A large part of today’s posting can be found on the Psychology Today blog, Animal Emotions, the online outpost of Marc Bekoff, the ethologist and champion of the rich inner life of non-human beings.  Look for the heading, “Cesar Millan Receives Honorary Graduate Degree: Tail Wags."  I contributed to and fully endorse Marc’s argument that Bergin University of Canine Studies’ awarding of an honorary master of canine science degree to Cesar Millan, popularly known as the Dog Whisperer, distorts the traditional use of such awards.  Typically, an honorary degree recognizes the singular contributions, including financial, of an individual to an academic field or to the arts or the granting institution. Vis-à-vis Bergin or canine studies in general, Millan meets none of those criteria.  In fact his tactics, which include physical domination over dogs, gained through pinches, kicks, punches, electric shocks,prong collars, and stringing up with choke chains, appear antithetical to the philosophy that shapes Bergin University of Canine Studies.

Millan’s view of dog-human relations is built around the notion of humans as pack leaders constantly having to enforce their dominance over their dogs. In his view, breakdowns in the dog-human relationship are largely due to the failure of the humans in the relationship to impose discipline and order on their dog or dogs.  Millan espouses a polyglot behaviorism that at its core appears an adaptation of the dominance-based training William Koehler developed in the middle of the last century. The Koehler Method, which was widely embraced by American dog trainers in the 1960s and 1970s, relies on choke chains, prong collars, electric shock collars, and ‘alpha rolls,” or “rollovers,” in which the human literally turns the dog onto its back and pins it to the ground in a display of power and dominance.  That approach to a dog can lead to violent confrontations, and Millan has had them. They make for compelling television, but are a sorry commentary on our relationship to our “best” friend.

In most regards, MIllan is a creation of television, aimed at teaching viewers that they can take control of their truculent dogs—and by implication their lives—by asserting themselves as pack leaders.  That is done basically by following Cesar’s Way, as he modestly calls his philosophy. Millan has a huge following that has made him by any measure a cultural phenomenon and a wealthy man. 

His supporters say that he gets results, often meaning he enables them to obtain control of a difficult dog.  His critics say that dogs learn better when they are rewarded and encouraged to build on success. But positive reinforcement means that we must understand what motivates each dog and adapt accordingly; thus, you would not use food rewards to train a ball-obsessed dog. Bonnie Bergin, founder and guiding spirit of the University that bears her name, often speaks of the need to educate dogs and starts the process when puppies are three weeks old. A number of studies show that dogs (like humans!) learn best when their education starts early and when they are taught with rewards for accomplishment.  A few studies have shown that methods involving punishment, by whatever name, are less successful and often even throw up roadblocks to the dog’s success. A summary of some of these can be found in this review in LiveScience

How then did it come to pass that Bergin University would award its highest academic honor to someone who embodies and espouses a philosophy so different from its own?  In response to the comment Marc Bekoff posted on his Psychology Today blog on April 1, Bonnie Bergin wrote on the university’s Facebook page: “His [Millan’s] ability to bring society’s focus on dogs to a higher level of consciousness worldwide provides us all a forum in which to bring our own beliefs to the attention of a wide audience.  For that and his remarkable business acumen we honor him.,,,”

 When I saw Marc Bekoff’s first email about this honorary degree I responded that it provided the sort of academic legitimacy Millan had long sought as a buffer against critics.  Bonnie Bergin called me within an hour to tell me that Millan was recognized for drawing attention to the plight of ownerless dogs and his business success.  She said that she had known nothing about his training methods until after awarding the honorary degree.

But Millan’s wealth and celebrity derive from his hit television show, The Dog Whisperer, which displays him teaching people how to dominate their dogs and be pack  leaders. Simply to call him the Dog Whisperer is to recognize who he is. 

In her Facebook message, Bergin also says that she wanted her students to gain exposure to other training methods.  So readers are left with the message that harsh treatment of dogs is a suitable pathway to fame and fortune.  

The Bergin University of Canine Studies, through its pioneering work with service dogs, was a beacon for people exploring more humane and effective ways to educate dogs and utilize their great talents to aid people with all manner of physical and mental disabilities.  By awarding an honorary degree to a person whose behavior toward dogs is at best retrograde, Bergin University appears to have caused many of its supporters to ask, “What does it stand for?”

Full disclosure: I twice taught a course for Bergin University on “Dogs of the World,” and was remunerated for my efforts not only monetarily but by the gracious hosting of Bonnie Bergin and her husband, Jim.

Note: After learning of the honorary degree forr Cesar Millan, Marc Bekoff asked that his name be removed from the list of faculty and from all promotional material for Bergin University.  His name, reportedly, has been removed.  

Note: Click here for more on Bonnie Bergin and Cesar Millan. 

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