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Study blasts training methods like Millan’s

The debate raging here on ohmidog! — and in the rest of the world, too — just had a little more fuel thrown on it: A new British study says dominance-based dog training techniques such as those espoused by Cesar Millan are a waste of time and may make dogs more aggressive.

Researchers from the University of Bristol’s Department of Clinical Veterinary Sciences, after studying dogs for six months, conclude that, contrary to popular belief, dogs are not trying to assert their dominance over their canine or human “pack” and aren’t motivated by maintaining their place in the pecking order.

One of the scientists behind the study, Dr. Rachel Casey, in an interview with ABC News, said the blanket assumption that every dog is motivated by some innate desire to control people or other dogs is “frankly ridiculous.”

Casey said that methods such as instructing owners to eat before their dogs or go through doors first will not influence a dog’s perception of the relationship; it only teaches them what to expect in certain situations.

They recommend against dominance techniques such as pinning a dog to the floor, grabbing its jowls or using loud noises to correct behavior. Instead, they recommend using rewards for good behavior.

“We very often see dogs which have learned to show aggression to avoid anticipated punishment,” said Casey. “Owners are often horrified when we explain that their dog is terrified of them, and is showing aggression because of the techniques they have used, but it’s not their fault when they have been advised to do so, or watched unqualified ‘behaviorists’ recommending such techniques on TV.”

If that sounds like a slight to “The Dog Whisperer” Cesar Millan, that’s probably because it was.

Casey told ABC News that “pack leader” techniques’ like Millan’s are counterproductive. “We feel techniques like these compromises the dogs welfare and could make a dogs behavior worse by increasing fear and anxiety. We really wanted to get the message out there please don’t use these sorts of techniques on your dog.”

Not everyone would agree with the study’s findings, as a look at the comments on our earlier piece will show you.

Dog behaviorist Rawlinson told ABC News that while he agrees in part with the study he disagrees that dogs do not show dominate behavior. Rawlinson said that academics are slow to suggest alternatives usually because they don’t know any. And many dog trainers, he added, are “one-trick ponies” who haven’t kept up with changes in the field. 

“The problem with the people who advocate the Alpha and rank reduction route, is either they do not understand or they choose to ignore the fact that behavioral problems in dogs often have wide and differing backgrounds,” he said. “Pack dynamics only involves approximately 15 percent of the cases that I have to treat.”


Comment from Lisa
Time May 22, 2009 at 7:08 pm

I am not a dog trainer, and my experiences are pretty limited to my experiences with my own dogs. So take me with a grain of salt.

However, based on those limited experiences, I think that the biggest problem with dog training is a common one–people want easy solutions. The dogs I’ve trained have mostly been my own dogs, and training them has always been a pretty individualized process. I base what I do on my knowledge of my individual dog–quirks, mannerisms, motivations, fears, etc.–rather than a simplistic, universal theory.

Every dog I’ve known has been a lot more complicated than a simple dominance-submission equation or innocent selfishness theory.

I think it’s possible to gain insight from a lot of different theories of dog training, but for me, anyway, the key has always been knowing my individual dogs. But that doesn’t have the simple, formulaic appeal of most popular dog training solutions.

Comment from Shaamex
Time May 23, 2009 at 9:01 am

The study is just that, a study. The oppinons are just that , and what works is what works. I have never seen a more individual approach than what Cesar Millan takes. Its tailored to what that dog needs and what the owners should do to help that dog. And dogs do try to rule the house just because some people can’t see it at first doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. Somebody out there is stepping up their fear that Cesar is effective, but its too late he’s starting on season six. Popularity isn’t always bad.

Comment from James Webster
Time May 24, 2009 at 8:07 am

I don’t know where you have been Rawlinson “said that academics are slow to suggest alternatives usually because they don’t know any.” You didn’t read C.W. Meisterfeld. He was saying dominant training caused dog behavior problems since before 1989

Comment from NJS
Time May 24, 2009 at 5:53 pm

Study or not, Cesar has saved many dogs from euthanasia and are happy, well adjusted family pets. I don’t understand why people think Cesar is abusive? Abuse is putting a dog capable of rehabilitation to death in my opinion.