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New Study Finds Popular “Alpha Dog” Training Techniques Can Cause More Harm than Good

51 | Posted 3/9/09

New Study Finds Popular “Alpha Dog” Training Techniques Can Cause More Harm than Good

By Sophia Yin, DVM, MS March 9, 2009


Photo by M. Morris

"The client, an elderly couple, had a 6-year-old male, neutered Rhodesian Ridgeback that was aggressive to dogs" describes Dr. Jennie Jamtgaard, an applied animal behavior consultant and behavior instructor at Colorado State University College of Veterinary Medicine. "They had watched Dog Whisperer with Cesar Millan and seen Millan place aggressive dogs in with his group of dogs and then hold them down on their sides or back if they were aggressive. So they brought their dog to the dog park and basically flooded him [immersed him in the aggression-inducing situation]."

Not surprisingly, they didn't get far. "The female owner was trying to make the dog lie down while she stood on the leash, while all the dogs came up to hover and sniff. Her dog growled, then another dog growled back, and her dog (who probably weighed the same as she did) started to lunge and she couldn't stop it. Then she was bitten while breaking up the fight that ensued. She could not have done an alpha roll if she had wanted to, though she did lament her obvious lack of being in the 'pack leader' role."

In this case, the bite was an accident. But it's not always so.

Jamtgaard describes another case, an Australian Cattledog mix with severe aggression (lunging, growling, barking) directed at other dogs whenever they came into view, even hundreds of feet away:

"The dog was fine with people and had never been aggressive to people before this bite. The owners were Millan-watchers, and dealt with the dog in a completely punishment-based way. They thought this was what they were supposed to do, but felt uncomfortable and frustrated. They repeatedly tried to physically subdue the dog whenever it was aggressive, a technique they had done for months. They admitted to knowing things weren't improving, but didn't have other ideas. Finally, at PetSmart, the dog growled and lunged, and when the female owner—5 months pregnant at the time—tried to force the dog down, she was bitten on the arm. The bite was tooth depth punctures. That was when they called me."

Bite Incidences Come as No Surprise

Unfortunately, these bite incidences are not surprising. According to a new veterinary study published in The Journal of Applied Animal Behavior (2009), if you're aggressive to your dog, your dog will be aggressive, too.

Says Meghan Herron, DVM, lead author of the study, "Nationwide, the number-one reason why dog owners take their dog to a veterinary behaviorist is to manage aggressive behavior. Our study demonstrated that many confrontational training methods, whether staring down dogs, striking them, or intimidating them with physical manipulation, do little to correct improper behavior and can elicit aggressive responses."

Indeed, the use of such confrontational training techniques can provoke fear in the dog and lead to defensively aggressive behavior toward the person administering the aversive action.

For the study, Herron, Frances S. Shofer and Ilana R. Reisner, veterinarians with the Department of Clinical Studies at University of Pennsylvania, School of Veterinary Medicine, produced a 30-item survey for dog owners who made behavioral service appointments at Penn Vet. In the questionnaire, dog owners were asked how they had previously treated aggressive behavior, whether there was a positive, negative or neutral effect on the dogs' behavior, and whether aggressive responses resulted from the method they used. Owners were also asked where they learned of the training technique they employed. 140 surveys were completed.

Some Techniques Triggered Aggression

The highest frequency of aggression occurred in response to aversive (or punishing) interventions, even when the intervention was indirect:

• Hitting or kicking the dog (41% of owners reported aggression)
• Growling at the dog (41%)
• Forcing the dog to release an item from its mouth (38%)
• "Alpha roll" (forcing the dog onto its back and holding it down) (31%)
• "Dominance down" (forcing the dog onto its side) (29%)
• Grabbing the jowls or scruff (26%)
• Staring the dog down (staring at the dog until it looks away) (30%)
• Spraying the dog with water pistol or spray bottle (20%)
• Yelling "no" (15%)
• Forced exposure (forcibly exposing the dog to a stimulus – such as tile floors, noise or people – that frightens the dog) (12%)

In contrast, non-aversive methods resulted in much lower frequency of aggressive responses:

• Training the dog to sit for everything it wants (only 2% of owners reported aggression)
• Rewarding the dog for eye contact (2%)
• Food exchange for an item in its mouth instead of forcing the item out (6%)
• Rewarding the dog for "watch me" (0%)


Who Uses Punishment-Based Techniques?

"This study highlights the risk of dominance-based training, which has been made popular by television programs, books, and other punishment-based training advocates," says Herron.

For instance, Dog Whisperer with Cesar Millan – the popular National Geographic Channel television series – routinely demonstrates alpha rolls, dominance downs and forced exposure, and has depicted Millan restraining dogs or performing physical corrections in order to take valued possessions away from them.

And like their previous bestselling books, Divine Canine by the Monks of New Skete focuses on correcting bad behaviors using choke chain and pinch collar corrections rather than proven non-aversive techniques.

These sources attribute undesirable or aggressive behavior in dogs to the dogs striving to gain social dominance or to a lack of dominance displayed by the owner. Advocates of this theory therefore suggest owners establish an "alpha" or pack-leader role.

But veterinary behaviorists, Ph.D. behaviorists and the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) – through its position statement on The Use of Dominance Theory in Animal Behavior Modification – attribute undesirable behaviors to inadvertent rewarding of undesirable behaviors and lack of consistent rewarding of desirable behaviors.

Herron stresses, "Studies on canine aggression in the last decade have shown that canine aggression and other behavior problems are not a result of dominant behavior or the lack of the owner's 'alpha' status, but rather a result of fear (self-defense) or underlying anxiety problems. Aversive techniques can elicit an aggressive response in dogs because they can increase the fear and arousal in the dog, especially in those that are already defensive."

Owners Often Fail to See the Connection

Herron points out that, interestingly, not all owners reporting an aggressive response to a particular aversive technique felt that the training method had a negative effect on their dog's behavior. For instance, while 43% of owners who hit or kicked their dog reported aggression directed toward them as a result, only 35% of owners felt that the technique had a negative effect.

Herron explains that one reason owners may have difficulty making the connection is that aversive techniques may temporarily inhibit reactive or undesirable behaviors – so that it appears the behavior has improved – but it's not a long-term fix. In addition, owners may not have recognized non-aggressive fearful responses to the correction and may have felt the technique was indeed helpful in the particular context. However, increasing the dog's fear can also increase defensive aggression in the same or other situations.

What Methods Can Be Used Instead?

These results highlight the importance of using positive reinforcement and other non-aversive methods when working with dogs, especially dogs with a history of aggression. Indeed, such non-aversive methods, which focus on rewarding desirable behaviors and changing the dog's emotional state, work well for aggressive dogs. (See video links below for examples of positive reinforcement.)

So what about the Australian Cattledog and Rhodesian Ridgeback we met at the beginning of this post?

Says Jamtgaard about her cases, "The Australian Cattledog improved dramatically at our consultation, being calm during situations the owners had never witnessed before, such as the neighbor dogs barking at her only a few feet away. I think seeing what just a few minutes of work could accomplish by changing approach gave them the hope that it could work.

Within 4-6 weeks they began to be able to go on normal walks with her, with dogs at normal distances. I continued following up by phone with the owners every few days at first, then weekly for the first 3 months. They felt so good that they could treat her differently (more kindly). The owner now competes with her dog in weight-pulling contests and can be in close contact with other dogs they meet during contests and on the street, whereas before, the dog was reactive from over a hundred feet."

This calm behavior has continued well beyond the first months of training. Jamtgaard states, "I saw the owner 2 years after the consult, with toddler in tow, and things were continuing to go well."

"The elderly couple with the Rhodesian Ridgeback also achieved their goals in that 6-8 week range, structured similarly to the above as far as consults," says Jamtgaard. They were able to walk their dog safely and have him remain calm when they encounter other dogs. The dog can sit while they talk to the other dog owners. They do walk him on a Gentle Leader, but that helps with the safety issue of his size relative to their weight, should a situation happen. At last communication, approximately 6 months after our initial consult, things had continued to go well."

Here is an example of training an alternate behavior in order for the dog to form a positive association around other dogs.

A unique perspective on being a leader to your dog:

Related articles in the news:

REQUEST TO READERS: If you have a firsthand story of a client or have an experience yourself in which a bite or aggression occurred due to use of aversive techniques (alpha roll, forced release of item from the mouth, etc.), please share the story and include where the technique was learned—by watching TV, reading a book, or as a recommendation from a trainer or a friend.

Comments Leave a Comment

Posted by Melissa Bain, DVM, DACVB on 03/10 at 02:58 PM

We recently had a 35# mixed breed dog come into the Behavior Service at the University of California-Davis that was diagnosed with fear-related aggression. The owners, in their 60's, watched "The Dog Whisperer" on television and decided to do what Mr. Millan demonstrated on the show, namely putting the dog "into submission" on its back. The husband held the dog down in its neck area and the dog bit the man's finger so severely that he almost lost the finger. The dog's aggression escalated after that incident.
This same dog has had more improvement using basic non-confrontational techniques compared to the setbacks that he received with the use of punishment-based techniques.

Posted by Nancy Abplanalp on 03/10 at 06:42 PM

In recent years, I have been hired for many private consultations where the owners first tried aversive methods to train their aggressive dog. Most owners mentioned that they were using methods that they had seen Cesar Millan use on his television show or that they had read about in one of his books.
In each case of attempting to dominate the dog or punish the behavior, the owners were suddenly faced with a dog who either got worse or redirected aggression toward the owners. They then contacted me for professional help.
When I came for my initial consultation, I observed some common traits amongst these dogs. The dogs often offered conflicting or diminished body language signals (commonly seen amongst dogs who have been punished for growling or otherwise showing their discomfort with a situation). The dogs offered appeasement behaviors toward the person who had punished them and the dogs had serious handling problems.
Upon cessation of aversive methods, implementation of trust building exercises, and the actual retraining of the dogs, good outcomes were achieved, allowing the dogs to stay in their home and owners the ability to enjoy their companion animal.

Nancy Abplanalp

Thinking Dogs

Posted by Noa Harell, DVM on 03/11 at 11:26 AM

I had a phone call from a dog owner at least a year ago, whose son

was severely bitten by the family dog after trying to apply Millan's

techniques. The dog was a German Shepherd with aggressive behavior

toward family members (I have no diagnosis, I didn't see the dog).

The son watched Cesar Milan's show and understood that he needs to

"dominate" the dog. The dog, in return, sent the owner to the

emergency room. When the owner called me, she was debating whether

to euthanize the dog or to make an appointment with me. As she opted

not to make an appointment, she may have chosen the other option.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 03/12 at 09:50 AM

I have seen a number of owners who have used forced based techniques and been bitten. In recent years some have been following Mr. Milan's recommendations but these techniques go back years before he came along to put a new spin on them and popularize them.
One that particularly stands out is an owner who wanted to train her dog for competition was instructed by a trainer to use ear pinch technique to teach the dog to retrieve a dumbbell. (For those of you who don't know, this is a common old-school technique in which the dog is presented with the object it is to hold in its mouth. The dog's ear is then pinched, hard, until the dog opens its mouth and holds the dumbbell.) After a long day of working on this technique, the owner was severely bitten when she attempted one more training exercise. After this the owner and the trainer then switched to positive-based techniques and the dog did well enough to earn some titles in competition.

Posted by Dana Fedman, CPDT on 03/12 at 02:16 PM

Almost every client I see confesses sheepishly they realize they do not possess the "calm, assertive energy" Cesar Millan does. Therefore, they believe they will never be "Alpha" over their dog. As tempting and frustrating as it is, I try not to spend any time debunking the myths as our time together is short and precious. There are many situations I encounter where the dog has shown aggression toward its owner in response to the aversive techniques mentioned in the UPenn study, the worst of which was a woman who cornered her dog who was growling at her under a chair with a Nylabone. She was told by a friend at work who was told by another friend who was a dog trainer that growling is NEVER acceptable. She was told to "get down to the dog's level, get in his face, shake your finger at him and scold him in a loud voice, saying, 'Bad, bad dog. Mommy is the boss, Mommy is the boss.' " When the dog looked away, she stopped, got up from her crouched position to her knees. The dog launched up to her face, biting deeply and tearing a v-shaped wedge from her bottom lip and puncturing her upper lip deeply with a slight tear on her upper lip. These injuries will require multiple reconstructive surgeries to correct. I was called the day after the bite incident. The dog had been painful with handling and refused to do stairs or get up on the bed the past year. I insisted the dog be thoroughly examined by the veterinarian immediately, including a complete blood panel, physical and a neuro exam plus x-rays. This dog's thyroid was very low. She had a large calcification on an extra vertebrae in her back (forgive me if I'm not saying this right; I'm not a vet), and an old hip injury. She was on a very poor weight-loss diet. Thyroid supplementation and NSAID therapy began immediately. We gradually moved her to a better diet - not low-calorie - but not overfed as she had been. She is still in her home with their other dog. The dogs are now fed separately and food is not left out. The dogs are fed meals, there is scheduled play and training time, and the female owner who was bitten and the dog are regaining trust. It has been an excellent outcome. I'd had the dog in puppy class 7 years ago and remembered the owner, having noted on the attendance sheet that he practiced every week and the dog was becoming very well-trained. The dog did have quite a bit of training but now with the physical problems, the dog's fearfulness and exciteability, competition for resources with the other dog, and an extreme lack of exercise due to the injuries on top of a poor diet, we had a recipe for disaster.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 03/13 at 06:40 AM

I have a dog that was being trained for competition obedience. My trainers used positive reinforcement but also leash corrections for training. My dog became fear aggressive towards other dogs in close proximity. I was instructed to use more corrections for his aggression and any lack of "focus" on me. The distance in which dogs would make him react was growing at a steady rate. Against their reccomendations, I sought out a ACAAB. We have made huge strides in our sucess. He is now able to relax around dogs again, and has even begun meeting dogs without any lunging or aggressive behaviors.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 03/14 at 03:32 AM

To add: an ACAAB is an Associate Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist. One of the first things we worked on was keeping my dog's attention without "commanding" him to do so. This included giving me attention for things he wanted, getting in & out of the car , going outside , etc (of course this had nothing to do with dominance). Then we worked on when walking I would stop & back up, and he learned to turn and give me attention to continue, then we were able to do this is in small steps around other dogs before his heart rate & anxiety got to high (and of course without corrections as he would have received previously). We began working closer & closer to other dogs of people I knew, including an excerise that helped him choose to be with me instead of going after the dog. This is just a brief summary of some of things we did. I learned a lot of information and have been able to apply it in other areas of behaviors with them. I will encourage anyone- it is so much nicer to think "Teach what to do instead of teaching what not to do". He know associates other dogs with - look at mom & good things happen! The dogs enjoy it more and so do I. It has helped Chance and he has begun building his positive experiences and has even done a few "meet & greets" with dogs I know. He was not ready to romp & play- who knows if he ever will. But they sniffed & moved on without any agggressive acts & mostly without a lunge & bite. And best of all- we are having fun again, and I am not upset because I had to give him a correction for biting another dog!!! He can trust me to protect him & stand by his side instead of hurting him with leash corrections! Our relationship is trustworthy & happy again!

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 03/15 at 03:24 PM

I got my first two dogs about twenty years ago, shortly after becoming a veterinary technician. I knew nothing about how to train a dog so I took both of them to the trainer recommended by the veterinarian for whom I worked. My poodle mix had no problems but the Lhasa apso walked around in class with the long hair from his tail dragging on the ground. When we walked near other dogs with their owners, he growled. The trainer told me that was a really bad thing. So she had all the other participants in the class stand stationary and had me walk circle eights with my dog around them. Each time he growled, I was told to yank on his choke chain and yell "No!", which I dutifully did. He stopped growling. It worked. There was only one somewhat significant problem. I ended up with a dog that bit people without warning. He put my mother-in-law in the hospital.
As I started learning about dog behavior and how dogs communicate, I eventually had a big "ah ha" moment when I realized that my dog was a fearful dog and he had tried to let me know that in a number of ways. I have no doubt I missed the majority of his signals but I was aware his tail was dragging and that he was growling. He was telling me as best he could that he was uncomfortable in the situation and in response, I actually participated in flooding him with what he feared most. I still feel sick when I think about it. I did everything wrong and ended up with a dog that was labeled dangerous. This is one of the reasons I am passionate about having animal behavior added to all the veterinary technician curricula throughout the country and why I believe every animal hospital should be a place where owners can go to get good, up-to-date, science- based information on learning theory, animal behavior, and behavior modification in addition to the medical information that has always been available.

Posted by Theresa DePorter, DVM on 03/15 at 04:03 PM

How much can I write? I have many so stories of families trying to dominate their dogs; some directly with threats, choke collars, or pinning; others indirectly by avoiding petting, sleeping or interacting with their dogs. One family assured me their 7 week old baby was dominant over the family dog as they made certain the baby ate before the dog. I won't forget the man who suggested his friend pin the family rottweiler since it growled at the friend when he visited. The friend was bitten and to my surprise the friend still comes over.
Recently I saw a very anxious little dog that had always sought out the high spot up behind the couch as it's refuge from frightening events that occured. A trainer told her this dog was being dominant and used punishment to keep her off of this elevated retreat. So then when the baby crawled toward her she didn't know where to escape to so now she growled at the baby. Its been a few weeks and she is finally retreating to her preferred high haven thus she can avoid frightening events.
The greatest damage done by people thinking they need to dominate their dogs is the concomittant notion that they cannot pet, spoil or enjoy time with their pets as they are locked in a constant struggle for dominance. One woman asked me softly with shame in her eyes if I thought it was ok for her to pet her dog and she fully expected me to respond in the negative. When I assured her she could pet her dog and deprivation of attention and petting was not going to decrease her dogs territorial related aggression. The tears filled her eyes; both relief that she could actually pet her dog and sorrow for the times they had not embraced in the year before I saw her. This woman had endured chemotherapy, radiation and successfully put cancer into remission all while avoiding the comfort of embracing her dog.
Aversive dominance based training not only worsens dogs behavior, they plague the family with unecessary guilt and responsibility for their pet's poor behavior. Over time the roots of attachment, bonding and trust are eroded. These methods also require constant vigilance, tension and premptive corrections by the family. Aggressive episodes occur when people fail to be on guard 100% of the time and then they feel guilty for their failure.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 03/15 at 08:27 PM

I have seen increased aggression in numerous cases where owners have used force-based training (leash corrections, etc). What's even more dangerous and sad are those dogs that who are corrected so heavily for any warning signs that they don't give warnings anymore.
I was recently working with a 2 year-old small mixed breed that had been corrected by alpha rolling for any and all signs of aggression, on the advice of their regular veterinarian. The dog had started with a little bit of possessive aggression as a puppy, which escalated when he was alpha rolled. His owners were very consistent with the corrections and eventually the dog did not show any warning signs of aggression but would snap at the owners under various stress-provoking situations. His owners were very open to trying reward-based training, and made good strides with decreasing the dog's anxiety levels and decreasing the incidents of snapping. Eventually, however, a situation occurred where the dog bit the owner and, after much discussion, they decided to euthanize him.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 03/15 at 10:25 PM

I have a friend, a CVT, who fully believes in these methods. She has a medium mixed breed dog who is very dominant. Her and her boyfriend use these techniques and have been injured in the process. They used to just grab his muzzle then it became biting on his ear to try to control his bad behavior. In turn, they have both been bitten in the face breaking skin.
The dog is out of control and rules the house. After working with him in reward based methods, he began to pick up better habits in minutes. If they would be willing to work with positive reinforcement and negative punishment exclusively, he could learn his place and physical reprimanding would not be necessary.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 03/17 at 03:31 AM

I have a very dominante mixed breed quite large and power ful dog. She is very independent and stubborn, difficult to train, but I have always tried my best to make her a well behavied canine citizen - by use of positive reinforcement methods. Through the years she has challenged me tremendously, and I kept getting advices from other people (both dog-owners and, dog-owners and dog-trainers) to be harder with her and punish her. The few times I felt so overwhelmed and pressured that I actually did try those methods (I never hit her), I realized she just got ten times worse, and she threaten to bite me. Luckily I do have some sense, and I immediately understood where it was going, so she never had to actually bite me (she showed teeth and lunged at me), so I know not to try that again. We have a much better relationship and much more fun training by using positive reinforcement, and she has never showed aggression towards me or other people since.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 03/17 at 01:08 PM

When I first started teaching animal behavior in the veterinary technology program at a community college, I had the students train the dogs with choke collars. This was some time ago and I was using techniques from Brian Kilcommon's book. I was demonstrating how to teach 'heel' in class with my students watching and I gave a correction with the choke collar. The dog, which was quite shy and fearful, bit my hand. This was upsetting because I knew I did not want the students exposed to that type of aggression. I started looking for a different method of training right away. I started using Deborah Jones's clicker training workbook. Many years have gone by, but I have not had another animal bite me while I demonstrated how to train dogs (and cats) for my students.
In an unrelated incident, I was bitten in the face by a Weimaraner in a dog obedience class. We all had our dogs in a down stay and were walking around the dogs in a circle. This Weimaraner stood up when I walked by. I looked down at him and said 'down'. He came up and bit me in the face. This is a dog I knew for at least a year. This was the third class we had together.
All in all, I decided I would work with animals in a different way. I wanted to communicate with them and get them to behave in ways that benefited both of us. I no longer need force to do that. I have many other tools now.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 03/21 at 09:49 AM

I honestly think those people had no business owning a dog. They are way to ignorant of dog behavior to own a poodle let alone a Rhodesian mix. It's a very sad commentary. I feel for that dog. When people watch the dog whisperer they think these are techniques that they can just run out and do. They are wrong. Cesar has a very controlled environment at his psychology center. Not to mention a well trained pack. How can anyone compare what he does with what this woman did in a public dog park with dogs she does not know????? I do believe that at the beginning of every show there is a statement that reads "Do not attempt these techniques on your own, please consult a dog professional". Again, it proves my point about the lack of mental capacity of the average person.

Posted by Sophia Yin, DVM on 03/21 at 12:13 PM

Unfortunately, most dog owners are the average person. By your standards, then, most people should not have dogs. What is the point of his showing things on TV that most people cannot and should not do? People watch Jackass and mimic the crazy stunts performed on that show. So we all know that they will mimic whatever they see on T.V., especially if the "host" is going to someone's house and "instructing" the people and directing them to do these dangerous acts. Millan never says to the owners, "I'm doing this, but I never want YOU to do it because it will be too dangerous." He never says to them, "But if you're not strong enough, don't do this… don't let the kids do this." Or when he gets bitten, he doesn't say, "And even if you're as skilled as me, you could still get bitten." Every time he does an alpha roll or dominance dog or puts more pressure on the pet that is growling he's risking being bitten–but he doesn't tell owners (or viewers) that that is the risk. Unless he tells them, they won't get it. As a lecturer to upper division undergraduate science students at UC Davis, one huge fact I learned about what people take away, is that if you don't give each message in a direct manner at least 3x during that particular talk, they do not get the message.
Right now Millan's statement about "do not attempt these techniques…." is really just to cover him from liability for anything he does, the way a medical textbook or any "how-to" book at the store carrier a disclaimer of the contents in case there are 1 or 2 typos or minor errors. If Millan REALLY truly felt the techniques were not safe, too dangerous and didn't want people to do them without professional help, he would point out each time there was a risk in having the owners or people at home do it and tell them not to do it. Or he would offer alternatives that they could do.
If he offered alternatives, then the Rhodesian owners would not have learned their lesson the hard way. In their mind, they had no other option because Millan's show does not FOCUS on safer options (Mostly because Millan uses the methods he knows and the other optiosn require a new set of skills to be effective consistently). When I say other options, I meant those that don't involve holding the dog down or putting into the fight/flight situation (example Emily the pitbull from season 1 or 2: her case is on youtube—in this case he puts her into the situation where she WILL hit the red zone. He wants her to lunge and fight him–he states " This is good." BTY putting them in this situations triggers the same physiologic response you'd have if you got into a car accident and thought you were about to die–not the best frame of mind for learning). If Millan did focus on safer options at least 50% of the time AND really drill to people which things were unsafe and WHY (that they might get bitten the way he just did or could have), then the Ridgeback owner could have had a safer alternative. In fact she did find a safer alternative with Dr. Jamtgaard and is doing well with her dog now. Too bad Dr. Jamtgaard wasn't their first choice.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 03/22 at 09:30 PM

The Dog Whisperer does indeed have a disclaimer at the beginning of the show and SEVERAL times during the show that says: "Do not attempt these techniques you are about to see without consulting a professional". This recommendation appears at least 6-15 times during the hour long show. To me this appearing the number of times that it does goes without saying that the viewers should get professional help for their dogs. He is NOT saying do what I do and it will work on your dog. I have seen him change paths with a dog when he realizes what he is trying is not going to work with that dog. He also says repeatedly, in the hour, that you should be calm when correcting not frustrated or angry. Unfortunately people do get frustrated and angry with their dog on the show and most do not even realize it, even though viewers can clearly see the frustration. Once Cesar points it out and they realize what they are doing they get refocused and usually Cesar's techniques do end up working. I have seen his children on the program and he always states that whatever he is doing should not involve children.
The problem here appears to be that people watch ONE episode and automatically think they too are Cesar. Cesar is Cesar, few can do what he can do, the way he does it. I have watched almost every episode and some episodes twice and while I admit there are things I would never try, a lot of his techniques do work, but you do have to be CALM not frustrated or angry. Calmness is the key. Dogs sense your frustration or anger, but do not know why you are frustrated or angry with them they just know you are taking it out on them and they may react negatively to you being negative with them. Dogs do not know why or what they did to make you angry. They are dogs not people. Dogs do not rationalize, dogs react.
I have four resident dogs, that help me rehabilitate shelter pups/dogs. I have used a lot of what I have learned on the Dog Whisperer to turn the dogs slated for death row into happy go lucky pups that they should be. I have had dominate dogs and I have found that when I react and correct, it usually works. I do not get caught up in thinking if I do this what will the dog do, I just correct the behavior I do not want, I do not think about it, I just do it, but I am calm when I correct. So far I have not been bitten. Yes, I know I may be bitten some day. Knock on wood it won't happen, but it it does, it won't be the dog's fault. It will be because I pushed to hard. Dogs do not plot or plan to bite they just react, sometimes with teeth, but biting is not the first thing they do and if you miss the hints leading up to the bite you will get bit. Dogs do not always react negatively to corrections.
I had a shelter dog once who thought he was going to be the boss on my mini pack the very first second he came through the door. In fact the shelter had deemed him unadoptable and put him on death row because of his behavior. I corrected him three times for bossy behavior by putting him on his side and holding him there until he was calm with the claw technique that Cesar demonstrates on his show. The dog was not happy about being corrected in this manner, kicked up quite the fuss, was very vocal about it also. After three corrections he realized he was not going to be the boss and I never had another episode again. I used the same technique on a another death row dog, but it only took her once to realize her bad behavior was not going to be allowed. Both were adopted.
I have read many dog training books, watched many different dog training videos and I have found Cesar's way, at least for me does work, but you need to take into consideration your own dog and your own circumstances. I do use treat or postitive based correcting too, but it depends on the dog and the action I'm trying to correct.
The key here is PREVENTING the bad habit when the dog is a puppy. What is sooooo cute when the dog is a puppy is almost never cute when the puppy becomes a dog. Nip the behavior you do not want before it gets out of hand and you will have better dogs. Most importantly be calm and consistent and any training will hopefully work eventually.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 03/23 at 05:41 AM

I am a big fan of positive reinforcement training as I have a fear aggression rescue dog, BUT I do believe in Cesar's techniques, as they work FOR HIM and he teaches a philosophy that does have merit, about being in the moment and using energy and awareness. I agree with the above statements regarding people copying what they see on TV (which is stupid but unavoidable) and that Cesar should constantly repeat verbally the "do not do this yourself" statement.

Unfortunately I believe that there are many dangerous techniques and ineffective trainers/behaviorists in existence, and Cesar is just the most visible target right now. Watch him with the really fearful cases, the coonhound mix that had lived with the owners for years and was still afraid- all kinds of "trainers" had been contacted to help with that one and he did not flood that case- he used his brand of "dog pyschology". I feel that he does a lot of good in general - though not so much in educating the masses.

But most damning to the "profession" of dog training is the animosity shown by vets and behaviorists towards techniques other than those the individual behaviorist believes in- my philosophy about dogs includes trying whatever works for the particular dog! And I have had such bad luck with VETERINARIANS who should be better than that! Example- when I first realized that my dogs' fear aggression was worsening, at 8 months of age, barking and snapping at strangers, children, other dogs 100 feet away etc… I brought my 28 pound mutt to a veterinarian (board certified in behavior) who went over what I had been doing, which included obedience training, supervised socialization and walking in the style of Cesar Millan. Her treatment advice? "At least she's not too big."

Eventually it was my dog trainer, who has no letters after her name- who recommended Dr Dodman at Tufts and we achieved success over time.


Posted by Sophia Yin, DVM on 03/23 at 01:49 PM

I agree that veterinarians are not experts in behavior. This is the reason I spend the last 1.5 years working full time to produce a step by step book (1600 photos and 105 video clips on DVD) of low stress handling, restraint and behavior modification techniques. ( Vet, technicians, shelter workers,groomers, all need to:

1) Recognize early signs of fear (not just obvious signs, but signs that include, yawning, licking lips, panting when not hot, brows furrowed, acting sleeping (big one!) when there's no reason to be sleepy.

2) Know how to approach animals and handle them so they don't make them worse. Millan has good skills for approaching aggressive and fearful animals but he is unable to explain much of what he does because his learning is "innate." e.g. he doesn't know exactly what he does (even though it's easy to pick out) so he can't convey the steps to others. Currently the general response in hospital is to do like Millan and hold the animal down. I felt very successful at that early in my practice career but also now really lament the cases I know I made worse by not realizing that the problems was motivated by fear and treating appropriately. A few owners were also very stressed out too and rightfully so. Now that I am skilled at positive techniques I know I could have dealt with these animals faster and with a lasting POSITIVE effect (rather than one that just looked positive at the moment in many cases). Plus, imagine if they brought their kid to the pediatric dentist and the same techniques were used. (just hold him down and show how is boss).
What makes it worse is that when holding the animals down, vet,s technicians, shelter workers, etc are not even holding correctly (and neither was millan in the case of the poodle that he held still to be groomed where he ended up getting bitten). If you hold them incorrectly so they don't feel secure, then even if they are not aggressive they you can elicit aggression. I have this on video tape because in this project we taped many people handling in different ways and examined what happened when they Updated their handling style or someone else (not necessarily more experienced, but who knew the updated techniques) handled.
3) Understand how animals learn (science of learning) as well as the positives and pitfalls of each scientific category of modification (all training methods fall into these categories). As veterinarians, it's important to know the adverse effects of drugs so you can make an informed decision on whether to use it and whether it's appropriate. The same goes for behavior or any recommendations we make.

As a profession behavior is just now being taught more and more in veterinary schools.

4) Know how to actually place hands, move hands and body to support animals well, prepare hospital and animal ahead of time for a positive visit… etc.

5) prevent problems in the first place with early socialization.
Vet behaviorists and certified applied animal behaviorists are not against other ideas. They just realize that as an overall approach, dominating and punishment are not good. So it's like a veterinarian saying, yes, bloodletting is ok in specific cases, here are the criteria. Vs saying, "bloodletting and cathartics = my general approach to medicine). In fact if you read the AVSAB guidelines on the appropriate use of punishment as well as their dominance position statement ( you will see that we AVSAB isn't outright against all punishment the way some trainers (who are not educated about the science of learning) do. but we would use it way way way way way less than traditional trainers and it wouldn't be a first-line treatment as it is with Millan. For more info on where Millan's traditional training techniques and ideas originated go to and read the article on traditional trainers.
Some vets are good at behavior because it is in their curriculum now. But many need to catch up. The vet's job is really to know who to refer the client to and to recognize the problem. Unless they have a system set up in their hospital to deal with behavioral situations.
Also, regarding the behaviorist you ended up with, it's too bad that the first one did not provide enough support or was not a good fit for you. I am sure her advice was more than one sentence although maybe you didn't get a detailed written report? Your ultimate choice, Dr. Dodman is one of Millan's most outspoken and earliest opponents. He's spoken in numerous magazine and newspaper articles against Millan.
Sophia Yin, DVM

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 03/24 at 04:45 AM

Thank you Dr Yin-

The vet that was unhelpful did not give me a written report and did not believe in using medication, which was in fact what my dog needed (prozac). She did recommend continuing positive reinforcement training but seriously ended our consult with that one sentence (and I know I shut down when I heard that.)

I appreciate the time that you took to explain more about dominance techniques and Cesar Millan. I do believe that he ultimately has a care and concern for dogs and for preventing euthanasia (unfortunately now transformed into celebrity and commercialism… reminds me of Monty Roberts who seemed to start out with the best for horses in mind, but after such commercial success came across as a salesman.)
What is the sleepiness in fearful dogs all about? My puppy (and one of her siblings who developed aggression and was euthanized for biting) exhibited inappropriate sleepiness as a youngster.
I think your essays are great, thanks for all you do. I know that many veterinarians have no interest in behavior issues and would rather refer to someone else (though I'm sure that's changing) - like any specialty, there are good and bad practitioners, and jealousy, rivalry and misinformation.

Posted by Sophia Yin, DVM on 03/24 at 08:57 PM

Regarding sleepiness or lethargy as a sign of fear: Most species of animals can have inhibited behavior and act lethargic or sleeping when scared. In Low Stress Handling…. textbook and DVD I have an example of my dog Jonesy when he's scared in the car. He moves in slow motion but is hypervigilant (looking around a lot and cowering). Then I show what he's like when the car is stationary–suddenly he's wagging his tail and ears are forward and he's animated. Then I start the car again but this time after I've been having him perform tricks for treats. He performs the tricks more slowly and in a distracted manner and his tail stops wagging and his ears go out to the side. viewers in lectures can see the change immediatley, then when I turn the car off, he immediatley starts wagging his tail and becomes more animated. So, if a dog is in a situation where he should not be tired, then he should act as alert as he would at home.
Similarly you've seen cats during physical exams that just hold still. They are taken out of their carrier and they just lie still rather than exploring. Or they explore a little and then go to a corner or wall and lie still. I had a volunteer at a shelter who described the behavior of kittens she put in the kitten room. She said that her particular kittens were tired and huddled together and slept. When kittens are put in a new environment, they should want to play and explore. The fact that they just fell asleep was a clear indicator of fear.
When I taught an upper division research lab, students worked with many different types of animals in their experiments. Their biggest problem was getting the animal used to being in the experimental apparatus. For instance they might be studying the ability of chicks to learn by social learning and when they'd put them into the test area, the chicks would "fall asleep. Then when put into their regular environement theyd go back to regular activity. Similarly with rats and mice, one test for fear is called the open field test. The individual is put into a room or portion of a room. Their movement is tracked by lasers OR some poor student has to watch or watch the video after and code where they go. e.g. how much they move (there are boxes marked on the floor) in a given amount of time. Those who are more fearful move less and also tend to move around the sides of the room rather than venturing into the open.
So, sleepiness, lethargy when the animal has no reason to be tired is an important indicator of fear but probably the most commonly missed sign. Our pets may not necessarily exhibit sleepiness as a sign of fear because they are more socialized to their environment than, say, teh average chick or mouse, etc. But it's important to look for it. In my experience, dog that shut down this way are more difficult to countercondition (e.g change to a happy emotional state/e.g. by getting to play or training them to perform behaviors that earn rewards) because their too busy being shut down. I would rather work with the dog that is highly reactive and lunging and barking and snapping wildly but that does not go into the inhibited mode.

Posted by sacdogtrainer on 03/25 at 09:02 AM

We had a student in class who, unbeknown to us, had been "alpha rolling" his dog for jumping. Every time the dog jumped, the owner would grab the dog by the collar and flip him on his back.
One day in class, the dog was getting worked up and one of our instructors reached town to take his collar to hold him still - when he felt the pressure on his collar, he lept up to attack. Fortunately, the instructor was able to restrain him enough to prevent him from biting her, although he inflicted damage to her arms with his claws, which left permanent scarring. An assistant was able to quickly muzzle him with his leash, but when the muzzle came loose, the dog attacked the assistant and left two punctures in her forearm.
The only reason this dog did not injure our instructor and assistant more seriously was because of their experience and skill in handling dogs. Had the average person grabbed this dog by the collar, the injuries would likely have been more serious.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 03/29 at 07:56 PM

I have worked with many shelter dogs. I've rescued 4 dogs in the last several months who were slated as unadoptable due to aggression. Once I got them into my home I easily got them to be friendly with my dogs without being aggressive. Dogs that act aggressive, whether towards people or other dogs, at the shelter are likely acting that way because they are scared. The shelter is a scary place for dogs to be in. And when they are afraid, everyone around them looks like monsters to them. When I take these dogs home, I start by slowly introducing them to one well adjusted dog. I give them rewards around the other dog, while on leash, so that they can make a positive association. I will then allow the two to greet, but call them away after 20 seconds or so, providing more rewards. Once I feel that both dogs are comfortable, I will let them loose together, with the shelter dog dragging a leash. I do not immediately let the shelter dog loose with several other dogs who would be sniffing and investigating him. These could cause him to become more fearful and act out in an attempt to protect himself. If you were afraid of other people, would you want to be forced into a group of people who were getting in your face? Or would you rather start with one polite person while getting rewards? All of the dogs that I've taken out have been safely rehomed because they were taught to greet in an appropriate manner while making positive associations.

I took a pit bull out of the shelter a few months ago who was about to be euthanized. When she greets dogs she does not know, she becomes very tense, head held high, tail over her back, with very stiff movements. When she is taken to a dog park with a lot of dogs that she does not know, she has the same posture, but also is salivating excessively (an indication of stress, as higher ranked animals do not have increased salivation). She is NOT trying to be dominant (To see what dominance actually is, read the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) Position Statement on the Use of Dominance in Animal Behavior Modification). She is nervous and does not know how to act. After about 15 minutes with a new dog, she relaxes and plays appropriately.

As far as using the corrections because you don't have to think about what you are doing, you also wouldn't have to second guess yourself if you took time to practice positive techniques. Its easier to just hit a misbehaving child than to explain to him that what the child is doing is wrong and what he should do instead. But which method is best for the child? Which method is he going to learn the most from? Positive reinforcement is more than just giving a few treats for good behavior. You also have to deliver the treats quickly and in a manner so that the dog is looking at you, in order to maximize effectiveness. If you are a split second too late in delivering the treat, you may have just rewarded the wrong behavior (he could have done something else before you had a chance to reward him for what he had done right). You must be able to read the dog to tell what kind of reward he actually cares about. Does he care when you say, "Good Boy!" or is he just interested in the treat? After you learn the more about positive techniques for training animals (shaping behaviors, correct rate of rewarding) and practice these techniques, they soon become second nature.

Posted by Pat Miller on 04/02 at 05:26 AM

Hi Sophia,
A vet in MN at a seminar this week-end raved about your book. I believe his name is Chris Pachel - he's sitting for his vet behavior boards soon.
Thanks for this blog - it's great! There's a student at Harvard writing a paper on this subject. I gave her this blog address you may hear from her.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 05/18 at 11:23 AM

Dr Yin: Cesar Millan is not a dog trainer. He trains PEOPLE and rehabilitates dogs. PEOPLE have to be trained to handle their aggressive or fearful dogs - if they are not trained to do so, they could be bitten. Cesar teaches the people who appear on their show how to handle their dogs. HE gets the dog past the worst of it, then turns the dogs over to their owners, who have to keep up the calm, assertive behavior he's taught them. Watch more than one or two episodes, and you'll see that Cesar interacts with the owners as much as if not more than he interacts with the dogs. To repeat: Cesar is not a dog trainer. He trains PEOPLE and rehabilitates dogs.
There are written and spoken disclaimers throughout the show telling people there are many ways to teach a DOG to be happy and balanced, advising the audience to get a professional if they need help. Members of the audience who choose to ignore the disclaimers and try to do it themselves are NOT following Cesar's techniques. He, after all, is a professional.

Posted by Sophia Yin, DVM on 05/18 at 01:03 PM

Actually he IS a dog trainer, even though he calls himself a people trainer. If he were NOT a dog trainer, he wouldn't have a board-and -train facility. (which is what his facility is. He does not actually train owners as much as he thinks he does. That is, most of us know we have to modify the owner's behavior to get the dog's to behave for them; however, just telling someone to be more confident is NOT training. That would be like some tennis coach telling a player—to win you have to be more confident. Actually to win, you first need skills and technique and once you have that you can gain the confidence. So, although Millan thinks he's providing good instruction by just telling owners to be confident and giving vague recommendations (and yes his recommendations are very vague by teaching standards) he really is not.
Also, if reply to your comment about his disclaimer is in previous posts. His disclaimer is just there to protect his butt. If you're constantly showing techniques that other people should not perform, how can you be a teacher of people? He has specifically said on Steve Dales' radio show that his show is not instructional at all. He doesn't expect peopel to be able to do the techniques he does. The show is just entertainment. But when you get up and on TV and "instruct" people as to what to do, no matter what, viewers will take it as instructional.

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