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The Science of Cesar Millan's Dog Training: Good Timing and Hard Kicks in the Stomach

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In his National Geographic show The Dog Whisperer, Cesar Millan talks about controlling dogs using "energy." But his real tool for controlling animals? Kicking them in the guts.

To any dog trainer rooted in the world of the science of behavior, the notion of "calm submissive" energy (or whatever he calls it) is fishy. Energy isn't observable; it's about as scientific as wishing on a star. More observable than energy is fear; often, Cesar Millan terrorizes dogs until they've been given emotional lobotomies and, zombielike, will do whatever he wants. The result is compliance (some of the time), and also the kind of fear and confusion that will send a dog looking to find a People Whisperer show. But dogs don't have cable.

However, sometimes, Cesar Millan does make use of behavioral science by implementing what is called, in behavioral terms, Positive Punishment. The "Positive" doesn't mean good -- it just means that something is added to the situation in order to discourage a behavior from happening again. Like adding a foot into a dog's abdomen.

The so-called "Dog Whisperer" makes training look like magic. But it's not. It is science: The science of punishment.

My biggest gripe with Cesar Millan is the fact that he is so often telling people to change everything about themselves and their own demeanor in order to bring about change in their dog. He suggests a person change everything about themselves in order to get the dog to stop lunging at the garden hose. He says things such as "Be assertive" or "Do not bring the past into the future." It's like commanding someone, "Stop being depressed!"

I'm a Positive Reinforcement dog trainer. Positive Reinforcement practitioners are good at encouraging the behaviors we want and ignoring behaviors we don't. This is a simpler approach that is more direct than getting someone to rearrange their psyche so that their dog will stop peeing on their pillow.

I think that most scientists would argue that, to date, we understand a lot more about manipulating animal behavior than we do about the workings of the human brain. What we do understand about training ourselves involves a lot of time and effort: therapy, self-help books, yoga, medication. By the time you figure those things out, you'll have 50 busted garden hoses and your dog is dead anyway. It takes far less time to wisely use good timing and proper reinforcement to train a dog.

But at any gathering of like-minded professionals, I don't hear these kinds of conversations. Whenever he is mentioned, Positive Reinforcement trainers -- a group that's good at not giving time and attention to things we don't like -- will usually try to "reinforce" something good.

I've heard my friends say, "I compliment him on wanting to help owners see that dogs do pick up on human emotions" or "He advocates the need for exercise, which is indeed good for most dogs."  In an excellent Dogster post on Cesar Millan, one of my training mentors, Casey Lomanaco, writes: "Cesar and I both train dogs and their people. We both care deeply about helping dogs and people co-exist more peacefully." In an open letter to him regarding the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior stance against dominance-based training methods, my training partner Kate Senisi gives him kudos for making her want to learn more about training to begin with: "I was a fan -- he played a large part in inspiring me to change my professional career path," she writes.

Well, after digging deep into my soul, I have finally found a positive thing I have to say about Cesar Millan: He has good timing.

Dog trainers are all about affecting change in behavior in an animal, and everything is behavior, be it barking at another dog, sitting at a curb, playing dead or tracking a scent. All actions in our lives are either reinforced or punished. Positive Reinforcement animal trainers work to figure out how to bring about desired behavioral changes by pinpointing the things we want to happen again, and then rewarding them. We go this route long before ever resorting to any kind of negative reinforcement or punishment. But this does not mean throwing bacon in the air all the time or doing the horah the whole time Rufus is going potty: It means knowing exactly when to deliver a reinforcement -- be it food or something else rewarding to the animal -- and when to withhold it. Good dog trainers have great timing.

In Cesar Millan's case, he uses good timing when he punishes. At least, that's what I'm assuming is going on off-camera. Much of the time, it actually seems like his kicks and hissing noises and the like are delivered rather willy-nilly, not with great precision. But I imagine that, in the moments we don't see what's going on, he is doing a swell job of timing his punishers. Otherwise he wouldn't get results.

Then again, maybe he doesn't get results. The show isn't very long, and a lot is cut. Maybe the show's editor is the one with the great timing.

Another person with good timing? The punishment-based dog trainer who preceded Cesar Millan. Barbara Woodhouse was big in the U.K. in the mid-1900s. Her ability to deliver well-timed punishment was superb.

Here, in her 1970 book, Dog Training My Way, describing how to use well-timed punishment to get a dog to stop chasing cars:

Enlist the aid of a friend with a car. Ask him to drive you slowly past the dog that chases cars, and as the dog comes in to the attack, throw out as hard as you possibly can any fat hard-covered book, and make certain that the book hits the dog. The shock it gives the dog so frightens it that I have never had to repeat the treatment more than twice, even though the dog may have chased cars for years.

Just like Positive Reinforcement trainers are careful about choosing their rewards, the late Barbara Woodhouse was particular with her choice of punisher. She ends this passage by saying: "My favourite book is an old A.A. Handbook, it is just the right size."

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