I belong to a community on Facebook that is there to debunk Cesar Millan's methods. This community currently has about 4,100 members. This seems fairly significant. 4,100 people devoted to positive training and to getting the word out that many trainers and behaviorists do not approve of Cesar Millan's dominance-based theories and harsh punishment-based training methods. But when you compare this to the over 820,000 people that are in the group devoted to his show and teachings you realize there's a major problem. Even Victoria Stilwell, TV's voice for positive training, has only a little over 27,000 members in her facebook group.
Positive training is losing. Cesar Millan is winning. This is a huge problem and I've been wracking my brain to try to figure out why people gravitate to Cesar and are devotees of his training but will not adopt more positive training methods. After all, to those of us who use various forms of positive training, from clicker training to lure/reward styles, it's the most logical way to train.
It's based in science. Operant conditioning uses the four quadrants (positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment, and negative punishment) to influence behavior. While all of the quadrants are valid and science-based, positive trainers focus on positive reinforcement (rewarding the desired behavior) and sometimes negative punishment (removing something the dog likes when he does something that is not desired). It is not based on outdated dominance theories or the idea that one must be the "pack leader" (there has been much evidence today that dogs do not form packs like wolves do; for some good information on that check out Raymond Coppinger's Dogs: A Startling New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior & Evolution).
It's dog-friendly. Positive trainers do not use things that will cause pain to their dogs. The use of shock collars, choke chains or prong collars is not a part of positive training. Because the dogs are never punished in such a way, they're often more open to offering behaviors and trying new things. A "wrong" behavior will not received a painful shock or a leash pop and so dogs become more willing to experiment to find the behavior that will gain them the reward. When you see a dog offering behaviors willingly and with great excitement, it's a reward all its own.
Positive training is hugely rewarding for both dog and human. When I go into training my dog I'm excited and even better, she is too. When I mention "doggy class" she dances around the apartment with a grin on her face and attempts to herd me right out the door. For those of us who see that "reward" when we train, we can't imagine why anyone would want to train using punishment-based methods.
And yet Cesar Millan has a huge following. His marketing machine is massive (I've seen his books and cardboard cutouts everywhere from Petsmart to Borders and I've seen him on such shows as Bones and The Daily Show; he even had a cameo on South Park!). He's won over countless people to his way of training. Hardly a day goes by when I don't read about someone attempting to alpha roll someone else's dog or using Cesar's "shhht" on a dog they meet at the dog park. I see him consistently quoted in dog communities and the words "calm assertive" are seen almost as often as cries for help. More people believe in the concept of the alpha than do not.
To those of us who train using positive reinforcement methods it is inordinately frustrating to see someone with such outdated theories, so focused on dominance, and using punishment to train having such a huge following. It makes no sense and so we find ourselves shaking our heads and getting riled up in frustration.
So where do we go wrong? Why can't we win more people over to our "side"? I've seen a fair amount of people who have said "Wow I'm so glad there are better ways to train...I didn't like doing that to my dog." But I don't see that nearly as often as "But Cesar Millan's methods work!" and a complete unwillingness to entertain the idea that there are other, more dog-friendly methods out there.
One of my latest conclusions as to where we go wrong is that, as a group, positive trainers seem to be a snarky bunch. We see red if the name Cesar or the word "dominance" comes up and instead of stating why we believe positive training is a better method of training, we attack. I've been as guilty of this as anyone else in the community, but I've been trying to make a conscious effort to take a breath and write more on why I think positive training is such a great thing and less on why I think Cesar Millan should be ripped apart by rabid wolverines (I jest!).
But this is sadly not true of many in the community. I've seen countless people join dog training communities and leave because of the attitude that was given them. They made mistakes. We all do. But instead of people saying "What you're doing really isn't going to work and may backfire; let me give you some really good solid methods of working on this issue" they get rude responses and accusations. They get told that they're harming their dog for life, that they are abusive, or that they should never have gotten a dog in the first place. No one wants to come to a community for help and essentially be chased out by this sort of attitude. And even worse, this is not going to convert them to positive training methods.
The problem appears to be that many people in the positive training community do not know how to relate to human beings. We use positive training with our dogs, but do not use the same concept of positive reinforcement with people. Instead we use positive punishment (positive punishment is where an animal gets a punishment inflicted when they do something we have deemed wrong; e.g. a leash pop for not staying in heel position). If there are better ways to train our dogs, sure there are better ways to relate to other human beings than through the use of punishment?
So here's my challenge to the community: Think before you write. Consider your words carefully. Instead of punishing those people who you disagree with, try to reinforce those people when they do something right. When someone is training in a way you don't agree with or cites Cesar as their greatest influence, count to 10 and then explain in a calm, rational way why you think that positive training is a better method.
You catch more flies with honey, after all. You may not catch them all, but you might bring more people over to our side if you use honey instead of vinegar.