Monday, March 08, 2010

Cesar Millan: The Secret Is Human Training

How come Cesar Millan, a dirt-poor former illegal alien from Mexico, with a strong accent and no college degree, has risen to the top of the dog world while Ian Dunbar, with perfect English, some obvious money, and veterinary and animal behavior degrees behind him, remains virtually unknown?

It's not that Ian Dunbar does not know how to train an animal -- he does. He understands operant conditioning. He is not a fool or an incompetent.

I have no doubt he is brilliant. I assume he has impeccable timing and can train anything.

So why has the world not beaten a path to his door?

I have an idea.

Watch the video, below, and pay careful attention to the first minute and a half.

Ian Dunbar says some smart things at the end.

He talks about the lack of thought that goes into solving common canine problems.

He says if calling your dog always means the dog is leashed up and all play is over, don't expect it to come!

Full applause for the last four and a half minutes of this presentation.

But what about that first minute and a half?

At the start of this talk, Ian Dunbar tells us he is a FAILURE AT DOG TRAINING.

Listen to what he says.

He says you can tell people what to do, but no one listens.

You can tell people what to do, but they they are not going to do it.

Whoa! Think about what he just said.

Ian Dunbar is saying people come to him for help, they pay money for help, and then he prescribes a solution.

But then the owners do not take his advice.

An amazing statement.

Now has he considered WHY?

Let me make a suggestion: Has he considered his presentation?

You see, most people have never heard of Ian Dunbar, just as once-upon-a-time (and not so very long ago) they had never heard of Cesar Millan.

Ian Dunbar claims he knows dogs, but most people have never seen him in action, and they have no proof of that.

People are naturally going to be a little bit dubious.

They are going to look for evidence of real expertise or its opposite; fakery.

Does this guy know what he is talking about? Is he a truth-teller?

Dunbar's speech is his "job interview".

For most of the people in the room, and everyone who will watch this video, his presentation is the answer to the question Do I want to buy his book? Do I want to hire him to train me and train my dog?

The first question of every job interview is almost always the same: "Tell me about about your last job, and how you did it."

And what is Ian Dunbar's answer to that predictable question?

Basically, he says: "The main problem in my last job was that my boss was an idiot and my co-workers were incompetent."

Think about it.

Isn't that exactly what Ian Dunbar is saying here?

You see, if you are a professional dog trainer
, your client is your boss; they are the ones paying you, and they are the ones who may (or may not) recommend you in the future.

And, to put put a point on it, they are also the folks whose behavior you want to ultimately change and shape.

Dunbar seems to show a kind of exhausted contempt for dog owners, including his own clients.

"I am leading," he seems to say, "and so many of you are simply too stupid to follow."

Not exactly the right message!

Cesar Millan has a different approach. He begins with a simple question: How can I help?

He does not begin by telling dogs owners they are idiots; he begins by asking how he can be of service.

Yes he will lead them forward (rather quickly), but he never starts the lesson by "jerking on the leash" as Dunbar does here.

How ironic!

Question: Who do you trust more, the person who asks "How can I help?" or the person who says with exhausted disdain, "Look, I will repeat what I have already said, and you have already ignored."

Now let's look at how Dunbar talks about his co-workers.

The co-worker in question is Cesar Millan. That is who Ian Dunbar is slagging here, and everyone in the audience knows it.

And here's the thing: Cesar Millan is the most famous and successful dog rehabilitator in the world!

Has Ian Dunbar thought about that for even one dispassionate second?

You see, when an unknown person with unknown success slags a known person with known success, there is a massive credibility problem.

Most folks have seen Cesar Millan work half a dozen miracles on the National Geographic Channel, and they have seen his books in the store (even if they have not yet read them).

Oprah Winfrey says Cesar Millan is a God, and Barack Obama says he would be happy to have him visit the White House.

His reputation precedes him.

And yet Ian Dunbar
, who most people have never heard of, much less seen train a dog, slags Cesar Millan right at the top.

And look how he does it!

Dunbar never comes out and actually mentions Millan's name. Instead he slips into a sly passive-aggressive style to talk about "a bloke on TV."

No doubt, he thinks he is being cute, but in fact he is displaying a failure of character.

A passive-aggressive style is not a position of strength. It is a sign of weakness.

Dunbar is not even content to tell the truth. He claims Millan has said "becoming a stronger leader" is how you end a dog's chronic backyard barking.

There is not one person in that audience who has ever heard Millan say that.

Not one.

And whether they have watched every episode of The Dog Whisperer or not, most of the audience will intuitively know it is a lie.

In their mind, they are saying,

"There is something wrong here.

I have never heard of Ian Dunbar before, but Cesar Millan did not become the most famous dog man in the world accidentally.

Millan came from nothing and is now on top, while this tired-looking British guy who obviously came from some money and thinks we are all idiots, is on the bottom.


And bang, right there, Ian Dunbar has lost credibility and some respect.

And here's the funny thing: He did not have to shoot himself in the foot. It was unnecessary.

Dunbar could have reached across the table and said, "There are a million ways to train a dog, but the tapestry of every method is sewn with the same three threads, which are at the core of all operant conditioning."

That story is told in 20 seconds.

He could have explained the difference between dog training and dog rehabilitation.

That story is told in 15 seconds.

And then he could have gone on to explain why people so often fail in their training... And how he can help them all succeed.


Ian Dunbar does not tell his audience they can succeed!

He tells them they will probably FAIL because they are idiots who will not listen to him.

And here we come to the crux of the problem .... and how ironic it is!

You see, Ian Dunbar thinks to be a leader you proclaim your leadership. Look at my degrees! Feel the searing force of my self-proclained expertise! I am an expert!!

Millan thinks something different. He thinks you are a leader when others follow.

Millan thinks his job is to "train people," not insult them.

And he thinks people will follow if they see what can be done

Now, to be clear, there is nothing wrong with Ian Dunbar's training methods. I am told he is a brilliant man, and I take it on faith that he can train anything.

He and Millan are actually using the same core techniques, even if they are using a slightly different language and have a different mix of methods, which reflects the different goals of training versus rehabilitation.

But, according to his own presentation, Ian Dunbar is a failure as a dog trainer.

And why is he a failure? Because he is not very successful at training people. The people will not follow.

My advice?

Click and treat, Ian. Click and treat.

And I could say the same for many other wannabe-a-big-name dog trainers who also have miserable presentation skills. Some are goofy, some talk to their audiences like they think they might be retarded, and most swirl around the arcane lingo of operant conditioning without ever talking in plain English or using simple words like "consequence."

No wonder Millan owns so much of the waterfront -- look at what he does through demonstration, and what he is competing against in terms of presentation!



YesBiscuit! said...

I think Cesar says something at the beginning of every show like "I train people. I rehabilitate dogs." I like how that sets the stage for the show.

HTTrainer said...

Here the difference: Dunbar has his schooling and Millan is his schooling.
Or, as Mark Twain said, "I never let my schooling interfere with my education."

Mailey E. McLaughlin, M.Ed. said...

Thanks for a great piece. I am generally inside the Cesar camp, and I think Cesar does some things right, and some things that work for him, and for the moment, but do not translate to the owner simply because the owner is not Cesar.

His core message, and his "energy," are excellent. He has done a huge amount of good for dogs and dog owners, though he, and the show, are not without concern, to me. Though you and others (even I) point out that he is not training dogs, and so those who watch should not expect to be able to emulate him exactly, the public DOES see it as training. And many of them DO think they can do this stuff the same way and get the same results, despite not having any prior knowledge of it and no one to show them exactly how it works for their dog.

Perception is reality, whether we want to admit it or not.

Do I think Cesar can control a dog? Absolutely. Do I think he has capabilities that outstrip Dunbar and other trainers, despite them being good in their own right? Oh, yes. Do I think Cesar is causing overt harm to dogs? No. Do I think he is causing them to submit to him? Yes. Some of what Cesar does is about supression of behavior. And while it works well for him, in that moment, it is difficult for owners to do the same when supression is necessary.

Supression of behavior is one of those things that "all positive" trainers see as Evil. In truth, many balanced trainers see it as a necessary concept part of the time. I am one of those.

The problem I have with supression is that it solves the immediate problem, but it does not give the dog another idea, another way, or an incompatible behavior to do instead. That means, when the situation arises again, the dog will not know to choose another behavior because he has not been taught one!

If the human is there, and can supress him, fine. But what really frees the dog in terms of training is the eventual reality that he has a choice of behaviors, and one or two will work, and the others will not.

(Now, you may say, "not biting that human or other dog when he wants to is indeed a better behavior," but technically, the dog needs more input to really be free.)

Simply supressing the dog's initially-desired behavior is not training, and a good trainer wants the dog to have an alternate.

Again, many "positive" trainers see suppression as wrong, and never useful. But it is a part of life, and I have no problem with it s long as one doesn't think it is all the training the dog needs.

What I wish could be portayed more effectively on Cesar's show is that certain behaviors have merely been supressed, not retrained. And the dog may continue to supress his desires to eat the neighborhood children, but without Cesar there, he may not.

It's a minor quibble to me, but major to others. And while I do not agree that it is Evil, I agree that it is commonly misunderstood b the viewers. They see a supressed dog as one who has been "trained" or "rehabbed." This means there is a possibility that an owner, unable to supress the dog during an incident, will not achieve the calm, balanced state of mind that Cesar did.

I do like the man, and I do believe he has done a huge service to the world of dogs.

As far as Dunbar goes, I think you hit the nail on the head. Dunbar is a nice guy, and yes, he can train a dog. He also gives a pretty good lecture. But he definitely does not have the "presence" that Millan has, and I think that, and marketing, and his general style (and maybe the fact that he's English and proper and educated) make him virtually inaccessible but to the more hardcore "positive" trainers, who worship him.

I agree that he and his followers do seem aggravated that CM gets most of the publicity, and they, with their more enlightened messages, do not.

Face it: showing a dog trainer on TV trying to train a dog using positive reinforcement only just does not make for good TV.

Mailey E. McLaughlin, M.Ed. said...

Another point I wanted to make but was told I had already been too wordy:

The other thing I do not agree with Cesar about is that most/all aggressive dogs are rehabbable. Anyone who has spent any time with dogs knows that there are some who are not fit to be pets. One must take into account all the factors involved, and the possible safety risks, when making these judgments.

Now, before you get onto me for putting words in his mouth, I don't recall him saying "ALL" anywhere, but when I read , it certainly seemed like he expected way more of hs "red zone" cases to be "fine" after rehab. "Fine" to fit into a community, in a pet home? I disagree. I don't believe true aggression is curable. It may be suppressable for the right owner, but it is not necessarily wise to take that chance.

I like to err on the side of safety. Just because it's "not the dog's fault" he bit someone, or many someones, why should the unsuspecting public have to suffer for us to find out?

I do not think it does a service to dogs, and it certainly doesn't respect humans who simply want to keep from getting bitten, to insinuate that a known biter can often be cured.

He may never bite again while at Cesar's place, but that doesn't make him safe for the community.

PBurns said...

Brilliantly said Doubtful Guest. Truely brilliant. Smart, well said, and packed with insight. Hat's off. Wish I had written it.


Stoutheartedhounds said...

When are you going to write about Victoria Stillwell on "It's Me or the Dog"?

Unknown said...

Hey Patrick, me again (Melissa Jo Peltier, Cesar's co-writer and executive producer).

As always, a well-written and thoughtful blog. You're right, there is a reason Cesar is successful; it's not a fluke, and it's not TV magic. And a great part of that reason is how he handles people, not dogs. (Though he's absolutely amazing at that, too.)

For the record, Cesar himself is a HUGE Ian Dunbar fan and admirer. HUGE. He loves the research and work Dunbar has done in training puppies and incorporated much of that in his work with puppies for HOW TO RAISE THE PERFECT DOG. Cesar has already learned much from Ian and hopes to learn more. Perhaps, in this blog, you've insightfully pointed out a few things that Ian can learn from Cesar as well! Wouldn't it be a much better world if we were all more open to learning from one another, instead of putting each other down?

Doubtful Guest does make a very good point. Perhaps some of the fault here lies in the fact that it's a TV show that has a time limit, or perhaps its our fault as producers for the choices we make in editing, but often the part that's left on the cutting room floor is the part where Cesar is talking to the owners about what new activity he suggest to substitute for the unwanted behavior. This is something he usually does. He (and we as the producers) have done our utmost to make our relationships with the owners on the show a lifelong one, and we try not to leave an owner hanging. We don't just go away after Cesar visits, at least not since the second season when we actually had a budget.

If you read any of his books, (shameless plug since I co-wrote them) Cesar DOES make a big point of stressing that you can never remove a behavior without substituting something else for it. (Same thing in humans - I have to stop eating sweets at night so I am going to have to take up knitting or something!).

Too often, though, we don't address this on the show and your point is well taken for next season.

If you read Cesar's books, there have been 2 dogs he couldn't help (but kept himself) and even in the show, there have been a handful of dogs out of the 350 or so cases we've done where the dogs needed a new home or Cesar (or in the case of JonBee, Cheri Lucas) took them in as part of his/her own "pack." Because the owners just couldn't do it; the dog was too damaged. But really, only a handful in all those shows. We do follow up with everybody. Cesar's personal stance on euthanasia for behavior problems is that we don't have the moral right to choose to kill a dog because we don't understand it, or one particular human can't figure it out. He has this dream of turning golf courses into huge "Dog Psychology Centers" for these dogs. Much like sanctuaries for exotics that are abandoned or abused, but for dogs. It's a nice dream.

Personally, I've just seen so many "lost causes" turned around after Cesar works with the dogs and the owners (usually long term)...or after the dog is found a more appropriate owner...or comes to the pack and becomes a delightful, friendly dog by living there...that I tend to think euthanasia is a dangerously over-used "final solution" that we make ourselves feel better about by calling it humane.

But that's my personal opinon.

As always, Patrick, I thank you for your fairness, your excellent writing, and your VERY strong opinions (even when I don't agree with them!)

PBurns said...

The tyranny of television is that SOMETHING always has to be left out. No surprise they leave the less interesting or more mundane stuff out most of the time :)

The "war" between the various "factions" in training is largely a contrived war, I think. Glad to hear Millan and Dunbar know each other and that respect flows at least one way. I have never seen Millan speak ill of another dog trainer; I cannot say the same in the other direction!

The question of euthanasia has to be dealt with on a dog-and-person basis. Most dogs can probably be helped, I will aver, but the ones that are true wrecks are so often wrecks because the people who own them have done so very little with the dogs for such a very long time. Are they going to change their behavior now? Are there enough Cesar Millans in the world?

In a world in which we are putting down almost a million Pit Bulls a year (more Pit Bull than the sum of all dogs of all breeds registed by the AKC last year), most of whom are not vicious or "red zone" dogs, choices have to be made, and individuals are going to have to make them. Add in all the other breeds -- shepherds, huskies, chows, etc. -- and it's clear someone is going to die at the shelter. Should it be the "red zone" dog or the younger tail-wagger who needs minimal investments to become a terrific family pet? Most shelters make the obvious decision, and most conscientious owners never face the problem. But no, it is never going to be an easy decision, nor should it be.


Mailey E. McLaughlin, M.Ed. said...

Thank for the explanations, Melissa Jo. I have always told anyone who asks that it IS a TV show, and you have to take that for all it's worth. Most people watch TV, and most who do so regularly understand that what ends up in the finished product is not the whole story. So, I get that.

I appreciate you taking that into account and realizing that "perception is reality." Again, I have no problem with supressing dogs' behaviors, but the TV-viewing public sees "supression" as "trained," and there is usually more to the story.

I know he has talked about substituting behaviors before. I'm glad of that. It just needs to be reiterated that the new behavior must have a reward equal to or greater than the behavior we want to change. It's best if the new behavior can also act on part of the dog's instinct--that will make the new behavior eaier to learn, and easier for the dog to choose when the choice comes up next time.

For instance, lots of dogs misbehave at the door. And this is something people want changed. The dog barks, or charges the door, or playfully but forcefully mauls the guests. The owners want it to stop. Cesar shows them how to make the dog stay back from the door, and shows the owners how to use their bodies and energy to keep the dog calmer. There is nothing wrong with this approach, when it works. If the dog has never been taught to control itself, the learning curve for teaching a calm "stay" or "wait" is longer than for other commands.

If the dog is a natural retriever (or has a trained retrieve), the owner could send the dog after a toy or an object instead of placing him in a stay at the door. This would give the dog a job whose reward equals or supersedes the reward for mauling visitors.

Teaching a dog to hold a stay as people enter is certainly possible, and preferable. But for owners with limited skill-sets and less time to practice, the above might be a good alternative. Then they can work on "stays" in situations NOT involving the door, and gradually work the dog up to stays at the door.

"Stay" is a hugely important command for dogs to learn, but trainers will tell you that it should be approached gradually, because staying still in the face of distractions is not something dogs instinctively do. They will generally learn it better if it is broken down into parts, with success at each level.

I hope that makes sense!

As for the rehabbing, I'm in agreement with Patrick. I work in sheltering, and though I hate to think about dogs losing their lives, most people are not able to properly deal with "red zone" dogs (and I do not see evidence that many of them can truly be made safe). And though I love dogs, people's safety is very important. If animals must be euthanized due to lack of space or lack of homes, it should be those who pose a threat to society.

Most shelters do not have the funds, time, or knowledgeable staff on hand to fix those dogs. We are doing neither the dogs or the community any favors by avoiding the fact that all dogs cannot be saved.

alfmcmalf said...

There are many inspiring aspects to Cesar and his work, but for me the most inspiring element is seeing how he is around and with his pack of dogs. Is there any footage of Dunbar in and around a pack of dogs? Does he have a pack of dogs?

Seeing Cesar walk with his dogs - note plural - is where I would love to be with my one dog even,so at ease and so at one with them. That is why he is so outstanding and compelling.

Retrieverman said...

Cesar is no longer Oprah's dog trainer.

Tamar Geller is.

All of those golden retrievers she has have been trained by her.

And they feature in Tamar's book, which is a pretty good read if you want to know real dog behavior.

PBurns said...

Tamar Geller, who "went into the desert to watch wolves at a feeding station" and then decided she was an expert on wolves?


Tamar Geller who no one had heard of before 2007?

Tamar Geller the very excited blonde bomb?

Yes, I have no doubt she can clicker train too.

She is like Victoria Stilwell in her dominatrix costume in that aspect.

Dog training is not very hard to do, is it? It's especially not hard to train a retriever puppy. That's why the world is FULL of instant-expert dog trainers who still manage to do so well. God bless them. Look in your local phone book -- dozens of them, all selling the same thing. Of course they are not selling dog rehabilitation are they? No, Dunbar and Geller are selling puppy training. That's their market. And that's a very needed thing. There just not much skill to it.


Novus said...

It's pretty confusing when the cliker folks say a dog is not a wolf and then they turn around on themselves five minutes later and say a dog is a wolf. Well, which is it or does it depend on what's conveniant that minute? Of course the same people also say you need degrees in this stuff, but Tamar Geller has none, and neither does Stilwell, so more confusion. Geller claims she saw puppies playing at a feeding station in Israel, but that's no likely What happens at feeding stations is what happens at zoos and in the wild and puppies are not invited. Exmaples: Pups do not eat meat do they -- they eat regurgitation. It has to be that way for a while as puppies cannot keep pace up for a hunt. Exampl or But as you say, anyone with a pamphlet or two can train a puppy. Not a heavy weight, and a blonde girl in a tight blouse or a lady in black cat suit can certainly do the job at my place!

And have you changed you sign-ons? Had to create an account for this. It's still me tho.


Mailey E. McLaughlin, M.Ed. said...

I think Oprah chose Tamar because Oprah got blasted by the anti-Cesar contingent, and they told her to "go kinder."

I looked at Gellar's book in the store one day, and was nonplussed. How does repeating a command over and over teach the dog to do it the first time? And what does all the touchy-feely personal stuff really add to the book? I'm not against that sort of thing, when it is germaine to the discussion. But it got tedious.

Here's my review if anyone is interested.

Viatecio said...

Any respect Tamar Geller would have gotten from me was dashed the moment I saw that she has ties with the H$U$.

I have not yet met (or heard of, rather) an H$U$ affiliate that strikes me as someone I would want handling my dog.

My dog is loved. She is also reliably off-leash obedience trained. I do not see that level of accomplishment from many pure positive programs (much less in the time in which this was accomplished), and for someone to suggest that cookies-n-love methods are better than the one that got her where she is, is nothing short of insulting, especially when she responds with a wag in her tail, a happy face and a spring in her step. But never mind signs like that, since she MUST have been horribly abused since she wears those awful collars, and I'm the next Wicked Witch since I expect her to do what she's told the first original!

/end rant

sfox said...

I used the Dunbar method, with the addition of mild corrections, to train my dog, based on the trainer I worked with and a book she recommended by him. If I'd seen that video first, I would have kept looking for another approach. He sounds wrong even when he's right.

And the barely disguised snark about Millan didn't impress me either. Sour grapes and envy. Not very professional. Very disappointing.

Cesar makes you believe you can do it. He knows some dog's lives depend on their owner believing that they can make a change in their dog's behavior for the better.

Unknown said...

Yes, Cesar has very good people skills, and many people would be hard pressed to show so much tact. I once asked my former trainer how she managed to be so patient. She said she used to go into another room and bang her head against the wall.

What Cesar does is training, if training means getting a dog to do what you want, rather than what it would otherwise do. Going on walks with an owner involves training. The dog learns to sit by the owner, and cars don't attack it, nor do strangers. Walks are a critical part of training.

There are lots of good trainers out there who do a brilliant job, and are proud to call themselves trainers, not 'dog pyschologists'. A decent trainer is a 'dog psychologist', and helps the owner to integrate basic commands into everyday life.

As for American 'training wars' here in the Deep Spain, people don't use the expression 'pure positive'. Cesar appears on the TV, and makes sense. People here do have trouble understanding Californians though, and see them as exceptionally sentimental. Back in the UK, we used 'reward-based training', which was pretty pragmatic. My former trainer had a novel use for an Ian Dunbar video. She threw it at my dog, who was being exceptionally noisy, and it did the trick, he shut up. Friends in the UK also have trouble understanding Californians, but for different reasons. They ask why Californians don't seem to walk their dogs. Maybe someone can explain Californians to Europeans.

Schnauzerdoc said...

The other major difference is... well, Dunbar is an alcoholic. I have been to numerous presentations by him, and when he is sober, he is right-on. But most of the time he is not. Once, in order to get him off the stage... They simply produced a beer and he wrapped it up in 2 minutes flat.
Dunbar has great ideas, but is quite cynical and quite idealistic. Ceasar has really great workable training techniques that most people are willing to do. You cannot expect for owners to 100% devote all of their time to their pets. It is not realistic. The owners got pets to enrich thier lives, not take all of it away.

Unknown said...

I liked it. Thanks for sharing the Boo

Rivka333 said...

It's not just the first minute and a half of Dunbar's talk that would turn people away. Even after he gets into the actual meat of how to properly/improperly condition a dog, it's all from the perspective of "look how stupid dog owners (and everyone other than me) are."