People As Pack Leaders

by Chris Bodenner

A reader writes:

Your previous reader criticizing Cesar Millan's techniques clearly has no idea about what those techniques are. The ONLY time I have seen Cesar employ anything closely resembling "punishment" is with what he calls "red zone" dogs, who would otherwise be put down without his intervention. Malcolm Gladwell has a great article on his training methods, "What the Dog Saw". Gladwell has a body-language expert analyze a video tape of Cesar handling one of these cases who concludes that his behavior lacks any aggression and is far from punitive.

Much of his training philosophy - like giving off "calm, assertive energy" - sounds more like new-age hokum than a "spare the rod" mentality (I saw one episode where he prescribed regular sessions of acupuncture and meditation to one owner). Like most trainers, he primarily works with dog-owners, identifying what behavioral changes that they - not the dogs - need to make in order to fix problem dogs. His underlying assumption is that dogs instinctively assume themselves to be part of a pack and that if the human isn't in charge (i.e., acting as pack leader), the dog will take on that role. He basically teaches people to be pack leaders.


This is a hot-button topic in the dog world. I compete in agility with my mixed breed, volunteer as class assistant in dog training classes, and spend a lot of time around dog trainers and dogs people. It is not an understatement to say that Cesar Millan's methods are reviled in the dog training community.

I see people coming into class with their family dogs and their heads full of his simplistic and wrong-headed notions about "dominance" and "energy." The trainers often have to gently and non-judgmentally steer the owners toward more effective methods of training, the easiest and most obvious being positive reinforcement. Dog advocacy groups have tried to pressure National Geographic into dropping the show, as his methods are scientifically unsound. Apparently it's too much of a cash cow for the network, much to their discredit.

The Association of Pet Dog Trainers has issued a position statement on "Dominance and Dog Training" as a direct result of his unfortunate influence.  An excerpt:

The use of techniques such as the "alpha roll" on dogs, which is based on these mistaken beliefs about dogs and wolves, has no place in modern dog training and behavior modification. Dogs often respond to this perceived threat with increased fear and aggression, which may serve to make a behavior problem worse and ruin the dog-owner relationship.

I would encourage your readers to seek out a training facility that uses humane, positive reinforcement training methods that build a bond of trust and understanding between the dog and his/her human family.


First, any dog trainer's opinion of Cesar has to be taken with a large grain of salt, because he is making them look bad!  People who have a difficult dog, who they have struggled for years to "fix", see an equally difficult dog cured in the space of 30 minutes and expect their local dog trainer to perform the same miracle.  It's not an entirely realistic or fair expectation, but it causes a lot of resentment that makes it difficult for them to acknowledge that he can do anything right at all.  I know this because I have mentioned Cesar to dog trainers I was working with and got a flood of griping in return about how he has ruined their business because people now come to them with impossible expectations.

Second, something that's usually overlooked is that Cesar is not a dog trainer, nor does he call himself one.  I forget what words he actually uses to describe what he does, but I would call him a behaviorist.  When was the last time you saw him teach a dog to sit?  He just doesn't do that sort of thing, so it's an apples to oranges comparison from the start.


I'm sick of the Cesar-bashing.  The one question I have yet to hear answered is this: If his techniques are so terrible and ineffective, how is his pack of 40+ dogs so well-balanced? And how has he been able to rehabilitate nearly every dog he's taken in at his facility (with the exception of two, according to his book, Cesar's Way)?

The truth is Cesar has nothing but the utmost respect for dogs and does nothing more to them than what an alpha dog would do to his pack in the wild.  He's only more "physical" with the dogs that are acting out of line, just like an alpha would to one of his subordinates if it wasn't following.  He's never abusive and never aggressive. The dogs don't cower in his presence as dogs would around an abusive owner.  There is a big difference between assertiveness and aggressiveness.

Positive reinforcement (i.e., using clickers or treats) basically "tricks" the dog into doing something for a reward.  Using Cesar's techniques, however, your dogs will do what you ask, not for a treat, but out of respect for you, their leader.