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What Do Outdated Dog Training and a Pit of Spiders Have in Common?

Dogster resident trainer Annie Phenix explains how Cesar Millan's fear-inducing methods harm instead of help dogs.

Annie Phenix, CPDT-KA  |  Mar 17th 2016


Do you enjoy being afraid? I mean really afraid for your safety and well being?

Engaging the flight or fight response system is stressful. It takes a toll on the body, no matter if that body belongs to a human, a dog, or a pig.

What are you afraid of?

Spiders? Snakes? Air travel?

Are you afraid of spiders? (The deadly Funnel Spider by Shutterstock)

Are you afraid of spiders? (The deadly Funnel Spider by Shutterstock)

What if I gathered up a ton of spiders (and you have no idea if any or all happen to be the deadly kind) and put them in an enclosed pit, and what if I then put a tight-fighting collar around your neck and dragged you into that pit full of spiders? What if you were mute and couldn’t speak words to ask me or tell me to stop?

Is your heart racing reading this? It would be if you were terrified of spiders or snakes or whatever scares you and I forced you into a whole herd of them. And then to be extra unhelpful, what if I decide to tie a bunch of spiders to you? Would you scream (as a dog might growl)? Fight like mad? Or get very still as you move into an overwhelmed state?

Where am I, a dog trainer, going with this? Stick with me.

By now you’ve probably read some of the intense, worldwide blowback facing TV personality Cesar Millan and his Nat Geo show Cesar 911. He’s been in hot water before because of his training methods, previously shown on The Dog Whisperer. His new show is also wracking up to be a publicist’s worst nightmare as he is being investigated for possible animal cruelty. Read my column from last week for my full take on the situation.

To recap, Millan took a French Bulldog-Boston Terrier mix named Simon with a history of killing pigs into a pen of pigs for a training session — and then he turned the dog loose. Let’s first consider the pigs in this situation. Remember the fight or flight reflex I mentioned above, the one all humans and animals have? After Millan took Simon off the leash, one of the TV show’s producers held a pig up by his back leg in sight of the dog. Simon bolted toward the pig like the predator he is.

Cesar Millan holding Simon after his first attack of a pig. (Screengrab Cesar 911)

Cesar Millan holding Simon after his first attack of a pig. (Screengrab Cesar 911)

Can you imagine the fear the pig felt, first of the man hoisting him in the air and then of the dog rushing him? How fair is that? No animal should be forced into flight or fight on purpose. In my opinion as a professional animal trainer, intentionally putting a pig into this state of stress is cruel. And there is zero need to do this in the name of dog training. To those who reply with “it’s just a pig,” I can only surmise that you have parked your compassion toward animals at the curb.

Now let’s consider Simon. When the pig squealed at being held up by his leg, Simon reacted instinctively. Quite predictably considering his history, he ran at the pig and took a bite, bloodying the pig’s ear. Millan wildly chased Simon, saying “I’ve got this,” over and over again. He finally caught the dog and forced him onto his side, into an “Alpha roll,” which triggered Simon’s own fight or flight response.

Simon went into fright mode, and he surely would have attempted to flee again were he not so scared. In the face of this threat, Simon became very still. Stillness in a situation like this is far too often misunderstood by dog owners as an obedient behavior. In this case, it came from a starting point of trying to avoid the frustrated man chasing him. Once Millan had grabbed Simon and forced him onto his side, the dog froze in fear. This educational graphic from Lili Chin shows how his body language showed exactly that.

CALMandRELAXEDorShutDown story

Trainers who use an Alpha roll count on dogs — our proclaimed “best friend” — to shut down, give up the fight, and slink into a state of  “submission.” This archaic and damaging maneuver, especially for a short-nosed dog already having trouble breathing, did not make Simon want to be friends with the pigs; just as me forcing you into an Alpha roll in that scary room of spiders wouldn’t make you want to be friends with them. It would quickly teach you that I am someone to be feared, someone you cannot trust.

And for Simon, his fear of Millan extended to the pigs on the following day, when Millan tied him to the very pig he had attacked. The dog went from a pig predator to being scared of them — based on intense body language such as ears pulled back, trying to pull to get away, dejected tail, stiff body posture, stress panting — in just 24 hours. Was creating such pitiful, fearful behavior in Simon around pigs the ONLY solution to this problem? This approach might have been all Millan had in his toolbox, but there have been countless articles in the past week in which professional, certified dog trainers laid out the best, most effective and fear-free way of helping Simon.

Millan has stated in numerous interviews since this incident that he “was the dog’s last chance.” Why was that? Was the owner considering euthanizing Simon? Or re-homing him to a family without other animals? That latter, simple solution was never suggested in the TV program. Besides, it would hardly make for dramatic TV. I don’t blame the owner, as she did what we ask owners to do and that is to take troubled dogs to a trainer. In this case, a credentialed, certified behavior expert (such as a veterinary behaviorist) would have been the most qualified to assist Simon.

There are no quick fixes for deep-seated behaviors like Simon has, or at least his predation issue that we humans consider to be a problem. If Simon were a farm dog protecting livestock from feral pigs, many would laud his abilities. He could potentially fetch big money by being sold to a farmer.

You can walk away from reading this knowing for certain that Simon is not now “a friend” of pigs. Simon’s body language near pigs, as shown in the video above, now screams to those of us educated in canine behavior and body language that he is extremely uncomfortable around them. You can also walk away knowing that dogs with behavior issues should not be thrown to the wolves, pigs, spiders, or a TV show that exists for our entertainment. Dogs showing their teeth, those who have their hackles raised, or those who are so overwhelmed in fear that they freeze and shut down should not be forced into these behaviors for human entertainment.

If this show was about “badly behaving” toddlers, no one would permit anyone jabbing, kicking, yanking by the neck, or alpha rolling children for the benefit of ratings. Why do we permit this to happen to dogs?

You can do something about this. You can have a voice. Dogs have no voice, so it’s up to all of us to speak for them. Join the thousands of concerned dog lovers who have signed this petition to get Cesar Millan off the air. 

Read more by Annie Phenix:

About the author: Annie Phenix, CPDT-KA, is a force-free professional dog trainer enjoying her mountain-filled life in Colorado. She is a member of the Pet Professional Guild and the National Association of Canine Scent Work. She is also working on a book due out in spring of 2016: The Midnight Dog Walkers, about living with and training troubled dogs. Join Annie on her dog-training Facebook page.