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Training Philosophies: Dog Whispering & Misunderstood Canines

There are so many confusing messages about understanding, communicating with and working with dogs. Training advice comes from various sources and in various forms. Training advice can be found in books, from other dog owners and is even available on TV. In becoming a trainer, even I had to find my way in discovering which methods worked best for me, which I agreed with and which I felt were best for humans and their dogs. As time goes on I’m still learning and always fine tuning my skills as things change and grow in the training world. Some important questions we should be asking as trainers and dog owners are: which of these methods are helping most? Which methods are harmful to dogs and our relationships with them? Which of these methods will foster a better relationship with our dogs and provide long term results? And which of these methods will be most beneficial for our dog’s mental well being? With all that is out there now we must also consider which methods are based in behavior science and which are based on pop-culture, out-dated theories and unconventional methods as well.

When it comes to dog training there are many different methods and trainers. Some have formal training & certifications, some are self taught, and some have their own ideas, based on personal experience, about how to train dogs. Some of these trainers, formally trained or not are excellent trainers while some may be putting owners in danger of damaging the relationship between human and dog through their methods. In some cases, some may even be worsening certain behaviors. We can’t just do “what works”. It’s also important to understand the science of dog behavior, how dogs learn and understand how various training methods work. Whether one learns through formal training or extensive research and involvement in some sort of professional group or seminars it’s not only important to know these things but also to continue furthering our education. In doing so it is important to be open minded and learn about all types of training, not just those we agree with or choose to use.

Almost anyone can “be” a trainer, there is no requirement to have been formally trained. Every dog trainer should have a vested interest in a dog’s mental and physical well-being, a good understanding of dog behavior science, how dogs learn and a desire to help dogs using the most constructive, least stressful, least harmful/painful and most dog-friendly methods emphasizing positive reinforcement and communication to strengthen the human-dog bond. Like we expect our medical professionals to keep current with the trends and changes in medical care and treatment methods, we should expect the same of trainers. And although the training world has come quite a long way over the years in becoming more aware, there are some methods and some “trainers” may be setting things back.

There are some things worth discussing about the different methods trainers use, the methods used on popular TV programs and the often miscommunicated and sometimes wrong ideas that can be sent about training. While this could be a potentially long blog post I’ll stick to discussing the basics about what I feel pet parents should know.

Dogs & Wolves

Modern dog trainers who stay informed of the current methods and recent studies of dog behavior tend to agree that dominance theory, alpha dogs and using force or intimidation in training are not only outdated and incorrect but can often be detrimental to the mental health of dogs who are trained using these methods and ideologies.

According to the Association of Pet Dog Trainers:

Contrary to popular thinking, research studies of wolves in their natural habitat demonstrate that wolves are not dominated by an “Alpha Wolf” that is the most aggressive male, or male-female pairing, of the pack. Rather, they have found that wolf packs are very similar to how human families are organized, and there is little aggression or fights for “dominance.” Wolves, whether it be the parents or the cubs of a pack, depend on each other to survive in the wild; consequently wolves that engage in aggressive behaviors toward each other would inhibit the pack’s ability to survive and flourish.  

It would seem that the wolf studies done many years ago that lead to dominance theories were quite flawed. Most research on the social dynamics of wolf packs was conducted on wolves in captivity and the wolves that were placed together were usually composed of wolves that came from different areas. These studies, conducted from the 1940’s through the late 1970’s were not observing wolves in their natural environment or in the wild. Later studies of wolves in the wild would prove to disprove the concept of dominance theory in wolf packs.

The truth of the matter is that wolves and dogs will typically avoid conflict as a means to resolution and are not constantly in a power struggle to be the alpha. Furthermore, the status or rank of dogs and wolves is ever changing depending on their needs and desires, and although the DNA of dogs is almost identical to that of wolves, there are many differences between them (which can be referenced by the fact that most people don’t keep wolves as pets). As a result, using wolf behavior to explain and understand dog behavior is often irrelevant and the theory of dominance and alpha dogs is viewed as outdated and even damaging by many well-known trainers, behaviorists and animal behavior organizations.

Domination Nation

Although these methods have been rejected by the majority of modern trainers and behaviorists the concept of using dominance is still around and has been popularized by the media and most popularly by Cesar Millan. Pet owners all over the country sit down to watch shows about dog training with their pets and begin using the methods seen on these shows, some of which are based on outdated theories and which are not based on the study of canine behavior science. There are a good deal of people adopting the training methodology of these shows in their own training protocol with clients as well. Unfortunately, some of the methods they will employ from these shows can and do deteriorate the bond between human and dog and can often worsen behaviors like fear & anxiety and behaviors related to them. Why? Because dominance, harsh methods like severe leash corrections, leash asphyxiation, alpha rolls and flooding (forcing a dog to face a stressful situation without escape ie: “face your fear”) increase anxiety & stress in a dog, decrease his trust in his handler and can actually foster behaviors such as aggression & fearfulness. Methods like these can also damage the human-animal bond by creating fear and intentional conflict to suppress behaviors.

The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior’s official position statement on such methods is as follows:

“The AVSAB recommends that veterinarians not refer clients to trainers or behavior consultants who coach and advocate dominance hierarchy theory and the subsequent confrontational training that follows from it,” 

According to Dr. Suzanne Hetts, Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Co-owner of Animal Behavior Associates, Inc., Littleton, CO:

“A number of qualified professionals have voiced concern for the welfare of pet dogs that experience the strong corrections administered by Mr. Millan. My concerns are based on his inappropriateness, inaccurate statements, and complete fabrications of explanations for dog behavior. His ideas, especially those about “dominance”, are completely disconnected from the sciences of ethology and animal learning, which are our best hope for understanding and training our dogs and meeting their behavioral needs. Many of the techniques he encourages the public to try are dangerous, and not good for dogs or our relationships with them .”

From experts at Animal Behavior Associates:

“Do you enjoy snuggling with your dog on the bed or furniture but worry you shouldn’t because your dog won’t see you as “alpha”? Would you and your dog enjoy a rousing game of tug-of-war but you’re afraid to play because it will make your dog “dominant”? Do you believe letting your dog go ahead of you on walks or be first through doors undermines your “alpha” status? Have your been told you must show your dog who’s boss by grabbing him by the scruff or pinning him to the ground but you really don’t like being rough with your dog?

These relationship rules come from long-standing, unscientific dog training lore that likens our dogs to wolves and our families to packs. Not only are these rules unnecessary and ineffective for building good relationships with our dogs, but they also prevent us from enjoying our dogs’ companionship to the fullest. And, physical bullying is out and out dangerous! The “dominance” rules not only don’t work, but actually undermine healthy relationships. Even if your dog doesn’t listen to you, he’s not being “dominant”. Scruffing and pinning do NOT mimic natural dog behaviors”

What is it trainers are so upset about?

While the dogs in these episodes may seem to have been “cured” these methods actually increase anxiety and stress which wear out the dogs. In one video the dog’s oxygen is actually cut off by the use of harsh leash corrections thereby subduing the dog. While many dogs on the show may appear to have improved, some of these dogs learn to suppress their behaviors for fear of punishment until they are pushed past their threshold and exhibit the undesired behaviors again, sometimes with greater severity. Some of these dogs begin to exhibit other behaviors or habits as a result of being over stressed. So succinctly put by Dr. Nicholas Dodman – Professor and Head, Section of Animal Behavior & Director of Behavior Clinic, Tufts University – Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine: 

“Cesar Millan’s methods are based on flooding and punishment. The results, though immediate, will be only transitory.”

It’s easy to get hooked into watching shows like “The Dog Whisperer”. Millan’s cool-as-a-cucumber, no-nonsense, in control, calm demeanor makes him seem like someone you’d want to emulate. No doubt he does care about helping dogs, educating people about them and working with some of the most difficult cases. Unfortunately, while his intentions are good, his methods and messages leave dog behavior experts deeply concerned for the dogs he and followers of his methods work with and the people who unwittingly participate in methods that may actually harm their dog and their relationship with them – immediately and more importantly, in the long run.

So What Do We Do?

There are two things Cesar is right about. One – dogs need exercise and it directly affects a dog’s behavior in so many instances. Two – our energy does travel down the leash to our dogs and it’s important we begin every training session with the right frame of mind. Past that, the following will be essential in working with your dog successfully:

Guidance: We need to show our dogs that they can rely on us to make the big decisions. That they can trust us to show them the way, guide them and give them the tools they need to be happy, healthy and safe. Training our dogs does not have to involve being an “alpha” or “pack leader” or “boss” when it means dominating and intimidating our dogs through force or forceful behaviors. What training should mean is benevolent leadership, being a parent to our dogs the way we would be to a child. Teach them with the help of positive training to make the right decisions, provide them with the tools to succeed, remove the potential for them to make the wrong decisions, be clear about what you want them to do and what their limits are. Set them up to succeed and reward and praise them when they do. Never force a dog by any means when training. It is important to pay attention to stress behaviors in our dogs and pay attention to them. Rather than pushing a dog past his threshold, work slowly, patiently and gradually with your dog. Where aggressive behaviors are concerned, remember that the majority of aggressive behaviors stem from fear and anxiety NOT dominance.

Exercise & activity: Provide sufficient exercise to discourage behaviors that stem from boredom, excess energy. Provide interactive games and toys that exercise not only your dog’s body but his brain. Engage in games that get your dog to think and play along with him.

Help them understand their role: Help your dog to understand what his job is in your home. His job is to offer you the right behaviors and your job is to reward him for them. Give him a job to do for everything he gets including food, toys and affection/attention. Let him be his own dog by differentiating your sleeping spot in the home from his. Invite him to be with you in your spots when you ask.

Strengthen your relationship: Do things with your dog, take him places, socialize him, involve him and never push him past his limit. Don’t force, encourage. Don’t do it for him, help him learn how to do it and in doing so, strengthen your relationship and help him become a confident, well behaved dog through your guidance, patience & understanding.

Final words from trainer Roland Sonnenberg:

Dominance based trainers exert a clear and absolute dominance every moment of interacting—it is imperative that the animal understands that humans have absolute power and should never be challenged.  Non-dominance trainers exert a clear and absolute cooperation every moment—it is imperative that the animal understands that humans are their friends and are not going to challenge them or hurt them. There is a genuine distinction between a leader who is revered and idolized and a leader who is feared, and I personally believe that being revered leads to better working, more reliable, happier, healthier dogs. 

It makes me profoundly sad to think that such a bully is out there working with dogs every day, but far worse is that so many people do not see his techniques for what they are.  That millions of people still see intimidation and cruelty as viable leadership techniques makes me sad indeed.

To learn more about training methods and the world of positive training visit:

And to read about what other trainers have to say about CM, similar trainers and dominance theory visit:

Is Cesar Millan Bad For Your Dog? (Thanks to our friend FernDog!)

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