(LIFE WITH PETS) There are many different dog training techniques. Some trainers encourage positive reinforcement, while others use punishment or dominance tactics. Dog trainer Cesar Millan faced much controversy after video footage was released showing him kicking his canine subjects. Dr. Sujatha Ramakrishna, author of Raising Kids Who Love Animals, discusses some of the pros and cons of the alpha-dominance method and how it can affect your family pet. — Global Animal

Cesar Millan with some of his students. Photo credit: mattsorumtv via flickr

By Sujatha Ramakrishna, M.D.

Cesar Millan, the self-proclaimed dog whisperer, has been criticized recently for kicking dogs to make them obey. His training methods are based on alpha-dominance theories, which are now thought by most animal behaviorists to be outdated, ineffective, and possibly dangerous. At the beginning of his television shows, we see this dire warning: “Don’t try this at home!”

While I’m not a professional dog trainer, during the years that I participated in flyball and agility with my wonderful little Sheltie, Echo, I met handlers who used many different training techniques. I noticed that the most successful ones were those who used positive reinforcement, making every moment of the games a thrilling experience for their dogs. In fact, seeing the elated expression on Echo’s face at the end of every run is what made me want to keep playing.

I’ve seen how Millan kicks dogs on his program, and forces others to tolerate uncomfortable situations. These animals look distressed, holding their heads down and turning away to avoid eye contact. It’s quite evident that he sees nothing wrong with using methods which make dogs miserable, as long as he gets the desired results.

Sujatha and her dog, Echo, at a flyball tournament. Photo Credit: Mike Corsaro

Alpha theories say that handlers should establish themselves as pack leaders, by doing things such as walking in front of their dogs at all times and eating first at meal times. While it’s a good idea to be the leader of one’s household, as opposed to letting one’s dog run the show, there are better ways to achieve this than forcing a dog to follow rigid and arbitrary rules.

In the field of pediatric psychiatry, we make a distinction between “authoritative” and “authoritarian” parenting styles. The key difference is that authoritative parents consider their children’s preferences in determining what their expectations of them will be, while authoritarian parents make these decisions without any input from their kids. Children whose moms and dads show flexibility grow up being more confident and well-adjusted than those whose parents rule with an iron fist.

With both children and dogs, good leadership isn’t established by telling them that they must blindly follow orders or else. The best guardians are those who intuitively understand the true nature of kids and canines. They figure out what motivates them to perform, rather than focusing on what intimidates them.

They can also be trusted to provide for their family members’ needs. If a dog displays aggression because she feels uncomfortable in a given situation, and she gets physically punished as a result, her leader has failed one of his primary duties, which is to make his ward feel safe. Using tactics such as kicking is more akin to bullying someone into submission than being an effective leader.

Monty Roberts, the original horse whisperer, understands this concept well. Rather than forcing a horse to obey, he allows the animal to approach him first. Once he has earned the horse’s trust, the two of them can work together as a team.

When I learned to ride as a young girl, some of my instructors were more like horse yellers than whisperers. I had the words, “Show ‘em who’s boss!” shouted at me more than a few times. I soon learned, the hard way, that a thousand-pound horse is always the “boss” of an eighty-pound girl. Forgetting about human domination and trying to see things from the horse’s point of view was the only way that I was ever able to become an accomplished rider.

Likewise, kids should never try to show their dogs who’s boss. If the dog decides that he’s the boss, and refuses to accept a harsh correction, a child can get seriously hurt. Another problem is that alpha-dominance methods teach children that forcing others to do what you want, even if it results in their discomfort, is acceptable behavior. In an age when childhood bullying has become such a prevalent and serious problem, that’s the last message that we want to send them.

Fortunately, there are many dog trainers out there who use only rewards and never punishments in their classes. People who care about having happy and healthy canines, and not just submissive ones, can turn off the television, forget about trying to be the “alpha,” find a trainer who uses positive teaching methods, and have fun with their dogs.

For more information about Dr. Ramakrishna’s upcoming book, visit her website at: https://www.facebook.com/RaisingKidsWhoLoveAnimals




  1. Magdalena,
    The hind brain and the mid brain of a dog and human are very similar. What differs is the neocortex. The basic emotions of humans and dogs is the same. What differs is that humans have the capacity for abstract thought, language and planning. Dogs do not. A human understands why someone is bullying them. A dog does not. All a dog learns is that the only person in the world that he can trust, is causing him physical harm, so they learn what is called "learned helplessness" you see the same phenomenon in abused children. You can see it plainly in the dogs that Cesar "trains."
    It does not surprise me that you call the author "idiot" someone who knows no other way than to bully a dog will treat humans with the same contempt. You kinda proved the authors point on that one.

  2. Sujatha, you cannot compare dogs with humans. A human being is a highly developed specie, not compareble to animals. Still, if your need to see dogs and humans as equal in mind: a child withoud discipline is a spoild, disrespectfull brat. So is the dog.
    Using the words punishment and dominance in the same context is making it sound like a synonym. They are not. The dominance theory has nothing to do with punishment, physical pain or any kind of abuse. Also, being the 'boss' has a negative sound to it, don't use words with a high negative or positive meaning to prove your point. 'The boss' used by that horse trainer you encountered, makes me think the guy is a heartless, not carrying, insensitive person.
    Next thing I want to mension. Don't let your kid train an instable or agressive dog. That's your job.
    Also, I don't think using this theory to make your dog behave will have a bad influence on your child. A dog is a dog, you handle a dog diffrent then a child. You and your child should know that. And if someone thinks that shushing, staring and pulling the leash will make your child bully other kids, then I assume you are an idiot , not knowing how to deal with you kid.
    The dominance theory exists only because humans feel the need for affection and if they cannot or are not getting enough of it from their own specie, they are turning to an other, taking animals home, mostly not understanding them. That provides you with the needed affection and love, but leaves the dog or animal lost in his mind.

    Sorry for spelling, English is not my motherlanguage.

  3. I just ran into a new neighbor with two Schnauzers. They spotted me 75 yards away and barked incessantly, straining at their leashes. I kept walking in their direction, and as I drew closer, the woman went inside her apartment and emerged with just one of the dogs, which was still practically apoplectic. I assured her I was OK with her pet’s carryings on, and said it could approach me. I took Millan’s advice and turned away from the dog, avoiding eye contact, touching it or speaking. In other words, I let the dog come to me. It jumped on my leg awhile, then the owner yanked it away. It strained mightily at the leash; the owner was exacerbating the behavior, as Millan often notes. Then she picked it up and cooed lovingly; the owner was reinforcing the behavior, as Millan often notes. Then the owner moved away and stated, “he just needs to show that he’s the boss”; the owner was clearly oblivious to the bad behavior and was the real problem (not the dog), as Millan often notes. I said, “he’s not supposed to be the boss, you are.” Whereupon this clueless woman walked away, set her dog on the ground and trundled off. Hey Cesar, I have a classic case for you!

  4. What I found amazingly transparent regarding the “Dog Whisperer -Naysayers” is that it’s clear there is a degree of dissonance, in that Casar (without all of his “alphabet soup degrees” ) can do what others who claim to be “animal behaviorists” can not.

    While some criticize Millian’s often unorthodoxy (calling it “abuse”, too much” or “antiquated” ) ,these very same “professionals” are usually fine with BSL, mandatory euthanasia for “aggressive dogs”, et al.

    In addition, Millian will work with dogs that most will not. He works with dogs who’ve been abused, used for fighting, neglected, et al. He’s not working with the “poodle” from the good blood line who can stop barking at the neighbor’s cat.

    Here’s the deal, folks: people who are purportedly “professionals” HATE when others without the fancy degrees can seem to do what they can not.

  5. Case in point: My daughter adopted a pit-cross with major dog aggression issues. His previous owners spent $800.00 non refundable on some good willed ‘I would never be aggressive to your dog’ trainer, who accomplished nothing. So his owners just shortened their walks and avoided any where that he might meet another dog.

    But when my daughter took him in and began using the very methods that Cesar demonstrates on his shows, her new buddy began to calm down, relax (because now he finally realized that someone else was in charge) and now he gets to go off-leash at the dog park.

    You might not like how it looks, but that’s only because you don’t understand how he does it or why it works.
    And by the way, before Monty has those horses ‘coming’ to him all meek and mild, he’s spent who knows how long, pushing/chasing that horse around a pen. It’s only after he has forced himself on the horse in that manner, that the horse gives in to him. The big problem that all you people who don’t understand have, is that you seem to think that animals perceive things like people do when in fact they have their own body language and social codes and rules.

    • Debrah, you say that people think animals perceive things like humans…but you are also doing just that. You seem think that dogs have a concept of ‘in charge’ and ‘power’ and that your daughter made her dog perceive her as in control. These are entirely human concepts and anthropomorphism at its worst. Your daughter’s dog’s behaviour can easily be described through principles of operant conditioning and associative learning.

      The point of the this blog post, as I see it, was to demonstrate the behavioural similarities between human and non-human animals. We, contrary to what is professed by Millan, share many similar learning mechanisms and are not all that much different from each other as people would like to think.

      However, I think this post has also mislead in that it also subscribes for the need of a ‘leader’, as if animals need this in their lives too, which I disagree with. Leadership is a metaphor for training and manipulating animals’ environments in a way that their behaviour is beneficial to us. We choose to call it leadership, but whether animals think “I need a leader” or “I have no leader, so i will be my own” is almost impossible!

  6. What the author of this one-sided article fails to mention is that her little sheltie is ‘playing’ when she’s doing agility with her whereas Cesar Milan is usually dealing with dogs that are aggressive, dangerous, attacing, biting…..on his programs. Many of them will likely be winding up at a shelter if he isn’t able to help the owners deal with those aggression problems. All that is much different from her little fluffy fly-ball champ. So comparing the joyful look on a dog that is playing to the looks on the faces of dogs who would in some cases like to remove her dogs face given the chance (or a childs!) is hardly worthy.

    Is this article biased? You betcha! Is this article accurate? Absolutely not.

    • Hi Debra!
      I have to ask, have you ever been to a flyball (not “fly-ball”) tournament? It’s a high-drive, high-aggression sport, and plenty of dogs try to take each other’s faces off before, during, and after races. Many handlers end up getting accidentally bitten or severely scratched at tournaments, especially those whose dogs have particularly high prey-drives. Dogs fighting with other dogs is also not uncommon.
      The potential for aggression is the reason that the most successful trainers are the ones who maintain a POSITIVE relationship with their dogs at all times. Dogs who enjoy working with their handlers don’t feel a need to go after other dogs.
      Also, it seems like you are a bit of a vegan activist? If so, I wonder if you have considered that factory farmers use your kind of logic (i.e. animals are brutes and must be dominated) to justify systematic abuses of farm animals?
      Food for thought … and I hope that you will reconsider your support of abusive training practices.