Animal Emotions

Do animals think and feel?

Cesar Millan Receives Honorary Graduate Degree: Tail Wags?

This award to controversial dog trainer will unlikely get lots of joyful wags

"Dog whisperer" Cesar Millan is a very controversial figure in the world of dog training. Some people swear by his controversial and often abusive techniques, whereas others thoroughly eschew what he does. To date, a previous essay I wrote for Psychology Today about Mr. Millan's abusive treatment of a husky has received 157 comments that range from total support to thorough, reasoned, and vehement rejection of his training methods. That's the price of being a rock star.

This past weekend I received an email from a Canadian dog trainer telling me that Mr. Millan had been awarded an honorary master's degree by the Bergin University of Canine Studies, an institute at which I've taught courses on animal behavior, animal cognition, and animal emotions a number of times. You can read more about Bergin University here.

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The man who sent me the email was incredulous that Bergin University would award this degree and not so gently asked if I and others who are associated with them had agreed with their decision. I didn't know about it and I don't agree with it for a number of reasons. Nether does my co-author on this brief essay, New York Times contributor and Psychology Today blogger Mark Derr, who also is author of How the Dog Became the DogMark is a former instructor at Bergin University having taught a course called "Dogs of the world".

There are a number of reasons readers of Psychology Today should find this story of interest. First, an honorary degree should not be a form of recognition that's tossed around as if it means nothing and some essayists and readers have surely been granted this form of prestigious recognition. Second, Mr. Millan has not made any contributions to any academic field and Bergin University is an accredited academic degree-granting institution. 

To wit, an honorary degree "is often conferred as a way of honouring a distinguished visitor's contributions to a specific field or to society in general. It is often given to graduation speakers at a university or college. The university often derives benefits by association with the person in question. The degree is not recognized by employers as having the same stature as a corresponding 'earned' doctorate and should not be represented as such." Furthermore, this degree is essentially a high-level academic recognition. Nonetheless, on occasion, celebrities receive honorary degrees absent any clear contributions to the ivory tower.

I was frankly astounded that Mr. Millan was granted such a degree given that his contributions to dog training, accepted or not, do not deserve and have not received any sort of academic recognition and they also involve a good deal of intimidating and dominating dogs to get them to do what he and their human companions want them to do. Indeed, a few years back, Mark had noted this in an excellent essay in the New York Times called "Pack of Lies". He has written more on this topic and his recent essay for Psychology Today about Mr. Millan and his methods of training can be seen here

The mission of Bergin University has been stated as follows: "Elevating the dog as an academic scholarly subject of study and providing service dogs to people with disabilities and veterans with combat-related issues." We do not see how Mr. Millan fits their bill. His methods quite often go against what scientific research has told us about the behavior of dogs and what they want and need and there is no scholarly side to what he does. And, he has not been responsible for any formal studies of dog behavior of which we are aware. 

Certainly, we agree that the free and open exchange of ideas lies at the heart of any university's mission. So, we ask, why was Mr. Millan awarded the degree? We're frankly not sure and hope people will weigh in on this most surprising decision because many Psychology Today readers and millions of others have chosen to share their homes with our best friends and must have a point of view as they have in the past. We especially would like to hear from the people at Bergin University. 

This esteemed award to this controversial dog trainer will unlikely get a lot of joyful tail wags from these extremely emotional beings.

Note: Mark Derr has also published an essay called "Dog Whisperer Receives Honorary Degree from Bergin U" about the award given to Mr. Millan. I have asked to be removed from the faculty at Bergin University and I have been removed.

For more on interactions between Bonnie Bergin and Cesar Millan please click here

 

Marc Bekoff, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

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