Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Why the "positive only" community is losing to Cesar Millan

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  It is not based on outdated dominance theories or the idea that one must be the "pack leader" (there has been much evidence today that dogs do not form packs like wolves do; for some good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.


  1. That is one major problem, the other major problem is that positive training takes time - especially if the behavior has been going on for quite a while. Cesar offers a quick fix and in this fast food society, that is all people want. They want something that will work within a few jerks of a leash and the embarrassment of having a crazy barking dog is over. People don't understand that the slower way lasts longer and you don't have to keep repeating the jerking behavior over and over and over to get it.

    Honestly, I truly believe this is why people turn to shock, to jerk, to prong. They don't have to do any work with their dog. This is why board and train facilities make so much money.

    People don't want a relationship with their dog. They want a quick fix and Cesar offers that. The problem comes in when the quick fix doesn't work. People then think they're just doing it wrong so they try harder, the behavior becomes worse and then they get rid of the dog and get a new one.

    When positive training offers quick fixes you will see cult followings behind them.

    The bickering and attacking is just one part of the problem with the positive training community.

  2. That is an excellent point. I was trying to think of other reasons that I think we "fail" in converting people but the post was getting long enough as is.

    I think it's a symptom of a much larger problem I'd imagine. Quick fixes are the thing today. Everything is about instant gratification. No longer do you even have to go to the store and buy a CD or wait for one to come in the mail. You just download it and there it is, all ready to be listened to the moment you click to approve the transaction.

    So people turn to anything that will "fix" a problem as quick as possible.

    We need to find a way to explain to people how learning works while still not resorting to attacks. I think it really does turn people off, people who DO come to learn. We'll never win over everyone and we certainly won't win over people determined to find a quick fix. But all too often I've seen people come looking for a solution and get beaten down by rudeness and aggressive attitudes. I know you've seen it too and it just keeps continuing to turn people off. It's frustrating!

  3. I think just having honest chats with people works. Giving them the information and letting them decide on their own is something else you have to do. You won't win everyone over. That is something Dunbar said in his lectures that I found interesting. He said to not waste our time arguing with people that didn't want to ever use or try our training techniques. Move on to the next person.

    I was a Cesar fan when I got my first dog, Bernie. I took me a few months with her to learn everything I was doing I was doing wrong and she showed me that with her lovely attitude. I'm grateful I found people with the right information that showed me how to fix it and I also had a dog that bounced back from it all quite well. (Now, I didn't do anything like choking her but I know both of us tried to alpha roll her when she was a puppy and were surprised at the results, a pissed off little female puppy biting us.)

    People that don't have problem dogs don't realize how dangerous his techniques are. I'm sure quite a few people have been bitten trying them out though before realizing how it is all BS.

    You can't save them all. That is what I have to keep telling myself. Don't waste your time on the bozos.

  4. I saw Cesar's methods described somewhere as a "sticky idea". It's simple, it's easy to understand, it seems easy to do yourself and it seems to be based in science. And so it wiggles it's way into your head and stays there.

    Add in Cesar's "charismatic" attitude and you have a hit.

  5. All good points guys! I do think we have several problems and you've pointed out the other things I should have brought up: the instant gratification and the simplicity of the ideas (be the pack leader, be calm assertive). Combine those two with a positive training community that is often less than positive with human beings and you end up with a mess.

  6. To be honest I think it really depends on the dog and the person itself. I have learned Cesar's ways. An I don't see just punishment in all of it. There is the type of breed and what fits best. Its like having a kid and trying to figure out how to raise the kid. An if something goes wrong what punishment works best. I'll admit, I tried spankings with my kids. It works on one and not the other. I have to use time outs or try "smoking" (which is actually doing push ups or another exercise type) with the other kid. My child hates time outs and smoking. Cesar's way works best for my dogs. I have a Siberan husky and two Low content wolf dogs. I love them to death. But they need to be in a pack. They need to have the "alpha leader" and all that. I have lived with chows (mother in law's dogs) that Cesar's way was the only technique that worked. The positive training did not phase them. They looked at me like I was stupid and walked all over my pregnant butt. I tried the "shht, calm, assertive" and his hand technique. An whoaw!! dog stopped jumping on me. I can now stand being around those dogs. My dogs have never bit me or gave me trouble. We live in a suburban area. An I use the roller blades and let them at it. Have even tried the sit and let the other neighborhood dogs know we weren't gonna be in their "territory." Now those dogs do not bark or try to attack us. I do give treats for good behavior as well. An I kinda have a combo of training techniques that have been working for me. So I really do think it just depends on the dog and person. Dogs feed off your personality and energy. An I don't do his techniques to other peoples dogs with out permission. An sometimes, Science can not explain everything. I have learned this much in a life time. Sometimes the old ways are best and leave things unexplained. You just have to learn what works best for you, your family, and your dog.

  7. I have to wholeheartedly disagree and bear with me here as I'm exhausted from a long day at work.

    Cesar has sold a line that basically implies that positive training doesn't work on all dogs, that "hard" dogs need "harder" training, that they need punishment in order to be shown how to act, that one cannot use positive, rewards-based methods with aggressive dogs. Unfortunately, it's really not accurate.

    The science that you think is "wrong" is pretty simple science: rewards get repeated behavior, punishments get less of that behavior. It really can't be wrong. When you punish your dog you're using a different part of the 4 quadrants than I would. The problem with extinguishing a behavior is that it frequently doesn't teach the dog what TO do and leaves the dog confused as to what you (generic you!) expect of it.

    To continue with the child analogy: If every time your young child ran screaming throughout the house, coloring on the walls, you spanked him, he would learn pretty quickly that you don't want him to do that. Yes it works. But what it hasn't shown him is what you want him to do with all that energy (color quietly on his own paper, go outside and run around screaming on the swing set, or some other thing that you would deem appropriate). The same thing goes with dogs. If you knee them in the chest every time they jump on you, you've taught them that jumping up gets a painful punishment. But they may still rush you. They may resort to yet another behavior you consider to be inappropriate (scratching at the door, barking loudly, racing around the house knocking things over).

    If, instead, you turn your back on the dog and then wait until the dog is sitting and reward that sit (with attention, with praise, or with food), the dog is learning that sitting politely gets something good.

    It's really quite simple. And the best thing about it is that it works. And it doesn't hurt the dog.

  8. Continued...

    The major problem with Cesar is that he buys into a really outdated dominance myth. Even if dogs had a strict hierarchy (they don't), they don't believe YOU are a dog and therefore know you're not "alpha." The hand thing he does? Imitating a mother dog? It's ridiculous and silly at best. It's just another punishment.

    Does the old, punishment-based training work? Sadly, it often does. Otherwise it wouldn't have such a following. I'm sure I could use it to get my dog to behave. But I choose not to. Why? Because I want a dog to behave because she's been rewarded for it; I want her to work happily with me. I don't want to fight against her, have to show her that I'm the "dominant" one.

    I don't judge my relationship with my dog based on "not biting me or giving me trouble." I judge my relationship with her based on how we work together and how happy she is. I think that's a much better assessment of your relationship with your dog than "not biting."

    I also wanted to add (I warned you this would be scattered!) that dogs are masters of reading body language, both theirs and ours. They don't feed off "energy." That's an idea that Cesar invented to make what he does seem more mysterious. The dogs read our body language and can tell much more about us than even WE often can by small changes in our posture and our facial expressions. Dogs are amazing body language readers, even better than our closest primate relatives.

    And honestly, if you think positive reinforcement doesn't work with a dog then you simply haven't found what is reinforcing for them all. For some it's a game of chase or fetch, others it's tug, and for many it's a food reward (and here, again, you have to find the RIGHT food reward -- my dog will not consider a Milkbone dog biscuit a reward, but will see a bit of a turkey dog as hugely rewarding). Sometimes you just have to figure out your dog's motivation to get them to work.

    My dog is motivated by games of tug and by food. It took me ages to figure out how motivating tug was for her and how we use it all the time. But in order to do all of that, you have to drop the dominance-based stuff, have to drop the belief that you are somehow "alpha" do your dog, have to drop the idea that you're in some sort of war for "top dog" with your dog, and do something Suzanne Clothier suggested in her book Bones Would Rain from the Sky: See the dog.

  9. And after all, of that, I do want to thank you for stopping by the blog and taking the time to comment!

  10. One, I totally agree with your comments about using POSITIVE methods in Communicating with those you choose to do something differently. I have never met a person I could not learn something from. Just because I would not choose to do something that way, does not mean I know "the Truth" about all things.

    I do not agree with his methods myself. I do have a more simple answer to your question, "why" is he so popular. We still Live inside a Male Dominated Society, where Aggression is approved of and promoted. You only need to look at many popular books, movies, games, video games, songs and find out how POPULAR VIOLENCE still is. I still hear people tell their children and others more often what they do NOT like instead of complimenting and inspiring more of what they do like.

    I do not feel Women have all the answers or by any means are all gentle and compassionate. I do believe, however, if Women were "in charge" of our government, for example, we would be SEEKING more collective ways to settle problems which did not involve killing our children! We would have solved the problem of World Hunger because it would have become a PRIORITY being the Maternal Beings we are. We have More compassion for animals and nature. Most animal abuse, nature abuse, child abuse is done by men. And women help create this when they tell their sons not to cry, don't be a sissy, "big boys" don't let that bother them and so on. We help, along with fathers, create men who do not have any idea how to deal with their feelings, because they were taught to Stuff them, so when they do emerge, they often come our in violent ways.

    The solution requires all of us to live as the LOVE we are and DEMONSTRATE.. "be the Change" we want to see in the world and not perpetuate more of what we don't want by becoming angry and violent about what we don't like.

  11. I agree with your observations. Positive trainers can become 'purists' and also use positive punishment when dealing with humans. I wrote a blog post that is relevant to this topic - about all the in-fighting http://www.petpurpose.nz/pet-sitting-blog/dog-trainer-wars