Confessions of a Millan Fan Girl
This post is about the past, specifically my past as a Millan fan girl. Shocker right? Believe it or not I wasn’t born knowing everything about dogs, and we all start somewhere! For me this start was a keen interest in dogs and a lack of good info about dog training.
I was always an animal lover, when I was growing up animals were life. I was a walking encyclopedia of animal knowledge, and I soaked that up as much as I could. They were my childhood obsession.
At 12 I was exposed to The Dog Whisperer. This immediately turned me into a Millan fan girl. Not only did I like animals, but here was dog training HELPING people, and btw it was on a channel that my family did not have. Scarcity played a role in the depth of my interest, not to mention at the time this was the only dog training program available on TV. No wonder the impact has been so long lasting for viewers!
Suffice to say, I watched as much as I could at any given opportunity and was a very firm believer of the results shown in the show.
For those of you that may have not seen the show, we will now dissect the typical pattern of the program. The opener is a montage of the host interacting with dogs with a voice over that explains how the host rehabilitates dogs and helps families. In the season that I was first introduced to, the final clip is of him throwing a ball for around 20 dogs. Overall it is very much created to make you feel good, get you excited about the dogs, and to buy in to the program. There is a disclaimer that briefly comes on screen stating that you shouldn’t try the techniques you will see at home and should consult a professional.
The next thing that happens is usually a scene of Millan going to the first home in the show with a short blurb about who this dog is, whether it’s bitten anyone, etc. Then you see clips of the interview process and of course Millan explaining that the owner’s energy is weak, not like a leader would do, and other similar info as to why things are going wrong. There is a bit of mysticism to it, with a focus on the owner’s energy, as well as all the ways the dog is trying to “dominate” the situation and be the Pack Leader™.
When you have little to no knowledge about dog behavior, have a deep interest in animals, and a trust of professionals as well as a trust of the network that broadcasts such a program, it is extremely easy to be drawn into this show. After all you have this expert here telling you how it is! Why wouldn’t you trust them, and more importantly, how would you know that what they say isn’t truth or how it is supposed to be done? I fell so hard into the role of a Millan fan girl.
Inevitably the show progresses to Millan demonstrating how he corrects the dogs, with a verbal correction, physically pinning the dogs down with an alpha roll, striking them at their neck, or using a leash and choke chain to yank the dogs around. By the end of the show the dogs are “fixed” meaning that they aren’t doing the things they used to be doing, or really much of anything. Looking back with the knowledge I have now, it’s really quite depressing how these dogs behaved. And the worst part is that there are so many people who believe that this is a valid, correct, and humane way to train their dogs.
The big take away from the show is that when your dog doesn’t do what you want, you punish them, and everything that your dog does wrong can be chalked up to a failure to be Alpha enough, not enough exercise, or them trying to dominate you. All of these things are totally wrong.
Types of Trainers
Before we continue it is important to understand that there are 3 different categories of dog trainers.
Reinforcement Based Trainers:
Avoid using corrections.
Focus on rehabilitation with rewards, proper wellness plan, and correct breed/family fit.
Use both corrections and rewards.
The dog is taught with both reward and punishment, and (hopefully) this is done ethically and in a way that follows the known science.
Only use punishment to train.
The dog is subjected to punishment until the “wrong” behaviors stop. The dog is not taught what is “right”. The answer for every problem is punishment.
Millan falls deeply into the third category, punishment trainers. When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. We won’t discuss why punishment based training doesn’t work in this post, but if you’d like to learn more about it, you can read about it here!!
My Career in Dog Training Begins
As an adult I finally got the opportunity to go to a trainer school and get a hands on and immersive experience in dog training. Thank god. This was the intervention I needed to go from a clueless Millan fan girl to an actual trainer. I am forever grateful for the opportunity to go to the Michael Ellis School for Dog Trainers.
The methods taught on The Dog Whisperer are not real dog training!!
This blew my mind. Call me naïve, but I had never considered that there were other ways of training and that what was shown on the show was actually laughable to professional trainers.
The idea that punishment is the answer to every problem is completely wrong and we have had the science to support this for a long while now. Additionally alpha theory has been debunked for a loooooong time now, even though that’s what’s been perpetuated by the Dog Whisperer.
Real dog training isn’t built on respect. It isn’t built on some weird hierarchy where you dog view you as a competitor for their own resources, or where them seeking comfort on the couch is an attempt to show you who is boss. It isn’t built on punishing a dog for transgressions as much as possible, and simply put, the Dog Whisperer is about the worst training resource out there. I know I’m not the only trainer out there that refers to the show as “job security”.
I used to be a Millan Fan Girl
I am what is referred to in the industry as a crossover trainer. Someone who has trained with punitive methods before, but has since switched to training focused on rewards. Luckily I have never trained any client dogs with punitive only methods, as advocated by the show, but two of my personal dogs did experience my Millan fan girl phase. I am not proud of that period of time in my life, however I realize that there is no other way the cards could have fallen for me. There simply wasn’t any other knowledge accessible to me at the time. I consider myself lucky in the fact that it was only two dogs who were subjected to these methods, and that with one of them I was able to retrain in much more humane methods. For my childhood companion this was not the case.
I am forever grateful for the opportunities to learn about training that I’ve had, as well as the patience and support of my mentors. It takes skill to be able to overlook someone’s past knowledge and guide them to better ways of doing something without judgement. This is something I myself strive to emulate in my life. Empathy is an important skill in dog training when dealing with dogs, but also when dealing with their owners! I am happy to report that I no longer use the methods that initially started my journey into dog training, and am proud to be a reinforcement based trainer.
We know only what we know and quite literally don’t know what we don’t know. This is not our fault and at this stage in my life I refuse to believe that there are dog owners who are purposefully using inhumane methods with their dogs. The fact is that most owners do not have the knowledge they need, don’t necessarily realize there is a gap in their knowledge, or otherwise don’t realize the negative consequences of training methods pushed by Millan and other similar trainers. I think that the vast majority of owners are trying to do the best they can with the very very limited knowledge that they have, and sometimes that means that mistakes are made.
No one can fault you for doing your best, even if your best isn’t the right way and a result of a lack of knowledge. You’re still doing your best, still striving to make the situation better, and that isn’t a bad thing! The learning shouldn’t stop there though, and things can be made better and easier for everyone.
My journey to where I am today is one that I am grateful for, even though I followed and adamantly supported people I shouldn’t have. At the time my opinions on the efficacy of rewards in training came from a place of ignorance and total lack of knowledge. I am forever continuing to strive to keep up with science based techniques, holding a place of empathy in my heart for dog owners who don’t know what they don’t know, and forgiving their past mistakes with their dogs.
We can’t change what we’ve done in the past, only what we’re doing in the now, and what we choose to do in the future. You have control over your life with your dog. What are you going to do with that power?