A Review of The Dog Whisperer | Season One
Here's what I've learned from Cesar Millan's controversial dog documentary, The Dog Whisperer and his positive and negative reinforcement techniques.
This is my review of The Dog Whisperer - a show hosted by expert dog rehabilitator, Cesar Millan. He teaches people how to build better relationships with their dogs and, in turn, their dogs appear to exhibit much healthier behaviors.
Cesar deals with a range of problems in the first season, from excessive barking to dog aggression. Each episode typically features two misbehaving dogs who, thanks to some good editing, undergo massive personality changes in minutes. The dog owners are left gobsmacked while Cesar exudes a calm confident energy over their problem pet.
So how does he do it? Are we dog owners missing something completely obvious? How is it that, as a nation of dog lovers, we are all so terrible at raising calm, obedient, well-adjusted dogs?
Of course, we're not all that bad. But almost every dog has at least one bad habit and Cesar reckons that with a small adjustment in our perspective, we can vastly improve our relationships with our pooches.
The Alpha Dog Theory
Cesar Millan's controversial philosophy is based on the theory that dogs are pack animals who seek to follow an alpha leader. Crucially, the theory suggests that the leader rises to this position by dominating all the other animals in the pack.
The idea of a pack leader originates from studies of wolves in the 1940s. When forced to live together, the wolves naturally competed for status. The acclaimed animal behaviorist, Rudolph Schenkel, dubbed the male and female who won out the "alpha pair".
Later though, others pointed out the fault in this premise: in the wild, wolves live in nuclear families, not randomly assembled units. Today, many animal behaviorists have switched their views away from alpha theory for this reason, because it was an unnatural setup. They now believe that the pack's hierarchy doesn't involve anyone fighting their way to the top. Instead, puppies simply follow their parents' lead.
But Cesar says there is still an instinct to dominate other pack animals and become the alpha, especially given that dogs are taken from their moms and thrown into our unnatural human families. This is tens of thousands of years of evolution at play, he says, even after the domestication of our pets.
He uses this theory to project his own firm approach to rehabilitating problem dogs. Even if it requires shows of dominance and aggression. Such negative reinforcement training is increasingly frowned upon in the world of dog training.
So the running theme of The Dog Whisperer is that it's not the dog's fault when it exhibits neurotic or aggressive behaviors. It's the owner who has put the dog in this position.
Although we love our pets, Cesar believes we don't naturally act like the pack leaders they seek to follow. Our dogs feel the need to assume the alpha role even when they don't have the assertive leadership skills required for an alpha dog. The result is damaging and unpredictable behaviors like excessive barking, anxiety, growling, and biting.
Can Shelties Be Alpha Dogs?
"But my sweet Sheltie doesn't care about being the alpha dog!" I hear you cry. This is where the controversy comes in, because not all dog experts agree on the alpha dog theory and even then the effect appears to vary between dog breeds. Even so, Cesar gives an example of alpha theory with on a Sheltie—and it works.
In Season One, Cesar deals with a highly strung Sheltie who barks at anything—from toasters to telephones—and it seems an irrational behavior to his poor, frazzled owners.
Cesar theorizes that this frustrating behavior is caused by the owners treating their Sheltie like a baby. They shower him with affection but never show him discipline to curb his bad behaviors.
And when that happens, you can get a very unruly dog. Just like an unruly child who is left to run wild, the dog can also become an unmanageable member of the family.
As a result, Cesar says, Rana the Sheltie had become confused by the lack of leadership and designated himself as the alpha dog.
But because he didn't have the calm, assertive qualities of a leader, he felt extremely anxious about new sights or sounds entering their domain. It was all he could do to sound the alarm and whip his owners into a frenzy. This was the watchdog tendency in overkill mode.
Cesar treated Rana the Sheltie by putting him on a leash, thereby immediately telling the dog "I'm in charge now—you can relax" and entraining a submissive state of mind.
Then he calmly stood by the toaster and had it pop in front of Rana. The negative reinforcement (alpha behavior) came in when the dog was clearly anxious and alarmed but forced to confront his fear through restraint by the leash.
This tough love approach is hard to accept when you consider the gentle nature of the Sheltie. However, it got results. After numerous repetitions, Rana began feeding off the energy of the Dog Whisperer, calming considerably upon submitting to his toast-popping whims.
After that, the positive reinforcement came in. The Sheltie had so many calm, positive experiences of the toaster, this became a new learned behavior and he no longer felt the need to bark at it anymore.
For Cesar, it was then a case of teaching Rana's owners to behave this way as well and reinforce the new state of mind until it became second nature.
Dog Whisperer Controversy
We all love our dogs and don't want to see them suffer on any level. Perhaps this is why Cesar Millan has attracted some critics, who say that using the alpha dog psychology, he has to drive dogs into a submissive state of mind.
What's more, other dog experts say than Cesar's philosophy is based on now-debunked animal studies. Rival TV dog trainer, Victoria Stillwell, uses only positive reinforcement techniques to counterpoint dominance theory.
Cesar insists, however, that for packs of dogs to function effectively and survive in the wild, they evolved to have a natural social hierarchy—one dominant alpha male and a group of followers.
The alpha rises to this position naturally because he is the smartest, bravest dog. He is neither neurotic nor cocky. He is the best leader available and exudes confidence which makes all the other dogs feel safe and secure.
The other dogs don't resent their leader, they respect him. And they don't resent the fact that they may be bottom of the pack.
For any dog, simply knowing his place in the pack is what makes him feel at ease. As long as he has a calm-assertive leader to follow, life is good.
Cesar gives our confused and unruly pets a clear understanding of their position and they quickly return to a calm-submissive state of mind, just like when they were puppies. This uses techniques from both positive and negative reinforcement.
Why Dominate an Unruly Dog?
Dogs that are abused, mistreated or simply lacking leadership can develop abnormal psychological habits.
They can be confused and neurotic. They can be aggressive. When these factors are combined, dogs can be very dangerous to children and adults.
If they can't be treated, these dogs may eventually be put down. It's dog trainers like Cesar Millan and Victoria Stillwell and others—even when they use competing theories—who have the courage to approach these dogs and rehabilitate them.
Man and dog have a fantastic symbiotic relationship where the two species working together is advantageous for us both. Indeed, recent scientific studies show that dogs' brains have evolved to interpret our facial expressions. Deep down, it is a dog's instinct to please his human companion.
Can I Still Show My Sheltie Affection?
Of course! The Dog Whisperer is not all about commanding discipline. Cesar says this a small but important part of your dog's development.
Unfortunately, many people forget to reinforce the discipline element. They figure that stops after their puppy is housetrained and can walk on a leash. But according to Cesar, a dog will continually test the boundaries if they sense you are not behaving as the alpha.
If you get the discipline element right, you can of course get all those snuggles from your pooch and have a very psychologically healthy dog. As long as it's on your terms.
So what are the terms? Take a look at this classic example.
Many of us at and play with our Shelties as soon as we get home, when they are very excited—but that will only reinforce that hyperactive state of mind. If you think your Sheltie already has too much nervous energy, why praise and encourage that behavior?
The Dog Whisperer tell us that the best time to give your dog affection is when he's already calm and submissive, thereby reinforcing that nice lovely temperament.
Overall, it's better for you and for your Sheltie. So leave your pooch alone for a few minutes after you step in the front door and allow your Sheltie to calm down before praising and giving them all the attention in the world.
I have learned a lot watching Season One of The Dog Whisperer. As dog lovers, we need all the help we can get to nurture the beautiful, if sometimes confounding, relationships we have with our pets.
Training your dog out of bad behaviors is in the interest of your own safety and sanity. Living with an unruly dog is stressful and can negatively impact on everyone in the house. We owe it to our dogs to train them properly, and we owe it to ourselves and our families who live with them.
If your Sheltie has behavioral issues or basic training needs and you're not keen on Cesar's dominance-based approach (and I totally get that) try clicker training your Sheltie instead.