In 2004, National Geographic television released a new show featuring Cesar Millan, a self-taught Mexican American dog trainer in Los Angeles, California. The show billed Millan as “The Dog Whisperer.” The title appears to be based on a 1995 novel entitled “The Horse Whisper” by Nicholas Evans which tells the story of the rehabilitation of a horse using some unconventional methods. Evans has stated that horse trainer Buck Brannanman was the inspiration for the book. Brannanman is a seen as one of the leading practioners of Natural Horsemanship, a training methodology that seeks to work with horses by developing a rapport with the animal through use of communication techniques observed in interactions by horses among themselves. How this concept translates to what Cesar Millan portrays in the television program completely escapes me.
It has been more than 10 years since Millan and his training techniques attained notoriety, mostly due to his work with the dogs of his celebrity clients (Jada Pinkett Smith, Ridley Scott, and dozens of others). Millan’s television show was presented as “reality television” and featured the dog trainer “solving problems” for different dog owners each week. Frequently the remedies presented in the show seemed to work without fail in fantastically short time frames with minimal and almost mystical techniques used by Millan. It didn’t take long for the community of dog training professionals to take sides regarding “The Dog Whisperer” and the experiences portrayed on the show.
For years now the debate has raged over whether or not Millan’s brand of dog training is a revolution or just the same old punishment based training that has been presented for decades only dressed up in a new package. Beginning in 2005, criticism of Millan mounted, coming from animal behaviour professionals, veterinarians, and academics who condemned Millan and his methods as being outdated and detrimental even if they appeared to show short-term results. In 2006, Dr. Nicholas Dodman, then director of the Animal Behavior Clinic at Tufts University’s Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine contacted National Geographic condemning “The Dog Whisperer” as having “put dog training back 20 years”. That same year the American Human Society condemned the methods used on the television show as “inhumane, outdated and improper”.
In spite of the growing wave of criticism from professionals and experts in the fields of animal behaviour and training, the show’s popularity continued. By 2010, “The Dog Whisperer” had been National Geographic’s top rated show for 6 years running. Remarkably, National Geographic began airing a disclaimer at the beginning of the show stating that the techniques used in the show may be dangerous if used by non-professionals and not to be used by viewers. After 9 seasons, National Geographic cancelled the show but it continues in reruns on dozens of cable and satellite channels around the world. The debate over the confrontational, force-based methods presented in the program remains fierce and very public. My question is – Why?
In the 1980’s, Morton Downey Jr. hosted an TV talk show that was quickly labelled “trash TV” by its critics because of Downey’s tactic of bullying, shouting, and becoming confrontational with his guests. Although heavily criticised, the show became popular enough to be sold into syndication for wider distribution to more television markets. It was the beginning of an entirely new kind of entertainment. After Downey came the likes of Maury Povich and Jerry Springer. Over the decades, this kind of conflict/confrontation “reality TV” has made it’s way from fringe cable stations to more mainstream programming. Even the major networks jumped on board creating shows such as “Survivor” and “The Amazing Race” that are based on setting up conflict situations for the entertainment of viewers.
It should have come as no surprise to anyone when it was revealed that talk shows like Jerry Springer were paying for “guests” and that many of these “guests” were, in fact, actors seeking fame and were contacted via agencies. It seemed that it was far easier to manufacture conflict for audience consumption than to go out and find people with problems. The reality of “reality TV” might just be that there isn’t enough conflict out there to sustain the market. So they went out and made their own. Creative scripting, clever editing, and paid guests all tainted the reality of “reality TV.”
Of Dogs and Men
This formula for “reality TV” has become so widespread that it can be seen on everything from the Food Network to The Arts & Entertainment Channel to The Discovery Channel. Even National Geographic seems to have found a way to capitalize on it with its 9 seasons of “The Dog Whisperer.” And just like other “reality TV” programs before it, The Dog Whisperer creates a compelling story of conflict, confrontation, and resolution for every show. The hapless combatants are the “out of control” dogs and their seemingly powerless owners who are often portrayed as the victims. Enter Cesar Millan – The Dog Whisperer. With a seeming unending wealth of experience and knowledge, the hero knows just what to do to bring these dogs back into line with his “calm submissive energy” or other techniques and he saves the day for the poor owners.
Should it be a surprise to anyone that these “conflicts” could be manufactured and exaggerated by the National Geographic production team? Their job, after all, is to create compelling television to sell advertising. The show was never intended as an instructional program to show people how to work with their dogs. This should be evident by the disclaimer at the beginning of the show telling viewers that the techniques shown in the program should not be tried at home.
Feeding the monster
The heated and very public debate that the program has spawned has shown up everywhere. There are websites dedicated to supporting or discrediting Millan and his methods. Facebook and countless other social media forums host discussions where Millan is, by turns, deified and demonized. Articles have appeared in magazines and newspapers. Millan has received television coverage in news reports and interviews. All of it has served the purpose of drawing almost constant attention to Millan and The Dog Whisperer program. Much to the delight of National Geographic which has enjoyed the financial benefits of the controversy by continuing to sell advertising and airing the program.
Millan benefits too. He has authored several books, runs a magazine, sells DVDs, has mounted personal appearance tours, and more. His efforts have earned him a personal net worth estimated at $45 million. Critics of Millan’s work may feel that his success is undeserved but, to a great extent, the perpetual debate of The Dog Whisperer has kept the program in the public eye for over a decade. Millan might well be the lightning rod for the larger debate over the best, most humane, most effective ways to train our dogs but he did not create the debate nor does it appear that he wanted any conflict.
Don’t blame the man
In his book “What The Dog Saw“, author and reporter Malcom Gladwell talks about the time he spent with Millan as part of his research for the book. In it he details that what is shown in The Dog Whisperer is a very selective and greatly condensed version of the work Millan actually does with dogs and their owners. In essence, what is shown on television doesn’t tell the whole story. Far from it. It tells only a small portion of the story, the parts that serve the needs of the National Geographic team to produce compelling television to keep viewers watching. The goal is not to educate, it is to entertain. Millan serves as a charismatic focal point for formula-based “reality TV.”
Millan is passionate about dogs. Whether you agree with his philosophies of dog training or not, it is important to consider that while Millan has become rich from The Dog Whisperer, he has also made significant efforts to support charities that promote the health and welfare of dogs. He has created his own Millan Foundation for rescue and rehoming of dogs and supports other charities via personal appearances and financial support. Millan is a man who loves dogs and loves working with them. Regardless of our feelings about his methods, we must acknowledge that he has been swept up and is “the eye of the storm” of the controversy that surrounds him.
The Dog Whisperer is irrelevant
Following in that long history of entertaining “Reality TV”, The Dog Whisperer should be seen for what it is – entertainment and nothing more. As a source of information about dogs and training, it is irrelevant. It should have ceased to be relevant to anyone serious about dogs and dog training as soon as it was recognized for what it is – a television program designed to keep people watching for an hour. It has a plot, a hero, a villain, and victims. That’s not something I would use as a way to teach people about dogs. There are just better ways.
Both National Geographic and Cesar Millan have benefited from the misunderstandings and controversies created around the show. And the positive training community must share in the responsibility for that. Without the controversy, The Dog Whisperer may well have faded into anonymity before it’s second season. The Dog Whisperer was never intended as a “How-To” program to teach people to train their dogs. It was always meant as entertainment. The public debate turned it into something else.
The war is over and we know who won
I am reminded of a joke about the climate change controversy. Two men are debating whether or not climate change is real or not. After several heated exchanges one of the men learns that a man at the bar is a climate scientist and he decides to get an expert to weigh in on their debate. Both men approach the scientist to get his verdict. “As a scientist, what do you think of the climate change controversy?”, asks one of the debaters. The scientist looks up from his drink puzzled. “What controversy?”, he asks. What controversy, indeed. The data is already in and debating about it is just silly or ignorant or both.
The same can be said of this controversy about dog training methods. The science has already shown that many of the techniques shown in The Dog Whisperer are not merely unnecessary but are also potentially dangerous. National Geographic has already recognized this and has provided us with a disclaimer to cover themselves in case of legal action.
There are better, scientifically valid ways to work with dogs that don’t require force or confrontation. Rather than engage in debates over an issue that has long been settled, perhaps advocates of force-free and behavioural science based training would be better served by teaching people what they know rather than spending their time trying to prove what has already been proven.
Until next time, have fun with your dogs!
The first Canine Nation ebooks are now available –
“Dogs: As They Are” & “Teaching Dogs: Effective Learning”
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