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Cesar Millan and the Tradition of Pack Bully as Pack Leader

Is punishment any way to teach a dog or person?

A quarter of a century ago, Gina and I took Clio and Marlow, the leopard dog puppies, to an obedience class at a well respected private kennel. The class required a six-foot leash and a sturdy choke collar, front line tools of punitive dog training. Collar and leash allowed you to deliver “corrections” in the form of a head popping jerk, to force the dog to lie down, or to “string it up”—that is hold it with its feet off the ground.

At the time, dog owners were also being taught to use the “alpha rollover” as a way of asserting dominance over their canine companions. The alpha rollover was derived from studies of captive wolf packs that featured a great deal of competition among unrelated males for standing—free wolf packs do not . The idea was that the human would roll the dog onto its back and loom over it when its vulnerable belly and throat were thus exposed. The dog would then obey the superior being. But not infrequently, a dog so rolled would strike out at its tormentor out of fear for its own safety.

Being self-respecting dogs, Marlow and Clio would tolerate no coercion, physical or mental, nor would their humans administer it. They were our companions for many years, protecting the house and on one occasion saving Gina from a serious mauling by a bull terrier who had burst through a six foot fence. Responding to Clio’s call for help, Marlow intercepted the dog and nearly killed it. Marlow was a top dog who regularly deferred to Clio in matters large and small, like who went first through doors or into and out of the car or who ate first, which many experts had proclaimed vital to the alpha dog.

After his rumble, Marlow resolved most conflicts with a look or by his presence.

A new addition, Katie the kelpie pup, challenged an aged Marlow one day when they entered a narrow hallway from opposite ends and neither would yield. She pinned him in the blink of an eye, but she was so chagrinned that she never challenged him again. He continued to rule because she let him—out of respect, I like to think.

In 1997, I wrote about problems with the alpha rollover—it’s a good way to get in a fight with your dog—and the popular view of the dog’s human companion as leader of a pack, in Dog’s Best Friend. I wanted to show that the group structure of dogs in multi-dog households is largely one the humans devise and continually reinforce. It is a wolf pack only metaphorically.

I also pointed out the limitations of aversive, punishment-based training and the benefits of rewards-based learning, then becoming increasingly prevalent.

Then in 2004 National Geographic launched a television program staring Cesar Millan as the self-proclaimed “dog whisperer.” Like the horse whisperer who had preceded him as a popular cultural phenomenon, Millan is said to calm the troubled beast—only his gentle touch is a neck jab and pinch and his comforting word is a threatening “schhtt.” Millan’s tool kit also includes electric collars, prong collars, and choke chains. His techniques include shocking dogs, stringing them up until they pass out, and excessive treadmill running.

On August 31, 2006, The New York Times, published an Op-Ed essay by me, “A Pack of Lies,” critiquing Millan’s successful first season. “Essentially, National Geographic and Cesar Millan have cleverly repackaged and promoted a simplistic view of the dog's social structure and constructed around it a one-size-fits-all, cookie-cutter approach to dog training. In Mr. Millan's world, dog behavioral problems result from a failure of the human to be the ‘pack leader,’ to dominate the dog (a wolf by any other name) completely,” I wrote.

Millan’s training methods are considered by many observers abusive. They have been condemned by veterinarians, dog trainers, dog behaviorists, and animal protection groups. In a blog posting of April 21, 2012, Marc Bekoff discusses the time MIllan induced a husky to bite him and then strung it up until it passed out. In perhaps the only on air interview to challenge him directly, British talk show host Alan Titchmarsh recently told Millan he considered his training techniques “barbaric.”I raise the issue here because Mllan’s new program on the National Geographic Channel is called “Leader of the Pack,” carrying over the analogy of a dog pack to a wolf pack with humans in the alpha role. In this new series, Millan rehabilitates abandoned dogs and then has families compete to take them into their pack.

It is abundantly clear by now that naturally formed wolf packs consist primarily of the breeding, alpha pair, juveniles who have not yet dispersed, and pups of the year. L. David Mech, one of the premier wolf experts in the world, observed in the 1999 issue of the Canadian Naturalist: ''The typical wolf pack is a family, with the adult parents guiding the activities of a group in a division-of-labor system.'' In a natural wolf pack, ''dominance contests with other wolves are rare, if they exist at all.”

That is not to deny that the alphas are the boss dogs. They are. They just don’t have to dominate through physical confrontation, the way Marlow did not have to prove to any creature who he was. The confusion here arises from a belief, again derived from those artificial packs and embodied in Millan’s methodology, that dominance must involve physical conquest. Dominance can arise contextually—alphas as the breeding pair—or from an animal’s or person’s inner being, their power. It need not be forced.

In terms of wolves and dogs, it is important to remember both parts of this essential paradox: The dog is a wolf; the dog is not a wolf. Biologically wolves and dogs are so close that they must be considered the same species, despite thousands of years of conscious and unconscious selection by humans of particular traits in dogs, none more intensely than during the past 200 years.

The contemporary wolf is primarily a creation of centuries of human persecution, habitat fragmentation, and natural forces. At various times in different parts of the world, the divide between dogs and wolves has been less wide than the chasms opened in Western Europe and the United States by wolf eradication campaigns in the 19th and early 20th centuries, campaigns that contemporary wolf haters would like to reopen.

Yet the use of wolves as a model for dogs in society can teach a lesson about dog training that some people who invoke them might not like to hear. Wolves, by all accounts, respond poorly to aversive training. They shut down. They rebel. They flee. Many dogs do the same, which leaves these questions: Why use aversive methods that cause pain and distress when you can achieve better results with praise, kindness, respect, and rewards? Why try to turn your dog into a stimulus response machine when you can teach it using rewards and praise? Why treat any animal or person differently than you want to be treated?

Millan has said that when he was growing up, he never used a leash on the dogs who followed him around. Now as pack leader, he can show a more natural and non-violent way to control dogs. Why does he not?