The Dog Whisperer: Frequently Asked Questions

by Lisa Mullinax, CPDT-KSA

Since writing THE DOG WHISPERER CONTROVERSY, I have received emails from fans of the show who vehemently disagree with what I have written. In an effort to dispel many of the myths viewers have about the show, I have responded to the most common arguments below.

Fans of the show are welcome to write to me, however I recommend reading the links provided in both articles before doing so. Personal observations and beliefs may feel like strong arguments, but they are not enough to disprove decades of scientific research.

I HAVE NEVER SEEN HIM HURT A DOG

Does the star viciously beat dogs?  No, but the methods used are sometimes unnecessarily rough and there is significant evidence that physical punishment such as shown on the show can be harmful. 

In the episode Fondue, Chip, Hope & JoyJoy, small dogs are lifted several feet off the ground and swung by the scruff of their neck. In Teddy, a Lab's feet are pulled off the ground by hanging him from the leash. Most disturbing, Shadow, according to veterinary experts who have viewed the footage, shows signs of asphyxiation after being hung by the leash (we've received reports that the rescue group that had previously adopted Shadow reclaimed him after seeing this episode). 

However, the main criticism is aimed at the psychological stress that dogs are placed under during the show. Many dogs that offer avoidance behaviors at the start of the show are often pushed to the point of aggression.

One example is JonBee, a Jindo who is forced to lie on his side. After a significant and dangerous struggle (during which the dog appears to have urinated), the dog finally gives up and allows himself to be rolled over. However, the dog is not relaxed. Quite the opposite. The dog exhibits numerous signs of stress, and is exhibiting a phenomenon known as learned helplessness, often referred to by trainers as "shut down."  (Update:  JonBee's owners did not keep him after the show. He was recently listed on a rescue website run by one of Millan's followers, but that listing has been removed.)

JonBee, muzzled, is lifted off the ground by a choke chain, a procedure known as "stringing up". Prior to this, the dog had been attempting to avoid interaction with the star completely.

Learned helplessness was originally observed by scientists who placed dogs in a box with no escape and shocked them through the floor. The dogs first tried to escape and then, exhausted and finding no exit, simply lay down on the floor, despite continued shocks. The dogs weren't enjoying the shocks more than they were in the beginning, they had simply given up.

It does not take physical injury to traumatize a dog. While some dogs can recover from traumatic experiences, others will have lasting behavioral problems as a result.

Just as in humans, chronic stress causes serious medical problems in dogs such as weakened immune systems, digestive diseases and heart disease. Acute stress can sensitize the dog to specific environments and people, creating a more negative association than before and escalating behavior problems in the long run.

So whether physical or psychological, these methods are harmful and pose great risk to dogs and owners.

Ruby shows frequent multiple signs of stress during this episode, including refusal of food.

Update:  We have received a report that Ruby later bit a child in the home and her owners chose to have her euthanized. The vet intervened and attempted to arrange for the show to work with the family further. We don't know Ruby's fate after that.
HAVE YOU EVEN WATCHED THE SHOW?

Yes. In fact, I regularly watch the show and download the video podcasts (which have recently been removed from iTunes).

I first watch it without sound, so that I can observe both the dogs' behavior and the star's actions, as well as the dog's response to the methods used. I find that the dramatic music, the announcer and the star's explanations frequently contradict what is actually happening on the screen.

Most of the professionals who have spoken out also watch the show regularly. Andrew Luescher, a Veterinary Behaviorist at Purdue University, viewed tapes of the show sent to him by National Geographic before it aired. He voiced his concerns to the producers at that time.

YOUR ARTICLE WAS BIASED

To be clear, I am quite biased on this subject.  Just as a nutritionist would not write an article equally weighing the pros and cons of junk food, I am not compelled or obligated to present a balanced view of the show. I have, however, presented a factual argument. 

The show gives an inaccurate representation of dog behavior that ignores everything we know about animal behavior today. My bias also stems from years of personal experience, along with the combined experience of my colleagues who have personally seen the results of these types of methods used to suppress problem behaviors.  

YOU SHOULDN'T CRITICIZE HIM JUST BECAUSE YOU DON'T AGREE WITH HIS METHODS

Why not? Isn't that how progress is made in any field?

When methods have great potential to cause harm and fail to accomplish the advertised results, professionals have an OBLIGATION to criticize. Otherwise, we would still believe the earth is flat, that smoking cures hypertension and that shock therapy and lobotomies are the best treatment for autism.

YOU'RE JEALOUS OF HIS SUCCESS

Many of the professionals who have spoken out against the show are immensely successful in their own right. They have the respect of their colleagues, are professors at universities and popular speakers and authors.

Second, the popularity of the show has not created a loss in business for professional trainers and behavior consultants. In fact, quite the opposite. We have seen a tremendous increase in calls as owners realize that behavior problems are not something they have to live with, which is the positive influence of the show. However, at least half of the households we visit watch the show regularly and have attempted the methods on the show without success or with negative results.

If the show achieved the same level of success with humane methods based on the current and ever-expanding knowledge of science and behavior, and not on one individual's personal interpretation of behavior, most professionals would be singing the praises of the show and the star, as they are about It's Me or the Dog, which features reward-based solutions for equally problematic dogs and airs on Animal Planet.

Finally, "success" is a highly subjective term.  While the show became very popular and he is certainly now a wealthy man, Cesar Milan was sued at least once for a dog being severely injured while boarded at his facility and his marriage ended in divorce before his show was canceled last year. Multiple dates for his global tour have been canceled or postponed, and he has met with significant resistance in other countries, where some of the tools he employs are illegal. 

THE DOGS ON THE SHOW ARE DIFFERENT THAN WHAT YOU WORK WITH - THEY HAVE SERIOUS ISSUES

This is a common fallacy. The cases on the show are everyday, run-of-the-mill cases of fear and aggression that I and thousands of professional trainers work with every day.

Here's a perfect example from a recent episode:

And here is the same behavior being modified by me in a typical training session. 

I will admit the clip isn't very dramatic.  That's because my goal is to help my client and her dog, not gather sensational footage for higher ratings.  Changing serious behavior problems doesn't make for great television.  That's because it is not necessary - nor is it productive - to ellicit an aggressive response in order to modify the behavior. 

YOU THINK THERE IS ONLY ONE WAY TO TRAIN A DOG

Not at all. By the laws of operant conditioning, positive punishment and negative reinforcement can also work when applied with precision and skill

Many reward-based trainers, like myself, started as aversive trainers.  We switched to reward-based methods after seeing the benefits in training for obedience, competition and in modifying serious behavior problems.  So not only are we aware that there is more than one way, they have extensive experience using a variety of methods, including many of the methods used on the show. We also have extensive experience with the fallout that can occur after using such methods.

Owners should ask themselves why they would choose to start with a method that could cause harm without trying less aversive methods first.  Read more about Training Methods

POSITIVE TRAINERS WOULD RATHER EUTHANIZE AGGRESSIVE DOGS

Given the extensive number of books written by reward-based trainers and behviorists on how to change serious behavior problems, including aggression, not to mention the ongoing seminars and conferences attended by thousands of professionals on the topic every year, it is clear that reward-based trainers, including myself, do not simply choose euthanasia over behavior modification.

If aversive methods were proven to be effective for long-term change, we would have continued using them.  Because the vast majority of reward-based trainers STARTED as aversive/compulsion trainers 10, 20, even 40 years ago. 

Been there, done that. Moved on to a better, more effective way.  We're just waiting for everyone else to catch up.

PEOPLE SHOULDN'T TREAT DOGS LIKE HUMANS

Well, that's true...unless the alternative is to treat dogs like fictional wolves. Ambiguous terms like "pack leader" are supposed to refer to the way canine animals act in a pack. Except the explanations and recommendations on the show have very little to do with the way actual wolves behave in an actual pack. So, treating a dog's behavior with false theories of wolf pack behavior is no better than treating a dog like a human and could have the same problematic outcome.

One problem with the punishment-based methods used on the show is that they assume the dog will learn what it is doing is "wrong," thereby attributing dogs with the humanlike ability to determine right from wrong. Until dogs form the capability to speak and tell us what they are thinking at any given moment, assuming that dogs are driven by their conscience is anthropomorphic - using human explanations for dog behaviors.

Don't treat your dog like a human, but don't treat them like fake wolves, either. Look to existing, factual information about dog behavior, all of which shows that the theories of the past don't hold up to how dogs and wolves actually behave.

BUT HE DOESN'T TRAIN DOGS, HE REHABILITATES THEM

While training for obedience and changing problem behaviors are not the same thing, they are not entirely separate, either. Successfully training a dog requires an understanding of how dogs learn and what motivates them to repeat behaviors. That understanding is also critical in being able to change behavior.

As for training, dogs that lack a basic foundation of obedience are harder to control and less responsive to their owners, which can make behavior modification (or rehabilitation) much more difficult.

One of the things I frequently observe about the show is that, while the dogs may not be reacting to whatever triggers the behavior (other dogs, people, skateboards, etc.), they are also not responding to the owner. Instead, the tight leash and frequency of jerks on the leash suggest that the dog would not be quite as "calm-submissive" if the owner were to drop the leash.

It is hard to imagine how one can rehabilitate a dog without a basic knowledge of how dogs learn or why they would want to skip this important step that encourages cooperation and puts the owner in a "leadership" position.

IT'S OBVIOUS FROM WATCHING THE SHOW THAT IT WORKS

Although the producer of the show has claimed an 80% success rate, I have not seen much in the way of changed behavior on the show. I do, however, see dogs with suppressed behaviors; dogs walking on very tight leashes, dogs that are stiff and immobile after being rolled onto their sides by force, dogs that are in almost every case restrained or shut down in some form or another.

Just because a dog is not barking, lunging or growling does not mean that it is calm

Just because the dog is not barking, lunging or growling does not mean that it is calm or rehabilitated.  If the dog is unable to perform without being restrained by a tight leash or otherwise, the behavior has not been changed, it has been suppressed.

In spite of the strict non-disclosure agreements that dog owners sign before appearing on the show, the stories are starting to come out; through veterinarians and other trainers, through rescue groups where the "rehabilitated" dogs end up and through the people who adopt them. Although requests have been sent to producers to release owners from the NDA so that they can report their own success with the show's methods, it has not happened. 

The only proof is what the PR team tells you and what the producers selectively show you. The show is a product, a multimillion-dollar industry dependent on you buying it.

IT WORKED ON MY DOG(S)

If the show's methods helped you and your dog and have not created additional behavior problems, then I can understand why it would be difficult to see the harm. After all, there was a time when certain medical treatments were abandoned after the harmful effects were discovered, in spite of the claims by many people who believed they worked well.

In comparison to the limited number of dogs the average owner will own in their lifetime, professional trainers and behaviorists who speak out against these methods see thousands of dogs that develop significant behavior problems as a direct result of punitive methods.

SO WHAT IF HE DOESN'T HAVE A FORMAL EDUCATION? / HE ACTUALLY WORKS WITH DOGS AND DOESN'T JUST STUDY THEM IN A LAB.

There are a lot of professional trainers and behavior consultants who do not have a formal education or advanced degrees. However, these trainers do educate themselves and continue their education, staying abreast of the latest in dog training and behavior.

While it may be true that the scientists who work in laboratories studying behavior do not always work with problem dogs, the information that they provide about dog behavior, including aggression, is invaluable to those of us who do work with problem dogs every day.

Ignoring over a century of research about animal behavior and learning only furthers the ignorance of dog owners, the leading cause of behavior problems in dogs.

DO YOU THINK PEOPLE SHOULD TREAT THEIR DOGS LIKE CHILDREN?

Dogs and children are not the same. However, responsible parenting involves providing required nutrition, education, and consistent rules and boundaries without the use of physical violence, all principles which are also consistent with raising a healthy, well-mannered dog. So if more people raised dogs as they are expected to raise children, there should be fewer problems, not more.

In fact, in 1992, The Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science published a study1 of more than 700 dog owners which tried to determine whether or not anthropomorphic attitudes or activities were related to problem behaviors:

"....dogs whose owners interacted with them in an anthropomorphic manner, 'spoiled' them in certain ways, or did not provide obedience training were no more likely to engage in behaviors considered a problem by the owner than were dogs not viewed anthropomorphically, 'spoiled' by their owner, or given obedience training."

Dogs do not develop behavior problems simply because people view them and/or treat them as child-substitutes. Many other factors such as genetics, early socialization (or lack thereof), and trauma all contribute to behavior problems in dogs.

POSITIVE METHODS DON'T WORK ON "RED ZONE" DOGS

Since owners of so-called "red zone" breeds repeatedly prove that reward-based methods work with all breeds, here is an example of how reward-based methods work with reactive or aggressive behaviors:

 

If you haven't learned how to use reward-based methods effectively, it might seem like the methods don't work. Yet this is like claiming that cars are dangerous because you never learned how to drive one.

Since reward-based methods are used on non-domestic species, including predators, it is clear that aggressive behavior does not dictate what methods to use. The video below demonstrates the use of reward-based methods with a pair of hyenas, a highly-aggressive species.  If hyenas can be trained to voluntarily offer their throats to a vet to draw blood, why do you believe it can't be used with your Pit Bull, Rottweiler, or other breed of domestic dog?

 

THAT'S NOT A "RED ZONE" DOG

"Red zone" isn't a type of dog or a defined behavioral term.  Some use it to refer to a specific breed of dog (pit bull-type breeds and Rottweilers are popular). Millan, himself, seems to change his definition when it fits his needs.  Sometimes he uses it to mean frustrated dogs, and other times aggressive and abandoned dogs. The most common use seems to refer to dogs that display reactive or aggressive behaviors.

According to Merriam-Webster, the definition of red zone is:  the area of a football field inside an opponent's 20-yard line.  So, if your dog picks up the pigskin, it really could be a red zone dog.

I TRIED GIVING MY DOG A TREAT AROUND OTHER DOGS AND IT DIDN'T WORK

When a dog is in a situation where the sympathetic nervous system is engaged (commonly referred to as fight or flight), the digestive system shuts down to divert all energy to the muscles for survival. This is what is known as the animal being over-threshold.

So, if one tries to feed a dog treats while they are over-threshold, the dog will not eat. This means that the owner or trainer has moved too quickly into an environment in which the dog is already reacting and unable to learn.  Experienced professionals understand the importance of keeping a dog under-threshold, which involves exposing the dog to the person, dog or object that triggers the problem behavior. This allows trainers to use positive methods to change the dog's association in that scenario.  

To use reward-based methods effectively to change behavior, one needs a basic understanding of how dogs learn. If they lack that understanding, they won't be successful. When one is unsuccessful with positive methods, there is no change in behavior, for better or for worse. However, when one is unsuccessful with aversive methods, there can be an escalation in the problem behavior.

CONCLUSION

Aggression and other behavior problems are not a mystery. We now understand what triggers aggressive behavior and how to change it and no longer need to rely on ambiguous interpretations of a few individuals. That knowledge continues to grow as scientific discoveries and further research provide a greater look into behavior, whether in dogs, wolves or humans.

When it comes to working with dogs, the alternative to aversive is not permissive. Modern trainers and behaviorists have extolled the benefits of exercise and boundaries for many years before the idea was popularized on the reality show. These common-sense guidelines to raising a dog are not the basis of the criticism of the show. It is the dangerous methods and the misinformation about dog behavior that has caused so many professionals to speak out.

German Translation

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1. Voith, V.L., Wright, l.C. and Danneman, P.l., 1992. Is there a relationship between canine behavior problems and spoiling activities, anthropomorphism, and obedience training? Appl. Anim. Behav.Sci., 34: 263-272.


RECOMMENDED VIEWING

IT'S ME OR THE DOG on Animal Planet

If you want to see a show about changing problem behaviors in dogs that focuses on positive methods, watch this entertaining show on Animal Planet!Victoria Stillwell does not cut dog owners any slack and shows them how to change their behavior while at the same time changing their dog's behavior.

We give this show a big 4 Paws up!

Language of Dogs

THE LANGUAGE OF DOGS DVD  

If you would like to learn how to spot the signs of stress that professionals see on the show (and in other dogs with behavior problems), we highly recommend this 2 DVD set which also includes some very impressive footage of aggressive dogs.

   
RECOMMENDED READING

CULTURE CLASH - Jean Donaldson

Considered a staple in every dog trainer's library, Culture Clash breaks down the myths about training and behavior and explains how dogs learn in clear, straightforward language.

HELP FOR YOUR FEARFUL DOG - Nicole Wilde, CPDT

This comprehensive guide to the treatment of canine anxiety, fears, and phobias is filled with information that is invaluable for trainers. Topics include causes and prevention, establishing a Firm Foundation program, body language, four essential skills to teach fearful dogs, desensitization and counterconditioning basics, behavior modification protocols to address 15 specific fears including those of people, other dogs, sounds, touch, nail-clipping, and being left alone, and quick tips and tricks. Chapters on nine complementary therapies (including pharmacological intervention), products, and their specific applications to fear issues. Chock full of photographs and illustrations and written in a down-to-earth, humorous style.

outwitting dogs

OUTWITTING DOGS - Terry Ryan

From world-renowned dog trainer Terry Ryan, with Kirsten Mortensen. Uses more brain than brawn to motivate dog behavior with positive training techniques and helps readers understand the minds of their canine friends. Focusing on problem solving and prevention with puppies as well as adult dogs, you'll find techniques to cure: the chronic chewer, the leash puller, the dog who jumps on people, the dog who hates to be left alone, the dog who won't come, the dog who barks too much, the biter, the aggressor, and more. You'll even learn how to outwit the neighbor's dog, socialize your puppy, teach your own dog tricks, outwit dogs and kids at the same time, and much more.

   

Visit the 4Paws University Bookstore for other recommended titles

 

 

 
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