The Dog Whisperer is a name which makes many people think of an incredible TV dog trainer, saving so-called ‘red zone’ problem dogs from a bad ending. On the other hand, many others think of someone who has set dog training back 30 years by the language and methods he uses. Crikey.

We’ll leave it to influential dog trainer and behaviourist Paul Owens, The Original Dog Whisperer by the way, to share a few thoughts about the methods that he has used:

‘Behavioral science has shown that suppressing behavior, especially through physical force or the threat of force, does nothing to bring confidence to a fearful dog or calm an aggressive dog, it only suppresses that behavior (out of fear) in that particular situation […] Thirty years ago I used most of the negative methods shown on the National Geographic program and became skilled in both positive and negative training. In the past 15 years […] I have abandoned negative training, finding it to be less effective and certainly not as kind as positive training. I believe positive training is easier and more effective with even the most aggressive or fearful dog, as well as being less stressful for the human.’

Read the full article here.

Jean Donaldson, Director of The SF/SPCA Academy for Dog Trainers, gave a similar statement:

‘Practices such as physically confronting aggressive dogs and using of choke collars for fearful dogs are outrageous by even the most diluted dog training standards. A profession that has been making steady gains in its professionalism, technical sophistication and humane standards has been greatly set back. I have long been deeply troubled by the popularity of Mr. Millan as so many will emulate him. To co-opt a word like ‘whispering’ for arcane, violent and technically unsound practice is unconscionable.’

Read the full article here.

Enough said. 

Well, no. We’re gonna waffle on a bit longer.

What methods does ‘The Dog Whisperer’ use?

In the early Dog Whisperer shows, Cesar Millan talked of ‘Calm, assertive energy’. What did that mean exactly? 

Well, proponents of using calm assertive energy say it’s about showing your dog that you’re the pack leader. But the truth is that there isn’t any science or evidence behind this.

What does ‘assertive’ mean?

To us, we take assertiveness as relating to a confrontational way of training. It can also be about asserting dominance. We’ll talk about the dominant style of dog training in a minute.

What is the dominance myth in dog training? Are dogs dominant?

The dominance myth is exactly that. A myth. It is an old fashioned way of thinking of dogs as pack animals that try to assert dominance over one another, and also over the humans in their world. It’s based on the belief that dogs have an innate need to control us by being top dog or Alpha within our family unit. But this theory has been disproved; even by the scientist who originally made the claims himself!

In fact, a study by Meghan E. Herron at The University of Pennsylvania showed that dominance based, assertive techniques on dogs will result in more aggression from dogs, not less. 

“This study highlights the risk of dominance-based training, which has been made popular by TV, books and punishment-based training advocates,” Herron said. “These techniques are fear-eliciting and may lead to owner-directed aggression.”

It’s quite a good read actually, you can check it out here.

We also talk about the dominance myth in dog training in the ZigZag guiding principles.

What methods do ‘dominance’ style dog trainers use? 

You may see any or all of the following methods employed by people who use the dominance framework of dog training. Be warned though, some of these points are quite violent and uncomfortable to read:

  • Walking through doors first
  • Walk upstairs first
  • Denying attention or affection (you didn’t get a dog not to show them you love them, did you?)
  • Eating before a dog
  • Taking food away from a dog when they are eating
  • Never allowing your dog up on furniture
  • Finger jabs – often accompanied with a verbal hiss like correction ‘shhhtt’ 
  • Staring a dog down until they submit
  • Pinning dogs to the floor and holding them there. Otherwise known as ‘The Dominance Down’
  • Alpha rolling dogs and holding them on the floor
  • Collar correction – using a slip lead, a prong collar or shock collar
  • Using an electric shock collar

No need to say more, do we?

Here’s what Mark Derr wrote in the New York Times:

“While Mr. Millan rejects hitting and yelling at dogs during training, his confrontational methods include physical and psychological intimidation, like finger jabs, choke collars, extended sessions on a treadmill and what is called flooding, or overwhelming the animal with the thing it fears. Compared with some training devices still in use — whips and cattle prods, for example — these are mild, but combined with a lack of positive reinforcement or rewards, they place Mr. Millan firmly in a long tradition of punitive dog trainers.”

Read the full article here.

But don’t the methods on The Dog Whisperer look like they work? 

Of course, some of the reasoning that he uses such as being a clear, reliable and dependable owner with reliable routines will help your dog know what’s coming next and what you want from them. But we don’t see the need to also use force, physical corrections, coercion’s or other punitive punishment based techniques in modern day dog training.

What we often see when we watch TV trainers is a dog that is shut down and scared. Of course, on the surface it might look as if the dog is quiet and ‘cured’, but what’s actually happening is that the dog’s essential coping mechanism – the fight or flight system – has been removed and they have no other choice but to give up. So really, you’re not ending up with a happy dog, not at all. 

While Cesar Millan is a charismatic character that appears to have special resources when it comes to solving behavioural problems in dogs, his methods, though they may appear effective, are in reality quite deceiving. Spectators watching his show tend to be quite amazed at how he fixes problems in a relatively short period of time, with almost the magic touch of an illusionist, but it is unfortunate that his shows are more for entertainment purposes than anything else and his methods are quite outdated and frowned upon by many dog trainers and professional dog behaviorists. Truth is, what may appear like a dog responding to his ”calm, assertive energy”  is in reality a dog who is shutting down, a phenomena known as ”learned helplessness” which takes place when a dog is repeatedly exposed to aversion and has no escape.‘ – Janet Farricelli CPDT-KA

Why shouldn’t I use Dog Whisperer techniques in dog training?

It’s interesting that National Geographic, the network broadcasting The Dog Whisperer show, has to put this warning on screen during the show:

“Do not attempt these techniques yourself without consulting a professional.”

The reason for this is quite simple; it’s just not ethical, and as in the study highlighted above, being confrontational with your dog will make them:

  • Less able to trust you
  • Fear you
  • Panicky and worried about their world
  • More reactive to situations
  • Shut down and go into a state of learned helplessness

This article is from someone with direct experience of the Dog Whisperers training methods – and shares testimonials along the same lines.

How should I be training a dog?

Just like a member of your family, with respect, love and praise. Given that dogs began domestication at least 40,000 years ago, they are definitely not like wolves and should not be trained with punitive or punishment based dominance methods.

Positive reinforcement training is the most up to date and ethical way to train a dog. It works simply by rewarding a dog when they do the things you like. Rewards might be food, play, or gentle praise – but all good things. This will predict how likely they are to repeat that behaviour again. 

Important to know: When working with any dog, the first thing we are looking for is a positive emotional response. This means that the dog is in a good mood when training, and that they want to do it because they find it rewarding – and not to be made more fearful or shut down if they decide not to ‘comply’.

All in all, positive reinforcement training promotes a positive state of mind in dogs. Simple as that. 

How is the training in the ZigZag puppy training app different to The Dog Whisperer style of training?

The ZigZag puppy training app teaches you how to train your dog as an individual, based on their breed type and that breed type’s motivations or what makes them tick the most. Needless to say, we follow effective evidence-based positive reinforcement training; one that doesn’t activate a dogs Fight or Flight fear response.

ZigZag believes that training dogs with positive reinforcement produces optimistic and cheerful dogs that enjoy training. The research says it all. Trust us, it’s all here.

While we don’t subscribe to any kind of Pack Leader approach, we do teach you how to train your puppy in becoming a confident and well adjusted member of your family. We all know self-confidence is key for everything in this life. 

Most of all, we want you to mutually enjoy every moment with your puppy. No one really wants to tell their dog off and see those sad puppy eyes!

Benefits of using the training methods as in the ZigZag Puppy training app

Many. Just so many:

  • A flourishing relationship between the dog and owner
  • A dog who actively enjoys training
  • A dog who listens to their owner
  • A dog willing and wanting to learn and engage
  • A clever dog! (Who doesn’t want that)
  • A training method the whole family can use
  • And it works for every breed of dog

FAQs about The Dog Whisperer and other TV dog training shows.

Isn’t giving my puppy treats bribery? I want them to respect me!

Nope! There’s a common misconception that positive training means permissive training, but it doesn’t.

What it does is create a warm and loving environment for your puppy to flourish. Doesn’t that sound brilliant. 

If done correctly, your puppy will not be reliant on food to do a good job forever. Food rewards fade out over time once your dog has learnt the skills to a good level, or when you switch to different reinforcers such as play or verbal praise. No harm in saying thank you to your dog for a job well done, is there?

Did you know? If you pick apart what respect from a dog is all too often described as by Dog Whisperer style trainers, it’s generally fear. What you might think of as a respectful dog is often one who does something because they are worried about what happens if they don’t.

Won’t my dog end up fat being trained with all of those treats?

Not if you’re clever about how you train.

At the start of your journey in the ZigZag puppy training app we teach you that in positive reinforcement training you use frequent food rewards. These could be super yummy soft treats, or just some of your puppy’s daily food rations. Puppies like (or often love) food, so why not use it as a reinforcer?

An easy way to do this is by weighing out how much food your puppy should have in the day and set some aside to use as training rewards.

PRO TIP: We also teach you how to fade those food rewards out with a random schedule so your dog doesn’t quite know when they will get their next treat. Kind of like a lottery win, it makes you want to keep on playing right? 

But don’t TV trainers deal with really difficult ‘red zone’ dogs who would otherwise be euthanized?

Well, what does ‘Red zone’ even mean? It’s certainly not a concept or term in any of the scientific literature available. What the TV programmes show us of these dogs is them being put in truly awful situations in order to make them react aggressively…any ethical and qualified Dog Behaviourist knows that pushing dogs over their stress threshold  is not what we’re aiming for at all. 

These terrified dogs are repeatedly pushed to their limits with no means of escape (FLIGHT) until they have no option but to trigger their FIGHT system, they are then pushed to the floor, or hung on a slip lead, jabbed or kicked. So it could make sense to say that they’re simply being used for the entertainment part of it. 

By the way: A qualified and experienced behaviourist will never tell you they want to put a healthy dog down. Behavioural euthanasia does exist, but it’s a very rare and difficult thing to resort to – and only done when all other options have been exhausted.

Our job is to support and work with dogs with behaviour issues, not remove them from the population entirely. There are many positive reinforcement based protocols available that work on modifying and changing the emotional response these dogs have to things they are scared of, which don’t resort to physical corrections or punishment!

Aren’t TV dog trainers qualified?

Funny you ask that. Interestingly, Cesar Millan has never had any formal education in animal training or psychology. Sadly, there are other TV dog trainers who also don’t have any formal training (could be that it is severely lacking, or even just made up with a certificate bought online!) – you can tell this by them following an almost animalistic and primal style of dominating that goes on until the dog submits and gives up. 

It’s just the truth.
But the good news is that there are now TV trainers who ARE qualified and experienced behaviourists and trainers. Yay!

Here’s a list of our favourite TV Dog Trainers . They back up their knowledge with academic study or years of successful practical experience with dogs:

Sian Ryan: From Developing Dogs hosted a wonderful series called Me and My Dog

Chirag Patel: Can be seen in Channels 5’s Cats and Dogs at War.

Victoria Stilwell: The original TV dog trainer and can be seen in It’s Me or the Dog. Interestingly, Victoria started out with more of an alpha style training methodology, but with time and experience, she is now a worldwide proponent for positive reinforcement based dog training.

We hope now you’ve read through that you’ll want to train your puppy in the wonderful ways of positive reinforcement dog training. We simply can’t think of why this wouldn’t be a good idea. Perhaps there just isn’t any. 

Scratch that, there definitely isn’t any 🙂

Why not download the ZigZag app and have a go? You also get access to a team of fully qualified puppy experts like me, to support you on every step of your dog training journey. 

Looking for more useful puppy training advice and tips? Read our guide on how to stop a puppy biting you, next.