Life Science

Which Canine Curriculum Should You Choose?

What science has to say about the best way to train your dog

November 12, 2009

JonBee jumps up at Cesar Millan, his sharp teeth snapping repeatedly. Millan calmly yanks on the leash and pulls the wolf-like Korean Jindo away. This continues for over a minute, with Millan’s face remaining undisturbed and JonBee’s owners gasping on the other side of the living room. Finally, the dog shows a moment of weakness. Millan quickly pins him to the floor and rolls him onto his side. Millan’s calmness seems to be reflected in the dog now lying frozen in submission.

Every Friday night, troubled American dogs undergo a seemingly miraculous transformation on national television. The magician is Cesar Millan, better known as the “Dog Whisperer.” He is the current face of dog training, and he has brought “dominance theory,” an age-old training technique, back into canine conversation and practice.

To understand how to control a dog’s behavior, according to Millan, one needs to look at the hierarchy of wolf packs. Domestic dog owners must confidently carry the title of “pack leader” and assume power over their pets.

But many dog trainers and behavior experts criticize the show, advocating a gentler approach to training that replaces coercion and physical behavior corrections with food rewards and other forms of positive reinforcement. They point to new studies that have placed the two popular dog-training methods head-to-head and almost universally shown positive training to be more successful than punitive methods in reducing aggression and disobedience.

Millan may have the ratings, they argue, but purely positive trainers have the science.

No more crying wolf

Millan’s concept of dominance is based on an old understanding of the behavior of wolves. In the 1960s, researchers observed that wolves formed large packs in which certain individuals beat out others to earn “top dog” status. These were called “alphas.” Millan contends that a dog displaying aggression is trying to establish dominance and attain alpha status, much like its ancestors. He advises humans to take on this position themselves, forcefully if necessary, to keep the dog in a submissive role.

Dog trainers whose practices are grounded in these concepts, such as the late Bill Koehler and Captain Arthur Haggerty, have dominated the business for most of the past half-century. But as Dave Mech, an expert on wolf behavior at the University of Minnesota, points out, the early wolf research — much of it his own — was done on animals living in captivity.

Mech has been studying wolves for 50 years now, yet only over the past decade has he gotten a clear picture of these animals in their natural habitats. And what he’s found is far from the domineering behavior popularized by Millan. “In the wild it works just like it does in the human family,” says Mech. “They don’t have to fight to get to the top. When they mature and find a mate they are at the top.”  In other words, wolves don’t need to play the “alpha” game to win.

In the 1980s, around the same time that our understanding of wolves began to change, positive dog-training methods slowly emerged from the fringes and grew in popularity. A tug-of-war continues today between dog trainers practicing predominantly positive reinforcement and those using punishment-based techniques.

Strict School

Benson, Bambi, Barnaby and Jenga parade in a circle around the annex of Jan Hus Church on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Between the clattering of paws on the wood floor comes a chorus of “Heel!” While saying the command, the owners make short, quick yanks on choke chains to keep their dogs — a Border Collie mix, Chihuahua, poodle and bulldog — at their immediate side.

Benson’s owners, Lisa and Brad Zacharia, had heard good things about Babette Haggerty’s obedience course, and were sold when they saw a picture of her and Millan together. “We’re big fans of Cesar Millan,” says Lisa. “We saw on Babette’s website that she and Cesar are friends and that he recommends her classes.” Despite lingering apprehension about some of Haggerty’s techniques, the Zacharia’s have found success. “I feel really bad using [the choke collar],” says Lisa. “But it works. He walks better with it.”

In another class exercise, Haggerty has the owners manually manipulate their dogs onto their sides, a form of an “alpha roll.” The maneuver is thought to help establish the owner as “pack leader,” while calming the dog’s aggression. As Brad attempts to place his hand on Benson’s shoulder blades, and push his legs out from under him, the dog nips at his arm. Fortunately, he is not injured. “Benson has never actually hurt us,” says Lisa. That’s not what brought the Zacharia’s to Haggerty. They wanted to keep Benson from pulling on his leash, and chewing up their apartment. “He’s got a big heart,” says Lisa of the strong Border Collie mix. “He’s just a little destructive.”

While relinquishing Benson to a shelter is not a consideration right now for the Zacharias, disobedience and aggression lead many dog owners to give up their pets. According to the National Animal Interest Alliance, owners surrender about 1.8 million dogs to animal shelters in the United States each year, and behavior is one of the primary reasons. Because the majority of these dogs are euthanized before finding a new home, obedience training can often save a dog’s life.

Haggerty’s curriculum goes beyond the alpha roll and choke collar, and even includes a few techniques considered positive: “An owner should praise a dog when they do right and punish when they do wrong,” she says.

Nicholas Dodman, director of the Animal Behavior Clinic at Tufts University, is one of the leading proponents of positive training methods. He believes the source of most bad behavior, especially owner-directed aggression, is mistrust and recommends rebuilding a dog’s trust by “making sure that the dog understands that all good things in life come only and obviously from you.” To get those things — whether food or basic attention — the dog must learn to please you first.

But others see these techniques as little more than pampering borne out of lax and inappropriate attitudes toward pets that have recently come into vogue. “In the last ten to fifteen years it’s become, ‘don’t ever say ‘No’ to your dog; don’t ever punish dogs,’” says Babette Haggerty, who is carrying on her father’s dominance-based teaching at Haggerty’s School for Dogs in Manhattan. “I think people are coddling dogs more than ever before.”

But in 2004, “The Dog Whisperer” — Millan’s doggy psych 101 — premiered on the National Geographic Channel, and the momentum mounting in the positive direction was stymied. “In America, we [had begun] using human psychology on dogs,” Millan says in an email. “What was needed was for humans to learn dog psychology.”

Perils of punishment

Many veterinary behaviorists believe punishment-based techniques, like those seen on the show, could come back to bite dog owners. The National Geographic Channel even posts a warning on the screen during each episode: “Do not attempt these techniques yourself without consulting a professional.”

According to a paper in the May 2009 issue of the Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, attempts to assert dominance over a dog can increase a dog’s aggression. Researchers from the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom studied dogs in a shelter for six months, while also reanalyzing data from previous studies of feral dogs. Their findings support those of the Mech at the University of Minnesota: dogs don’t fight to get to the top of a “pack.” Rather, violence appears to be copycat behavior — something borne of nurture, not nature.

In another recent study, around 25 percent of owners using confrontational training techniques reported aggressive responses from their dogs. “The source of dog aggression has nothing to do with social hierarchy, but it does, in fact, have to do with fear,” says Meghan Herron, a veterinarian at The Ohio State University and lead author of the study published in the January 2009 issue of Applied Animal Behavior Science. “These dogs are acting aggressively as a response to fear.”

Dogs react physiologically to stress and fear in the same way people do, with hormones. Two 2008 studies out of Hungary and Japan showed, respectively, that concentrations of the stress hormone cortisol increased in dogs that were strictly disciplined and that levels were linked to elevation of aggressive behavior. What’s more, an Irish study found that physically or verbally reprimanding a dog with a history of biting people was one of the significant predictors of a subsequent bite. The results were published in April 2008 in Applied Animal Behavior Science.

“[All these studies] confirm what many of us have said for a long time,” says Pat Miller, owner of Peaceable Paws dog and puppy training in Hagerstown, Maryland. “If you use aggression in training your dog, you’re likely to elicit aggression back.”

About the Author

Lynne Peeples

Lynne Peeples is a freelance journalist focusing on health and the environment. She graduated from NYU’s Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program, where she was the editor-in-chief of Scienceline. She has also written for Scientific American online, Audubon Magazine, The Harvard Gazette and Amstat News. Before NYU, Lynne worked at Harvard University crunching numbers for HIV clinical trials and environmental health studies, while teaching an introductory biostatistics course. She also holds an M.S. in Biostatistics from Harvard and a B.A. in Mathematics from St. Olaf College. Her resume and clips can be found at:



Scott says:

Interesting article. I’ve spent years working with dogs at a veterinary hospital and while I have always been in awe of Cesar’s apparent transformation of dogs its a fine line between a submissive dog and a fearful dog. Scared animals are very unpridictable and while they may seem behaved they can easily snap if provoked. On the other hand dogs will do almost anything for food, motivating them in this way is always prefered. There are instances where dogs are not motivated by food or affection and are fearful by nature these situations are much more difficult. I think that both training methods are equally valid if used on a case by case basis. One approach will not work for every pet. Certainly a reward based system should always be tried first.

Bri says:

“Dominance Theory” as stated, does sound like you just beat the dog into doing whatever you want. That however, is not the case. You don’t snap a prong collar on a puppy just learning to sit, but at the same time, throwing a chicken leg at a dog who is attacking someone doesn’t help either. The level of correction has to be appropriate to the disobedience. When working with an actual qualified trainer, a “Dismissed” command is always given at the end of training, it is a stress reliever, a cue to let the dog know that it has done well and it can relax. The dogs are still able to be played with, but they understand they have to work for it first. In the beginning, it seems like more work then play, but as training goes on, they balance out and your dog has much more opportunities available to them.

i think the dominance theory is the best way forward, also Cesar Millan has such a way with animals, all credit to him, this was a really good article thanks for the read!

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