I wanted to thank John Wenzel of The Denver Post for taking the time to interview me about training methods, in light of the upcoming appearance by Cesar Millan in Denver for his piece profiling Millan.
I don’t want to rehash the same things I went over in a previous post about this topic, but I do wish to address a few things for the record.
First, I am not a “licensed” dog trainer; I am a certified professional dog trainer and veterinary assistant, through Animal Behavior College. I am also certified at the primary level in TAGteach and am working on my CPDT-KA certification. I regularly attend CE and networking events, and read many different reliable sources of information about the latest techniques in dog training and behavior. The term “licensed” is not entirely accurate; dog training is an unregulated profession, and I’ve written on this some before, as I think it’s very important for consumers to know about this, and use this information when choosing a trainer.
(NOTE: The online version of the article has now been updated to refer to me as certified, rather than licensed. Thanks, John!)
Second, when Millan was asked to reply to his critics, he said what his critics don’t understand is that he prepares people, and that energy is the way we communicate, not by the use of a leash or a touch. I find this response interesting, as it doesn’t really address what critics are saying. It seems more a deflection. Dog trainers spend a LOT of time working with people, especially when there are problem behaviors. It’s essential that people are coached effectively, this is true. And I agree, that it’s not about equipment, but about the training and how we interact with our dogs. But what is this “energy” of which Millan speaks?
I do believe that it is important to be relaxed and have a Zen-like ease around dogs. They can pick up on our insecurities, our worries, our own excitement and anxiety, and it can cause problems. Being relaxed and confident in interactions can make a big difference, especially if you’re using equipment like a leash. However, I would say that Millan’s approach to “energy” is not the same as what I or other force-free professionals would use. I never stare a dog down, or use a jab to the neck, or add more stress to situations that are volatile. This challenges the dog and can provoke a reaction I wouldn’t want to have happen–like a bite. To this day (knock on wood), I have not suffered a bite from a client because I went too far and caused that reaction. Behaviors strengthen as they are practiced so I do everything in my power to work at a level where the dog can succeed, and be reinforced for, the behaviors I want instead.
There is a video on YouTube that illustrates a bit about this. In the “Showdown with Holly,” a dog with a resource guarding problem, Millan does not back off when Holly gives clear warning signals. Instead, he provokes her and approaches her in an intimidating way, to throw her past a level of stress that I would never allow. Thinking she’s relaxed, he tries to stroke her with the same hand with which he jabbed her earlier, only to get a serious bite. As I stated in the Post article, dogs learn by association. Now that hand is a hand that hurts, and she’s going to fight back! In contrast, you can see another YouTube video from a positive reinforcement trainer that shows a better way to treat resource guarding, without force and intimidation, and without suffering a bite! Behavioral science may not hold much regard in Millan’s methods and his TV persona, and it may take a little more patience and time, but it will be more long-lasting and not produce any negative side effects, like fear or aggression, when compared to more heavy-handed techniques.
In the end, every TV viewer, book/show ticket or other product sold, is like a click of a clicker for Millan, so he is, in this way, proof that positive reinforcement works! This is the last I’ll ever write about him, as I don’t want to give more “clicks” than have already been given! But I did think this opportunity of talking with The Denver Post and using Millan’s appearance as a way to educate people on force-free, intimidation-free training was an important one. I appreciate Mr. Wenzel and his colleagues for taking the time to include what modern behavioral science has to say about his training techniques, as I know this could have very well been a one-sided profile piece.
Please do not hesitate to contact me for your training questions!
Owner, Delightful Doggies