rachel Ray or Martha Stewart comparisons — truly, we can learn things on television but we need to know what we’re doing and WHY we do it before we “try it at home.” And Cesar does recommend that people seek professional help to rehabilitate their dogs. He also is quick to recommend many methods of training or behavioral rehabilitation, including clicker training, positive reinforcement and specialty training for dogs — such as agility or retrieval training. Cesar is a multi-purpose, holistic dog psychologist. He is not a scientist nor is he a trainer. I have seen him use massage, reward-based techniques, and even call in an acupuncturist for a dog that needed it.

I am sorry to see respected dog professionals write him off so casually. It is because of Cesar that I got up enough personal courage to volunteer at our local animal shelter — which uses positive, reward based training ONLY, by the way. Now I am involved in walking and socializing dogs, socializing and feeding cats, playing with puppies, taking photos for the shelter website and will soon begin adoption counseling and I hope to be able soon to foster elderly dogs. Watching Cesar has helped me cultivate the calm assertiveness to believe that I can do all this despite the fact that I am almost 60, have some mobility and weight problems and suffer from depression and anxiety.

I have a Plott Hound who we rescued when she was starving and near death. She had severe food aggression due to her desperation around resources. Using some of Cesar’s techniques (before we even knew about him and after as well), we have helped Eve overcome her food aggression and learn to live with five cats — as a hound, she would normally consider them as prey. Now they are her “pack” — albeit they have some language and communication barriers to overcome. But our household has profited immensely from Cesar.

Comment from Cathy Bagnera
Time June 16, 2009 at 3:58 pm

Well everyone, I have been training dogs privately at the owners home since 1977. I’m at their house for 8 weeks and visit twice a week and I wouldn’t do it any other way. If I had my choice between the lady in England and Cesar I would pick Cesar. I like Cesar train of thinking most of the time but I don’t like the fact that he puts his hands on the dog even the slightest because the hand has to be a good association with the dog not a bad. I can tell all you one thing, no matter what problem you are having with your dog, I don’t care what it is, once you go through formal dog training, one on one as I do it, 99.9% of their problems go away all by themselves. Why? Because once you go through formal training, not at some group training, etc., one on one with a trainer who knows what they are doing (that’s another area), the dog becomes a much more confident dog, happier dog, his entire personality changes and most of his old habits will disappear. Now people, listen up, there is no such thing as a licensed dog trainer. No state licenses a dog trainer. Trainers can be certified through some organization, but don’t let that fool you that doesn’t mean they know what they are doing. Just to show you, I contacted a trainer close by me who I don’t know who went and spent $4000! To become a dog trainer at some fancy school in Texas. I told her I would like to send her some aggressive dogs because I don’t handle aggressive dogs and would she like them as I get them. She said yes. Then I asked her if I could give her some questions to answer so I can feel comfortable knowing she knows what she is doing before I send her anybody. She said sure. I sent her 5 basic questions, situations, and I never heard back from her. So much for spending $4000 and getting certified at some fancy dog training facility. So beware and use your gut feelings with dealing with a so-called dog trainer. Not all dogs are handled or trained the same way with the same problem, they are all individualized. But again, if you don’t find the correct dog trainer no your problems won’t go away. When you get your dog trained make sure your dog gets trained and your not only paying for lessons and getting nothing out of it. Any questions! Feel free to send me an email.

Comment from S. Musial
Time July 16, 2009 at 2:31 am

This is one of the many poor articles I have seen written about Cesar. I have seen countless vet’s on the show not know anything about dog behavior. Then stating that someone watched an episode and it did not work for them when Cesar has 40 years of experience is crazy.
If there is a better trainer out there, why have they not ever become known? Look at how many dogs including Pit Bull trained fighters, that he saved. When someone has those amounts of “saves” on their chest, then I will listen to the babble of any negative press towards Cesar.
His love for dogs, his family, and, people are very evident.

Comment from Kristy
Time December 4, 2010 at 3:04 pm

I have to say the criticisim of Cesar sound more like sour grapes than anything else. People get a dog and expect it to act like their furrychild! Dogs need to know what is expected of them and have a direction or purpose to be healthy mentaly.The negitive comments from so called professional Vets and Trainers is irrresponsable,because if people treated their dog correctly, trainers would not be nesesary. EVERY issue Ive seen Cesar deal with is generated from the behavior of the owner. Its a dog not a furry child, yes love it but give it direction and porpose too.

Comment from Mario
Time May 20, 2011 at 7:44 pm

Everybody who watched AND understand The Dog Whisperer already knows what the walking guy did wrong.
Alas, I meet a lot of people who watch the show all the time and don’t get it. They still try to apply human psychology on animals and see their dogs as human. The same people try then to explain other people what they do wrong with their dogs. The warning not to try this at home should be extended with ‘if you can’t listen or have learning disabilities’.
I rehabilitated a so called problem dog within very short time and she is the most popular dog in my area. All this after reading and understanding Cesar’s books.
To the sour critiques I just can say this: Cesar has video proof of hundreds of dogs he rehabilitated. How many dogs did you fix?
An old teacher of mine always said: Shut up until you know what you’re talking about.

Comment from Sylvia
Time November 17, 2011 at 7:40 pm

‘Shut up until you know what you’re talking about’ y say to you Mario. César Millan is completely overpast and you who defend him don’t know nothing about canine behavior.