THE DOG WHISPERER CONTROVERSY

by Lisa Mullinax, CPDT-KSA

When this article was first written in 2006, the main focus was placed on the television show.  Seven years later, the show has since been canceled.  But the information contained herein is more relevant than ever, as thousands of the show's followers have since entered the world of training, modeling their methods after the show and creating problems for unsuspecting dog owners everywhere.

We strongly recommend those who disagree with this article read the links and/or books provided before contacting us to avoid making arguments based on personal belief which don't hold up against the facts.


"DOG PSYCHOLOGY": FLAWED FROM ITS FOUNDATION

On the show, all explanations given for dog behavior center around "dog psychology," which is defined as the dog being a pack animal that needs a pack leader.  Unfortunately, this has little to nothing to do with actual dog behavior, but is based on common myths about wolf behavior. 
Dominance: Wolves

Dominance Hierarchies in Wolves

"The concept, nature, and importance of the dominance hierarchy or pecking order ...itself in many species are in dispute. Similarly, in a natural wolf pack, dominance is not manifested as a pecking order and seems to have much less significance than the results of studies of captive packs had implied. In a natural wolf pack, the dominance rules bear no resemblance to those of the pecking order, that of a group of similar individuals competing for rank."

-L. David Mech
Senior Scientist
Biological Resources Division
U.S. Geological Survey


This belief that dogs are pack animals that constantly battle for rank originated with studies of captive wolf packs in the 1940's and was later popularized by the Monks of New Skete in the 1970’s, which is what many trainers based their beliefs on for the next 20 years.  These beliefs included the fear that dogs could physically harm us unless we "established our dominance." Methods such as alpha rolls and leash corrections were often recommended as a way for the dog owner to "establish dominance" over their dogs.

However, there are problems with modeling dog training after these beliefs, including:

The early wolf studies were seriously flawed.  First, the wolves were held in captivity and not in studied in their natural habitats. Second, the wolves had been captured from different wolf packs, creating a volatile and unnatural pack structure.  Finally, the studies focused largely on hunting/feeding behavior, a small percentage of wolf behavior.  Obviously, this was not an accurate view of normal wolf behavior. 

More in-depth studies of wolves in their natural habitats over the last 50 years have since revealed that a wolf pack is made up of a family; the breeding pair who shares leadership, and their offspring (1), who stay with the pack until 2-3 years of age, when they start their own pack. Eventually, almost every wolf becomes an "alpha" if they survive long enough mate and breed.

Dominance: Dogs

Dogs are not tame wolves. The domestic dog evolved from primitive wolves approximately 14,000 years ago.  Dogs exhibit behaviors that wolves do not, and do not display all the same behaviors that wolves do (2).

In Dogs: A Startling New Understanding of Canine Origin Behavior & Evolution, Ray and Lorna Coppinger write:

"Today, the popular dog press seems to feel that if dogs descended from wolves, they would have wolf qualities.  But the natural selection model points out that the wolf qualities are severely modified.  Dogs do not think like wolves, nor do they behave like them."

Observations of free-roaming dogs throughout the world reveal that dogs are social animals that are scavengers, not predators, and live much more solitary lives, as it does not benefit a scavenger to share limited resources with a large group of other animals. These dogs may form loosely knit groups, with animals joining and leaving randomly and frequently, a trait not seen in wolf packs.

Further, the domesticated forms of wild species will, as a general rule, revert back to their original form after being feral (wild) for a few generations. Dogs, of which there are many feral types throughout the world, have not reverted back to wolves either in appearance or behavior.

All of this evidence strongly discredits the romantic notion that dogs are watered-down versions of the wolf we know today. At best, dogs are watered down versions of wolf puppies, which are reliant on adult pack members to feed and protect them.  In both dogs and wolves, puppies do not battle adults for rank or resources, nor do adults use violence to keep puppies under submission.

But don't just take our word for it. Watch this video from expert Adam Miklosi explaining why the dominance model is a flawed view of wolf and dog behavior:

Watch the full episode. See more Through a Dogs Eyes.

Bottom Line

Through a stroke of evolutionary luck, we are blessed with opposable thumbs, through which we have priority access and total control of everything that our dogs want, not to mention more sophisticated brains, which allow us to plan ahead.

By maintaining control everything the dog wants, including food, access and attention, and not giving them away for free or on demand, it is not necessary to get into power struggles with our dogs. We are already "dominant."

UNDERSTANDING AGGRESSION

According to the show’s website:

"Dogs become aggressive out of frustration and dominance. The frustration comes from a lack of exercise, and the dominance comes from a lack of calm-assertive leadership."

However, aggression is rarely caused by 'dominance'.  Frustration due to lack of exercise may result in problem behaviors such as excessive barking and destruction and can contribute to existing problem behaviors, but it will not cause aggression.

So what causes aggressive behavior?  Aggression is a response to something/someone the animal perceives as a threat. Aggression is used to protect the animal through the use of aggressive displays (growling, barking, tooth displays, etc.) or protect the animal through aggressive acts (biting).   These aggressive behaviors are not the problem, but merely the symptoms.

Aggressive behavior is most frequently caused by fear due to various factors including, but not limited to:

  • Lack of proper and early socialization
  • Lack of training
  • Unskilled use of aversive methods/equipment
  • Traumatic experience
  • Genetic predisposition (poor breeding)

Aggression is also a natural behavior used to protect a resource the animal finds valuable including food, territory or offspring (and some will use aggression to win access to mates). Most members of the animal kingdom use aggressive displays to protect these resources. This can be seen in domestic dogs as food or object possession and territorial aggression (such as aggression towards mail carriers).

Medical issues can also be a cause of aggressive behavior in dogs. In the last ten years, dogs that came to us with reported aggression were diagnosed (by the dogs' veterinarians) with hypothyroidism, Cushing's Disease, mast cell cancer, urinary tract infections, hip and elbow dysplasia and more. This is why a professional trainer will refer dog owners to their veterinarian for blood work and other testing if illness or injury is suspected.

Some aggressive behaviors which do not have physical causes, but neurological, such as compulsive disorders. A popular internet video shows a dog attacking its own foot. This is a very good example of a compulsive behavior problem. Problems such as this would not be modified through exercise - in fact the dog in the video exhibited this behavior after returning from walks.

When a dog is pushed to the point that it reacts aggressively, the sympathetic nervous system, which controls what most people know as "fight/flight" response, becomes engaged in the brain. When this area of the brain is engaged, the dog's digestive system shuts down, as does the dog's capacity for learning.  When we experience acute stress, such as fear (bear circling your tent), anxiety (a letter from the IRS) or trauma (grief), food doesn't seem remotely appealing and it is difficult to concentrate. This is why the belief that "food doesn't work with red zone/dominant dogs" is so prevalent in dog behavior mythology. When the dog is pushed to this point, the dog is in survival mode and no longer learning.

However, traumatic events do get remembered. So if the dog sees another dog, barks and then is jerked, kicked or shocked, the dog is not necessarily going to associate the "training" with its behavior, which is instinctive. It will very likely associate the aversive methods with the presence of the other dog, creating a more negative association.

In the cases of aggression towards humans, if the dog is punished for growling when the owner tries to take a bone away, the lesson the dog is learning is not that it has to "let" the owner take things away.  Instead, these dogs can learn that growling does not work, so they may be more likely to bite without warning the next time. This is not an example of the dog becoming more "dominant" but a dog that is learning how to effectively communicate with humans, just as it would with another dog.

Punishment often suppresses displays of aggression (barking, growling, lunging, etc.) but doesn't address the underlying cause of the behavior. In order to change the dog's behavior permanently, we have to change the dog's association to that situation through training and behavior modification.

To claim that dogs "become aggressive" due to dominance ignores the overwhelming amount of information we have about aggression. The explanation fits nicely into Millan's "Exercise. Discipline. Affection." mantra, but it doesn't hold up to even superficial scrutiny.

EXERCISE

On the television show, a great deal of importance is placed on exercise as a dog's primary need.  Dogs do need exercise. The following is not an attempt to minimize the importance of regular exercise. However, most dog breeds were developed for particular work which requires both mental and physical exercise.  Dogs need mental stimulation as much as physical exercise.

Mental stimulation, through training, tracking or other working activities satisfies a dog's need for both mental and physical exercise.  Walking a dog on a short leash may be easier for the human, but gives the dog little aerobic exercise and does not allow the dog to gain mental stimulation from exploring his environment as he would with off-leash activities.  Mental stimulation exercises also satisfy the needs of dogs physically incapable of exercise due to arthritis, hip dysplasia or other health problems.

Forced Exercise, such as running a dog on a treadmill might satisfy a physical need to run, but does allow the dog to choose to run, nor does it provide mental stimulation, socialization or interaction with the owner.  In the Federal Animal Welfare Act, treadmills are considered forced exercise and are not permitted as as a means of satisfying the exercise requirements for dogs in kennel facilities.  Treadmills still require time on the part of the owner, as a dog on a treadmill must be constantly supervised to prevent injury and the potential for abuse is high.  

Behavioral Fallout. Dogs that are reactive to dogs, people or other stimulus commonly found on walks can actually get worse with continued exposure. Would it reduce your stress levels to be chased by a bear? Of course not. Your survival instincts will kick in, sending your body into stress overdrive to keep you alive. Cortisol and adrenaline are elevated with each walk and exposure to the triggering stimuli (person, animal or object).  Not only do elevated stress levels lead to behavior problems, but they undermine the immune response, leaving the dog more susceptible to illness.

This is why effective behavior modification programs start in low-stress environments, before gradually introducing the dog to increased levels of the person, animal or object that causes the aggressive behavior. Not necessarily entertaining television, but the results are long-lasting.

A Primary Need?  Contrary to the claims made on the show, a dog's primary need for survival is not, in fact, exercise.  If a dog were to spend all of its time and energy exercising, it would have nothing left for establishing and protecting territory, hunting/scavenging, or raising young. Exercise is accomplished through these actions.

Ethological studies of wild animals have revealed that when all physiological criteria are met through food abundance, shelter and there is absence of predation animals will not "exercise". The conservation of energy is of utmost importance in wild animals and unnecessary expenditure is not a viable strategy. Therefore exercise happens as a result of animals satisfying other behavioral and physiological activities (e.g. foraging for food, socializing or seeking shelter

"Canine behavior." M.W. Fox. 1989 pp. 21-31

Training and other activities provide dogs with both the mental and physical stimulation necessary for their complete well-being.  Well-trained dogs are also able to enjoy off-leash activities much more often, which provides them with adequate mental and physical exercise.

DISCIPLINE AND AFFECTION:  POSITIVE DOES NOT MEAN PERMISSIVE

With a greater understanding of behavior, today's behaviorists and trainers are now using positive methods to modify even the most extreme behaviors in dogs with great results.  This includes dogs with severe aggression problems that may be facing euthanasia, or what the show refers to as "red zone" dogs.

This does not mean, however, that the dog is not given boundaries, firm rules or is only responsive when treats are present.  Positive training and behavior modification methods start with setting clear boundaries and controlling the resources in the dog's life, including affection and play.  This is done in a way that sets the owner up to succeed, so that they can control their attention, but still enjoy their dog's company and affection.

The primary difference between reward-based methods and the methods seen on the show is that reward-based methods are proactive.  The dog's environment and exposure to triggering stimuli is carefully controlled during the training process, so that the dog is not able to continue practicing the aggressive or unwanted behavior.  The dog owner then learns how to train the dog new, more desireable behaviors and also learns how to read the dog's body language and spot signs that predict problems.  Finally, the dog is gradually exposed to the triggering stimuli while practicing the newly trained behaviors (walking on a loose leash, focusing on the owner, etc.). Treats may be used during the process, but are used as rewards once the dog has already performed correctly, not as a way to get the behavior.

The methods on the show, on the other hand, are reactive and reliant on special equipment.  They put the dogs in situations where problems occur, then react to the dog's unwanted behavior, as if the dog will learn that their instinctive reactions to threatening situations are "wrong."  Without the leash, prong collar, or electronic shock collar, the dogs on the show are not responsive.

So, if the goal is to have better control over the dog, the method that looks at the entire problem, not just reacting to the symptom, is going to yield the best results.

STRESS IN DOGS

One of the biggest concerns that the experts have with the television show is that many of the dogs show signs of significant stress, some even go to the point of biting the star of the show.  While most people are able to recognize overt signs of stress such as barking, growling and baring teeth, dogs give numerous other subtle signals of stress before they resort to more impressive displays.  Some of these subtle signals include:

  • Yawning
  • Increased respiration after little to no physical activity
  • Low or backward ear carriage
  • Repeated licking of the lips or nose
  • Increased and sudden shedding or dandruff
  • Low tail and body carriage
  • Tense and slow movement

If a dog is repeatedly exhibiting these signs during training, it is time to re-evaluate either the training methods, the environment, or the owner/trainer's behavior.  Is the environment too stressful?  Are the methods or equipment causing the dog pain?  Is too much being demanded of the dog too soon? 

We all need some stress to survive. Hunger is a form of stress. If we didn't feel hunger, we wouldn't eat. However, humane and dog-friendly methods don't just mean the absence of pain, it also means absence of undue stress. A dog that is stressed to the point of aggression, fear, or shutdown (learned helplessness) is physically unable to learn and any training attempted while the dog is in this state will be wasted.

THE ILLUSION OF CONTROL

Are the dogs on the show truly rehabilitated? Rehabilitation suggests that the dog's behavior has been changed, that the dog is somehow cured of the problem behavior. And yet, the vast majority of the dogs featured on the show are still restrained by short, tight leashes or receive sustained aversive, such as leash corrections, finger jabs or held back by physical constraint, giving the illusion of control. Once those methods are removed, the dog resumes the behavior. This was evidenced when a dog named "Casanova" suddenly broke free from his pinch collar.

To understand why suppressed behavir is not the same as changed the behavior, one must learn the difference:

Behavior Modification is the process of permanently changing a dog's behavior by gradually exposing a dog (desensitization) to the triggering stimulus (dog, person, car, etc), then teaching an alternate behavior (counter-conditioning). 

Just one example is a dog that shows aggression toward other dogs on walks would first be taught how to walk nicely on leash and pay attention to the owner when no dogs are around (it is not uncommon for these dogs to have poor leash skills), and then gradually expose him to other dogs while asking for the newly trained behaviors. Those behaviors are then rewarded and the proximity of the other dog is gradually increased. This process keeps the dog below the level at which they react (commonly referred to as the threshold) and gradually teaches the dog a more desirable response under stressful situations.

A dog with modified behavior willingly offers the alternate behavior, such as looking at the owner instead of lunging toward a strange dog, without a tight leash or physical restraint, allowing the owner to reward the more desirable behavior, rather than "correct" the undesired behavior.

Suppression is typically done through the use of force or flooding.  Suppression of behavior stops the behavior in the moment, but requires the dog owner to constantly repeat the steps necessary over and over. Because so many dog owners want to know "What do I do when my dog..." this feels like a solution. However, it is not actually changing the underlying cause of the behavior and it requires the owner to constantly work to suppress problem behaviors.

Force includes punishment such as verbal corrections, leash corrections or jabbing a dog in the neck with your fingers.  It can also include forcing "submission" by pushing a dog on its side or back. While techniques such as this may immediately suppress the symptoms of the problem behavior (if it does not elicit an aggressive response which is often the case), the use of force can often make problems worse as the dog forms an association between the punishment and the trigger (the person, place or thing) that incites the aggressive or undesired behavior. In many cases, the frequency or form of punishment must be increased to maintain the suppression as the problem behavior often escalates over time.

Flooding.  Flooding is prolonged and forced exposure to something that is or has become unpleasant. It includes pulling a fearful dog into a swimming pool or immersing a dog-reactive dog in an environment with numerous other dogs.  If you are afraid of spiders, will it lessen your fear if I give you a massage with a pair of tarantulas?  When a dog is flooded, they can "shut down" from stress and won't exhibit any of the problem behaviors. This is not fixing the behavior, although it appears so to the untrained eye because the dog does not exhibit overt signs of aggression (although it will exhibit the more subtle signs of stress). A dog that is "shut down" or over-threshold is often not doing anything at all.

The primary difference between behavior modification and suppression is what happens when the dog is no longer restrained by the leash or physical aversives. In the example of the dog-aggressive dog, if the dog's behavior has been modified, then if the dog's collar breaks (as has happened on the show), the dog won't exhibit aggressive behavior or will be responsive to the owner, as the behavior modification program trained it to do.

True behavior modification is not always a fast process. Changing an established behavior can take considerable time and effort (look at humans who try every year to change diet, exercise routines and more), and while it certainly doesn't make for exciting television, the effects are more permanent than temporary suppression can achieve.

CONCLUSION

Is exercise important? Absolutely!  Do dogs need rules and boundaries?  Certainly!  Do humans need to stop equating dogs to humans and gain a greater understanding of dog behavior?  Definitely!  But how these goals are accomplished are of equal importance.

A basic understanding of canine behavior can give dog owners the knowledge they need to determine the right training methods for their dog and avoid those methods that offer new age explanations or pop psychology to sell old and potentially dangerous methods in a new package.

Dog psychology or, more accurately, the study of animal behavior, is not a complete mystery that is left to the interpretation of a few individuals. While there are many areas in which our understanding is incomplete, there is a staggering amount of scientifically proven information available.

Part II:  Frequently Asked Questions

After first writing this article in 2006, I've received dozens of emails from the show's fans, which all raise the same arguments, largely based on talking points popularized by the show's producers.  In an effort to save time and energy, I have written the following:

Dog Whisperer Controversy: Part II


ADDITIONAL ARTICLES AND RESOURCES
Dominance and Pack Behavior
Related Articles

Advanced Reading

Recommended Books

Exercise

Additional Articles:

Stress and Body Language

Recommended:

Additional Reading

How Dogs Learn - The REAL Dog Psychology

Additional Reading

Books

Punishment
Additional Resources

Dog Whispering in the 21st Century

Review by Dr. Andrew Luescher Sent to National Geographic
The producers sent Dr. Leuscher videotape of the show before it aired for his review. They chose to air the show even after receiving this review with Dr. Leuscher's concerns.

Video Examples
A library of examples of the handling and methods which have caused concern among behavior professionals.

AVSAB Position Statement on the Use of Dominance Theory in Behavior Modification PDF

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

Cesar Contends "I Help The Dogs," Experts Question His Approach

Beyond the Dominance Paradigm

Pack of Lies

Misguided Expert of the Year

 

 

 
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