Cesar Millan is not a dog trainer

August 30, 2010 at 9:55 am 12 comments

Cesar Millan is the most loved – and the most hated – dog trainer in the world today. Adored by millions of fans, Millan is also vilified by many dog trainers.

Right, wrong or indifferent – I find it amusing that such volumes of hatereude* are launched against a man who doesn’t even describe himself as a dog trainer.

But if Cesar Millan isn’t a dog trainer – what is he?

I think that Cesar Millan is a self-help guru very much in the mold of his mentor Tony Robbins. The Dog Whisperer acknowledges that Robbins has been a strong influence on his life, and in his books the he talks about how he uses self-help techniques like visualization, scripting and inner dialogs to help his human clients change their behavior.

While he provides some basic how-to advice on dog training I find it ironic that his handling methods, which I suspect Millan does not see as the primary focus of either his philosophy or his television series, are the stimulus that elicits most of the wrath directed at the man from dog trainers. Cesar says that he trains people, and indeed, The Dog Whisperer spends a lot more time talking about changing human behavior than he does about training dogs.

And I think that Millan’s mentor, life coach Tony Robbins, might have profited (pun very much intended) from studying Millan’s television success. While National Geographic’s Dog Whisperer series has hurtled Millan to the forefront of an expanding financial empire, NBC recently canceled Robbins’ reality series “Breakthrough” after one of the most disappointing debuts in recent television history.

While I knew that Millan was a student of Robbins’ program I had not thought much about the link between the two of them until I ran across a webcast of the first episode of Robbins’ series online the other day. In the first minutes of the episode I was immediately struck by how similar Robbins’ mannerisms and speech patterns were to those you’d see on an early episode of The Dog Whisperer. It was like watching an amped up Whisperer who had decided to leave the dogs at home. The resemblance was so strong I expected Robbins to say “tchzzzt” and poke his clients in the shoulder to redirect their attention when they balked at following his suggestions.

Both shows are built on a similar formula:

Troubled family narrates a touching story of heartbreak and tribulation;

Charming, successful, trendy, macho guru interviews family in a way that inspires them to acknowledge their part in creating and/or maintaining the  dysfunction in their lives;

Guru aggressively pushes individual family members well outside their comfort zones to elicit breakthrough experiences;

Individual family members then have touching on-screen epiphanies that we are led to believe will lead to life changing transformation; and

The show ends with guru providing a compelling step-by-step narrative on how his system transformed their lives and why it can transform yours too.

Sure the formula varies a bit from episode to episode – but writing for television is a bit like making soup. If you’ve got a good a basic recipe you can play with proportions and ingredients and still get very good results. And for psuedo-televangelical series like these, the most important ingredient is the guru’s ability to be credible, inspiring and motivational.

“Breakthrough” starts with a close up shot of a very macho looking Robbins saying: “I’m gonna make you do stuff you don’t wanna do, I’m gonna make you face stuff you don’t want to face.” And this idea of pushing people (and dogs) far outside their comfort zones to achieve a “breakthrough” epiphany is one of the main tools used by both men to change their clients’ behavior.

Why? Well, in episode one Robbins says:

“How do you breakthrough whatever unconscious concept we have about what’s possible? All a breakthrough is is a moment in time when you get an insight or you see a truth or you have an experience that once it happens the veil disappears and you just take back control of your life, not just today, but long term. And we’re looking for ways to trigger people to have those breakthroughs.”

The aggressive push to epiphany is probably one of main reasons that Millan’s series has been so successful (it’s also the basis for a lot of the criticism directed at the man), because watching his human and canine clients cope with these physically and emotionally stressful situations is interesting to watch.

Robbins’ show featured dramatic scenes where he pushed people out of their comfort zones though the methods he used were a lot bigger in scale (and budget) than Millan’s.

Both men are skilled at creating powerful positive experiences for their clients. And while these experiences may provide intense emotional highs for their clients and, at least in Millan’s case, they also sell well as entertainment, I’m not convinced that they lead to effective long-term change in most cases.

In light of these similarities, why has Cesar’s show been phenomenally successful and Robbins’ a dismal failure? First, the Dog Whisperer has a much easier job. Dogs accept change far more readily than people do, so Millan’s job lies largely in getting dog owners to accept their place in the problem and take a few, usually relatively simple steps, to effect the needed change.

Another important difference is that Millan offers his clients concrete bits of training advice along with those trademark Dog Whisperer truisms while Robbins just focused on a few abstract motivational platitudes. Another important factor was that, at least in my opinion, Robbins’ show came across as more infomercial than tutorial.

Robbins’ “helping families in crisis in only 30 days” focus on a quickie fix seems to be a perfect fit for today’s drive-through mentality so I understand why network executives gambled on “Breakthrough”. But I think that the show failed because while people may buy into the idea that a few whiz-bang tricks may fix their dogs’ problem behavior, at least at some deep level they’re aware that quick-fix pop psychology methods won’t cure their own issues.

My advice to Tony Robbins, should he get another shot at a television series: tone it down, take it slower and give your most valuable advice away on the show. Millan tells fans all of his training secrets in the DW series – and they line up in droves to pay for more.

*Hatereude – pleasure derived from the hatred of a shared enemy.

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Entry filed under: behavior science, dog training, dogs. Tags: , , , .

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12 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Rob McMillin  |  September 12, 2010 at 8:31 pm

    Andrew Sullivan uses the word hathos, which I find entirely amusing.

  • 2. Jill Morstad  |  September 12, 2010 at 8:36 pm

    When CM came out here to Nebraska in the summer of 2006, he told me he wasn’t a traditional dog trainer…but that his goal was to teach people how to be leaders in their own household, to ‘set the stage’ for training if owners would elect to pursue it.

    But how dreadfully inconveniet THAT is for his critics. Hatereude is much more satisfying.

  • 4. Alicia  |  September 12, 2010 at 8:48 pm

    Cesar Millan is not a dog trainer, but has inspired millions of people to look at themselves as the reason for their dogs behavior. He is a phenomenal man, and trainers who hate him are ignorant in my opinion.

  • 5. ruthcrisler  |  September 12, 2010 at 8:48 pm

    You know, I’d always wondered about Cesar’s inspiration to turn himself into a cult figure. Thank you for explaining.

    This “breakthrough” phenomenon reminds me of something my husband, a particle physicist, told me once. He described a well-known scientist as having the knack for convincing his audience that they understood far more than they actually did. You’d walk out of one of his lectures believing you’d been greatly enlightened, only to find by the next day that none of it made a great deal of sense to you.

    The ability to provide a heady experience to students, without providing them the true empowerment that comes with basic knowledge, is a rare gift indeed. And this is what creates a cult following ultimately, the dependence on received wisdom.

    One of the best compliments I ever got from any client, was that I “demystified” dog training. Not very sexy, but very important in my opinion. Happy to do it, too.

  • 6. SmartDogs  |  September 12, 2010 at 8:50 pm

    “Hatereude is much more satisfying.” Indeed. And with apologies to Rob, its is also much more fun to say than hathos.

  • 7. SmartDogs  |  September 12, 2010 at 8:52 pm

    This also plays into some interesting aspects of current politics, but I’m not going there. At least not tonight ;-)

  • 8. pawsnmotion  |  September 12, 2010 at 9:14 pm

    Interesting insights! I like your explanation of the “psuedo ah ha” moment and can definitely remember having my share. When I went to dog trainer’s school, I remember thinking it wasn’t nearly as sexy as it looked on TV. : )

  • 9. YesBiscuit  |  September 13, 2010 at 4:57 am

    It would perhaps be good too if Robbins could keep a bunch of people who have overcome their issues together in a well balanced pack in his yard. That way he could show them off and use them to help unbalanced people achieve balance by spending time in the pack.

    ; )

  • 10. Rob McMillin  |  September 13, 2010 at 9:13 am

    You’d walk out of one of his lectures believing you’d been greatly enlightened, only to find by the next day that none of it made a great deal of sense to you.

    Sounds like string theory. A lot of people think it means something but until fairly recently, there were no experimentally testable hypotheses to come out of it.

  • 11. Ed  |  September 15, 2010 at 9:23 pm

    I wonder how much of CM’s interest in Robbins has to do with being an imigrant/outsider and not wanting that.

    Plus, what Alicia said.

    Also, I am really surprised to see smartdogs being smart about Tony Robbins, of all things. What are your thoughts on Lady Gaga?

  • 12. MelissaDogTrainer  |  April 14, 2012 at 9:57 pm

    We are mad because he is doing the job of a dog trainer by working with dogs. To the average pet owner, it looks like a solution. To a dog trainer, it looks like abuse.

    What if there was a show where humans were forced to face their fear by surrounding them with what makes them afraid and punching them in the face evey time they lash out in fear until they gave up and shut down. Thats the equivalent of using corrections on a fear aggressive dog until it gives up and calling it calm submissive.

    if you were a professional dog trainer, savy in reading stress signals and dog communication, you would be angry at what you were looking that too and certainly wouldnt call public abuse on display for money hateurade.

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