Open letter to fans of Cesar Millan who use unethical training methods

By Ginger Sundin Hallgren

There is a stormy debate going on about Cesar Millan and his many times questionable training methods. And quite rightly so. Many of the shows cabled out in our homes, are without a doubt cases of abuse that easily could end in tragedy.

For instance, how could a regular hanging, using a thin rope, help a dog with a so called behavioral problem? "Behavioral problem" is not a diagnosis, but a symptom, a sign, that something is wrong. This can be the case with dogs that live in unsuitable environments or have an ignorant owner. It could also be the case with dogs that don't get enough mental stimulation or physical exercise. A dog may also suffer from illness or pain, and therefore behave differently.

Someone said that Millan’s way of training is "the natural way". The question that arises is whether wolves and dogs really can strangle and hang each other. You be the judge...

Neither do they throw each other on their backs. Dogs that are lying on their backs do so by choice to show submission.

Being a dog, what do I do if someone hangs me around my neck until I loose contact with the ground and can no longer breathe? I will of course panic and feel great anxiety. I will fight to get back on the ground using whatever means I have. I use my claws and teeth to defend myself against the attacker I fear want to try and kill me.

The dog of course uses every possible behavior - everything from calming signals to biting, if nobody listens. If it gets strangled by someone who doesn't understand that it is afraid and therefore defends itself, this could lead to additional strangulation. One must of course find out what is wrong and what in the dog’s environment that could cause the problematic behavior. How can a dog be helped by being exposed to lack of oxygen? Apart from the pain and fear, strangulation could cause brain damage, which in turn might cause seizures resembling epilepsy.

If a person doesn't feel any guilt from strangling a dog until it looses consciousness, there is something wrong and there must be missing a very important part - empathy. If it doesn't come naturally, I think that he or she ought to engage in aquariums - with plastic fish.

Animal cruelty is illegal, so exposing animals to violence is against the law. In my opinion, it is unexplainable that a law that prevents violence to living creatures is at all necessary. Unfortunately it is. It’s a pity that all humans don't have the ethical sense to stay away from violence. A true expert in dog training doesn't frighten or inflict pain. He or she first establishes a good relationship using trust, warmth, joy, curiosity and a strong ambition and desire to help a dog in need.

Dogs are a great help to us all. Can we then consider it fair to treat them the way Millan and his supporters do? How does that feel deep down in your heart? Close your eyes for a moment and imagine that your teacher is very strict and demanding, and physically punishes you when you can't give the right answers. What would you then be able to learn? I recall the scene from the film "The Jungle Book" where Bagheera questions Baloo’s accidental knockout of Mowgli. Bagheera says something like: "Tell me, after you have knocked your pupil out, how do you expect him to learn anything?”

Is there any chance that the dog you just hanged until it lost consciousness, will be able to trust you afterwards? Doesn't the fact that Millan actually violates animal protection laws and that he seems to have no limits to what he exposes dogs to, give you a hint that it is inappropriate?

Sometimes you have to question yourself to what you really accomplish by the old pattern of “training” you are accustomed to. You have to use your imagination to be able to understand the dog’s inner world in general and the situation in particular. Only then you can be able to help it adequately. This means that you have to try to see everything from an animal’s point of view.

Broaden your mind - what shall I do? Am I really doing the right thing or am I doing wrong? What is the cause of this behavior? You are doing the right thing when you doubt your training methods – so stay with that thought.

To me this nasty and ignorant attitude towards a living creature that is unable to protect itself from people’s abuse and cruelty is unreal and unimaginable. A well functioning relationship must include mutual respect and that includes a capacity to feel empathy.

The word respect, concerning dogs, has a different meaning depending on whom you talk to. For many it is equivalent with the dog being afraid of punishment, for others it is obvious to try to understand the language and behavior of the dog instead of criticizing it.

Dog training should be about just that - training and nothing else. No harsh words, angry body language, abuse or life threatening hangings. People who treat dogs with cruelty probably do so because they don’t know better and perhaps even due to their own issues with aggression.

The picture of Millan walking with a group of dogs is just that - a picture, a stylized image. It is mostly about idol fantasies and idealizing. Too many people don’t reflect on his methods and dare not put their feet down and say NO to dirty methods. Perhaps the time has come to reconsider, because, as a Millan fan said at a conference in Sweden, 2010: "We are on the wrong way with these soft methods." He who viewed this opinion meant that a positive approach to dog training was a step backwards. But I claim that it is Millan’s methods that take us back to the authoritarian training of the 1960:s.

How on earth did we manage before, without all the tools, tricks and shady methods that harm our dogs? Are we that bad at training dogs despite all the new knowledge in animal behavior and learning psychology?

To say you love dogs and then expose them to serious assault is a form of deception. You have to truly love dogs or else your methods of training sooner or later strike back. We have come so much further in understanding dog behavior. Why not use that knowledge to socialize with and train animals?

To you who read this letter and don’t belong to the Millan supporter crowd, but still want to participate in a dog class or need help with a behavioral problem of some kind: Find out about the trainer’s ideology by asking questions about his or her education and approach or if any kind of punishment is used. If a trainer asks you to borrow your dog for a “test” on a short walk, answer with a clear and distinct no. Many dogs have, after a short walk with someone with authority, come back scared or even shocked.

If you experience any kind of problem with the behavior of your dog, contact a trained animal behaviorist. He or she will then analyze the underlying causes of the problem and help you draw up a list of actions to be taken.

Translated by Ulla-Britt Östlund, Sweden