My take on the Dog Whisperer vs. Food Aggressive Dog

I’m not a dog behaviorist. I’m not even a very good trainer of my own dogs, but I’ve read a lot about different methods and over the past six years, I’ve learned a lot about dog behavior and body language.

Early on in my education, I watched The Dog Whisperer and tried to follow his technique to get Isis to stop barking at bicycles and joggers and other dogs on leash. It didn’t work. She got worse. What finally did work was clicker training and positive reinforcement. That’s when I learned that there are lots of dog trainers who think Cesar Millan is the worst thing to happen to dog training since shock collars.

Victoria Stilwell is where it’s at. Not only does she use dog-friendly techniques, she wears tight black pants and has pretty hair.

Last week, a video circulated decrying Cesar’s methods when working with a food aggressive dog who wound up biting him on the hand. The first version I watched featured slow-motion and captions describing the dog’s behavior.

Then I read this blog post and the comments. One dissenter blamed the owners for nurturing food aggression and creating a monster. He/she wrote:

Watch the ENTIRE episode to find out what happens to Holly. I don’t know of many trainers, including Victoria Stilwell (whom I respect and appreciate very much as a trainer), that would make this offer to save a dog’s life. Holly is now a balanced dog and will most likely be placed with dog savvy people who can keep her that way.

Actually, I know quite a few trainers who would try to save this dog’s life rather than have her euthanized.

And I just so happened to catch the whole episode over the weekend, because “find out what happens to Holly” was just too enticing. Turns out, Holly got left at Cesar’s rehab center. I didn’t hear anything about her being placed in a better home. It looked to me like Holly might live out the rest of her life at Cesar’s. (I also didn’t see anything that showed that the owners “nurtured” food aggressive behavior. They consulted other trainers before Cesar.)

Earlier in the week, I read this blog about the hazards of rehoming an aggressive dog, and I recognize that Holly’s family simply could not keep her. They had a small child, and not everyone has a lifestyle like mine, where it is possible to keep my dogs from ever interacting with small children.

So I completely understand the decision that Holly’s family made, and think moving out to Cesar’s center is probably preferable to being killed, but I disagree that those were the only two options.

A positive reinforcement trainer could have trained Holly to be less food aggressive without putting her through so much stress that she bit someone in the process. Cesar’s method involved leering over the dog while she ate, advancing ever closer. Of course she bit him! She already was visibly anxious, and he deliberately escalated the situation.

I know I’m guilty of personifying dogs, but I felt sad for Holly at the end of the episode, watching her family leave her behind at Cesar’s. I hope she’s happy living with a pack of her own kind, but I couldn’t help thinking that his rehab center resembled a cruel Oliver Twist-style orphanage.

16 thoughts on “My take on the Dog Whisperer vs. Food Aggressive Dog

  1. Featured this as the BLOG OF THE DAY at FB biz page Canine Transformations – well written, great observations and “the rest of the story”.

    • Thank you, Diane. You were the first person to tell me the “truth” about Cesar, and turn me onto positive reinforcement, after all!

  2. I enjoy watching Cesar’s show. Sometimes just to reinforce in me that patience is the most important thing. I do believe that every dog is different and my two are at opposite end when it come to training and discipline! I learned this through my dog Dexter who didn’t respond to any of Cesar’s tips and fought me harder if I tried them. I had to find my own way with him. Jack on the other hand responds excellent to Cesar’s type of training.

    Dexter is a rescue and was very food aggressive when we got him. What worked for us was time and feeding by hand, then petting while feeding, and progressing from there. He is now perfect with food but still has some problems with a special treat. We taught him to ‘leave it’ and “come” for these times when we cant safety take his treat from him. Time and very positive reinforcement only works with Dexter!

    • I love hearing about positive methods making a difference in a dog’s life. Dexter is lucky to have found you! (Jack too!)

  3. Haha! “cruel Oliver Twist-style otphanage”. Really? Did you actually watch the end of the episode? That dog cared less about her owners being there or not. She ran off at the end verses the nerotic staring unsure behavior she showed the first time they left.

    Cesar Milan’s training does not work for everyone. Especially since you have to be VERY good at reading dog behavior (books don’t really cut it for this experience). The layman person at home who has no clue what their dog is conveying to them probably WILL have better luck with treat training. (even if they don’t understand what a bridge is and have horrible timing)

    But does that mean his methods are wrong? or that you just can’t follow through with them correctly?

    • I think that’s the danger of Millan’s show. Since I’ve learned about dog body language (not just from books), it seems to me that the main criticism of him is that HE doesn’t properly read their body language. Trying his methods at home (despite the warning at the beginning of the show) is risky because the show does such a poor job of explaining the stress signals the dogs show. Do his methods work for some people? Maybe, but that’s not the relationship I want with my dogs.

      • I doubt he could have 50+ dogs with aggression problems living together as a pack if he couldn’t read behavior correctly.

        I’ve worked with animals for 17 years and have seen credited behaviorists put down animals like Holly (I’ve had to put down a dog myself, and I’m fully capable of using bridges and positive training). I’m not saying those behaviorists were wrong or I was wrong in doing so. But you actually have no idea if a positive trainer COULD have trained that dog to be less aggressive. (And I’m pretty sure they said they had tried other trainers) You’re really just speculating and anthropomorphizing the dogs ‘Oliver Twist like’ ending.

      • I was so relieved when I discovered that I wasn’t the only one that thought dogs deserve respect and a different training style. Glad to share with a like-minded person!

  4. Incorporating Karen Pryor’s method of clicker training featured on Dog Whisperer resolved our problem. The almost visceral opposition to Millan is troubling. At the age of 6, he was called “dog boy” in his village. He has developed his gift over a lifetime and worked up from groomer to icon, saving thousands of dogs. His transition from red zone cases, to worldwide tours evaluating potential homes for rescues is a testament to his dedication. His clinics are expensive and require total dedication to problem solving techniques. 8 out of 10 issues are a result of ineffective training by the owner.Yes, the literary reference about the DPC is way out of line. Dogs are best in balanced packs, human/animal, where there is established order and hierarchy, as it is at DPC. Humanizing dogs, as noted – is the worst way to begin. My Native American mentor-trainer fully embraced dog’s body language for “reading” the dog and made it part of our curriculum for certification. She even trained us to imitate the language to achieve results! :)Millan lives it. He deserves respect, not vilification. Stillwell, also highly respected – has unfairly criticized Cesar as a person and as a trainer. Other trainers’ criticism could be borne out of envy. It should be clear to all that there are as many methods as there are trainers and we will never agree on just one. We know it depends on the individual case. If one is willing to alter their lives in a way that their dog NEVER encounters a child, then the danger looms. Nationally certified training schools acknowledge that pinch and electronic collars are indicated in certain cases, though the official stance is to avoid compulsion training aids. Bottom line is – you do what works; and that is different for almost any dog. Kari, keep up the great work. I so hope for a sequel about Leo.

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