Part 1: Physical Correction


The reason I disagree with Cesar Millan has nothing to do with his education or his experience. It has nothing to do with his accent, his charisma or his undeniable charm. It has nothing to do with his fame or his success. It has absolutely nothing to do with jealousy. He isn’t stealing anything from me, and I don’t feel my personal values are being threatened by him.

I disagree with Cesar Millan, not because of him as a man but because I believe the information he conveys to the public, when put into the wrong, ignorant, unknowing, confused or inexperienced hands can lead to problems that can get people hurt and dogs killed. And for me, as a dog lover, that is both sad and unacceptable.

Even taken in its lightest form, putting the direst and most dramatic consequences aside however, Cesar Millan’s techniques can cause fear, anxiety and a broken bond between the animal and the human. These techniques do not eliminate the undesired behavior, they simply suppress them. As most psychologists (and good friends) will tell you, suppression is not healthy for your mind or body, and it isn’t healthy for your dog.

Furthermore, Cesar’s “one-size fits all” techniques do not encourage the owner to actively question the dog’s behavior. We may have the more superior brains, and we may want to believe that we can get inside our dogs’ heads, but we can’t. There are times that your dog may not be performing at his optimal level, not because he is trying to dominate you with his disobedience, but because he is in pain. Clicker training encourages you to get to the bottom of why your dog isn’t responding to your cue. Does your dog really want to dominate you when he runs out the door ahead of you, or is he just excited to go outside? Outside is a very exciting place for your pup. Clicker training makes you ask questions to get the root of the problem. Why is my dog snarling at every dog he sees? Am I tightening up on the leash and causing him to associate pain with other dogs? Am I tensing my body so he feels there is danger? Cesar Millan’s techniques about dominance simply don’t ask the hard questions, so they never truly get to the root of the problem behavior.

Like I said before, I don’t disagree with everything Cesar says, but I do disagree with his training methods as a whole. For example, I heartily agree that when training you should be calm, you should speak in a neutral tone and not let your emotions get away from you. But I also recognize that we are all human and while we should work toward inner balance, we are never going to have it down pat 100% of the time. We have bad days, we get angry when we just worked ten hours, and the puppy is chewing on the furniture or just peed on the carpet. The mode of “punishment” in clicker training is to simply remove the reward (“-R” removing reward), rather than adding correction (“+P” adding punishment) – both are negative experiences for the dog, but they have drastically different impacts. That is how clicker training allots for these “off” moments in you, the handler. You can remove the reward, put the dog in a crate with a fun toy and come back to training when you are calm.

If your punishment is, “I must aggressively touch this dog like a mother dog until she stops chewing the furniture” how long do you think it’s going to take for your tired, frustrated mind to say, “This isn’t working, I need to touch harder”? Two touches? Five? So what then? You hope the dog stops before then or that the more aggressive touch doesn’t hurt the dog? And what if the more aggressive touch doesn’t work? Is the next step a collar pop?

Physicality, by its very nature, escalates. Have you ever seen a shouting match turn into a push? That push almost always results in one of two things: a full-on fight or someone being the bigger person and walking away.

Apply this same situation to you and your dog. First scenario: Fight. At best, you are going to hurt your dog, and she may bounce back from that the first time, or even the tenth. But that just makes you feel that it’s okay, because hey, Fido still loves me. Eventually though, this routine will wear. You may end up with a tail tucking, head shy, cowering in a corner dog or you may end up with a hackles raised, teeth flashing, aggressive dog. Both scenarios are sad for both of you. And at worst, you are going to get bitten the first time. That pattern, if not immediately addressed, almost always results in euthanasia for the dog.

Second scenario: Flight. If you are even-tempered enough to walk away before your touches get too rough, you are doing a few things. One, you aren’t teaching your dog anything except that you are annoying and perhaps a bully. Second, you aren’t giving the dog an appropriate behavior to replace the inappropriate behavior (for example, instead of physically touching your dog until he stops chewing on the couch, you could hand him a favorite toy instead, then praise or reward his chewing on the toy). Third, you aren’t fixing the undesired behavior, so the dog thinks it is still fair game and will continue doing it, gradually increasing your frustration. A lot of dogs have lost their homes because of this continuing spiral.

That’s not to say that physical correction, when applied correctly, and even sometimes incorrectly, doesn’t work to stop undesired behaviors. It most certainly does. What Cesar Millan and hundreds of other traditional trainers do isn’t new. That’s why they are most commonly referred to as “traditional” trainers. Physical correction is the way people have been training dogs for hundreds of years. So why fix what isn’t broken?

Because physical correction, simply put, can damage your dog. That in itself is dangerous, whether you have a Chihuahua or a Doberman. Furthermore, physical correction is not as effective as positive reinforcement based training. Think of it like this – would you rather work for a boss who gives you nice raises, compliments your work when you’ve done a good job and lets you know that you’re appreciated, or would you rather work for a boss who is constantly critiquing you, making you unsure of whether or not you will be keeping your job and gives you minimal, if any raises? Apply this same concept to your dog – do you think he would rather work for someone who he sees as a source of constant reward or of constant fear?

I know it’s a point of hot debate on whether or not physical correction actually causes the dog any pain, the same way that the theory on whether or not spanking an unruly child causes the child pain. Let’s put pain aside for a moment and assume that when you physically correct your dog you are completely level headed and do it gently enough that the dog doesn’t feel pain, but instead feels mild shock or surprise. A sort of “attention getting jab” if you will. What’s the harm in that?

Besides what I discussed previously, that physicality escalates, even an attention getting jab can cause your dog to seize up and stop thinking. Think of it as similar to getting the wind knocked out of you. Your body’s instant response is to momentarily seize up. Your brain needs to process what has happened. Neurons are firing, emotions are going, and while all this is happening inside the brain, the training session has completely halted. Your dog is stuck. The undesired behavior has also stopped (which is why you will see “instant” results with physical correction). The problem with this is that getting the wind knocked out of you or an attention getting jab for your dog, has done essentially the same thing. It has triggered the emotion “fear” in the primitive part of the brain. Fear in a dog, or in a person, is always a volatile and unpredictable thing. Fear is the thing you want least in a dog. And the fear emotion has been associated with you and training. This, over an extended period of time, when incorporated into training sessions, will cause the dog to emotionally shut down. He may respond on cue, he may stop chewing the furniture, but he may also turn on you. And you won’t know when it is coming, because fear has now been accepted into the training ritual.

It is much easier to see the signs of fear in a dog who is very rarely afraid than a dog who has been conditioned by fear. I can see it every day with my own dogs. Smokey has been conditioned by fear, both before he came to us, and regrettably, after. There are days when, for no reason at all, he will look sad, walk around the house with his tail tucked and shy away from touch. He seems to be afraid of everything, and it is too overwhelming to deal with. Shelby, however, always has a raised tail, an open, relaxed mouth and a glint in her eyes. When something happens that scares her, and we see a tail tuck or a tightening in the mouth, we immediately find the source of the problem and begin a training exercise to address it. While I don’t believe that Smokey would ever hurt us, it is a possibility that we must live with every day. It’s a possibility that I don’t believe dog owners who have puppies from good breeders should ever have to live with. It is a possibility that simply does not exist with positive reinforcement training utilized right out of the gate.

The other thing that you are conditioning your dog for when you physically correct him is something I have termed the “anti-click”. Let’s take the verbal “Acht” sound that many traditional trainers use to precede a physical correction (this same line of thought can be applied to the beep before a shock from an electric shock collar or an electric fence). The “Acht” is essentially a mark; it transmits information to the dog that a physical correction is coming. It also triggers the synapses that transmit fear to the dog’s brain. The “Acht” mark or the “anti-click” works in much the same way as the click used in clicker training, except that the click in clicker training triggers the synapses that transmit the chemicals in the brain that cause feelings of pleasure and contentment. “Food is on the way, food smells good, I like food, I feel good.” The anti-click causes the reverse to happen, “A punishment is on the way, I don’t like punishment, I’m scared”. The dog begins to shut down before the punishment even happens. This is why, when your dog is conditioned using physical correction, and he starts to chew on something, and you use your anti-click, he stops. The punishment is not typically needed, because the process that transmits fear to the dog’s brain and freezes him has already happened.

What the anti-click can also do is cause a freeze-up in training when the training requires action. Say you are trying to get your dog to sit, but instead of sitting, he starts to wander away. You use your anti-click, signaling a punishment, he freezes up, doesn’t sit, and he gets that punishment. He is backed into a corner where he can’t escape. Like you, your dog cannot help the way that his brain functions. He can’t quicken the gap in time that it takes for his brain to get his body to act. He also doesn’t need to know all this to feel that he is being needlessly punished. Those who are needlessly punished are afraid. Those who are afraid, have breaking points. Breaking points in a dog that could easily crush the bones in your hand or the neck of your child are a very serious and scary thing.

Furthermore, the anti-click can never stay at the same level. It must always escalate, just as the reward following the click must. Just as training with dry kibble is not going to keep your dog motivated forever, training with an attention getting jab or a slight collar pop is not going to keep your dog afraid forever. Eventually, the dog’s fear synapses are going to stop firing for the level of punishment they are used to. When punishment is incorporated into the dog’s training every day, eventually, it becomes second nature for them to accept this punishment. This causes a numbing effect to the brain, much like chemical dependencies with abusive substances. You get to the point where you need more and more of the correction to get the desired effect. Your dog has become dependent upon the gentle collar pop, so he stops responding. To cause him to respond with the same level of alertness and attentiveness, you must up your game. But instead of moving from dry kibble to training treats (as in clicker training), you move from a gentle touch or collar pop to a more aggressive, possibly damaging one. It is yet another vicious spiral that comes from training with physical correction.

Do I think that Cesar Millan is the cause of all this? No, of course not. But I think he is perpetuating the problem. I think his methods, by hitting the mainstream media, have caused a slew of people who would otherwise use positive reinforcement methods, to go with Cesar’s methods, the traditional methods, and this has caused a huge problem for dogs and people alike. I doubt that that was his intention, but that is the effect. And I like to fight the cause to end the effect.