Cesar Millan Just Celebrated 20 Years on TV. Not Everyone is Happy About It.

Cesar Millan
Courtesy The Walt Disney Company/National Geographic

Recently, world-renowned dog trainer Cesar Millan celebrated 20 years on television with a press tour in New York City. Known for his series The Dog Whisperer, Millan discussed his latest entrepreneurial endeavors, the longevity of his career, and the expansion of his brand. Despite the growth, his core message remains: Better human, better planet; a better human, better dog.

It was capped off with the Empire State Building being lit up in colors that symbolized his life: yellow for his National Geographic’s success; orange for his love for mother nature, and blue for training: “Jesus’s way is really what I want to give to the world,” Millan told me. 

A fulfilled life Millan portrays. A fulfilled life for Millan indeed.

The Rise of The Dog Whisperer

Millan’s training journey began, as he tells it, in 1990 when he crossed the border from Mexico to the US with $100 and a dream to work with dogs. Inspired by TV canines, like Rin Tin Tin and Lassie, he started walking dogs and soon turned to training. After founding the Dog Psychology Center in Los Angeles and gaining media attention, National Geographic approached him.

The Dog Whisperer debuted in 2004, putting the world of dog-training on the map. Millan’s charismatic personality and straightforward methods resonated with audiences. Each episode featured Millan addressing severe behavioral issues in dogs and seemingly rehabilitating them with a few simple techniques, including his “calm-assertive energy,” the concept of the “pack leader,” and his iconic “tsch” correction.

People were hooked. 

Related: A Guide to Choosing the Right Dog Trainer for Your Needs

The show’s success made Millan a household name, airing for nine seasons and becoming National Geographic’s most-watched show for six. His influence extends beyond television. He became a bestselling author, taught people all around the world “Training Cesar’s Way” at his Dog Psychology Center, became the the founding partner of Halo, an e-collar company, and is now in the fourth season of his new show, Better Human Better Dog, in which he again teaches dog parents the tools needed to instill good habit and shed the bad ones.

For years, Millan has and still believes, as other trainers do, that American’s quest to humanize dogs is doing more harm than good. Too much affection, not enough structure, limited mental stimulation, and lack of exercise results in stress on both sides of the leash — and an unbalanced dog.

“You create chaos because you have confusion,” he says. “And too many days of confusion leads to unhappiness. Too many days of unhappiness leads to chaos. Chaos is what you see in my show,” he says.

While over the years, his shows’ format have evolved, Millan’s approach hasn’t.

He focuses on exercise, discipline, and affection, in that order.

“Three things people need to master regardless of what kind of dog you have: how you meet the dog, how you walk the dog, and how you feed the dog,” says Millan. “If you don’t have those three things and what I call ‘calm surrender,’ you are going to have problems.”

The approach, succinct in its messaging, much like his TV episodes, is where the controversy lies.

Millan’s Controversial Methods

Much of Millan’s approach is built on the theory of being a pack leader and dominating: dogs need a leader, to respect the leader, and to do what the leader says.

To rehabilitate, not train, these dogs, as Millan says, he regularly relies on aversive techniques, or the principles of punishment, to get a dog to submit, or as he says calm surrender.

In some cases, these corrections are subtle. But in others, owners may view Millan’s methods as harsh, even abusive. Often using sharp leash jerking, applying physical force, alpha roles, prodding or poking the dog, using tools like slip leads incorrectly, and foot taps to the ribs, critics argue that these methods can cause physical harm and psychological distress to the dogs.

“Cesar Millan’s techniques are considered extremely outdated and problematic by the professional animal behavior community. Namely, his reliance on aversive dog training methods fails to consider the emotional impact on the dog during or after the training process,” says Zak George, a positive reinforcement trainer, who in one video, cited more than 25 papers on the problems with aversive training. “The use of aversive or harsh physical corrections is strongly associated with an increased likelihood of aggression and mistrust between a person and a dog, among other side effects.”

Certified humane-evidenced based dog trainer Elizabeth Ingalls agrees. “He’s a nightmare for dogs and humans, and the effects of his training techniques go far beyond the dog he personally trained,” she says, adding she has trained dogs with significant aggressive or fearful histories without using aversions.

“Behavior professionals around the world are still working to educate the general public about canine body language and the science of behavior change which is in direct contrast to what they see on ‘The Dog Whisperer,'” she says.

Related: Animal Planet’s Andrea Arden: Being a Dog Trainer Isn’t All About Playing With Puppies

This criticism is not new. 

Years of Backlash From the Community

In 2006, two years after The Dog Whisperer debut, a New York Times op-ed by Mark Derr, a renowned author and dog expert, described Millan’s pack-leader mentality as over simplistic and his techniques fly “in the face of what professional animal behaviorists — either trained and certified veterinarians or ethologists — have learned about normal and abnormal behavior in dogs.”

Professor Nicholas Dodman, the director of the Animal Behavior Clinic at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine of Tufts University, said the same year the show “put dog training back 20 years.”

One episode that has caused intense backlash occurred in 2008 featuring a dog named Shadow. (It has since been been scrubbed by National Geographic.) The husky, not comfortable around other neighborhood dogs, was forced to confront one on the street, and trainers point out, Millan riled up the dog just to correct him. Millan is shown yanking on the dog’s neck with a slip collar and suspending it in the air, causing it to gasp for breath. After pinning the dog to the ground, it appears the dog is under distress, exhibiting signs of exhaustion and deprived of oxygen.

This was not calm submission, but rather learned helplessness: the dog was forced to surrender as any other options had been taken away. Stress levels remained high, the underlying issue was unresolved, trust was lost, and an imbalance of power occurred, says opponents.

(Warning: This video contains content viewers may find disturbing and/or violent.)

“What you have witnessed is not dog training but abuse … These are not appropriate measures and compromise the welfare of the dog and the safety of people,” Dr. Debra Horwitz, a veterinarian and president of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists said at the time. “We as veterinarians must make our voices heard and let National Geographic and most importantly our clients know that these types of interventions are wrong and not in the best interest of dogs or people.”

The series continued to air for five more seasons. (National Geographic did not return requests for comments)

When asked about these past criticisms, Millan chalks it up to semantics.

“Most of the time, the problem is when I use words,” says Millan. According to him, people take issue with the word “pack leader,” but he believes there is a natural hierarchy in our world where someone is always in charge. “To run a company, you have to be the pack leader. If you’re a mom, you have to be the pack leader. But if it is with the dog, they don’t want that to be applied,” he says.

“If you don’t want to call it a pack, it’s up to you. I’m just giving a word. So you can have a point of reference, a point of direction. You can change the word, you can’t change the energy,” he adds.

Related: Bored Dog? Here Are 4 Jobs to Give Your Pup At Home

But, for many, the issues go far beyond words.

Actions Speak Louder Than Words

When interviewing various trainers for this article — from force-free, positive trainers to those who implement a balanced approach, where positive techniques are used for the most part and aversive tools like e-collars and prong collars are employed sparingly — the problem was not the language, but the tactics.

Sabina Mamedova, a relatively new dog trainer, who falls into the balanced camp, utilizing e-collars if needed, and is owner of The Canine Advisor, believes Millan’s style is considered depthless.

“His solution to every dog is the same, and it’s a very one dimensional interpretation of how dogs work,” she says, adding, “He does not work with the dog through what it’s scared of or what it is aggressively reacting to. Instead, he confronts them, pushes them over the threshold, and then just completely shuts them down. It’s all about compulsion. And that’s forcing the dog into the desired positions, forcing them down, forcing them into any behavior, instead of working with the dog and trying to build that relationship.”

One example of this, is a technique Millan uses called flooding in which a dog is suddenly confronted with a fearful situation, not allowing him to escape from it or fight back. Proponents believe that dogs live in the moment, not taking their past experiences into consideration (dogs indeed are able to remember), and once a dog realizes there is no actual threat, he will stop associating the situation with fear. Critics state there are more humane ways to train a dog to overcome their fears.

This method is put on display in an episode called, “Cesar Millan gets bitten by an insecure dog!” A fearful dog named Duk Duk is forced to engage with Millan even when he doesn’t feel comfortable doing so. The result is a bite, one that many argue could have been avoided.

(Warning: This video contains content viewers may find disturbing and/or violent.)

YouTube commenters lauded Millan’s technique, but trainers believe people are missing many telltale signs of trauma — and this approach could have long-term consequences.

“Basic canine body language screams that this is an extremely stressed dog with tail tightly tucked, lip licking, wide, whale eyes, mouth clamped shut and a hunched, fearful body,” says Annie Phenix, author and certified trainer, who has worked with fearful and aggressive dogs for the past 25 years using only force-free techniques, despite being trained on tools, like e-collars. She notes dogs communicate with us through “whispers,” meaning subtle signals, before lashing out. “They whisper until they can no longer whisper, and then they shout, you’re scaring me. You’re hurting me. You’re harming me. I will defend myself.”

George adds, “When a dog is flooded in this manner, it teaches them that humans will disregard their feelings, prompting them to behave defensively,” he says. They should be engaged when they are calmer, not just thrust into overwhelming situations. Understanding the similarities in how humans and dogs — and indeed all animals — process their environments is crucial. Just as it is ineffective and inappropriate to address human behavior through violence, it is equally unsound to approach dog behavior using violent methods.”

Many argue that Millan’s training method isn’t a cure for the dog’s behavior. Rather, the underlying issue—usually fear and anxiety—remains unresolved, merely suppressing aggression or other behavioral problems until the dog feels threatened again. A bite, lunge, or attack can happen repeatedly after a training session, as the root cause was never addressed and confidence was never built. (When asked about these methods, Millan declined to comment.)

Recognizing Millan’s Influence

Yet, Rebecca Pasko, certified balanced trainer and founder of Happy With Dogs, noted that these clips don’t show the whole story.

“It’s crucial to recognize that canine behavior is incredibly complex, and it should not be judged solely based on a 30-minute television show,” she says. “The reality of dog training often involves nuances and context that may not be fully captured in a heavily edited program.”

Still many trainers I spoke to provided a number of other training techniques to help dogs with behavioral problems, including counterconditioning, desensitization to various stimuli, distraction, and reward-based techniques.

While there is an army of experts and organizations that vehemently oppose Millan making millions of dollars on techniques deemed antiquated, problematic, and creating a more unbalanced dog than he proclaims to fix, he does have many supporters.

“It’s important to acknowledge that he has had significant success in helping many pet owners and their dogs, as evidenced by his widespread fame and popularity,” says Pasko. “From what I have observed, Cesar Millan appears to use a variety of training techniques, and it would be unfair to categorize his approach into a single camp. While some of his methods may involve elements of force or alpha-based techniques, he also employs other strategies that do not rely on these principles.”

Pasko is far from the only one.

There are countless training facilities across the country touting Millan’s technique, his social media has millions of followers, he is sought out for events, and it doesn’t seem like his dog-training empire will be slowing down anytime soon. (His son Andre will most likely take over.)

Related: How Do I Tell My Friend Their Dog Lacks Manners?

Even among those who disagree with his methods, some experts believe that Millan is well-intentioned but misguided.

“I don’t think he’s a malicious person. I think he operates in a bubble and came to his own conclusions about things that were just very much not based in science or what the research was showing about how dogs should be trained,” says Mamedova.

This same sediment is echoed in a popular Subreddit, Dog Training, where the moderators strongly disagree with Millan’s methods, stating they are “not necessary and often have significant fallout including intensified fear or aggression.” However, they acknowledge that he has done some things right, including focusing on exercise, communication, and his devotion to his trade.

One reason Millan was able to reach mega stardom, despite such extreme backlash in the dog training community is there are no regulations in the industry. There are no standardized certifications or guidelines, allowing anyone to claim expertise.

“He does not have a significant professional, credentialed background. He has not been reviewed by independently assessed professionals such as the Pet Professional Guild. He has not attained any qualifications that I am aware of other than his own,” says Phenix.

And because of this, an unintended consequence of Millan’s staying power and bringing dog training to the masses is the rise of competition from questionable trainers.

The Social Media Fallout

Platforms like YouTube, TikTok, and Instagram are filled with heavily edited clips of self-proclaimed trainers using harsh techniques similar to Millan’s. These videos often portray dramatic transformations, misleading dog owners about the effectiveness of these methods.

“Social media is rife with ‘dog trainers’ editing videos to look like they ‘cured’ a dog in a day, when in reality true behavior change takes time,” says Ingalls, adding, “The average consumer doesn’t have the time or the inclination to dig deep into methodology. I understand how owners can become overwhelmed with conflicting advice when anyone, regardless of education or qualification, makes a statement with confidence.”

One of the more notorious Millan-style trainers is “Dog Daddy,” an extremely dominant trainer who has come under fire for his overt force and punishment. Dogs are dragged around on leashes until they are too scared or tired to protest. He then parades them around, as if he fixed them. Protests have occurred, petitions launched, and investigations had. Yet, he continues to get views — and paying customers.

Another example is Mike Horton, or “The Real Tarzann,” an exotic animal trainer on Instagram, with whom Millan was engaging on the day of our interview. Despite his celebrity status, he is often criticized by wildlife experts. His checkered background includes an arrest for assaulting a python hunter and illegally shipping iguanas across the country. Jane Goodall has chastised him for his handling of chimps and his connection to the Tiger King’s “Doc” Antle has raised alarms. He is also now in PETA’s crosshairs, accused of operating an illegal roadside zoo. He still more than 10 million followers on Instagram and many more on other platforms.

These are just two examples, but there are hundreds, if not thousands, more like Horton and Dog Daddy, whose motives and training background have been questioned.

While Millan and his success may have inadvertently exacerbated the opaque, confusing, and harmful world of dog (and animal) training with social media being the conduit for its spread, he isn’t worried about his own brand. Many of these new trainers are looking more for clout, not impact, he says.

“They’re looking for the title. I wasn’t looking for the title,” Millan says. And he has a point. Because there is no regulation, the dog-training industry (and its fame) is based on making a brand for yourself, standing out from others, and at times, trolling, to gain a leg up, with some only caring about being the next influencer or the next paycheck.

“Not everybody can be a teacher,” says Millan. “Most of the people, they’re really good entertainers, but they will only last so long because there’s no depth.”

This explosion of dog trainers, both online and offline, highlights the need for regulation in the dog training industry. And calls for change are growing. Professional organizations and humane societies are advocating for the adoption of science-based methods. These techniques, in theory, focus on building a strong, trusting relationship between dogs and their owners. But how these methods are defined and who is overseeing licensing and regulation remains up for debate.

“As I advocate in my work, my goal is not to regulate people per se, but to protect the public. This starts with establishing a reasonable baseline for charging for dog training services. We are currently pursuing various strategies to address this multifaceted issue and to advance the adoption of modern, evidence-based practices in dog training,” says George.

Millan’s influence on dog training is undeniable, marking two decades of shaping public perceptions and practices. And he isn’t going anywhere. Not only does National Geographic continue to air his shows, but his Dog Psychology Center has turned into a full-blown ranch sitting on more than 40 acres, with llamas, goats, chickens, and other animals. “Dogs are coexisting with different species, where everybody trusts, respects, and loves each other,” he says.

However, the concerns from professional trainers and the rise of unqualified imitators underscore the need for a reevaluation of the industry. As the debate continues, one thing remains clear: the welfare of our canine companions must be the top priority.

And with that, many are incensed as to why Millan is still a leading figure in dog training, especially since they believe his training methods go against his mantra, “better human, better dog.”

“If we claim to truly care for dogs, why are we looking to dominate and harm them? It baffles me that after all these years, we haven’t learned to live with, respect, and care for dogs in ways that are respectful to both the dogs and the humans,” says Ingalls.

Related: How to Potty Train a Senior Dog

By Andrea Huspeni

Andrea Huspeni is the founder and CEO of This Dog's Life. Her mission it to help dogs live a happier, healthier and longer life. When she isn't working, she spends time with her two dogs, Lola and Milo. She resides in Brooklyn, NY.

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