Experts Say Dominance-Based Dog Training Techniques Made Popular By TV Can Contribute to Bites

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By Dr.Sophia Yin, DVM, CAAB, M.S. Animal Science (1966-2014)


As Dog Bite Prevention week is being recognized across the United States, experts agree that one of the contributing factors to the 4.7 million dog bites that occur each year may be owners mimicking what they see on T.V.

Dr. Jennie Jamtgaard, an applied animal behavior consultant and behavior instructor at Colorado State University College of Veterinary Medicine gives an example:

“I saw an Australian Cattle Dog 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. The owners watched the Dog Whisperer with Cesar Millan regularly and dealt with the dog in a completely punishment-based way. They repeatedly tried to physically subdue the dog whenever it was aggressive. Finally, at PetSmart, the dog growled and lunged, and when the female owner tried to force the dog down, she was bitten on the arm. That was when they called me.”

Dr. Kathy Meyer, president of the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB), describes a case she saw.

“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.”

Dr. John Ciribassi, past-president of the AVSAB, explains why punishment can cause aggression.

“A typical scenario is a client with a 3 year old dog who has presented because of aggression directed at strangers that the dog meets either on walks or when guests come to the home. Initially the dog barks at people as they pass and backs away if approached, indicating that the aggression is due to fear. The owner is referred to a trainer or watches a show that demonstrates the use of choke chain or pinch collar and verbal or physical corrections. Because the dog now feels pain when it encounters the person it fears, the aggression escalates. As a result, now the dog lunges, snaps, and bites in situations where it used to bark and back away. In some cases the dog is so aroused it learns to redirect its aggression towards humans.”

Bite Incidences Come as No Surprise

Unfortunately, these bite incidences are not surprising. According to a recent 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, “Our study demonstrated that many confrontational training methods, whether staring down dogs, striking them, or intimidating them with physical manipulation such as alpha rolls [holding dogs on their back], do little to correct improper behavior and can elicit aggressive responses.”

These techniques are pervasive in many T.V. shows and some popular books. For instance, The Dog Whisperer with Cesar Millan routinely uses alpha rolls, dominance downs, and forced exposure to things that cause fear or aggression, 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 dog’s 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 according to the AVSAB position statement on The Use of Dominance Theory in Animal Behavior Modification, undesirable behaviors are most frequently due to inadvertent rewarding of undesirable behaviors and lack of consistent rewarding of desirable behaviors.

Herron adds, “Studies on canine aggression in the last decade have shown that canine aggression and other behavior problems are more frequently 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.” Indeed the AVSAB position statement and guidelines on the Use of Punishment in Animal Behavior Modification backs her up.

What Methods Can Be Used Instead?

Says E. Kathy Meyer, AVSAB president, ” Behavior modification and training should focus on the scientifically sound approach of reinforcing desirable behaviors such as focusing on the owner and removing rewards for undesirable behaviors.”

She emphasizes that modification also involves changing the dog’s underlying emotional state. This combination of scientifically proven non-confrontational techniques works well for aggressive dogs. (See video 1 and video 2.)

So what about the Australian Cattle Dog we met at the beginning of this post?

Says Jamtgaard about her case, “The Australian Cattle Dog 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. They feel so good that they can 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.”

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17 responses to “Experts Say Dominance-Based Dog Training Techniques Made Popular By TV Can Contribute to Bites

  1. So true. At last we are beginning to have research to back up what many pet owners have believed… and

  2. As I have posted before – correction (mixed) training was making my fear aggressive (to other dogs) dog worse- and now with positive reinforcement we have made great strides and both can be happy, calm, and relaxed around strange dogs again. However, as a vet tech – I have found that some owners just don’t want to hear “it”. Either they are using “Cesar’s way” or just don’t care and “just muzzle her”… I have heard more than once. I tend to be the one that both of the vets I work with come to get for the “aggressive” pet. I have tried to get them more interested in behavior, (as well as the other techs I work with). Any suggestions would be great. They tend to have the “just get Lisa” approach for the animals. I have done a few telecourses that the owner of the clinic even paid for, but I have had little success getting any enthusiam for everyone learning more. I do not think the vet/owner of the clinic sees helping the pet thru the visit as the big deal -that I do. I know I help the fearful pet with a lot of things mentioned. But- how do I get others to want to learn to do the same. We have a certified tech (which I am not – but have been in field 20+yrs), who still comes at dogs standing (she is also very tall) hand held out and approaches them, as I am sitting sideways throwing treatsm, and not making eye contact… My own experience with my dog made me WANT to know even more than I had learned prior (as an AKC competition competitor)….HOW do I get others to really want to know- and I guess – Is that even possible…. Thanks

  3. People often don’t know the difference between leadership and dominance. My favorite book on the subject is “Life Lessons from a Ranch Horse” by Mark Rashid.

  4. I agree that many who follow Cesar think they are demonstrating leadership when in fact they are only being dominant with their dogs. I once believed in the alpha theory, but no longer. Thank you for bringing much-needed attention to rewards-based training!

  5. “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” If you follow Cesar’s methods, he DOES NOT walk on a tight leash. On the contrary he always says walk on a loose leash. It is also stated at the beginning of each and every show to not try the methods without a professional dog trainer. So people who think the are calm and are actually trying to use Cesars methods with negative energy will absolutely get negative effects. Cesar rules and he IS the dog whisperer. If everyone could do it, he would not have a show. It is sad and unprofessional for people to say that an other persons methods are not good. Instead they should be open to other methods. It is very easy to put others down. Even Cesar works with people who do not use his methods. Why is it that people come on his show with dogs that have been rejected by other trainers saying there is nothing to do with the dog and then with Cesars guidance the owners actually do learn how to handle their dog. Yet you are choosing to put him down. It is totally unprofessional of you Dr Yin to put down one man in order to make yourself look better. So so sad….

    1. Susan, you need to do a lot more research before praising Cesar’s “methods” and scolding actual trained professionals with certifications like Dr. Yin. Great trainers use positive reinforcement methods because they promote confidence and a bond with the handler or owner. Cesar’s aversive methods simply create fearful or worse aggressive dogs. Your dog is not your “equal”, but he is certainly not your subordinate. It isn’t necessary to “dominate” a human child – or your dog. You don’t need to eat before your child to show him you’re the parent. You don’t need to go out doors first, other than to look first to make sure it is safe. You teach him to “say please” because it’s good manners, not to prove you’re the boss. Such things aren’t necessary in your relationship with your child or your dog. Your dog isn’t trying to take over your life. He just wants to know he’s safe and loved and how to fit in. He’s your best friend. Treat him like one.

    2. It’s so sad that uneducated people without any knowledge at all about dog behavior feel compelled to speak out against actual experts and studies that support everything these experts say. Dr Sophia Yin is known by all greats in the field as one of the best in the movement of force free Humane low stress handling. I think this type of bold ignorant behavior speaks volumes of exactly what is wrong in some many areas of our society. I do not know if it’s a form of mental incapacity or an inability to accept beings rong about something, but it’s not only frustrating, but it is irresponsible & aids the misinformation that is rampant in dog training and behavior in those that are not educated in the field. I do not know of one reputable dog advocate organization that supports Cesar Millan. It does not take much research to know this. This is how little people investigate before Stating their uneducated wrong “opinions.” I am sorry for being rude, it’s just so exhausting to continually have to listen to this ignorance while trying to educate myself for the sake of my dogs

  6. Absolutely on point! The Dog Whisperer has really lead to a lot of issues which the trainers see in our academy. Many folks report having watched the show, and followed the “techniques,” only to end up with an aggressive dog.

    Another issue which I personally feel leads to many avoidable problems is the retractable leash. I see dogs at the far end of the lead, pulling the owners who have virtually no safe management of the dog. As a new comer to this great site, I need to do some research to see if Dr. Yin has posted about this as well.

  7. Susan,

    You are completely wrong in your assessment of Cesar Milan.

    I’m a walker/trainer. I’ve seen more dogs wind up with more problems than you can shake a stick at, because their humans believe that Cesar is the greatest thing since warm milk. Sadly, the behavior problems were relatively minor in the beginning, but only exacerbated themselves and got worse, which caused dogs to wind up in a shelter and worse. I recently interviewed a potential client (a Lab/Rottweiler mix) with a severe aggression issue. He had to have a muzzle on to keep from biting my head off. Humans were using the Cesar’s techniques to try and correct it. I asked if it was working, they said yes, yet the creature would have bitten me in half if given the opportunity.

    There is one very important thing lots of people don’t know about the Cesar: He grew up with dogs, practically from the womb. He has been around dogs all of his life. Lots of people have had this experience, however, Cesar learned early on how to emulate their body language. Dogs in general see their humans as another dog, they are extremely visual and notice instantly how humans carry themselves. This makes Cesar a true dog on two legs to most four legged dogs who see him, which explains his personal success with them.

    Most humans don’t have the body language that dogs relate to instantly, which is one reason why they are not successful and get severely injured using his techniques.

    Cesar makes people believe that negative behaviors can be reversed in to a positive one in a very short period of time, this is just one way he distorts.

    Another distortion is his theory that you can correct a negative behavior with a negative response. This is completely wrong and will only make the negative behavior worse. A negative behavior can only be altered to a positive behavior with positive techniques.

    Mike Zufall
    Happy Paws Dog Walking
    Silver Spring Maryland

  8. Susan is not completely wrong on her assessment of Cesar Milan, Mike! I totally agree with her. Everything she said about him (Ceaser) is true. The people that have these dogs are the ones that are screwing up the dogs.
    First of all they need to realize it is a dog, not a toy, substitute child, etc. Training starts day one. No hitting, no sticking the dog in a cage all the time either. One of the most important things that Ceaser stresses, is exercise. Everyday! Most of the dogs with the problems aren’t able to get rid of all the excess energy they have. And that doesn’t mean a 15 minute walk once a week. Negative behaviours can be changed quite quickly if you are willing to work on it. You have to be consistant.
    I’ve trained my dogs like Ceaser does, before I even knew who he was. You have to have the right energy, if you don’t, your’e dog will read that like a book. If you don’t have the confidence in yourself, how can you project it to the dog? Alot of people don’t, and alot of people wait till it gets out of control before they do anything about the behaviour.
    As to the idiot that decided he was going to be ‘SUPER DOG TRAINER’, WITH THE Sharpei, sounds like he didn’t know how to walk a dog in the first place. Of course the dog reacted the way he did, I would too. Anyone that hires a dog walker, needs to watch them with the dog, follow them without them knowing to make sure they are taking care of the dog correctly. Just like people have Nannycams to watch their babysitters, you should be watching what is going on with your dog.
    A ‘Choke’ collar, is not for choking. A quick one second tug and instant release, just to get your dog to pay attention and get back on track. Sometimes a series of them, to get the dog to pay attention, or if he is pulling, switch your direction, or walk in circles, the dog will have to pay attention to you. then when he does, continue on your walk. It is not meant for choking. I’ve seen Ceaser pull a dog on to his hind feet once, and there was no choice, it was already an aggressive dog and it went after him and drew blood, and the dog was about as tall as him. He stayed calm and got the dog under control quickly. I don’t know how else he could have done it under the circumstances.
    The people that say Ceaser is at fault for the way the dog is acting, they aren’t doing it right. You can’t watch one show, and expect to know everything. Would you gut your bathroom after watching one show that did it? Thinking that after one show, you know it all? I don’t think so. Lisa Trippet on her letter above is also right. Like she said, How do you get people to REALLY want to know.

  9. Cesar Milan and his totally unresearched, unproven, unscientific and CRUEL training methods are doing a huge amount of damage. Unfortunately, he continues to get lots and lots of TV time where he is seen by people who will blindly follow his cruel and dangerous recommendations. He’s setting dog training back 30 years.

  10. Tessa,

    I think you hit the nail right on the big fat head.

    Thank you for your input, be it professional or otherwise.

    Mike Zufall

  11. Whenever I get defensive it means I have lost an opportunity to learn. Open your minds people. There is more than one way.

    1. Actually you need to open your mind. This is not to be rude, but to help you as you are trying to helps ith your info. You are wrong. Please research before you speak on ANY subject. Cesar actually increases aggression in the dogs he treats. He has provoked dogs to biebthag never have. There is so much to say about what is wrong with Cesar Millan and I’ve learned it from every single reputable Veterinarian Animal Behaviorist that has spoken out against him and his dangerous archaic methods.

  12. Susan,

    I completely agree that the opportunity here is not only lost, but completely, horribly shamefully, lost.

    I also agree that opening ones minds shows more than one way to deal with a problem. THIS is what makes dealing with a dogs human so very frustrating.

    I was talking with a friend of my recently. When we get together, our conversations always veer towards my three dogs. My friend has a very high stress job, and supervises about 300 people. During the course of our conversation about dogs, he informed me that I look at the world much like a dog does (which I found very complimenting). I size up instantly, coming to a very quick conclusion and opinion.

    When talking with humans who are training their dogs, I always look at their face, I usually make direct eye contact. Lots of times, when I am making my case, no matter how simple the solution to a negative behavior, the humans get the very same look on their face: A blank look, similar to a deer staring in the headlights of a car. It’s always the same. When this happens, I know what I am saying is not making a connection, and probably never will. Most of the time, the humans won’t do want I or anyone else says to fix the negative behavior, the dog gets worse, and the situation gets worse.

    THEN, out of desperation, the humans turn to a popular guru who gives impressions that negative behaviors can be altered to a positive one in 5 minutes or less, and then things really get out of hand. There has been lots printed about this impression. I realize that books might (or not) indicate that the process takes longer. The sad fact is, the connection between dogs humans and guru is completely lost, which makes the technique lost.

    Of course, through no fault of their own, all of this does not bode well for an aggressive or horribly misbehaved dog.

    Until a way can be found to get past the disconnect with humans, proper training will never be achieved. Every single day, I am looking for a solution. Every single day, I consider the horrible, terrible waste, because the disconnect is there, and humans, not dogs, have failed.

    Mike Zufall

  13. Operant conditioning is most effective when purely positive reinforcement doesn’t work because let’s face it, purely positive doesn’t work on every dog because every dog isn’t the same. Dominance and fear based training is not effective and has been founded on faulty foundations and are often confusing for the dog, if not downright inhumane.

    I don’t care if you have a pit bull or a yorkie, dominance and fear based methods are proven to not work as well as other training methods or to not work at all or to make behavior worse, which I’ve seen often enough with people who have Cesar Millaned their dogs. There’s a reason why the EXPERTS don’t agree with Cesar Millan’s methods. Cesar Millan has had no formal training or education on dog psychology, training or behavior.

    He is a self proclaimed expert with no backing besides interacting with dogs on his grandfather’s farm and trying to train dogs here in America and getting lucky and scoring his own television show which proves nothing. If he’s an expert than every kennel worker should open their own dog training school.

  14. In my opinion the best way to train a dog is with love & kindness. Dogs want their owners to be happy.
    Yes some breeds are more stubborn by nature but what Milan recommends is beyond being cruel.
    There can be firmness in your voice but I ask what dog responds to his methods? Growing up with
    Rough Collies I can personally can attest to the fact that harsh words never work. I never raised
    my voice and neither did my Dad. Our collie was easy to train and picked up on things pretty
    quickly. It takes time and patience to train a dog and socialize it so that they can grow up to be happy
    and healthy. Pups are constantly learning and figuring our their world and it is up to us to guide them
    through this. Pups grow up and have their quirks . Living with your dog means expecting
    this and dealing with these quirks in a positive manner. I read this about Collies but it applies to all
    dogs; if you give a dog your heart they will give you their soul.

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