Louisa Beal, DVM
Few of the regular attendees of the AVMA conference were aware of what was happening with Merial, a veterinary pharmaceutical company. Quite a controversy was created when a few weeks before the conference, it was brought to light that the company was using Cesar Millan in promotion of their Frontline and Heartguard products. As you may know, Mr. Millan’s show The Dog Whisperer is broadcast on the National Geographic channel. Mr Millan’s methods have come under intense scrutiny by the veterinary behavior community.
Dr. Andrew Luescher, DVM, PhD Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Behaviorists previewed videotapes submitted to him by National Geographic. The following is excerpted from his report:
“I have been involved in continuing education for dog trainers for over 10 years, first through the “How Dogs Learn” program at the University of Guelph and then through the DOGS! Course at Purdue University. I therefore know very well where dog training stands today, and I must tell you that Millan’s techniques are outdated and unacceptable not only to the veterinary community, but also to dog trainers.”
The first question regarding the above mentioned tapes I have is this: The show repeatedly cautions the viewers not to attempt these techniques at home, so what then, is the purpose of this show? Is it an infomercial for Cesar Millan? I think we have to be realistic. People will try these techniques at home, much to the detriment of their dogs.
Millan’s techniques are almost exclusively based on two techniques: flooding and positive punishment. In flooding, an animal is exposed to a fear evoking stimulus (which sometimes results in aggression) and prevented from leaving the situation until the animal stops reacting. To take a human example, arachnophobia would be treated by locking a person in a closet, releasing hundreds of spiders into that closet, and keeping the door shut until the person stops reacting. The person might be cured by that, but also might be severely disturbed and would have gone through an excessive amount of stress. Flooding has therefore always been considered a risky and cruel method of treatment. What Mr. Millan calls “calm submission”, scientists describe as “learned helplessness”.
Positive punishment refers to applying an aversive stimulus or correction as a consequence of a behavior. There are many concerns about punishment aside from its unpleasantness. Punishment is entirely inappropriate for most types of aggression and any behavior that involves anxiety (see Dr. Jim Ha’s post titled Confrontational Behavior Modification Techniques and the Risk to Owners). Punishment can suppress most behavior but does not resolve the underlying problem; anxiety, fear, and/or aggression. Even in cases where correctly applied, punishment might be considered appropriate, many conditions have to be met that most dog owners can’t meet. The punishment has to be applied every time the behavior is displayed, within 1/2 a second of the behavior, and at the correct intensity.
Dr. Nicholas Dodman, the Director of the Animal Behavior Clinic at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine of Tufts University agrees and has said that Cesar Millan’s methods are based on flooding and punishment. The results, though immediate, may only be temporary and can sometimes result in unintended behavioral fallout such as increased anxiety, fear, and aggression.
The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior released two position statements on the use of dominance theory for behavior modification of animals and guidelines for the use of punishment in dealing with behavior problems in animals. These address the problems in many of Millan’s claims about dominance pack order, and how he sets limits. You can download these position statements from the AVSAB web site.
There is a grounding of science in the field of behavior which Mr. Millan does not address in his work with dogs. His methods are based on his own experience and not on science. He calls himself a dog psychologist, but does not talk about basic principles of psychology, such as perception, conditioning, and reinforcement. If he has any knowledge of neurotransmitters and their effect on behavior, he keeps it well hidden. Just stopping an unwanted behavior is not sufficient. It is necessary to teach an acceptable alternate behavior. No amount of drama generated by television show producers or loyal followers change the scientific facts.
For Merial to choose Cesar Millan to represent the veterinary field is akin to choosing a Hollywood star who believes that bloodletting is the best way to treat any medical disorder to represent a pharmaceutical company. His methods are outdated and can be dangerous in the wrong hands.
I enjoyed being at the AVSAB booth at the conference very much though. Not only was I able to educate my colleagues and other attendees about this controversy, but I was also able to show a more effective, safer, and humane alternative. We had videos playing of clicker training being used not only on dogs, but also on cats, chickens, a pig, and a tropical Hornbill. I wonder how well Cesar’s Way would work on those species?
In my next post, I’ll talk about the advances in veterinary medicine that I learned about at the conference.