Updated: Jan 21, 2021
If you’re involved in the dog world in any way, chances are you’ve heard about the latest incident involving Cesar Millan. In a nutshell, on National Geographic’s “Cesar 911,” a dog named Simon who was a known pig killer was brought to Cesar for rehabilitation. The televised incident that has so many up in arms occurred when another man restrained a pig by the hind legs, causing it to squeal, and Simon, having been let off leash by Cesar (who previously had him on a long line), ran at the pig and bit its ear, drawing blood and, according to many reports, removing a chunk of the pig’s ear. Shortly after Cesar applied his brand of “rehabilitation,” he leashed Simon to the pig and boasted about how wonderful it was that they could be together in that way without violence. The incident was reported to Animal Control and Cesar is now under investigation.
There are so many things wrong with the pig episode that it’s difficult to know where to begin. For starters, the dog never should have been off leash in the first place. And later, when they were tethered together, the dog, who was showing avoidance behaviors, had no choice but to follow the pig. The pig had no choice, either. That’s rehabilitation? But before I address the bigger issues, I am aware that many people’s responses to the outrage over the incident has been some version of, “So what? It’s a pig!” or “Pigs are treated even worse in the meat industry, why aren’t you up in arms about THAT?” For the record I’m vegetarian, but that’s not the point. And I agree that the meat industry has some horrific practices; but that’s still not the point. This isn’t about a pig being harmed in the food industry. It’s about unnecessary pain and suffering caused to an animal in the name of training. And that is not okay, whether the injured party is a pig, a dog, or any other animal.
As a canine behavior specialist for over 20 years I, along with many of my professional colleagues, have been protesting Cesar’s methods for a very long time. His modus operandi is almost always the same: get the aggressive dog riled up to the point that he will demonstrate the aggressive behavior; punish the dog to the point that he shuts down and does not dare do it again; declare the dog rehabilitated. It certainly makes for good drama on television. But should our concern be what’s best for the animal, or for the viewing audience? Having worked with what Cesar terms “red zone dogs”—dogs with severe aggression towards dogs and/or people—for many years, I can tell you that rehabilitation does not require violence. The vast majority of dogs who are termed “aggressive” (yes, even “red zone dogs”) are displaying fear-based reactivity. Whether due to lack of early socialization, traumatic experience, or some other reason, the dog is not comfortable with other dogs. The barking, lunging and other aspects of the display certainly appear aggressive, and serve to cause the other dog or person to move away. It works, so the dog continues the behavior. But even in the small minority of cases where the cause is not fear-based reactivity, the dog already has a negative association with other dogs. So what is the answer? Should we scare or hurt the dog through harsh physical corrections every time he displays the aggressive behavior? Since dogs learn by association, although he might stop the behavior at the moment, a negative association is being strengthened. The dog’s underlying feeling about other dogs is, if anything, worsening. Any “improvement” in his behavior is due to fear of correction.
The foregoing describes setting the dog up to fail and then punishing him. The dog may no longer show aggression around other dogs, and may even display avoidance behaviors, because he knows other dogs coming around is going to be trouble. In this scenario, we have seemingly “fixed” the problem by strong-arming the dog into stopping. I wonder what the result will be when the human who did the strong-arming isn’t around, and the dog has access to another dog? And I wonder what sort of trust the dog now has in the person who choked, kicked, or otherwise punished.
Now the other side of the coin: modern, enlightened training methods. Using classical conditioning, for example, positive associations are created by pairing rewards with the appearance of another dog. At first, the training happens at a distance where he does not react. Gradual progress is made as the dog is comfortable. The dog is never pushed into a situation where he feels that he must react. It might not be scintillating action for television, but it results in a dog who is happy working with the person, and whose underlying association with other dogs changes, thereby resulting in a natural change in behavior. And for those dogs who are never going to like other dogs regardless, alternative behaviors to lunging, barking, etc. are taught. Again, the default behavior changes without causing harm to the dog or the relationship. Yes, even with “red zone” dogs.
I watched the entire first season of The Dog Whisperer back in the day, and have seen plenty of episodes since. I have watched horrified as dogs are forced to confront things they were terrified of (flooding), put into situations where of course they were going to bite because they were scared and pushed too far (bang trimming, nail trimming episodes come to mind), and more. In the infamous Holly episode, a resource guarding dog is pushed and pushed until she finally bites Cesar. There was a huge uproar over it, and yet nothing changed. Then there was the episode where he pushed a poor wolfdog who was dog reactive so far that the dog reacted. The dog was then hung to the point that he appeared unconscious. And this is rehabilitation?
Veterinary colleges, behaviorists, and all manner of trainers have protested time and time again. The point is, it’s ultimately not just about the pig. The problem is a man pushing dogs over threshold time and time again until they react, punishing them for it, and then deeming them cured. The problem is showing the public that this is the way to train dogs. Any show that needs a “Don’t try this at home” disclaimer is clearly using methods that can be dangerous. I have personally cleaned up countless messes where people have tried those very methods and things have gotten worse. Whether these owners applied the methods correctly is debatable, but what is not debatable is that many of them were bitten by their own dogs or, at the least, the fallout was a damaged relationship.
The general public should not be trying methods that can result in harm to them or their dog. In fact, no one should. Meeting violence with violence is never the answer. With all we know nowadays about the way dogs think and learn, and all the safe, effective, scientifically based rehabilitation methods, there is no excuse for these Neanderthal techniques to still exist, and certainly not to be televised. No animal should ever suffer physically, emotionally, or psychologically in the name of training, period.
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