The Rise and Fall of Cesar Millan, the Dog Whisperer

Why do people hate Cesar Millan so much?

Cesar Millan’s critics have piled on. By: adri021/Flickr

Few dog trainers have received as much attention as Cesar Millan, known to most as “The Dog Whisperer.”

What started in 2004 as a back-channel cable TV show led to millions of books and videos, a monthly magazine, a website and a foundation.

These days, however, Millan’s methods are hotly debated. Even some veterinary behaviorists don’t like The Dog Whisperer.


And the furor isn’t just online. A protest took place on January 15, 2012, for example, at a theater in Rochester, New York, where Millan gave a talk. “There has been so much attention to this that other cities … are doing the same,” says Ada Simms, Rochester protest organizer.

“Protests are being organized in Columbus and Akron, Ohio, where Cesar is performing,” Simms says. “There have been inquiries from as far away as Europe, where Cesar will be on tour after his U.S. tour ends.”

So what happened? Where did things go wrong for TV’s top dog guru?

How the Juggernaut Began

Millan is a self-taught expert. His real-world learning began when he was a kid in Mexico and was known as “the dog boy” because he had a natural touch.

Later, in the United States, he worked with aggressive dogs as part of a grooming business. He then created a canine academy, which attracted high-profile clients.

The TV series Dog Whisperer With Cesar Millan premiered in 2004 on the National Geographic Channel and was a runaway success. The bestselling book Cesar’s Way quickly followed.

Don’t Miss: Cesar Millan Slapped With Lawsuit After Dog Attacks Woman

Millan’s training philosophy in a nutshell is this: Your dog needs strong “pack leadership” from you (the true “alpha dog”) in order to be healthy and balanced. It’s called dominance theory.

The longer version: He says to handle your dog with “calm-assertive energy,” giving him plenty of exercise, clear boundaries and rules, and lots of affection when the time is right. Your dog is a dog, not a human, and is to be treated like one, Millan says. On the TV show, Millan seems to think you need to put your dog in its place when the dog is aggressive, using force — finger jabs to the abdomen, “alpha rolls,” even choke collars — if required.

Here’s an interesting Wall Street Journal video interview with Millan:

Critics Begin Speaking Up

In 2006, the American Humane Society lobbed one of the first grenades, asking producers to cancel Millan’s TV show, calling some of his training methods “inhumane” and “cruel and dangerous.”

The society said it was especially disturbed by the way Millan subdued dogs with shock collars, by pinning them to the ground or by tightening their collars.

Millan defends his methods, saying he uses “minimum force” to correct behaviors in aggressive pets, and adding, “My way is not the only way.”

Don’t Miss: School in an Uproar After “Dog Whisperer” Gets Honorary Degree

The American Humane Society later made nice with Millan, saying that despite “sharp differences,” the group shares many “areas of mutual interest” with the celeb trainer.

“Laughable” and “Outdated”?

The criticisms didn’t stop, because plenty of others picked up where the American Humane Society left off.

A fall 2006 New York Times piece headlined “Pack of Lies” lambasted Millan’s methods as “laughable” and “outdated.” The writer concluded:

“Mr. Millan’s quick fix might make for good television…. But it flies in the face of what professional animal behaviorists…have learned.”

Two years later, the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior issued a policy statement on dominance theory, which didn’t mention Millan by name, but denounced his methods, saying they lead to “an antagonistic relationship between owners and their pets.”

In article after article, positive dog trainers urged a gentler approach (such as clicker training) than Millan’s. And newer studies seemed to bear the critics out. For example, a spring 2009 report in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior showed that asserting dominance over dogs actually increases aggression in those dogs.

A Warning Label on the TV Show

The National Geographic Channel clearly was aware of the criticism, because the network cautions viewers against following Millan’s methods, inserting a warning on screen during every episode that reads: “Do not attempt these techniques yourself without consulting a professional.”

By 2010, an “Anti Cesar Millan” Facebook group was thousands strong. In April of that year, PBS aired “The Dominance Myth,” an episode of the documentary series Through a Dog’s Eyes, which stated, “Scientifically, dominance makes no sense.”

More and more attention was now being given to mainstream criticism of the Dog Whisperer juggernaut. Take this local newscast, for example, which aired in January 2009:

That brings us to the recent protest in Rochester. Dozens of trainers passed out fliers advocating force-free training. Says Simms, the organizer of the protest: “[Cesar Millan is] charming, and it looks good on TV that he’s this ‘master’ over dogs. But then you see the credits: ‘Don’t try this at home.’ Why? Because it’s dangerous.”

So, Is Cesar Millan a Bad Guy?

No. In fact, he has done a lot of good for animal welfare, including advocating against breed-specific legislation and puppy mills, and in support of spay/neuter programs.

And Millan is actually right about quite a few things, such as:

  • That you are responsible for your own dog’s behavior
  • That your pet needs lots of love and exercise
  • And that chaining dogs is awful

As Brent Toellner of KC Dog Blog explains, the Cesar Millan controversy — which seems to polarize so many people on all sides — isn’t so black and white. Toellner says blind accusations that Millan never uses positive reinforcement are just plain wrong, and he concludes:

“Sometimes I think, in efforts to discourage his training practices, people become too anti-Cesar Millan. They have become so frustrated with the people that are ‘doing it wrong’ that they feel forced to break down the man they feel represents that training style.”

Additional Resources

From Around the Web

  • Jennifer Arnold

    You protest a method different from your own when that method is harmful to dogs and people. I truly believe that not anyone yet understands that amount of damage the ‘dominance’ approach causes. If they did, no dog lover could defend what this man does. Dogs are dying every day in this country because aggressive, frightening, non-scientific methods were used in an effort to train them and the dogs lashed out in fear. This isn’t a matter of which method is best. There are many fair and appropriate ways to work with dogs. Cesar’s way is most definitely not among them.

  • NoMoreUserNames

    This article says: “Even some veterinary behaviorists don’t like The Dog Whisperer.”
    I say: Name one, single, solitary veterinary behaviorist that likes The Dog Whisperer.

  • Gon_Freaks

    i loved this show wish it still aired

  • katefromVA

    I have watched Mr. Millan’s program for years and have never seen him use a shock collar or any other inhumane method. Most of the time he uses the “calm, assertive energy” approach, perhaps nudging a dog with his leg or touching (not jabbing or poking) to get the dog’s attention. And he usually points out that the humans are part of the problem. A nervous owner transfers that nervousness to her/his dog. And while some folks insist that pets are equals, the fact is they are not – they need to be under the owner’s direction if they are going to live in the human world. A jumping, yipping dog is an annoyance and will not be welcome in public. An aggressive, snarling dog is a danger. We do our pets no favors by indulging bad behaviors. Much better to teach dogs to be well-behaved in human company.

  • Guest

    So please enlighten us – how would you handle a pit pull who has attacked other dogs and is human-aggressive? Use a clicker??!?!?!

    • Bianca Arlette

      Why not?
      Youtube Sophia Yin and Podee and you can see how you can work with a severely dog aggressive canine on a calm level with positive reinforcement so the dog can actually learn.

  • Moon

    I love Cesar Millan’s method. I don’t found them violent at all. Saying that love can resolve everything, that force is never good, it’s just not right, and as you can see in a lot of episode, when owners respond to violence with love, the dog just becomes more and more violent and dangerous for humans.
    So what do we do ? Try to give love to a violent pitbull and kill it when he has eventually harmed a kid ? I think love is give dangerous dogs a chance to live in our world, and value their life more than our love.

  • Spikethorn

    Cesar ain’t cruel to the dogs! Watch a group of dogs when one of them misbehaves it gets bitten. I just had here myself it needs just a little jab here and there so the dog pays attention to you again….

    • Payton Blake

      And your dog becomes wary of you.

  • Bonnie Mitchell

    There is a lot of sense in what Mr Millan says. Some of his techniques I prefer not to use, my dog is not aggressive, she does not need “dominating”. However, she is not a small furry person, either, she’s a dog & he talks sense when he says that they need you to be calm and assertive to maintain their own equilibrium. A lot of what he says encourages positive interactions with your dog.
    So what if he is self trained, so is Jackson Galaxy and he talks a lot of sense about being a responsible and caring cat owner. I am, as they say, bipetual: cats & dogs, I do not prefer one over the other but they require different approaches. So, use critical thought when learning from the likes of Messrs. Millan & Galaxy but don’t condemn everything because you disagree with some of their advice.

  • Payton Blake

    I would LOVE to see Cesar try his BS with an actual pack of wolves, since he thinks he’s treating domestic dogs (many bred to lean toward specific behaviors) like a pack of wolves.

  • jeff

    I was trained by CM. the problem is people that don’t like him, don’t understand him.
    he says all the time that you can have the dog act anyway you want. I only get called for out of control dogs. I have a shock collar but never used it.
    I have only had to use a collar 2 times with over 300 dogs in the last 10 years.
    if you know how to work your dog. you don’t need a prang.
    I don’t know why you call this the rise and fall because he has a new show called cesar 911.

  • jeff

    I am also a dog whisperer and if you Google dog whisperer Boca Raton Florida you will get over 100 web sites of just me.
    cm gets 45 thousand dollars as of 2010, his rates may be higher now.
    You would have to call.
    for a few hours as a donation. I get $450 for the day guaranteed or it’s free.
    that’s right if your not happy you don’t pay.
    the lesion stops when you say not me.
    I have a 100% success rate .
    every one of my customer understand that for the most part it’s the owner fault. once they understand that, they get a great dog at the end of the day.
    people always say you cant train in one day. well I put my money where my mouth is and I do or it’s free.
    thank you

  • Caitlin

    His techniques are definitely outdated, scientific proof for what he does has dwindled to absolutely nothing. Anyone who has studied and applied dog behavior knows this! Here is what I know: Dogs do need a leader, but they do not need an aggressive one. In fact, a less aggressive leader leads to a less aggressive dog in the long run. Dominance actually only applies to valuable resources like food, water, and resting spots (look up the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior for their statement on dominance.) However, by controlling those resources from the beginning you have already established yourself as “alpha” and can progress with your training in a positive way. You are really more of a parent to your dog than a dictator when you train/rehabilitate based on trust and communication rather than “showing who’s boss.”
    Cesar’s dogs aren’t balanced, they are helpless. He kicks and chokes dogs into exhaustion (what he refers to as “calm submission”) when really the dog is simply reacting in a way that it believes will get it out of the stressful situation that it was shoved into against its will.
    What I do admire about Millan is that he focuses on the human rather than the dog, that he stays calm and assertive, he advocates responsible ownership and opposes breed specific legislation. He seems like a great guy just very misinformed.

  • See Spot Run

    This article reads like an attempt at neutrality and an effort to bring together just factual information, but unfortunately the bias is pretty obvious.

    In the dog training/behavior world, “dominance theory” means the dominant party uses force and aggression to establish dominance. To say this is what Cesar Millan does is false. What he does is teach people how to be a good leader to their dogs, to take care of them and fulfill their needs. He does not use or advocate aggression, he would not be successful if that were the case.

    There is no scientific proof that what he does & teaches doesn’t work. Most of the studies his detractors point to are results of scientists and researchers giving questionnaires to dog owners and following up with interviews with those dog owners. That is not a scientific experiment. The rest of the studies his detractors point to that are more than just questionnaires/interviews use aggression in the tactics that are supposed to emulate what Cesar Millan does, but again, he doesn’t use aggression so those also cannot be considered scientific. If nothing else, the lack of strict controls (a necessary component of scientific experiments) in these exercises make them unworthy of being called scientific.

    Words matter, as does the truth. Saying (about Cesar Millan’s methods), “call it dominance theory” when that has specific meaning in dog training & behavior work and that is not what Cesar Millan himself calls what he does, then asking, “is there a time and place for exerting dominance over your dog?” is irresponsibly misleading.

    We can’t have an honest conversation which is very worthwhile, until loaded language is taken out and real facts are presented.

  • Janice Breen DiPietro

    Although I haven’t watched all his episodes nor read more than excerpts from his books, from what I have seen and read, Cesar doesn’t use excessive force, but prodding for attention (much like you might grab a child about to harm itself) as well as sounds and ‘looks’ to teach normal social behavior. His “dominance theory” is nothing more than teaching respect for the leader of the family (I.e. who provides shelter, food and security). No matter what slice of society or animal kingdom you dissect, there is a pecking order and rules to obey with consequences for non-conformity, and so, isn’t it natural to expect a family (including pets) to have such order to function well? When parents teach their children to follow instructions and act politely, is that dominance? Daily structure and socialization rules are needed for dogs just like for children or you end up with spoiled, obnoxious beings in either case! What Cesar says and does seems to resolve issues, leaving both dog owners and dogs much happier. Now, how much of his tv shows are tv magic, I don’t know. Does he really accomplish such transformations in a day or two? Is it really that easy? I suspect training oneself to consistently act and react takes time for owners (because that is really who needs training). Balance, self esteem and a sense of security is important to all beings and that is what I hear Cesar promoting. What is wrong with that!

  • D

    this is the same old story ,someone comes along with a new better way of doing things and the establishment freaks out and labels the person a subversive / does bad things etc…

    i would like to say to the idiots that are making the complaints ; how many dogs have you owned,

    how many aggressive dogs have you fixed .

    it is easy to blame someone or their methods when you don’t have a basic understanding of dogs.

    i have had a lot of dogs and i use the same methods Millan does . My dogs are the sweetest most wonderful dogs you will ever meet.

    Ceasar only uses those more stern techniques on very aggressive problem dogs.

    most of the time, these humane societies will euthanize a problem dog.

    go to your local one and ask them how many aggressive dogs they have rehabilitated .

    a good example is food aggression – most people and supposed experts can’t fix this or know what to do.

    I have had two dogs with this problem — and i fixed the problem – I can put my hand into their bowls while they are eating and they don’t care.

    you people and people in general are the ones that have caused all these problems with dogs to begin with. so leave him alone ; all he is guilty of is helping dogs and trying to stop stupid humans from causing the problems – D

    • Bianca Arlette

      A} Cesar’s methods are not new, only his TV shows are. The dominance based training method is based on research (faulty and flawed research) from the 1930s and 40s conducted with captive wolves. Scientists and researchers nowadays know that neither wolves nor dogs live in dominance driven packs but a large proportion cannot let go of this myth because it suits their need to control another living being,

      B) There are plenty of positive trainers who work with dogs just as aggressive as CM does. They might not have a TV show but they do amazing work. They simply do not rile up the dogs to this made up “red zone” which means it is not suitable for a flashy TV show.

      C) Saying that most experts cannot fix food aggression is ridiculous. It is one of the easier behavioural issues to prevent or fix. There is no need to “claim the food” or “show the dog who’s the boss” since food aggression is based on a basic mistrust and fear of losing access to food. CM’s method scares the dog into not acting, positive training teaches the dog that good things happen if a human approaches the bowl or takes something out of their mouth. I can take raw bones from my dogs because they trust me.

      D) Cesar Millan is guilty of bringing an aggressive and confrontational dog “training” methods into the homes of millions of people who simply do not know any better. Studies have proven that these confrontational training methods have a negative impact on dogs and their relationship with humans and they are unfair to the dog at best and very dangerous at worst.

      And just fiy, Michael Vick’s dogs were rehabilitated with positive methods because these methods are kind, work with the dog’s natural instincts and intelligence.

  • Laoxinat

    I love him too. The camera only sees what’s happening on the outside. It can’t show the energetic balance that Cesar’s methods facilitate. And because you can’t fake dominance or dominant energy, his methods won’t work for an unstable person or for a normally stable person who isn’t at a given moment. That is one disadvantage to his methods if you have a super dominant dog; because you can’t fake it, you have to be able to ‘turn it on’ at a moment’s notice. If you don’t want to have to be dominant all the time, find a more easily dominated dog. Simple!

    • Bianca Arlette

      Or you could realise that the whole idea of dominance in dogs is largely a myth, even wolves are not living in dominance driven packs and dogs even less so. It is humans who have a strong need to be dominant, much more than dogs need or want to be dominated.

  • Peter Petropolis

    Re your headline…”…rise and fall of…” is that an OFFICIAL proclamation that Cesar Millan has now fallen?

    Or is that just you, with your obvious prejudice and point of view, stating that the man is no longer of credit.

  • Bruce Bolduc

    ‘Few dog trainers have received as much attention as Cesar Millan’
    The headline should be an indicator as to why other trainers are upset.He gets all the attention, They are jealous. Simple math. There is always someone willing to speak against ‘your’ beliefs because THEY don’t agree with them.

  • Justus

    This may come a little late relative to this post. But anyways, like CM himself said, his methods aren’t the only method. It doesn’t matter the route in which one takes up the hill, but at the end of the day, we are all going to see the same view. Likewise, while people may not approve of his methods, and I honestly believe in the saying that, “in extreme situations, it calls for drastic measures” life is not a bed of roses, and not everything will go according as how you would like. On one hand, I do agree that his methods may be rough to certain extent, but neither would I deny that it could and may be, in fact effective, one should take a an objective view (which I really think that most viewers and critics are not) rather than to take explicit “sides”. Who is to dictate what is right or wrong, and can these “experts” conclusively assert that their findings are absolute, for after all, these findings are essentially based on their personal and imparted knowledge and interpretation of the data; translated based on their (relatively biased) understanding of the subject, they are not dogs nor do they possess the ability comprehend animals at the same level as that of one. Similarly, neither can CM, for the matter of fact. Therefore, I do not think that it would be right to lash out and condemn anyone, but rather, conclusively, agree that “one man’s meat is another man’s poison”.

  • 123

    half the dog trainers I meet are just people that have done some kind of basic training as an adult they are not anything special. So not sure why you are picking on Cesear Milan.

  • Calm, Assertive until Now

    As a dog lover and owner for years, viewing Cesar has
    helped us a lot in handling our dogs with the attitude of pack leaders.
    Let me drift off by saying… the lion is king of the jungle because he exudes the quality that
    everyone fears and respect. Anybody who challenges him and wins, he bows
    down to the next leader. A leader is dominant and assertive to be respected, and discipline the pack. I think that is a simple enough theory to follow.

    In simpler cuter terms, it is the same with the feared Alpha Dragon of
    How to Train your Dragon 2, which was eventually challenged by puny, smart Toothless (I don’t want to rant technical terms am not capable of refuting so you have to watch the movie). If the writer of the article doesn’t understand what I
    mean, I say the same for his article written above. Rise and fall of CM?
    What a catchy title that will work against him.

    Anybody who devoted
    time, patience and attention to rehabilitating red zone dogs, building a
    psychology center and a foundation to help misunderstood breeds
    certainly will never FALL among dog owners and true sympathizers who are
    only too grateful he teaches patience in rehabilitating unbalanced dogs and training owners. Nat Geo supports people with substance and genuine quests, not just for the ratings. He may not have helped you but he certainly has helped countless others whose pets were given a second chance in life. Is there something you can contribute more positively to society than your article, I wonder.

  • krogar

    As a psychiatrist I am well-acquainted with the research about behavioural modification and training, which strongly discourages aversive methods (e.g. spanking). I find this to be so well-established as to be obvious.

    But I do not find Cesar’s methods to be aversive at all! After starting to watch his show, I find that he is calm, gentle, and affectionate! The “dominance theory” component of his methods is not manifest in some kind of tyrannical, bullying dynamic, but rather as calm authority, akin to a stable, consistent, but somewhat strict parent of a young child.

    The descriptions of “finger jabs” etc. seem a hysterical exaggeration of what is going on. I have not seen any evidence of dogs having an experience of pain or anxiety as a result of his actions on the show. There is physical guidance given, but I disagree that this is aversive, any more than a baseball coach teaching a pitching movement by physically moving the child’s arm, and physically correcting the movement in a hands-on way if the child is using bad or dangerous technique (uncorrected bad pitching technique could injure the child’s arm, and cause risk to others as well, from wild pitches!) Such “correction” is on a boundary between what behaviourists might call “aversive” vs. simply behavioural learning, vs. classic conditioning (i.e. praise and affection are given after the correct movement). The only “aversive” quality is that there is a stimulus given following an incorrect behaviour. It is not “aversive” in the sense of causing pain or anxiety. One critic even called his “tchhht” sound “aversive!” This is ridiculous! — it is simply a neutral stimulus which the dog learns to associate with refocussing behaviour; and it is a neutral substitute for other problematic vocalizations, such as saying the dog’s name (which could induce excitement) or shouting and the dog.

    The only concern I have Milan’s methods is that some observers may try to apply them in such a way which truly is harmfully aversive, or in a way which does cause pain or anxiety to the dogs. Such a person would have problems already with excessive aggression or anxiety themselves–once again, Cesar addresses this possibility on every show! Cesar’s greatest talent is his wonderful calmness and gentle confidence, which would probably be hard for most beginners to master.

  • LovemyGSDPuppy

    There is a big difference between training a dog and rehabilitating a dog. I agree with Cesar 100% that a dog’s problems stems with the human and not necessarily with the dog. Mostly because we are not dog psychologists and have never bothered to study pack behavior and apply that mentality with our own pets. So many of us attribute human feelings and thinking to our dogs and the truth is, they just don’t think like us. If you have a dog with issues that needs rehabilitating then Cesar’s way seems to work and he has saved many dogs from euthanasia, and has helped many dogs and their owners that other psychologists/trainers gave up on. If you want to train your dog then by all means seek a professional trainer. Cesar always refers owners and their dogs to other professionals when training other than rehabilitation of bad behavior is required. I have never seen an episode of the show where I thought in any way Cesar was injuring an animal or being cruel. No animal is worth any human being injured or killed. When firm but gentle correction to stop unwanted behavior is required and then they can live in perfect harmony with humans and other animals, and the methods work, then by all means use the methods. A poke or two in the flank or a “bite” to the neck or a touch with a foot to redirect attention before it escalates is in no way harming that animal. If you notice, they are always calmer afterward and seem to be relaxed and enjoying themselves so much more.

  • Lorna

    Cesar has no dog training, and the whole world knows that. BUT he has a lot of experience, he’s intuitive, a natural. Like a great singer or actor, like Elvis or Jack Nicholson ,its a god given gift.
    Some of the dogs he trained were on death row, some were laboratory tested dogs, shelter dogs, stray dogs, etc. How would YOU handle an aggressive dog whose only aim is to attack you? Don’t forget, he was invited into people’s home bcoz they saw him as a last resort, when all else failed. I think he is the real thing. A dog is like a child, who has to be trained and disciplined so it can grow up to be a good citizen.

  • Buffalomom

    We were having issues with our dog and I started to wonder if we could keep her. Started watching Cesar ALOT and slowly started implementing his teaching. You would not believe the difference. Once she started to respect us she just all-around became a better dog. Now we all have a ton of fun together.. She does everything with us and is happier then ever. So I love Cesar. Say what you want about his methods but when done correctly they work.