Why the Latest Cesar Millan Incident Isn’t Just About a Pig

If you’re involved in the dog world in any way, chances are you’ve heard about the latest incident involving Cesar Millan. In a nutshell, on National Geographic’s “Cesar 911,” a dog named Simon who was a known pig killer was brought to Cesar for rehabilitation. The televised incident that has so many up in arms occurred when another man restrained a pig by the hind legs, causing it to squeal, and Simon, having been let off leash by Cesar (who previously had him on a long line), ran at the pig and bit its ear, drawing blood and, according to many reports, removing a chunk of the pig’s ear. Shortly after Cesar applied his brand of “rehabilitation,” he leashed Simon to the pig and boasted about how wonderful it was that they could be together in that way without violence. The incident was reported to Animal Control and Cesar is now under investigation.

There are so many things wrong with the pig episode that it’s difficult to know where to begin. For starters, the dog never should have been off leash in the first place. And later, when they were tethered together, the dog, who was showing avoidance behaviors, had no choice but to follow the pig. The pig had no choice, either. That’s rehabilitation? But before I address the bigger issues, I am aware that many people’s responses to the outrage over the incident has been some version of, “So what? It’s a pig!” or “Pigs are treated even worse in the meat industry, why aren’t you up in arms about THAT?” For the record I’m vegetarian, but that’s not the point. And I agree that the meat industry has some horrific practices; but that’s still not the point. This isn’t about a pig being harmed in the food industry. It’s about unnecessary pain and suffering caused to an animal in the name of training. And that is not okay, whether the injured party is a pig, a dog, or any other animal.

As a canine behavior specialist for over 20 years I, along with many of my professional colleagues, have been protesting Cesar’s methods for a very long time. His modus operandi is almost always the same: get the aggressive dog riled up to the point that he will demonstrate the aggressive behavior; punish the dog to the point that he shuts down and does not dare do it again; declare the dog rehabilitated. It certainly makes for good drama on television. But should our concern be what’s best for the animal, or for the viewing audience? Having worked with what Cesar terms “red zone dogs”—dogs with severe aggression towards dogs and/or people—for many years, I can tell you that rehabilitation does not require violence. The vast majority of dogs who are termed “aggressive” (yes, even “red zone dogs”) are displaying fear-based reactivity. Whether due to lack of early socialization, traumatic experience, or some other reason, the dog is not comfortable with other dogs. The barking, lunging and other aspects of the display certainly appear aggressive, and serve to cause the other dog or person to move away. It works, so the dog continues the behavior. But even in the small minority of cases where the cause is not fear-based reactivity, the dog already has a negative association with other dogs. So what is the answer? Should we scare or hurt the dog through harsh physical corrections every time he displays the aggressive behavior? Since dogs learn by association, although he might stop the behavior at the moment, a negative association is being strengthened. The dog’s underlying feeling about other dogs is, if anything, worsening. Any “improvement” in his behavior is due to fear of correction.

The foregoing describes setting the dog up to fail and then punishing him. The dog may no longer show aggression around other dogs, and may even display avoidance behaviors, because he knows other dogs coming around is going to be trouble. In this scenario, we have seemingly “fixed” the problem by strong-arming the dog into stopping. I wonder what the result will be when the human who did the strong-arming isn’t around, and the dog has access to another dog? And I wonder what sort of trust the dog now has in the person who choked, kicked, or otherwise punished.

Now the other side of the coin: modern, enlightened training methods. Using classical conditioning, for example, positive associations are created by pairing rewards with the appearance of another dog. At first, the training happens at a distance where he does not react. Gradual progress is made as the dog is comfortable. The dog is never pushed into a situation where he feels that he must react. It might not be scintillating action for television, but it results in a dog who is happy working with the person, and whose underlying association with other dogs changes, thereby resulting in a natural change in behavior. And for those dogs who are never going to like other dogs regardless, alternative behaviors to lunging, barking, etc. are taught. Again, the default behavior changes without causing harm to the dog or the relationship. Yes, even with “red zone” dogs.

I watched the entire first season of The Dog Whisperer back in the day, and have seen plenty of episodes since. I have watched horrified as dogs are forced to confront things they were terrified of (flooding), put into situations where of course they were going to bite because they were scared and pushed too far (bang trimming, nail trimming episodes come to mind), and more. In the infamous Holly episode, a resource guarding dog is pushed and pushed until she finally bites Cesar. There was a huge uproar over it, and yet nothing changed. Then there was the episode where he pushed a poor wolfdog who was dog reactive so far that the dog reacted. The dog was then hung to the point that he appeared unconscious. And this is rehabilitation?

Veterinary colleges, behaviorists, and all manner of trainers have protested time and time again. The point is, it’s ultimately not just about the pig. The problem is a man pushing dogs over threshold time and time again until they react, punishing them for it, and then deeming them cured. The problem is showing the public that this is the way to train dogs. Any show that needs a “Don’t try this at home” disclaimer is clearly using methods that can be dangerous. I have personally cleaned up countless messes where people have tried those very methods and things have gotten worse. Whether these owners applied the methods correctly is debatable, but what is not debatable is that many of them were bitten by their own dogs or, at the least, the fallout was a damaged relationship. The general public should not be trying methods that can result in harm to them or their dog. In fact, no one should. Meeting violence with violence is never the answer. With all we know nowadays about the way dogs think and learn, and all the safe, effective, scientifically based rehabilitation methods, there is no excuse for these Neanderthal techniques to still exist, and certainly not to be televised. No animal should ever suffer physically, emotionally, or psychologically in the name of training, period.

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You can find Nicole’s books and seminar DVDs at http://www.nicolewilde.com.

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37 Responses to Why the Latest Cesar Millan Incident Isn’t Just About a Pig

  1. Good points and well stated! I do foster work for several rescues and prefer to help dogs with emotional and/or behavioral issues because it is so hard for rescues to get help for these dogs. The dogs have taught me, perhaps more than I teach them. In a general sense, the gradual acclimation to things of fear and reactivity is a lot like the Functional Rewards or BAT methodology. The dogs began teaching me that years ago. it is good to see it discussed here and in a more structured manner in the books on the subject.

  2. Great post. I agree with what you are saying. It is not just about what happened in this one situation, its the way he “trains” dogs and his attitude towards animals in general.

  3. parisbeans says:

    Best, clearest I’ve ever read on why CM’s approach is so wrong. Without hyperbole. Brilliant and thank you! I’ve shared.

  4. Slider says:

    There are qualified trainers of dogs (animals) that do not use the terrible methods of Cesar’s. It is a shame he is still allowed to practice this shi**. You only see what is allowed~~~how many other mistreatments of animals has occurred with his methods??
    Shut him down, now~~~please.

  5. Well written! Sharing!!

  6. Claudia Siniawski says:

    And no dog or other animal should ever suffer physically, emotionally, or psychologically in the name of entertainment, period.

  7. Karen says:

    When I first got my “timid” dog about five years ago, Cesar’s techniques just didn’t feel right so I did not use them. About that time I found your book on fearful dogs and a like minded local trainer, both of which helped me immensely in helping her as much as possible. Although she still has some fears, she functions quite well within our family. Recently, I was surprised when a visitor in my home commented on what a friendly little dog she is. I was very proud of the progress she has made that day and what an amazing companion she now is. The most troubling aspect of Cesar’s techniques was I felt that those techniques undermined the trust relationship between my dog and I. Conversely, the techniques outlined in your book truly reinforce the trust between me and my dog. Thank you so much for writing such a useful book!

    • wildewmn says:

      Karen, thank you so much for letting me know that “Help for Your Fearful Dog” was helpful in working through your dog’s issues. I’m very glad you listened to your gut and went with what felt right to you. Kudos to you and tummy rubs to your dog. 🙂

  8. kirstrose says:

    This was a frightening episode on so many levels. I am still shocked that it happened.
    Excellent article Nicole.

  9. Karen Sandy CPDT-KA says:

    Perfectly broken down. Thank you. Hopefully this will be addressed, he will be held accountable, and his outdated methods will be seen for what they are, punishing, pushing, flooding, and bullying. Looking forward to no longer having to waste time debunking his methods with owners and knowing many dogs are saved from abuse.

  10. Reblogged this on Tail Waggin' Times and commented:
    Great explanation of the hoopla for those who think it is much ado about nothing.

  11. Is money so important to NatGeo to keep showing CM and his hideous methods? Yeah, I know…………I just assessed a fear reactive dog who had been subjected to CM-based handling, and this poor animal has completely shut down -learned helplessness. How long will this go on?? Nicole, thank you for taking a stand here – so many on the R+ side hesitate to be upfront about the aversive methods….more need to say, enough!!

  12. As always, an eloquent and thoughtful article. I wish I hadn’t shared so many others as THIS is the article I want people to read. I hope that they do.

  13. I remember watching an episode early on that involved a dog that barked at a toaster every time it popped up (terrible behavioral problem, that…uh huh). CM chased this dog into a corner and popped the toaster over and over again. The dog frantically tried to get away. He kept him cornered until he was finally “cured” (read: learned helplessness).

    At that time, I knew ZERO about dog training but on a gut level, it felt so wrong to me that I swore I’d never watch another episode. Unfortunately, too many people see him on TV and think he’s an expert, so they throw common sense and intuition out the window.

    I also found out about you (and your book) after adopting my fearful dog and I’m so glad I did. I can’t even imagine using the methods CM uses with her. Today, she is a happy, funny, confident dog and we have an incredible bond…all thanks to positive training.

    • wildewmn says:

      Hi Amber, I saw that episode as well. A classic example of flooding, and painful to watch. The dog learned nothing and was traumatized and it demonstrated perfectly the problem with those types of techniques. I love that you listened to your gut. And I am grateful that my book was of help to you and your dog. I love that she is doing so wonderfully today thanks to positive training and your efforts. 🙂

  14. Exactly right before I read your wonderfully comprehensive article, I was just telling a friend that Cesar was passe! That it is a shame that Cesar never evolved out of his draconian practices and into the light of associative training. Thank you.

  15. Barbara Lee says:

    Well said.

  16. Well said Nicole. Unfortunately he has many admirers and it will take a long time for them to see the light, especially in South Africa

  17. Mary says:

    Excellent – as always! Thank you Nicole!

  18. lexy3587 says:

    Great article. I am horrified at how easy it is to fall into the trap of seeing him as a great dog trainer. I say this from the perspective of someone who really admired him before I got a dog. Thankfully the main things I drew from him when I finally did get a dog were “You need to Exercise your dog and you need to Train your dog”, and thankfully the first trainer I stumbled upon focused on positive training techniques. I didn’t have enough experience around dogs to say, ‘gee, that dog is super uncomfortable’, and if I had ended up with one of his devotees as a trainer, I might have ended up with a much less happy partnership with my dog.

  19. Karen DeBraal says:

    Thank you for your clear post. I am so grateful for people like yourself who speak up. I might add that one would not (I hope) take an abused/fearful child and abuse/scare him some more to “help.” I know some humans do that but it is frowned upon these days. On the same note — hey, I am scared of the dentist. If I had to go see a dentist and have him/her come at me with no anesthetic, no calming measures, and loom over me, then begin procedures, I would strike out in total fear. For that I would be what — tied to the dentist — lashed to the chair?

  20. Cree Wolf says:

    I, for one, have never witnessed CM using ANY harsh or cruel methods of training. I really don’t know where all of you are coming from. His methods have always been calm and positive. Yes, sometimes you have to get a dog’s attention. Babying them does not work in SOME situations. I have NEVER witnessed him kicking, punishing or choking “to the point of unconsciousness.” Really??? That is such absurd BS!!! He never has kicked a dog. Sometimes he taps a dog with his foot to get it’s attention, but it sure as hell isn’t kicking!!! The dogs that are brought to him are usually so far gone by owners who don’t understand the meaning of being in control. With all due respect to all of you, it sounds like you’ve falling into the trap of letting your dog be the boss because you’re being told that any method other than love and affection is “cruel and harsh.” Yes, love and affection IS very important, but only after your dog has responded well to training. Just my very humble opinion. And, having said all that, I DON’T agree with him using other animals for training dogs. THAT is unnecessary training that just upsets innocent animals. I want to make my feelings clear on that point.

    • wildewmn says:

      Hi Cree Wolf, respectfully, just because you have never witnessed something doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened. Although I would love to be able to include a link here to the footage of CM with the wolfdog, it has been removed from Youtube by CM’s legal team, as have other disturbing incidents that cause public outrage. What I can offer is this link to an article about it by Mark Beckoff, a very well respected behaviorist (with an actual Ph.D.) and author regarding the incident: http://bit.ly/1nM4MRl

      There is a vast area of behavioral techniques that fall between the extremes of babying a dog and stringing a dog up. They’re kind, they’re effective, and they do not cause the fallout that harsh methods do. I don’t expect this blog, the article I referenced, or anything else to change your mind, but I do appreciate your mostly civil tone.

      • Cree Wolf says:

        Thank you for your response and info. I am never adverse to learning. i was only stating what I have witnessed on his shows. I know that the television networks are all about ratings (look at the Trump fiasco!), i also know that a lot goes on behind the scenes on the CM shows. A lot of his training ideas I don’t agree with at all. I.E. making your dog walk behind you. Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t mind if my dogs walk ahead of me. Anyway, all I’m saying is I’ve never witnessed the ‘cruelty and harshness” that I’m reading about in this forum. But then, I haven’t watched all his shows…..

      • wildewmn says:

        Thank YOU Cree Wolf for being open to listening. I’m fairly certain that if you saw some of the clips that I’ve seen you would not be comfortable with the methods used. And btw I’m with you, I don’t mind if my dogs walk in front of me either, so long as it’s me making the choice. 😉

  21. When I posted earlier, I commented from the perspective of the alternative to the forceful Millan methods that Nicole offered. Positive methods are the way forward. There is more knowledge offered on a single page of one of Nicole’s books than in the entire Millan library. I have several of Nicole’s books and they have all been helpful with the foster dogs at different times and in different ways.

    We have to let everyone know that there are better ways than force. Showing what our dogs can do and offering helpful suggestions to our friends and family are ways to overcome the lure of the easy answer and quick results promised by the TV.

    I had a number of foster dogs that blossomed once I changed their experience from force to things positive. This refers to the dogs that I know were subjected to the Millan methods. I use nothing but positive methods and have had success with every foster dog.

    The worst are the so called “balanced trainers”. With a force based trainer, a dog knows s/he is going to get punished. With a “balanced trainer”, a dog never knows whether punishment or a reward is in the offing.

    As for Millan, I think that a mole should be placed in that organization. Things filmed with a hidden camera could lead to well deserved criminal charges of cruelty. Someone once sent me a clip of Shadow. The dog was walking nicely when Millan delivered a swift and painful kick to the dog’s abdomen with his foot that was away from the camera so that he could justify hanging Shadow with the leash until Shadow was laying, semi conscious and in a puddle of what appeared to be his own urine (otherwise dry street) and Millan pronounced him “calm and submissive”. If this sort of thing makes it to TV, one wonders what horrors lay on the cutting room floor, too violent even for a TV show that makes its money on sensationalism.

    One has to wonder about Millan naming his highly efficient choke collar after his wife, who has now divorced him. Coincidence? I don’t think so.

  22. A very well written article. I definitely do not agree with Cesar’s methods of training. I watched a couple of episodes and was appalled at his methods. Hopefully something will be done about things this time. He needs to be exposed.

  23. Dixie says:

    Thank you Nicole. Very well written. As a canine behaviorist my biggest concern is the concern you expressed at the bottom which is the clients who have used his training methods and have gotten attacked. I too have had those clients come to me following use of his methods and I too have had to try and undue the damage or watch as a dog is euthanized because the owner took Cesar’s methods to heart and the result was a severe bite wound. When a trainer is televised and especially on a channel like Nat Geo people want to believe what that trainer is doing is correct. As long as he is on the air more dogs will suffer, more owners will become frustrated, and dogs will die. This has to stop!

  24. riverdogfarm says:

    Excellent, thank you for a very well written article.

  25. I found the episode with Shadow the husky on Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A_W5i5RmDb8

    • wildewmn says:

      Thank you, Marie. This is a perfect example of what NOT to do when working with a dog-reactive dog. Pushing a dog over threshold in this way and then punishing him when he tries to defend himself by biting is exactly what I’m talking about. Having worked with hundreds of dog-reactive dogs over the years I can honestly say this sort of thing has NEVER happened to me, and the dogs are still “rehabilitated” and able to be around other dogs without having to be traumatized in this way. Many other modern, enlightened trainers can say the same.

    • Cree Wolf says:

      Okay, here goes. First of all, thank you for sharing that video!! I really wanted to see it! What I see here are owners who have been transmitting the wrong signal to their dog. Shadow is a very nice, gentle dog, but the owners tense up when another dog comes along and that puts him in a defensive mode. The problem is it escalates until he’s out of control. Clearly that dog got aggressive with whoever was on the end of the leash. I ask all of you, what would YOU do if you had a snapping dog going at you?? Would you drop the lead and stand there? Would you give him a treat? Talk softly? Turn sideways? I’m not trying to be sarcastic, I’m only asking. Sorry, but I would have done the same thing Cesar did. He didn’t hurt that dog, but he got Shadow’s attention, for sure. About me…..I’ve trained and shown dogs since I was 18. I am a wolf/wolfdog advocate and activist and have owned wolves and wolfdogs for over 40 years. I had a pure, Rainah, may God rest her beautiful soul, who would challenge me every breeding season. I had to get tough with her when she came at me. Which meant grabbing her by the cheeks and screaming F-bombs in her face until she backed down, which she always did. If I didn’t get real SERIOUS with her I would never have been able to go in the enclosure again. But, that’s wolves. And, wolves are different from dogs. I own/operate my own boarding facility, specializing in pit bulls. I have one pit customer who comes here who’s triple-red zone. BUT, he does it because his owners tighten up his leash around people and dogs making him think he has to go into protective mode. Last time he came here I had the owner bring him for a walk with me. As soon as the owner and I relaxed and talked and he loosened up the leash, the dog stopped going at me. When he does get worked up like Shadow does, the owner has to really get firm or he would turn on him, too, but only because he’s in a frenzied state. I have a gorgeous wolfdog, Starr, whom I love beyond words. She’s shy and when we go to the vet I hold her leash in a death grip because I’m so afraid of losing her. As a consequence she get more nervous. I know I’m wrong, but can’t help it. Anyway, sorry for going on and on. Tell me, though, what would you do in a serious case like Shadow’s because I really want to know.

      • wildewmn says:

        Hi Cree Wolf, thank you for your thoughts. We’re talking about two different things here. You’re asking about what someone would be expected to do when being attacked. (And yes, let’s leave wolves out of it, since as you said that’s a whole other enchilada!) Of course we’d all do whatever we had to do in order to stay safe. The point though is that the dog should never have been put into the position where his behavior escalated to that point in the first place. You are absolutely correct that an owner’s nervousness can easily transmit down the leash to a dog. But again, regarding this specific video clip as well as working with “aggressive” dogs in general, if behavior modification is being done properly the dog is not placed in a position where he goes over threshold to the point that he feels the need to bite. Hope that clarifies things, and tummy rubs to your girl Starr.

      • Cree Wolf says:

        Very well put, and I thank you! And, Starr thanks you!

  26. Pigmama says:

    Anyone who let a known pig killing dog near my beloved pet pig would get a foot so far up their ass my toes would come out their mouth.

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