This training philosophy is named after Cesar Milan, star of National Geographic Society’s Dog Whisperer. Although trainers who practice these so-called “confrontational methods” are not all in agreement with Cesar’s training philosophy, their general approaches have similarities with an assertive style that includes active physical contact while training. Cesar Milan is the most famous of all, with books, DVDs and the all important fame and notoriety. However, if you have ever read or seen his work, he is the first to attest that he is NOT a dog trainer. He prefers to be called a dog rehabilitator. It is ironic that the leader of the pack in some dog training corners admits he is not a dog trainer at all.
Wolf in Dog Clothing
The two (2) fundamental assumptions of Cesar’s Corner are: #1 – dogs are basically wolves in domestic clothing, and #2 – wolves live in packs. Dogs are definitely related to wolves – just look at their physical similarities. However, unlike wolves, domesticated dogs evolved to live in social harmony with humans. This cooperative relationship is fundamental to understanding human-dog relationships. Science has demonstrated that wolves are not wired to bond with humans; for an extensive explanation of the evolutionary biology of dogs and wolves, please see Bradshaw (2011). So, the assumption that dogs are a domesticated version of wolves is invalidated by science. However, are comparisons of dog and wolf biology still helpful in better understanding dog behavior? Most definitely, but always keep in perspective that domesticated dogs evolved to live along side humans, not in competition with humans.
The Pack Mentality
The second fundamental assumption of Cesar’s Corner involves packs. What are packs? Packs are large groups of typically unrelated individuals from the same species that co-exist in relative harmony maintained through distinct social hierarchies. The “top dog” in packs is call the “alpha” individual, and typically has unrestricted access to valuable resources. And, there is active competition between individuals to maintain their hierachial status. Are wolves pack animals? For decades, scientists believed wolves lived in packs. In fact, wildlife biologist and renowned wolf expert David Mech stated that his 1970 book, “The Wolf: The Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species“, was responsible for much of this misinterpretation of wolf sociobiology. For decades, the idea wolves lived in packs came from research conducted on captive zoo wolves starting in 1940s. The scientific acceptance that wolves lived in packs persisted until 1999, when David Mech published a pivotal research paper on the sociobiology of wild wolf populations. Rather than forming packs of unrelated individuals, wild wolves live in small family groups composed of related individuals (mom, dad and the kids).
Cognitive Ability & Value of Dogs
Before addressing the second facet of dog training, the last two will be addressed. The third facet relates to the cognitive/thinking ability of dogs. Because this training philosophy assumes dogs are wolves and wolves form packs with competitive social hierarchies, domesticated dogs are viewed as contemplating how they are going to overtake and dominate their human companions, which typically couldn’t be further from the truth. The fourth facet is how the trainers value dogs. No matter how much someone may dislike this training philosophy, Cesar’s Corner values dogs as companions and not just workers or tools to be used.
Physical Corrections ~ Ethical & Philosophical Issues
So, back to the second and most controversial facet of dog training, which involves “ethical and philosophical issues pertaining to physical punishment in dog training”. The difference between corrections and punishment was previously discussed in Part 4, and with that in mind, the second facet will be referred to as the “ethical and philosophical issues pertaining to physical corrections in dog training“. Regardless of not using the emotionally charged term of punishment, Cesar’s Corner is known to use excessive physical corrections, either with training gear, physical touching, stare-downs or other assertive actions to force desired behaviors. These are considered harsh corrections. After reading his books and watching hours of the Dog Whisperer, words that would describe this training methods include tense, physical, aggressive and pack mentality. There are numerous incidences where aggressive dog behavior was challenged with aggressive human behavior. A stunning example is seen in an episode where Cesar corners a nervous yellow lab and is subsequently bitten by the fearful dog, all because of issues with food.
Reading Between the Eyes
Cesar’s Corner represents a confrontational training philosophy that is based on the flawed assumptions that dogs are basically wolves who have an innate desire to dominate their humans, which is not supported by science. At his Dog Psychology Center in California, large groups of unrelated dogs live together in an enclosure, similar to captive wolves in zoos. In fact, these dogs are doing exactly what wolves did in zoos by establishing dominance hierarchies. Thus, it is not surprising that dogs are viewed as pack animals in these conditions. In addition, visitors are told NOT to look at these dogs directly in the eyes because direct eye contact is viewed as aggressive and potentially dangerous. This is probably the case, considering the large group of unrelated dogs (up to 50 individuals) that reside at the Center. Unfortunately, avoiding eye contact is a huge loss because so much communication between dogs and humans is accomplished reading between the eyes. This will be further explained in the Dog’s Perspective training philosophy.
Constructive Training Techniques
Although confrontational training may not be a method of choice, there are some positive techniques from Cesar’s Corner that should be incorporated in any dog training methods. First, Cesar will use dog ambassadors or mentors to help untrained dogs get accustomed to other dogs and novel situations, which is a great technique. However, care must be taken when matching dogs with mentors. Also, the importance of daily walks, runs and other activities with dogs is emphasized, and should be the cornerstone of all training methods. Finally, his observation of how dogs of homeless people willingly and obediently follow their human companions is well-noted. Although the homeless do not spend any money on expensive training gear, their dogs are some of the most obedient canine companions around. Next time you have the opportunity to observe these fascinating companionships, please take note.
Coming up next – the Positive Position Dog Training Philosophy
Bradshaw, J. 2011. Dog Sense: How the New Science of Dog Behavior Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet. New York: Basic Books. 324 pp.
Mech, L. D. 1970. The Wolf: The Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species. Natural History Press (Doubleday Publishing Co., N.Y.) 389 pp.
Mech, L. D. 1999. Alpha status, dominance, and division of labor in wolf packs. Canadian Journal of Zoology 77:1196-1203.
Mech, L. D., and L. Boitani (Editors). 2003. Wolves, Behavior, Ecology and Conservation. University of Chicago Press. 428 pp.