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Alpha-Dog myth
July 30, 2010 1:25 PM   Subscribe

Is the alpha-dog method of training, as promoted by Cesar Millan, a myth? Rival trainer Victoria Stilwell thinks so and has launched a competitive assault on Cesar's Dog Whisperer by starring on It's Me or the Dog and spreading her system of positive-reinforcement training.

From the Time article:
"The debate has its roots in 1940s studies of captive wolves gathered from various places that, when forced to live together, naturally competed for status. Acclaimed animal behaviorist Rudolph Schenkel dubbed the male and female who won out the alpha pair. As it turns out, this research was based on a faulty premise: wolves in the wild, says L. David Mech, founder of the Minnesota-based International Wolf Center, actually live in nuclear families, not randomly assembled units, in which the mother and father are the pack leaders and their offspring's status is based on birth order. Mech, who used to ascribe to alpha-wolf theory but has reversed course in recent years, says the pack's hierarchy does not involve anyone fighting to the top of the group, because just like in a human family, the youngsters naturally follow their parents' lead. Says Bonnie Beaver, former president of the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA): "We are on record as opposing some of the things Cesar Millan does because they're wrong." Likewise, the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) issued a position statement last year arguing against the aggressive-submissive dichotomy."
posted by stbalbach (81 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

 
I dunno. When surprised by a running, barking dog while walking; I always immediately assume my alpha dog stance, and the other dog will stop and stand-down. That's what works for me, anyway.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 1:32 PM on July 30, 2010 [2 favorites]


I love Victoria Stilwell, but I like Cesar Milan as well. However, I think that Stilwell probably has the edge, and from what I've seen of both shows and methods, it seems like while most of Milan's techniques work, they don't necessarily workbecause they follow a certain theory, but because he's able to project what he calls a "calm-assertive energy." I think that's less about the assertiveness and more about the calmness; the dog picks up on your calm, quiet confidence because he or she already looks at you as the "parent" or pack leader, not because you've "fought your way to dominance."

I'll also note that one of the biggest elements in both their training methods involves exercising with your dog.
posted by infinitywaltz at 1:33 PM on July 30, 2010 [3 favorites]


There was also a post here a while back with Temple Grandin criticizing Cesar Milan. She watched a season or two of his show and talked about the ways in which his style worked and didn't work and had examples of episodes on his own show where his methods failed. Took a quick shot at finding the post but couldn't, sorry.

Another data point: my boyfriend hates Cesar Milan, which I think is pretty clear evidence that the dog whisperer sucks. Also the name of his show is dumb.

Finally: the AVSAB is remarkably similar to the ASVAB. Coincidence!?
posted by kavasa at 1:35 PM on July 30, 2010 [5 favorites]


Mark Derr, who has written several very good books about dog behavior and biology, made a related argument contra Millan in the New York Times when his show was first blowing up. As I recall, when his NYTimes piece was linked on the blue people who love Millan were vociferously dismissive.
posted by OmieWise at 1:39 PM on July 30, 2010 [1 favorite]


Veteran trainers such as Jean Donaldson, Patricia McConnell and lots of other also question the "dominate your dog" school of thought and practice. Positive reward-based, classical conditioning training works, and it works without freaking out the dog. My dogs love me and appreciate affection, but I don't expect them to work just because I'm "in charge" and ask. I don't work because my boss asks me to. I work because someone pays me.

There's plenty that these folks agree on, though: dogs need breed-appropriate amounts and types of exercise, and they need us to help them learn how to live successfully within human culture since that's where most of them exist. Dogs are not little furry people, and much of what humans do to "pamper" their dogs is unhealthy and makes them miserable rather than happy.

I think the most unfortunate BS that's spread by some "be the leader" trainers is that all dogs with problems are fixable, even the most outrageously screwed-up ones, and moreover, they're fixable in 20 minutes if you just "project the right energy." And if your dog isn't fixable, well, it's because you are a total failure and aren't trying hard enough, etc. etc.

Jesus, when Scientologists and chiropractors spout crap about "energy," they get called on it. Why not dog trainers?
posted by FelliniBlank at 1:39 PM on July 30, 2010 [16 favorites]


Positive-reinforcement training and spooky cupcake hypnosis.
posted by superquail at 1:42 PM on July 30, 2010 [3 favorites]


Well, Stillwell launched her "competitive assault" like 5 years ago. I love that show, but her training is pretty standard positive reinforcement-clicker training. You can read all about it, for free, with Sue Ailsby's Training Levels.

The interesting thing about Sue Ailsby's site is that she used to be a "jerk and praise" trainer for many years before making the switch to positive reinforcement training.
posted by muddgirl at 1:43 PM on July 30, 2010 [3 favorites]


Well, I think terms like "energy" and "vibe," despite being laden with New Age connotations, actually work pretty well as shorthand for the numerous unconscious signals expressed through tone of voice, body language, etc. that dogs can pick up on. I'm not a Millan apologist, but I do think there is something to the idea that a dog can sense your nervousness and that it can then make the dog become more nervous.
posted by infinitywaltz at 1:43 PM on July 30, 2010 [4 favorites]


STAINS!!!
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 1:44 PM on July 30, 2010 [2 favorites]


Us cat people have it much easier. There is never any question about who is in charge and has the upper paw.
posted by Babblesort at 1:45 PM on July 30, 2010 [29 favorites]


I like Cesar Milan, and used to watch his show quite often, but the alpha dog stuff is nonsense, I think. That's the opinion of the overwhelming majority in the dog training community, too, I think.

Some of the trainers I really like and respect, all of whom shape their dog handling techniques around positive reinforcement, include Karen Pryor, Patricia McConnell, and Jean Donaldson. Also a local trainer, Kathy Sdao.
posted by bearwife at 1:47 PM on July 30, 2010 [2 favorites]


I think Ms. Stilwell agrees that a calm, in-control vibe is important when working with dogs. In fact, she teaches this very thing in every episode.
posted by muddgirl at 1:49 PM on July 30, 2010


My dog training idols, the monks of New Skete, eliminated the alpha wolf rollover in later editions of How To Be Your Dog's Best Friend. Cesar Milan still uses it - I have always hated it. I agree with the monks and the recent research I've come across is a lot more about how dogs live more cooperatively and less hierarchically than was previously thought. Also, dogs especially the extremely fluffy one on my feet right now who is worrying about thunder which is some very dangerous and scary stuff you know aren't wolves. My dogs have been (admittedly somewhat haphazardly) trained using about 90% positive reinforcement and they're very good dogs. Yes they are! Good guys! Such good guys! Let's all have a milk bone! Yum!
posted by mygothlaundry at 1:50 PM on July 30, 2010 [15 favorites]


In my experience both positive and negative reinforcement work if applied consistently. And negative reinforcement can be nothing more than ignoring your dog for a short period. They seriously hate being ignored and will catch on pretty quickly.
I don't think this is a binary situation, though. Some of Milan's ideas are hogwash, but his main point is still very valid. Most couples I know with dogs have a dominant (alpha) partner and a more submissive one. The dogs invariably are more responsive to the stronger personality.
posted by rocket88 at 1:58 PM on July 30, 2010


My little simpleton terrier mix rolls big dogs (labs and the like) on a regular basis. She stands at their shoulder and growls until they roll. They always do. She's no alpha but she has a sense of decorum that she enforces.

A successful human animal trainer knows what works for him or her. Cesar Millan can pull off the alpha roll; Victoria Stilwell does what she's best at to get the same message across. It's about the individual's capabilities and, most of all, their consistency.
posted by grounded at 1:59 PM on July 30, 2010 [2 favorites]


I'm not a Millan apologist, but I do think there is something to the idea that a dog can sense your nervousness and that it can then make the dog become more nervous.

You're absolutely right, and I didn't mean to suggest otherwise. Dogs are obviously extremely sensitive to human moods, body language, smell/chemicals, etc. Learning to radiate calmness is a great help in working and living with dogs, but they still need to be taught the specific behaviors we desire.

I have a mildly reactive spooky dog (thanks to zero socialization until I got her at 8-9 weeks, six months of carsickness after that, plus a reserved nature), and being very relaxed and centered when she gets aroused is essential, but she also needs to practice focusing on me instead of the thing that's exciting her, learning bit by bit to be comfortable in the presence of things that intimidate her, learning that settled "brave" behavior earns her the things she wants and spooky behavior gets no reinforcement at all. She has made great strides in 3 years, but it'll be a lifelong process, and she'll never be Ms. Outgoing Party Girl. In any case, my just standing there projecting the right energy ain't gonna do the job. It's about incremental steps and letting dogs learn at the pace they need to and have setbacks at times --- and most about repetition after repetition after repetition.

I've watched Cesar's show and picked up some good tips/activities, and he does a lot of good educating people about meeting canine needs. But his show is much less about the day-to-day nuts and bolts of how to work with dogs than about watching him miraculously and dramatically "fix" problem dogs with nothing but the sheer force of his personality.
posted by FelliniBlank at 1:59 PM on July 30, 2010 [1 favorite]


Most couples I know with dogs have a dominant (alpha) partner and a more submissive one. The dogs invariably are more responsive to the stronger personality.

Of course, Milan apparently believes that Men are generally the alpha partner and Women are the submissive partner, which may partially explain the distaste for him among the dog-training community.

And negative reinforcement can be nothing more than ignoring your dog for a short period.

(1) Stilwell teaches this technique.
(2) Technically, we are all using the language of reinforcement wrong.

Giving a dog a treat for sitting is Positive Reinforcement.
Jerking a choke chain when a dog barks is Positive Punishment.
Turning your back on a dog who jumps is Negative Punishment.
posted by muddgirl at 2:06 PM on July 30, 2010 [5 favorites]


I think it's important to distinguish training a healthy, happy puppy and training an older dog which already has developed problems because of poor earlier experiences. Cesar pretty much specializes in the latter, while most of us new dog owners can go straight to positive-reinforcement training (which is classic and works just fine, and is very easy if you start early). Rehabilitation is another story entirely and does revolve, to some extent, around "dominating" the dog. Not in any negative sense, but in that you must teach the dog that its current behaviours should not be done and instead it needs to emulate you and learn appropriate boundaries.

This, of course, can take months. Fortunately for us, problem dogs are not the norm unless you are adopting (which is totally awesome and rewarding, btw). Even on the show, something that takes 8 hours of continuous prodding by Cesar will be edited down to look like magic. But just like Cesar's theory, Stilwell's theory is not a cure-all.
posted by mek at 2:12 PM on July 30, 2010


The Cesar Milan episode of South Park, in which he tries to teach his techniques to Cartman's mother for use in parenting, was inspired.
posted by Pope Guilty at 2:14 PM on July 30, 2010 [7 favorites]


Cesar pretty much specializes in the latter

Oddly enough, so does Stilwell! I take it you haven't watched much of her show.
posted by muddgirl at 2:16 PM on July 30, 2010


Perhaps she is barking up the wrong tree. I, for one, consider Cesar Milan to be more of an expert in human psychology than dog psychology. From what I've seen of the show, most of the time, the problem isn't with the dog, it's with the dog's owner.
posted by borges at 2:27 PM on July 30, 2010 [4 favorites]


Every dog I've known has a clear understanding of who is alpha. As a theory, maybe Milan takes it a bit far, but when I've seen my dog behave in ways that are dominance-seeking, I am aware.

I've kinda wanted to bring my dog to interviews for managers. The dog can pick the person most likely to be able to supervise.
posted by theora55 at 2:32 PM on July 30, 2010


Temple Gradin doesn't actually disagree with Cesar 100%. You can see from this quote:

"I think Cesar Millan is right when you get into highly artificial situations, exactly like what he has down there in his dog psychology center, when you have a whole bunch of unrelated individuals living together. Then he's probably right."

from this interview with Powells.com.
posted by morganannie at 2:40 PM on July 30, 2010 [2 favorites]


I, for one, consider Cesar Milan to be more of an expert in human psychology than dog psychology.

Stilwell, too. Anyone else disappointed that when they brought Stilwell to the USA, they toned down her outfits? Less severe ponytail, less black leather, less dominatrix.
posted by infinitywaltz at 2:42 PM on July 30, 2010 [3 favorites]


Muddgirl: no, I don't make a habit of watching either. And for the record I don't support the "alpha roll" or other positive punishment methods in dog training. I haven't even had any success with choke chains, gave up on them a long time ago. Dominance comes naturally to the human/dog relationship because we are the providers, and so we provide when they do good and deny reward when they act poorly. The only "positive punishment" I use is sending a dog to its kennel (by command, not forcibly). I do find that spoiling a dog is probably the biggest problem dog owners have. Killing them with kindness, so to speak.

I totally agree with dogs identifying dominant and submissive partners, as well... it's very clear that dogs learn exactly how they will be treated by each human they have a relationship with, and will exploit that knowledge to their benefit. Consistency is of utmost importance. In the case of a dog being spoiled, they know who the softy is and seek refuge with them and they can actively sabotage the training process by their very presence. For example, my dad's dog is extremely spoiled, to the extent that he will only obey my dad or me if he is in the room, everyone else is ignored outright, mom included. When he obeys me he will still gravitate towards my dad with his body language (as if to ask "do I really have to do this? can't I just have a snack instead?) for confirmation. Evidence of my "spoiled" theory presents itself at the dinner table, by seeing where said dog parks himself.
posted by mek at 2:47 PM on July 30, 2010


I think it's important to distinguish training a healthy, happy puppy and training an older dog which already has developed problems because of poor earlier experiences.

I think it is easier to train a dog young, of course, but I can't agree that Milan's domiinance approach is the right way to handle a rescue . . . like mine.

My dog is a rescue Australian shepherd, and stop reading now if you are distressed by hearing about mistreatment. Here's what I know for sure. Normal weight for him is 35-40 lb, but he was so starved in the shelter where the rescue organization found him that he weighed 20 lb. An overhead shot of him shows a head attached to a spine. There is no more than that to be seen of his abdomen. In addition, he was infested with fleas. In addition, he was terrified. Here's what I think from being his owner. I think he was owned by a tall young man who liked to wear baseball caps, because he flinched and cowered whenever he saw someone like that. I think he was beaten for urinating in the house, because he ran and hid the only time he had an accident in our house. I think he lived with small children who were allowed or encouraged to torment him, because he is only now getting over his fear of children.

So, my little guy had a few issues. I have trained him with positive reinforcement techniques I learned from books by Karen Pryor, Patricia McConnell, and Jean Donaldson. Even when I negatively reinforce by withholding what he wants (for example, to go outside) until he does what I want (doesn't bark, sits quietly), he gets a reward for doing what I want.

And now he is quite a little guy. He is social with newcomers, including men and tall young men with baseball caps. He is fine with kids. He smiles all the time. He loves to play. He knows many tricks. He loves learning anything new - he is thrilled if the clicker comes out!

And I've never used an alpha technique, never rolled him, never done any of that.

I did do some work with Kathy Sdao and my Aussie, to manage his on leash barking and lunging toward other dogs. Positive reinforcement worked to stop that too -- these days, what he does when he sees another dog on leash is look at his handler for his cheese.

Milan is good entertainment, but I wish it were Pryor or McConnell who had gotten the TV show -- that would be a real boon for a lot of misunderstood dogs.
posted by bearwife at 2:53 PM on July 30, 2010 [6 favorites]


I guess I have a problem with the use of the word "dominance". Do normal, non-abusive parents "dominate" their children when they teach them good behavior and punish bad? I suppose some parents still spank and hit their kids, but I would never do this.

I agree there are a lot of bad pet owners out there who wrongly consider their pets to be either moving toys or fully sentient human-analogues.
posted by muddgirl at 2:57 PM on July 30, 2010


Technically, we are all using the language of reinforcement wrong.

Well, not all of us. But yeah, generally people don't understand the difference between a reinforcement and a punishment. It's probably mostly due to the fact that the term "punishment" has a lot of negative connotations attached to it (obviously), and it has slowly been worked out of Behaviorist's lexicon.
People are also under the assumption that reinforcer = good and punisher = bad. Anything that increases behavior is a reinforcer, and anything that decreases behavior is a punisher. The only way you can tell is by measuring the consequent of the behavior. NOT by how it makes them feel.
posted by P.o.B. at 3:07 PM on July 30, 2010 [2 favorites]


Yeah, there are definitely some negative connotations with dominance theory (and Cesar does some nasty things) but from my cursory understanding Stillwell is still working in that framework, just with a positive spin. In the article the dog described is insecure because they do not understand the power structure and they are reassured and made emotionally stable by what is effectively asserting dominance. Dogs think in power structures and need to know their rank, and positive reinforcement is a way of accomplishing that.

I am only annoyed by this "positive spin" to the extent that it encourages lovey-dovey spoiling behaviour when what dogs really rely on, more than anything, is stability. If you provide a stable, predictable environment, the dog will feel safe, and everything follows from that. If you are understood to be the provider of safety, obedience comes naturally.
posted by mek at 3:07 PM on July 30, 2010


I, for one, consider Cesar Milan to be more of an expert in human psychology than dog psychology.

Agreed. He's an interesting guy, but I feel like his success with dogs really comes down to him, not some repeatable process he can pass on via 40 minutes of TV. And both of those shows give me a "Have a Good Stare At . . . " vibe. They're basically animal versions of the hoarder/ intervention reality shows. They aren't fighting over training techniques so much as who can get a bigger whackjob for a guest.
posted by yerfatma at 3:09 PM on July 30, 2010 [4 favorites]


Well, all people who mentioned "reinforcement" with Cesar Milan up to that point, or said that clicker training is the same as "positive reinforcement", including myself (it also involves lots of negative punishment). Not, like, all the people in the whole world.
posted by muddgirl at 3:09 PM on July 30, 2010


Theory shmeory. Most dogs are crazy and desperate to please. Give them 10 seconds of attention and you can use any technique you can imagine to teach them anything they're capable of.

How'd Roofus learn to make guacamole? I used the Praying to Satan technique. Also, I gave him kibble.

posted by Astro Zombie at 3:10 PM on July 30, 2010


She does realize that positive reinforcement kind of makes you the alpha, anyway, right? You're the one with the treats. ALL HAIL THE ONE WITH THE TREATS.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 3:12 PM on July 30, 2010


How'd Roofus learn to make guacamole? I used the Praying to Satan technique. Also, I gave him kibble.

That's how you train cats, not dogs.
posted by P.o.B. at 3:13 PM on July 30, 2010 [1 favorite]


Us cat people have it much easier. There is never any question about who is in charge and has the upper paw.

Dogs have masters. Cats have staff.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 3:13 PM on July 30, 2010 [11 favorites]


Do normal, non-abusive parents "dominate" their children when they teach them good behavior and punish bad?

This sounds more like a question of what the word "dominance" means to you personally than of your (dis)agreement with Milan's technique.

I think that most parents would consider themselves to be ideally the ones in control of their children. That is, they're the ones who make decisions and who enforce behavior. For example, if their child throws a tantrum in a store, ideally, some parents would like to be able to project an aura of calm authority and stop the behavior. This doesn't always work perfectly, but yes, I think that "normal, non-abusive" parents frequently see themselves this way.

That we don't want to describe this as "dominance" is, I think, more due to conflicted feelings about authority and freedom than a huge philosophical difference in approach. (Besides the whole "dogs don't grow up into adult humans" thing.)
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 3:14 PM on July 30, 2010


I think the conflict between the "alpha" theory and the "family structure" theory is purely semantic. The "parent" and the "alpha" in a group are the same, it's just that the "parent" got there by being older than the pups.

"Alpha" isn't necessarily the toughest member of the group, it's generally the one with the coolest head. Dogs follow that one because it is most likely to be the one who reacts well in any situation. If you're nervous, you aren't going to be the alpha, so you have to train yourself to calm in order to take that position.

Humans have the advantage over dogs because we have a higher level of self-control, even if it is imperfect, than they do. Most of us can train ourselves to project the aspect that dogs react to, and because dogs don't have as great a level of self-control, they automatically react to that.

But every dog is different, just like every person. I get along with 99% of dogs, even ones who bite other people (but I can tell if a dog is bitey, haven't been bitten since I was a teenager). But my brother-in-law has a little chihuahua-pit bull mix that he carries everywhere with him, and that dog has a serious grudge against me, I think because I did the Cesar Milan roll-over on him when he was getting out of hand one day. He doesn't bite me, but he snaps and growls and refuses to make friends. So I just laugh and let him sniff my hand and don't flinch when he snaps, and that's the end of it for me.
posted by Jimmy Havok at 3:14 PM on July 30, 2010 [1 favorite]


I would also guess that Milan, or anybody else for that matter, takes on jobs that he thinks he can take care of hopefully in a timely manner.
posted by P.o.B. at 3:15 PM on July 30, 2010


How'd Roofus learn to make guacamole? I used the Praying to Satan technique. Also, I gave him kibble.

That's how you train cats


Cats are easy to train . . . provided you only use positive reinforcement. Negative will get you nothin'. (I can prove this. All my cats sit on command. All my cats come when called. All my cats lie on command. My loudest cat is even quiet on command.)
posted by bearwife at 3:21 PM on July 30, 2010 [1 favorite]


I think that most parents would consider themselves to be ideally the ones in control of their children. That is, they're the ones who make decisions and who enforce behavior.

In general I don't think modern "good parents" hit their kids as a form of "showing who's boss". They also don't put their kids on a treadmill until they're exhausted or constantly expose them to scary stimulus. They DO demonstrate that they are the provider of Food and Safety.

My problem isn't with the term "dominance", my problem is the equation of Parental Behavior with Alpha Dog Behavior, and the equation of Parents with Dominants and Children with Submissives.
posted by muddgirl at 3:23 PM on July 30, 2010


She does realize that positive reinforcement kind of makes you the alpha, anyway, right? You're the one with the treats. ALL HAIL THE ONE WITH THE TREATS.

I remember one time when I was sitting in with of a couple of my bosses for some behavioral training, some really intelligent people, and we were working with a kid. He did something correct and we all praised him loudly (positive reinforcement) and one of my bosses clapped. The young kiddo got a little peeved at the clapping sound and she said "Oh, yeah. He doesn't like clapping." So the next time he did something right we all praised him again and my boss almost clapped her hands but stopped and exclaimed "Oh, I want to clap for him." I looke over at her asked "Well, really, who would that be reinforcing?"
posted by P.o.B. at 3:25 PM on July 30, 2010


Cats are easy to train . . . provided you only use positive reinforcement.

Yep. As long as you got treats for them to eat. Petting works...sometimes.
posted by P.o.B. at 3:27 PM on July 30, 2010


I trained my cat to jump off the table when I push him. He also knows that he has to go back in the apartment when the elevator comes, no matter how interesting it is.
posted by Jimmy Havok at 3:28 PM on July 30, 2010


My problem isn't with the term "dominance", my problem is the equation of Parental Behavior with Alpha Dog Behavior, and the equation of Parents with Dominants and Children with Submissives.

Then you will like this (short) article.
posted by bearwife at 3:30 PM on July 30, 2010


They also don't put their kids on a treadmill until they're exhausted or constantly expose them to scary stimulus.

I have used exercise machines to burn off extra energy when I work with kids.
posted by P.o.B. at 3:31 PM on July 30, 2010


You exhaust kids to set yourself as the Alpha Leader, P.o.B.? That is what Milan seems to claim to do.
posted by muddgirl at 3:39 PM on July 30, 2010


Try our new Caeser Milan. New, from Wishbone.
posted by L'OM at 3:42 PM on July 30, 2010 [1 favorite]


By the way, here's what Sdao says about exercising dogs:
I kept him tired... He joined me on a morning 4-mile walk, several times each week. This accomplished several training goals at once: loose-leash walking; passive socialization to the sounds, sights and smells of the busy waterfront trail where we walked; active socialization to men (I “opened the bar” every time a man approached us); and essential one-on-one time together that allowed us to create a bond of trust, and maybe eventually affection.
posted by muddgirl at 3:48 PM on July 30, 2010


There can be but one...
posted by zerobyproxy at 3:49 PM on July 30, 2010


You exhaust kids to set yourself as the Alpha Leader, P.o.B.? That is what Milan seems to claim to do.

No, and just to be clear there is a huge difference between behavioral (therapy) training for people and dogs. So it's kind of moot point, but you put it out there.
I've seen Milan's show all of a couple of times and I don't really find much fault with it though. From what I gather his Alpha Leader schtick is a bit more implicit than what you seem to be saying though, or maybe that's just what I saw. I mean if he's training a dog from the understanding that he is the leader, how are other trainers not doing that?
posted by P.o.B. at 3:50 PM on July 30, 2010


I'm going to sit out this debate and watch some Barbara Woodhouse because I love hearing her say "Walkies!"
posted by vespabelle at 3:51 PM on July 30, 2010 [4 favorites]


Back a few years ago, I was helping my mother with her dogs sometimes. She'd let them out for a couple of hours twice a day, and they had this little ritual where she cleaned their paws off, because it was usually muddy outside. They didn't seem to mind it, but they were always a little... not skittish, exactly, just a little uncooperative. They were pretty disobedient in general.

Having heard about these ideas, I started working on the dogs a little bit. Instead of just cleaning their paws in a standing position, I'd put them on their backs for a couple of minutes, and then clean off their paws. I never spoke sternly to them, never hurt them in any way, I just 'airlocked' them into the laundry room one at a time, put them on their backs, made sure they understood that they were to stay there, and waited a bit. At first I had to keep one hand on their chest, but after awhile they figured it out.

After I'd been doing that for a couple of weeks, they started doing what I told them to do, as soon as they understood what it was. We were all still good buddies, but they would listen to me when they wouldn't listen to my mother. They'd gotten the idea that I was the boss, and didn't argue with me anymore. I never hurt or scared them, I rarely even raised my voice, but they would obey me when they wouldn't obey her.

She had one stubborn dog that I'd have to hold in the laundry room about once a month to reassert dominance, but she'd settle right back down for awhile.

It had nothing to do with punishment or fear. The whole process was very gentle. It was just showing them that I was in charge, and once they understood that, they seemed very happy to go along with the idea. And they were always super-excited to see me when I visited, so it's not like they were intimidated into obedience.

I haven't seen that guy's show, and I don't know what else he advises, but putting dogs into a submissive posture sure worked for me.
posted by Malor at 3:52 PM on July 30, 2010 [1 favorite]


*Shrug* Maybe it is more implicit - I honestly haven't watched his show in a few years. But stuff like this:
In one of the outtakes included in the four-DVD set of the first season of “Dog Whisperer,” Mr. Millan explains that a woman is “the only species that is wired different from the rest.” And a “woman always applies affection before discipline,” he says. “Man applies discipline then affection, so we’re more psychological than emotional. All animals follow dominant leaders; they don’t follow lovable leaders.”
makes me think Milan's not really a supporter of every type of leadership - just his particular brand of, in his own words, dominance.
posted by muddgirl at 3:53 PM on July 30, 2010 [3 favorites]


I've read a few interviews with Cesar on the matter and have to agree with him, whatever works for you. I've never understood the backlash against him and it's always seemed to me to be (mostly) jealousy of his success.

I've seen a lot of both shows and have adopted two dogs (a pit and a chow) that like to fight sometimes and find Cesar's approach more beneficial in my case. And these are one-of-them-is-going-to-kill-the-other fights where I get surgery bills after. Basically keep them worn out, always be calm and don't let them get anywhere near excitement, which you could take away from both shows, but I find the Cesar approach better for outside of the house reasons. You don't always have a treat or a clicker handy, and what exactly you supposed to do at that point if that's all you got to rely on. I've gotten lazy in the past and you eventually get a fight. Powerful breeds require 24/7 work.
posted by dig_duggler at 3:57 PM on July 30, 2010 [1 favorite]


I can't really speak on his sexism.
posted by P.o.B. at 3:58 PM on July 30, 2010


Also, his alpha roll bit is not nearly as violent as many of his detractors paint it. It's more a gradual submission thing.
posted by dig_duggler at 3:59 PM on July 30, 2010


You don't always have a treat or a clicker handy

Treats and clickers are for training, not for everything you do with your dog all the rest of his life. My dog doesn't get a treat anymore when he sits and is quiet to go outside -- he hears a reinforcing phrase (a word/phrase that he associates with past treats, like a word "click"), which for him is "Good boy!"

The whole point of positive reinforcement is that once the association is made, you just use the reinforcing sound -- which can be a word or phrase -- when you get the behavior you want.

The cats, similarly, were trained with treats (of course) but now they just sit or come on command. And of course we haven't confused them or poisoned the command words by punishing or yelling at them after they obey, for example, a come command. Occasional reinforcement (petting or food) is all that is needed.

I'd add that I stopped watching Millan when I saw him use "flooding" to, ironically, deal with a dog who was frightened of water (another thing that used to terrify my Aussie). This question/answer bit about what's wrong with Millan's flooding and physicial correction approach is from a kinda stupid site but the quoted comments and websites are worth reviewing.

I think what is tough to find these days is any real scientific or professional support for these particular Millan's techniques and theories. He's a TV star, not someone who is well regarded or well respected by people in his field.
posted by bearwife at 4:18 PM on July 30, 2010 [1 favorite]


I just wanted to second the Monks of Skete as a great resource... when, at about the Husky's 6 month birthday I had pretty much decided it was a losing battle, someone pointed me to the Monks.... now Husky is the sweetest, smartest, most beautiful pup in the world...
posted by HuronBob at 4:32 PM on July 30, 2010


I really wanted to get a Husky, until I found out their general demeanor requires that you pretty much need to have them on a leash at all times.
posted by P.o.B. at 4:40 PM on July 30, 2010


Treats and clickers are for training, not for everything you do with your dog all the rest of his life.

I quite understand but in my experience, even months/years of training doesn't always trump instinct. Again, whatever works for you.
posted by dig_duggler at 4:52 PM on July 30, 2010


Pop-behavioralists, the both of them.
posted by brackweaver at 5:06 PM on July 30, 2010


Cesar Millan is a hack

eHow: How to Counter Arguments to Use Cesar Millan's Approach
posted by taz at 5:14 PM on July 30, 2010 [3 favorites]


Oh, bearwife, I see you already posted the second link!
posted by taz at 5:16 PM on July 30, 2010


Facebook and eHow: makes sign of cross with fingers.
posted by Jimmy Havok at 6:41 PM on July 30, 2010 [1 favorite]


In general I don't think modern "good parents" hit their kids as a form of "showing who's boss". They also don't put their kids on a treadmill until they're exhausted or constantly expose them to scary stimulus. They DO demonstrate that they are the provider of Food and Safety.

Does Milan advocate hitting and scaring dogs? I've only seen his show once or twice, but I don't remember him doing anything like that. If he does, then I definitely don't agree with what he's doing, but I'm surprised that I haven't heard more outrage.

As for putting dogs on a treadmill, plenty of parents use exercise as a means to exhaust their children. Generally, exercise is considered good for them. If Milan is exercising the dogs to where they're in physical distress, that's not right.

I want to point out that I'm not very familiar with Milan's techniques, so I'm not defending them. I just think it's interesting that we shy away from calling the authority parents seek over their children "dominance." I also wouldn't like to call it that, but when I think about the definition of "dominance" I can't come up with a good reason why, except that it has unpleasant connotations for someone, like me, who has a gut-level distaste for enforced hierarchies. (In fact, I think dogs are quite creepy, and prefer cats. Don't hit me, dog people. They're very sweet. But for some reason, dogs' incredible desire to please me makes me feel a bit uncomfortable. I'd rather pet other people's.)
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 6:44 PM on July 30, 2010


eHow: How to Counter Arguments to Use Cesar Millan's Approach

Disappointing. Those are great points and all but they should've concentrated on the presentation:

- You first enter into the conversation about dogs and gauge what kind of training they do or believe in.
- Regardless of what type of training they claim is good, you excitedly exclaim "Wow, really?! You're into dog-training? Let me shake your hand sir/maam, not many people know how much responsibility it is to properly take care of an animal!" You firmly enclose their hand and forearm with both of your hands.
- If they say they like Cesar Milan's training, you then say "Hey, you know I'm really starved! I know this awesome burger joint down the way. They got the best milk shakes and fries that you've ever tasted. And they got like fifty different burgers that use all organic beef. Come on, I'm buying!"
- With the proper counter arguments already memorized take them to said burger joint, one with high backed booths would be preferably or at least have them facing you with your back to the wall and no window within their direct line of gaze.
- Encourage them to oder fries and make sure the burger and or shake is a different variety.
- Enter into conversation about dog training preferably soon after you have started to eat.
- Your points should be highlighted with smiles and wide-eyed excitement. Preferably while they are eating
- Their points should be met with a non-focused and distant gaze. Do not look into eyes but slightly above their eyebrows in the middle of their forehead.
- If they continue to make points, screw up your mouth a little and interject some "Hrrrmmm"s as if you may have some disaproval or you may be thinking about it.
- If they manage to continue I suggest a couple of other techniques:
*Say "Wow, I'm really famished and totally digging those fries!" Start grabbing their fries and shove them into your mouth as long as they continue talking about Milan's techniques
*Start tapping out a simple beat. We Will Rock You by Queen is a great one, and then ask "Quick, what is it, what is it!? Come on! Keep it going with the claps. Keep it going with the claps!" Then start singing the song. Or hum if you don't know it.
*Say "Hold on real quick, before I forget, check this out!" Hold up your hand for a high-five, tell them to "Hit it!" and than move into teaching them some esoteric handshake dance. Youtube some clips if you need a good idea of how to do this.
*Say "Woah! Check out that car/dude(s)/chick(s)/ass over there! That/them/he/she/it is pretty cool/cute/good/etc."
**These are all followed by an "Annnyyway, so Milan really doesn't know what he's talking about because..."
- Finally end the conversation on a high note. Open the door for them, and as they walk out you follow and proceed to jovially talk to them as you put your open hand on their upper back between their shoulder blades. Slide it up and over their shoulder in a friendly way while telling them a joke. Perhaps in the parking lot you review the handshake you taught them, and add a hug at the end. Make sure you make it clear you really enjoyed the conversation and say "It really gives you something to think about, right?"
>>Please note you'll need to properly gauge their current attitude to allow good physical interaction. A hand on the shoulder might not be so well received by some.
posted by P.o.B. at 6:48 PM on July 30, 2010 [4 favorites]


* And yes along with eating their fries you could also say "I've never had that type off shake here before." Pop the cap and start to swig.
posted by P.o.B. at 6:56 PM on July 30, 2010


infinitywaltz: Less severe ponytail, less black leather, less dominatrix.

Tee hee! I didn't know what this show was called til recently; I'd just kind of catch it on TV while flipping through channels from time to time. I'd just referred to it as "Yes, Mistress!" and I believe my name is catchier than "It's Me or the Dog."
posted by houseofdanie at 7:15 PM on July 30, 2010 [1 favorite]


Has nobody mentioned Ian Dunbar yet? Dude is the cornerstone of the current positive-training (!Milan) approach, as far as I can tell.
And Dunbar actually tells you useful shit, like "sit" and "stay", whereas Caesar is good at teaching "stop being afraid of shiny floors" and problem issues like that.

They both have their use.
posted by Tbola at 7:40 PM on July 30, 2010


Caesar is good at teaching "stop being afraid of shiny floors" and problem issues like that.

Except he's not. Dunbar, Donaldson, McConnell, etc. all have long-term effective and science-based ways to deal with fear. Millan does not. His "shiny floors" episode resulted in a dog displaying classic learned helplessness, it wasn't cured in any way, shape or form. He's a "reality" TV star, with careful editing and sleight of hand, he's not a dog trainer.

Eric at Dog Spelled Forward does a good and fair job of discussing Millan.
posted by biscotti at 7:59 PM on July 30, 2010


Please do not use the alpha dog techniques under any circumstances. I tried to use the alpha dog stuff on a dog with behavior issues on the advice and coaching of a trainer. To sum up a very long and complex story. I ended up in the emergency room after a series of escalating attacks that progressed from growling to a nip on the hand, to the classic full out mauling. The vet had to put the dog down.
posted by humanfont at 8:13 PM on July 30, 2010


Pretty much all "dog training" is more about training dog owners, in my experience. I've never understood the point of hitting or punishing a dog when the party who failed to get him out on time, or to exercise him sufficiently so he wouldn't eat the couch, or who is standing there shrieking "sit! SIT!" while jumping up and down, is the human.

Dogs are creatures of habit. Training dogs is basically about making sure your dog forms good habits. Mostly that's about helping the people around them to form good habits.

Here, have a biscuit.
posted by DarlingBri at 8:22 PM on July 30, 2010


Whatever makes it what it is, Temple Grandin has a beautiful mind.
posted by Trochanter at 8:23 PM on July 30, 2010


biscotti: Dunbar, Donaldson, McConnell, etc. all have long-term effective and science-based ways to deal with fear. Millan does not.

Yes, yes, yes.

My first NYC dog was pretty much the model success story for dominance training. The woman who worked with us makes Millan look like a cupcake. I recommended her to friends whose dog was displaying very similar behaviors—and it made their dog's behavior much, MUCH worse.

My dog was a congenital authoritarian jockeying for a place in his hierarchy; my friends' dog was a flinchy defensive creature reacting to old fears as well as new stimuli.

It's a little baffling to me that people who would never, ever think that all children need to go to military school seem to think that all dogs need to be trained in a strict Cesarean way. Like people, dogs have vast and random variations in their inner selves.

That said: dogs are NOT people. That's the one thing I agree with about Millan's approach. If you live with a dog, you have to understand how dogs interact with the world. They are not furry babies. They're a separate species, one that's intertwined with ours but still separate and distinct. It's so so interesting to watch them be dogs, learn to communicate with them as dogs.
posted by dogrose at 8:49 PM on July 30, 2010 [1 favorite]


That said: dogs are NOT people. That's the one thing I agree with about Millan's approach.

Absolutely true, but everything I've seen and read from Donaldson, McConnell, and Stilwell (haven't read Dunbar yet, but I'm sure he's onboard) emphatically insist on this. I've found zero sentimentality in their approach or methods.
posted by taz at 12:50 AM on July 31, 2010


I remember this story from the Monks of New Skete book about this guy who came in with his wife and dog. He wanted to train the dog to come to him with some weird little whistle. He didn't want to have to talk to the dog, or interact with it really, he just wanted to give this whistle and have the dog obey. Before the end of the visit, the monks noticed the man use this same whistle on his wife.
posted by serazin at 1:20 AM on July 31, 2010


That said: dogs are NOT people. That's the one thing I agree with about Millan's approach. If you live with a dog, you have to understand how dogs interact with the world. They are not furry babies. They're a separate species, one that's intertwined with ours but still separate and distinct.

And that is one thing that ALL the modern science-based dog trainers emphasize! Patricia McConnell in particular talks about the need to understand this in much of her work, she specifically says that people are willing to seek a coach when they want to learn a new sport or speak a new language, so how do they think they can learn to communicate with another SPECIES without help? Jean Donaldson has a whole chapter and more in her "Culture Clash" book devoted to discussing the harm things like Lassie have done to dogs, in ascribing human motivations and morality to their behavior.

Dogs are not as Cesar Millan feels they are, we know this from years of study by people who actually study dog behavior. Dogs are not strict hierarchical dominance-oriented creatures (a given hierarchy is very often fluid and situational), dogs do not "alpha roll" each other (the subordinate dog rolls itself over in a formalized ritual), and Millan's willful ignorance of this is both extremely harmful (and potentially fatal) to dogs and dangerous to people. Dogs are masters of cooperative living, humans are terrible at reading dogs and understanding dogs, and we often cause the very problems we are trying to prevent or treat by interfering when we should not, and by assuming we understand what is going on when we do not. He is right that people are often/always the problem, but he is hardly the only one who discusses this, ALL dog trainers base their methods on training the owners at some point, which is as it should be. He is also right that most dogs are under-exercised, but exhaustive forced running on treadmills is not the solution to this, it's just the one that looks snappiest on TV.

Even Millan's newer "positive" approach is still based on catastrophically-flawed ideas about dog behavior. There are dog trainers out there who base their methods on decades of scientific study, not "I'm too sexy for my goatee" celebrity charisma and disingenuous descriptions. Dog training takes time and effort, and ideally also involves taking classes from people who actually study dog behavior and dog training, not just watching a TV show (anyone's TV show). I am always amazed that people who might be otherwise firmly entrenched in evidence-based methodology in all other areas of their lives will check their critical thinking skills at the door when faced with the cult of personality around Cesar Millan. Our dogs deserve better.
posted by biscotti at 7:35 AM on July 31, 2010 [4 favorites]


I don't see why you can't use both "I'm the leader" and positive reinforcement styles of training. With my dog, I use whatever seems appropriate at the time. If I want my dog to come when I call, I use a cookie. On the rare occasion that he has tried to bite me or another dog (he's a rescue, and has some issues), I rolled him over and stood over him until he looked sufficiently chastened.

Watching Cesar's show convinced me that it was possible to train your dog. The 100% positive method hadn't worked for me in the past, and really never made that much sense to me. And the show is about so much more than just alpha-dog leadership that to reduce it to just that is a disservice. Watching it I've learned so much about energy, body language (human and canine), and communication, among other things.

If it weren't for his show, I probably wouldn't have adopted a rescue dog. I love my dog and I'm grateful to Cesar.
posted by Dolores Haze at 7:53 AM on July 31, 2010 [2 favorites]


Just curious if anyone had links to stories of past clients of Cesar's who found his techniques destructive or counterproductive in the end. I didn't turn any up, but surely there are some out there given his stature and the amount of criticism he's received.

FWIW I've been to many trainers and behaviorists and have adopted what works for me from everyone as it's a tough science. Some things work in some cases and not in others. What I've gotten from Cesar (who's show is NOT an instructional video mind you, with big fat disclaimers at the beginning) is the calm, assertive body language thing which seems to make all the difference in my case, something no trainer or behavior person I paid really did. I'm sure there are good ones out there that do, but they might come in less numbers than you think.
posted by dig_duggler at 8:41 AM on July 31, 2010


is the calm, assertive body language thing which seems to make all the difference in my case, something no trainer or behavior person I paid really did. I'm sure there are good ones out there that do, but they might come in less numbers than you think.

I've seen this firsthand. I roomed with a woman that had a dog that was completely in charge. When I first moved in this border collie mix would bark in my ear to get me to pet her and anytime she got off the leash she would bolt. After a few months of patience and assertiveness on my part I had the dog fixed. She sat on command would come when called and no longer pulled on the leash.

I moved out after nine months and I saw the dog with the owner again a few months later and the balance of power had switched back to the dog. All that hard work of mine went right down the shitter.
posted by zzazazz at 10:10 AM on July 31, 2010 [1 favorite]


I tried to use the alpha dog stuff on a dog with behavior issues -/-> do not use the alpha dog techniques under any circumstances.

Your conclusion doesn't follow from your argument. Continuing to use any technique when it isn't working is a bad idea. That goes for skateboarding and surgery as much as it does for dog training. Just because it didn't work in your case doesn't mean it never works or that in every case it will lead to a mauling and euthanasia.
posted by Jimmy Havok at 7:55 PM on July 31, 2010 [1 favorite]


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