Once a month I teach a puppy training class during which we discuss behavior modification — what I, as well as the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB), feel is the right way to train your dog. Other lines of thought do exist, among them the method of dominance theory that includes the punitive training techniques made popular in the last few years by Cesar Millan in his Dog Whisperer television program.
Millan’s training revolves around what is called dominance theory. According to this school of thought, you must establish yourself as the “alpha dog” while keeping your dog in a submissive role. A central theme of this training technique is that dogs are constantly trying to obtain dominance over their owners or other pets in the house and must be put in their place, often times using force.
People who believe in dominance theory will tell you that it is based on studies of wolf behavior. What they may not be aware of is that these studies were conducted back in the 1960’s and have since been proven inaccurate. In just the past decade we have learned that wolves in the wild do not fight to become the alpha dog of the pack; rather, their “packs” are families consisting of a mating pair heading up a group of their offspring.
Here’s the main problem I see with dominance theory: maintaining your alpha-dog status requires that you routinely behave in a threatening manner – often using physical force–to those submissive to you. And so you must ask yourself: Is that the kind of relationship you really want to create? It’s certainly not one I want to share with my dogs.
Dog Whisperer may be entertaining television, but it should not be used as an example of how to train your dog. Most of Millan’s techniques are primitive and often times inhumane. So much so, that there was a public outcry calling for National Geographic to remove the show after an episode in which Millan used a choke collar on an unruly dog until it collapsed gasping for breath. Though National Geographic did not stop airing the show, they now post a disclaimer cautioning people not to try these techniques at home.
Proponents of Millan argue that he saves animals that would have otherwise been euthanized for aggressive behavior. But it is commonly accepted in the behavioral community that, for the most part, aggression in dogs is rooted in fear and mistrust. So the techniques of dominance theory can actually lead to an even more fearful animal. The AVSAB put out a position statement warning that using punishment training for behavioral problems can lead to “potential adverse effects which include but are not limited to: inhibition of learning, increased fear-related and aggressive behaviors and injury to animals and people interacting with animals”.
Though I don’t agree with his training methods, I’m sure Millan believes he has the animal’s best interest at heart. He is a huge supporter of shelters and rescue foundations. His center in Los Angles takes in many abused and rescued animals that I’m sure would have otherwise been euthanized. Still, I feel that it’s my responsibility as a veterinarian and dog lover to clearly state that I do not believe in following his methods.
In the end, it’s up to you to choose which method to use with your dog. On one hand, you have a method that may initially seem simpler, but is based on research that is no longer valid and requires you to frequently use physical force when your dog acts out. On the other hand, you can use behavior modification to create a situation where your dog has self-control and looks to you for guidance. My hope is that you will embrace the challenge of behavior modification, and use it to create a relationship with your dog that is based on trust and communication – never on fear and intimidation.
Ashley Gallagher, DVM