The Problem with Cesar Millan, Dog Training and Dog Behavior

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

The problem with Cesar Millan, Dog Training and Dog Behavior 

I realize Cesar Millan has received a lot of attention and endorsed and/or affiliated with National Geographic seems to have elevated his methods in spite of better alternatives.  When NG first announced this programming, there was quite an uproar from the positive training circles and in spite of a vigorous letter writing campaign NG declined to pull the program.

The problem with Cesar Millan’s methods are two fold, he ignores what dog’s are communicating (body language) and uses flooding as a preferred choice for behavior modification as opposed to “overcoming fears gradually…ensuring that the dog (or person) is comfortable at each level of the fear hierarchy before proceeding to the next” according to Burch and Bailey (1999).

If anyone doesn’t understand the term flooding, used in respondent conditioning, I will explain using Burch and Bailey’s book How Dogs Learn.  Flooding is a “sink or swim” method as opposed to what is commonly used systematic desensitization.  When using flooding procedures, one (trainer or handler) presents the animal or human with the scary stimuli all at once.  The theory behind the method holds that “high levels of anxiety and fear will be elicited quickly, and respondent extinction of fear will also occur quickly (Burch & Bailey, 1999).

According to Burch and Bailey (1999), “police and military trainers use flooding to address fearfulness and anxiety” along with “old school trainers who believed dogs should be ‘broken’” and that fearfulness was not tolerated and chose to “throw” dogs into scary situations not allowing them to escape.  On the opposing side Burch and Bailey (1999) say, “we believe systematic desensitization is a much more humane method of dealing with fear in dogs.”  Burch and Bailey (1999) said, “flooding can result in overwhelming anxiety and distress” and sometimes dogs may become so “traumatized…they lose control of their bladder and bowels” and some may be so resistant “they become aggressive and dangerous for the average person to handle.”

Systematic desensitization on the other hand offers three main components which include 1.) relaxation training, 2.) using a hierarchy ranging from the least to the most problematic situation and 3.) counterconditioning (Burch & Bailey, 1999).

In addition, Pam Reid, Ph.D. says in her book Excel-erated Learning, “sometimes, this form of treatment works and the fear extinguishes…more often than not, the person experiences such fright and discomfort during the experience that the fear becomes even stronger.”  The reason for her opinion is according to her, when one is confronted with a “fearful emotion” the normal accompanying responses are “escape and avoidance behaviors” which serve to “decrease the fear.”  According to Reid, escape and avoidance behaviors are “very resistant to extinction.”

Her recommendation for flooding to work is waiting until the dog “has become exhausted and is physically unable to respond fearfully any longer” after which point the dog can experience the “feared stimulus without reacting and extinction is able to occur…usually this in not [an] ethical option.”

The second and most compelling problem is Millan chooses to ignore what dogs are communicating, their fears and anxieties.  Before I proceed with this topic, I would like to ask everyone how *you* might feel being forced into what *you might consider* an extremely fearful or scary situation.  Think about fight or flight, which is a common human and animal response to both scary and dangerous situations.  How does your body feel, has your heart rate increased?  Are you sweating?  Have you lost control of your bodily functions?  Have you ever experienced a panic attack?

The following is an excerpt from one of my papers on aggression and you may question why I would include being able to read aggressive dogs and how this is related to fear and anxiety.  The reason is *fear and anxiety* is most commonly the precursor to using aggression.  When one forces dogs or any animal into situations they perceive as fearful or unknown this causes anxiety and fear, which automatically changes one’s emotional state bringing about chemical changes in the brain.  These emotional and chemical changes cause our *fight or flight response* to become activated and when pushed beyond our acceptable thresholds and unable to *escape*, the normal animal will resort to aggression in an attempt to *avoid* the scary and dangerous situation.  Things are just not as simple as Milan portrays in thirty-minute segments!

When one decides to work with dogs and particularly aggressive dogs that person should have some idea how to read dogs.  According to Aloff (2002), understanding what dogs are communicating and our ability in recognizing their signals may mean, “…the difference between a dog you have to euthanize and one you can work with.”  This is a rather important distinction when a dog’s life is in your hands coupled with emotional trauma an owner may be feeling.

Through careful observation, that may include personal observation by the behavior consultant, observing the interaction between the owner and dog, taking a video or still photographs and getting a detailed historical background could all be helpful in predicting the behavior, applying the proper training methods, management and identifying the dogs emotional state.

Understanding how our dogs communicate is essential to resolving behavior problems.  Communication lacking clear understanding can influence behavior, so establishing clear communication with our dogs should be considered an essential part of ownership.

Understanding how we can effectively communicate and understand what dogs are conveying to us should be a priority of those working with dogs.  The roles of the participants and the context communication takes place needs understood.  Too many times thoughts of dominance are used to explain behavior, when in fact, most dog-dog and dog-human interaction is about “deference and avoiding conflict” according to Horwitz (2001).

Dogs are capable of giving subtle signs of deference so quickly it could be understood why the average dog owner might miss them.  In addition, much literature still exists suggesting “submissive training exercises and postures” that are more harmful to the human-canine relationship than useful.

Finally, according to Debra Horwitz (2001) the best way we can effectively communicate with our companion dogs is as follows:

  1. Owners need to understand what deference means, it can be as simple as diverted eye contact
  2. An owner can establish their leadership by controlling the dogs environment and how it receives reinforcement
  3. Owners can require calm quiet behavior before getting any reinforcement
  4. Owners need to understand the context of the dogs behavior and establish their relationship based on the dogs behavior and counter that behavior with appropriate communication

More on this here:   AVMA Conference: The Controversy

About the authors/references:

Mary Burch, Ph.D. is a Certified Behavior Analyst.  She is approved as a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist by the Animal Behavior Society.  She has published behavior research with the U.S. Department of Education and is considered a “national expert on the topic of therapy dogs.”

Jon S. Bailey, Ph.D. is a Professor of Psychology at Florida State University and a Fellow of the American Psychological Association and was on the Board of Directors of the Society for the Experimental Analysis of Behavior and past editor of the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis and is “one of the most widely published researchers in the field of behavior analysis” and “serves as an expert witness on behavioral issues.”

Dr. Pamela J. Reid is a certified applied animal behaviorist. She received her Ph.D. in Psychology with a specialization in animal learning and behavior from the University of Toronto. Pam is the Vice President of the ASPCA Animal Behavior Center. At the ASPCA, Pam consults with pet owners, veterinarians, trainers, legal professionals, and shelter personnel on animal and their behavior. She and her colleagues evaluate shelter dogs, rehabilitate those with behavior problems, develop enrichment programs, and conduct research to improve the lives of shelter animals.

Joyce Kesling, CDBC

Certified Dog Behavior Consultant IAABC

Professional Dog Trainer APDT

Sarasota, FL

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