It’s been an interesting week. Last Friday, a local trainer and colleague, Grisha Stewart of Ahimsa Dog Training contacted me to ask if I would discuss Cesar Millan’s techniques with a reporter from KOMO-TV here in Seattle. To see video of the piece broadcast by KOMO-TV, click here, or click on the image to the right. Millan was in town for a meet-and-greet and fundraiser for a local pet shelter. I leaped at the chance, as the science that I do as an ethologist very much clashes with his approaches, and I have been working hard to get the word out to the public about the serious side effects of his techniques.
In our practice, we see MANY cases of dogs with severe aggression, and in performing our detailed background interviews and assessments, we find that the dog has gotten worse following treatment with behavior modification techniques similar to those of Millan’s, whether administered by the owner, based on what they think that they know of the methods, or administered by local trainers who use similar techniques. These cases elegantly support what we already know from the science of animal behavior, called ethology.
What are Millan’s techniques? They involve a combination of exhaustion, flooding, and a very traditional use of aversive learning, more commonly called punishment. What is lacking from his approaches is any sort of positive social interaction, rewarding of proper behavior, “positive affect” as it is called by the psychologists.
Exhaustion as a behavior modification technique is now being debated for its role in anti-terrorist torture techniques, and we know from decades of learning research that exhaustion actually decreases learning. Flooding as a useful technique in humans has lost its adherents due to its potentially negative side-effects and its ineffectiveness: a vaguely similar but much more useful technique is called desensitization. Flooding is basically the process of “breaking” an animal (or human), a technique now also rapidly losing favor in the horse training world. Finally, Millan makes heavy use of punishment, but which he, completely incorrectly, describes as being part of dog pack dominance behavior.
We know that the use of any one of these techniques will produce fear, anxiety, and a well-documented phenomenon known as “learned helplessness.” Learned helplessness is a psychological condition in which a human being or an animal has learned to act or behave helpless in a particular situation, even when it has the power to change its unpleasant or even harmful circumstance. Learned helplessness theory is the view that clinical depression and related mental illnesses result from a perceived absence of control over the outcome of a situation (Seligman, 1975). This condition has been heavily researched, originally by Seligman’s group at Cornell University. It is one of the conditions we see in post-traumatic stress disorder (a similar condition from which many of the “badly behaved” dogs that are brought to Millan, and to our practice, are suffering), and it is what we see in many of the animals that have been handled using Millan’s techniques.
It’s also interesting to note that we biologists, ethologists, studying the behavior of animals in the world around us would NEVER be allowed to apply the techniques that Millan uses to the crows, primates, killer whales, and other animals that we find so fascinating… and we wouldn’t want to: these techniques tell us nothing and do not help us learn any more about our fellow wildlife.
Given that we know that any of these techniques can produce horrible side-effects, one of the worst things about Millan’s approach is that he combines the use of all three. For these reasons, because we know so much more about dog behavior than Cesar Millan fans realize, because the use of these techniques, especially when we know better, is unethical, I was happy to speak to the KOMO reporter.
As always in the our world, everything is not black-and-white: will Millan’s techniques produce a change in the behavior of a dog, a decrease in aggression in the specific context in which he does the training and in the trainer’s presence? Yup… and we see that on the National Geographic Channel. But at the cost of what severe long-term and side-effect consequences, which we do not see on the National Geographic Channel?
Do I suggest in my own work that many a dog’s problems arise from boredom and lack of exercise, especially younger dogs and those bred for high energy, and do I therefore recommend a greatly expanded exercise program, even training your dog to (voluntarily) run on a treadmill? Yup… but note the voluntary part!
Do some breeds require a clear social structure and “get into trouble” without it, and do I therefore sometimes recommend affirming and clarifying a social structure, using proper social communication signals that dogs recognize? Yup, but notice the part about “some breeds” and proper social signals, which do not include shock collars, “helicoptering” a dog on a choke collar, alpha-rolling a dog (wolves don’t DO this!!!), or any other aversive techniques.
The approaches that we, and most of our colleagues, use are based on science, on a knowledge of animal behavior and psychology that has grown by leaps and bounds (little pun intended) in the past few decades. We no longer use concepts like fixed action patterns, instinctive drift, and nature vs nurture; we know that punishment doesn’t work in dogs… our view of the animals with which we share this planet, and with which we associate every day, has become far more complicated, and far more fascinating. I love my job!
We always love to hear from our readers, so feel free to let us know your thoughts on the KOMO piece. We know that this is an emotional topic for many people, so just a gentle reminder to be respectful when you post. You can also send email to Joel Moreno, KOMO-TV: firstname.lastname@example.org.