CPT’s Perspective on the Cesar Millan Controversy

Cesar Millan, the face of National Geographic Channel’s popular Dog Whisperer program and a best selling author, has started to accumulate an increasingly large and loud throng of detractors. The critics include prominent veterinary behaviorists, trainers, ethologists, psychologists, and humane organizations, many who collectively list disparaging quotes in the noteworthy blog http://beyondcesarmillan.weebly.com. Moreover, Cesar’s deprecators have expanded beyond the domain of the internet. Mark Derr, the author of “A Dog’s History of America,” wrote a scornful article that was published in the op-ed pages of The New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/08/31/opinion/31derr.html?_r=2&oref=slogin. Furthermore, one needs to merely Google the right search words to read the opinions of a passel of antagonists scornful of Cesar personally and his behavior modification methodologies. Yet, despite the number of passionate critics, Cesar remains probably the most popular and well-known dog trainer and behaviorist in North America.

So, what is the truth? Is Cesar a profound sage or a dangerous masquerader? Is Cesar an animal lover and adroit behavioral expert who skillfully saves the lives of animals who might otherwise suffer the fate of euthanasia? Is he a television personality and author who helps millions of viewers and readers obtain more joy from their pet owning experience? Or is Cesar merely a dilettante, charlatan, and animal abuser who uses a cute personality, legerdemain, and the power of edit to misguidedly convince many pet owners of the merits of his archaic dominance-related philosophies and his erroneous perspective on dog psychology and communication? CPT will now equitably and insightfully separate fact from emotion and opinion.

The dog training community always has been and remains highly politicized and polarized. Unfortunately, many of the camps are established primarily from ego, stubbornness, emotion, personal preference, and personal philosophy, rather than objective anecdotal observation or empirically reliable research.

Cesar has consistently been highly popular with the NatGeo audience, who remain loyal in spite of the mixed reviews Cesar receives from professional dog trainers, veterinary behaviorists, and ethologists. However, Cesar’s vehement critics fail to recognize several key factors. First, on NatGeo, Cesar is principally a television personality, not a dog trainer. His number one job is to sell advertisements. The training of the animal is secondary and the most important aspect of Cesar’s training is not the methodology or the outcome, but the entertainment value. Second, simple works on television. In contrast, a more complex methodology would likely confuse viewers and a less physical, photographic or time consuming methodology would likely bore viewers. Third, there is often more than one potential solution for favorably training an animal. Fourth, the vast majority of the Dog Whisperer training outcomes are highly successful and satisfy the show’s human clients’ objectives as to the result and the humaneness of the techniques.

Many dog trainers/behaviorists love animals to excess. However, inordinate love can cause figurative blindness. Consequently, the most passionate wear rose-colored glasses when evaluating the canine species and become highly intolerant of the incompatible methods of contrasting trainers or behaviorists. They skew emphasis on the “beautiful, best friend, beloved bond, and family member” aspect of the owner-dog relationship, while ignoring or disputing the relevance of a superior-subordinate hierarchy. In the process, they prefer to train or fraudulently state they train using “purely positive” methods, while abandoning punishment from the spectrum of available behavior modification solutions or communicating falsely that they abandon punishment.

The love we share with our pets is healthy and productive. Yet, an overabundance of love combined with a deficiency in pragmatism can inhibit a proper relationship, especially when one member of the relationship is responsible for the training and development of a younger, less mature, less responsible member.

Cesar’s critics express that his purely hierarchical view of the pack social structure is outdated. To some extent we agree- the canine social structure is not exclusively and intransigently hierarchical, where the dominant figure never allows liberties to subordinates and/or where the dominant figure constantly asserts prominence over subordinates, as was described incorrectly several decades ago within multiple influential published wolf observations. Nevertheless, a hierarchy clearly exists, similarly to how it exists in the military, a corporate environment, or the home environment within a human pack structure. Moreover, within the animal kingdom, a clearly defined dominance strata is not unique to dogs. Many other animals, including lions and horses, have dominant members within their social units. Dominance helps to create order, define roles, and resolve conflicts without the inclusion of violence. A totally egalitarian social structure is less productive and efficient than a dominance-related hierarchical structure, regardless of whether we are talking about a human household, the military, a dog pack, or an interspecies household pack comprised of both humans and animals.


In many ways, the relationship we have with our pets is tantamount to the relationship we have with our children. Our children require our guidance and leadership to develop into responsible, happy, successful adults. Likewise, our dogs require our guidance and leadership to learn to urinate outdoors- not in the house, to chew designated toys- not the woodwork or furniture, to chase a ball- not cars, to stay in the yard- not the street, to sit when greeting visitors- not jump on them, and to eat designated food from a bowl- not grab food from the table. Dogs do not naturally know how to act in accordance with the preceding protocols. As a matter of fact, many of the protocols are unnatural. For instance, many dogs without being instructed otherwise would simply urinate where most convenient, would chase anything that moves and is fun to chase, and would grab any food that smells and tastes delectable.

Few would disagree that a child needs to understand that his/her parents are the dominant figures in the household. So, why are Cesar’s critics hesitant to agree that dominance is pertinent to the human-dog relationship? Maybe it is the rose-colored glasses.

Some of Cesar’s disparagers state that dominance doesn’t exist in a natural dog pack and/or that dominance theory is completely irrelevant when designing training and behavior modification programs for pet dogs, even though before Cesar became popular many of his faultfinders espoused the same theories. As communicated above, Cesar’s analysis of dominance theory and dominance applications may be in error. However, dominance exists and dominance theory is applicable when constructing comprehensive training and behavior programs.

Other antagonists who actually agree with many aspects of Cesar’s principles, but dislike Cesar or are jealous of his financial success, have begun to use semantics to get around the incongruence. They publicly communicate contempt for the words “dominance” and “dominance theory.” Yet, they acknowledge the importance of the word “leadership,” which is a relative synonym.

Let’s be real! Many times a larger physical presence, an aura that comes with greater knowledge and experience, and an innate authoritarian charisma is sufficient to communicate “leadership” to a child or pet. However, no child listens all the time and some are very stubborn a high percentage of the time, whereby they rarely listen unless a parent is more emphatically assertive. Likewise, no dog cooperates all the time and many are generally very stubborn or strong-willed, where more “dominant” communication is required to obtain reliable compliance. Furthermore, compliance may be imperative for the satisfactory long-term development of the child or dog, so that the child or dog is safe and adheres to societal protocols, whereby he/she becomes a welcome participant, rather than an ostracized misbehaving pariah.

Thus, although some dogs are highly cooperative, whereby asserting dominance is rarely necessary, the majority of dogs will lead safer, happier lives if they clearly understand that they are subordinates, not equals.  Therefore, we subscribe to many of the precepts of “dominance theory.”

However, we disagree with the magnitude of importance Cesar Millan applies to dominance theory and with some of his applications of dominance assertion. In a natural dog pack, the relationship amongst dogs is not exclusively linear and when relationships are firmly established the pack leader only rarely needs to forcefully assert his dominant status. Moreover, due to 14,000 years of selective breeding, there are some behavioral differences between wolves and domestic dogs that make it inappropriate to strictly apply wolf observations when constructing behavior modification strategies for an interspecies pack consisting of humans and domestic dogs. Furthermore, we believe that despite Cesar’s rationale that dominance issues are behind the majority of canine behavioral problems, instead the major origins of behavioral issues stem from lack of knowledge, lack of structure, lack of impulse control, lack of productive socialization, inadequate stimulation, fear, and/or insecurity.

In summary, Cesar is correct; dominance theory is applicable when constructing a comprehensive training or behavioral solution plan. However, Cesar incorrectly believes dominance issues are the principal origin of many behavioral problems and Cesar too often uses overly forceful measures (alpha rolls, scruff grabs) when more subtle leadership communication (standing, direct shoulder exposure, eye contact, low-pitched vocal modulation, and/or impulse control protocols) would be more effective and more natural in relaxing an aroused or anxious animal and/or in obtaining the compliance of a frightened, aroused, intractable, disobedient or obstreperous animal.

Wolf Showing Dominance


The second major point of contention that critics frequently cite is Cesar’s “unnecessary” use of physical punishment.

Cesar’s antagonists contend that Cesar too often incorporates punishment or avoidance training as a first option, when positive reinforcement would be more effective and more humane. When evaluating the issue, CPT believes the critics are essentially correct, Cesar should more frequently consider positive reinforcement and cognitive conditioning as a first option. However, the most vehement critics who contend that punishment is never required are also themselves incorrect.

In CPT’s opinion, legitimate “purely positive” trainers tend to inordinately emphasize humaneness and personal philosophy over goal accomplishment, pragmatism, science, and owner-client satisfaction. Moreover, many professed members of the “purely positive” group actually incorporate punishment, but call it by another name, so that they can fraudulently convince the public that they are “purely positive.”

Edward L. Thorndike, by conducting occasionally cruel experiments with cats, developed the psychological theories of instrumental conditioning. Instrumental conditioning was based on The Law of Effect, which explained that learning and behavior modification resulted from the effect variable subject responses had on the receipt of consistent consequential outcomes. When a response consistently led to a positive consequence a behavior was “stamped-in.” When a behavior consistently led to a negative consequence a behavior was “stamped out.”

B.F. Skinner extrapolated on Thorndike’s theories to develop his model of operant conditioning. Skinner explained that learning and behavior modification occurred via the relationship between a stimulus, the subject’s response, and a consistent outcome, whereby the subject learned that he had control of the outcome and consequences by performing specific responses. Skinner defined the terms positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment, and negative punishment that were the foundation of his control-based learning operant conditioning model. Skinner also noted that when teaching new behaviors, positive reinforcement was usually the most effective technique within the operant conditioning model. Alternatively, punishment was usually more effective when electing to extinguish an existing behavior. Furthermore, recent scientific studies have found that certain human or animal subjects may learn original behaviors more readily with either positive reinforcement or punishment, dependent upon whether there is a normal amount or a deficiency of the neurotransmitters acetylcholine and/or dopamine in specific areas of the subject’s brain.

In psychology, by definition, punishment is any method intended to reduce the frequency of a behavior. Punishment can be as varied as a mild verbal “Shush,” a moderate volume verbal “No”, “Quiet” or “Off,” a mild physical correction with a flat collar, a harsher pinch collar correction, a Gentle Leader correction, a scruff shake, aversive noise from an air horn or shake can, or an electronic collar stimulus. The majority of supposed “purely positive” trainers use several of the preceding punishers. They just label their actions with another name.

Thorndike and Skinner, through insightful research, found that punishment can be a valuable tool within a training or behavior modification program, depending upon whether we are trying to create a new behavior or extinguish an existing behavior.  Thus, the potential value of punishment is supported by scientific research.  Moreover, punishment is natural. Mother dogs growl at their young that bite too hard on swollen nipples or who take excess invasive liberties. Sometimes they even nip their young along the side of the muzzle, which results in a sudden yelp, but also stops undesirable behavior. Mother humans sometimes punish their children via verbal reprimands, grounding, removing privileges, or assigning laborious tasks. Scientific research and anecdotal observation tell us that punishment has been and remains a valuable behavior modification tool in both the animal and human kingdoms. Consequently, a program that is philosophically devoid of punishment is also devoid of pragmatism.


Nevertheless, when constructing a client training or behavior modification program CPT prefers to implement the first rule of the Hippocratic Oath- “Do no harm.”  Since punishment is more likely to create potentially unpleasant or exacerbating caveats than is positive reinforcement, we believe that when either may work to satisfy owner goals, we should employ positive reinforcement first, and then only incorporate punishment if a positive reinforcement program fails to meet the owner’s training objectives.  Here we believe Cesar is remiss. Too often he starts with punishment when positive reinforcement would be a superior choice. Yet, as stated above, his purely positive critics are also negligent by philosophically abandoning punishment as a viable tool. Regardless of whether we are talking about children or dogs, to achieve desired outcomes, sometimes punishment needs to enter the behavior modification equation.

The third major complaint cited by Cesar’s accusers is that Cesar is often “cruel” and “bullying.” However, the definition of “cruel” and “bullying” is subjective. What is more cruel, being purely positive with a dog that requires mixed methods to achieve behavior modification, not training it successfully, having the owner return it to the pound, and having the “humane” society euthanize the unruly or aggressive animal or temporarily using a little punishment that successfully modifies the animal’s behavior, so that it meets the owner’s objectives in a timely manner, where consequently the dog’s life is saved and it remains a member of the owner’s family? I have never observed Cesar cause undue pain or injury to an animal. On the other hand, on multiple occasions, I have observed Cesar successfully modify behavior and in the process satisfy his human clients- and even save the life of several dogs that otherwise would have been returned to a shelter. Moreover, although my contact with Cesar is limited to his television program, reading one of his books, and observing him speak in Atlanta, I believe his love for animals is genuine.  So, yes, there are times that Cesar should consider positive reinforcement as a first measure and where he could use more gentle or subtle punishment applications, but there is never a time when I have observed him patently performing outright cruel or abusive training modalities.

The fourth major criticism is that Cesar fails to incorporate modern methodologies, such as food training, clicker training, counterconditioning, desensitization, and modern equipment, such as the Gentle Leader head halter collar. On this charge we believe Cesar is guilty. Cesar should add more modern training “weaponry” to his arsenal. I have never observed Cesar incorporate any of the preceding. Yet, research and anecdotal data demonstrate that all of the above are valuable training tools. Perhaps Cesar believes he is sufficiently successful with his present methods. However, if he maintains such beliefs he is being headstrong, rather than practical. For example, top orthopedists who used old surgical techniques needed to learn arthroscopy to remain leading edge doctors. Similarly, Cesar should learn and incorporate newer training methodologies to expand his figurative toolbox, improve his overall training performance, and better satisfy clients who prefer more gentle or positive methodologies.

However, regarding many of Cesar’s critics the converse may be true. They may refuse to incorporate older “tried and true” training methods that still work and at times may be more successful than newer or more positive techniques. Each side tends to stubbornly resist logic and refuses to acknowledge salient observations that there is credence to each style of training. Rather than resisting one another and one side deriding the other, both sides should become more open to learning from one another.

At CPT, we are eclectic.  We use all the highly positive methods that Cesar’s critics employ, but we also at times use methods that Cesar exercises.  After training over 45,000 animals, we have yet to meet a single method or piece of equipment universally best for all dogs or best for any one dog throughout all behaviors or stages of training.  Therefore, we do not wish to philosophically exclude methods that in certain cases are pragmatic and successful. Optimally, trainers and behaviorists should evolve to where they logically place the accomplishment of client objectives ahead of intransigent personal philosophy and emotion. At CPT, we prefer logic and client preferences over emotion when constructing our training and behavior modification programs.

The fifth major criticism of Cesar is that he merely poses as an expert, since he lacks academic credentials that validate his knowledge and authority. In our opinion, the polemics against Cesar were commenced by a group of PhD veterinary behaviorists who became upset when Cesar received programming time from NatGeo. They believed programming instead should have been awarded to their PhD/DVM candidates who were competing for the same position. The academics arrogantly conceive that no uneducated farmer’s child from a poverty stricken neighborhood in Mexico could be as worthy as their highly credentialed candidate(s). Thus, they attacked with ad hominems. With their logic, Bill Gates should never have been allowed to run Microsoft.

In addition, the ivory towered academics miss the point.  The National Geographic Channel didn’t desire the most educated or most capable trainer.  Rather, they desired the most telegenic trainer.  From NatGeo’s perspective, Cesar’s primary role is not to train dogs- his primary role is to sell viewership and advertising.

In summary, although there are occasions where we believe Cesar should vary his training style, many of his critics are ridiculously over the top. Although CPT’s philosophy more often concurs with the training methodologies employed by Cesar’s detractors, we decline to join their mob. Objectively, there is often more than one way to successfully train a dog. Therefore, the antagonists’ vitriol and almost libelous ad hominem attacks on a divergent practitioner are inappropriate and specious. We refuse to censure Cesar or his methods when he is accomplishing his primary job of attracting viewers to the previously insignificant National Geographic Channel and there is irrefutable video evidence that his methods frequently accomplish his clients’ key training objectives.  In conjunction with CPT’s eclectic philosophy, we prefer to observe and learn from all practitioners and refuse to besmirch those that express different views- provided the persons can back up their views with a record of success, which Cesar can.  Polar methodologies can each be successful, given the condition that they are selected appropriately for the specific dog and rendered by personnel proficient in the technique.


© Copyright Mark Spivak and Comprehensive Pet Therapy, Inc., May 2010, All rights reserved.

Like us on Facebook

 Improve Your Dogs Obedience