“The Dog Whisperer” Airs Daily on TV, National Geographic Channel

On Sept. 13, 2004, the first of 26 episodes of “The Dog Whisperer,” a daily television series, aired on the National Geographic channel. The show features one approach to modifying behavior problems ranging from fear of slippery floors to aggression triggered by the sound of a toaster popping or a phone ringing. Behavior problems in dogs are the largest single cause of canine abandonment, according to the Center for the Interaction of Animals and Society at the University of Pennsylvania, and some industry members hope that the show will prompt clients to ask practice staff how to resolve their pets’ behavior issues.

“The Dog Whisperer” has the potential to reach at least 52 million cable and satellite viewers and features Cesar Millan, a self-described dog behavior specialist who owns The Dog Psychology Center in California. He works with the dogs featured on the 30-minute show for anywhere from one hour to three months.

Some industry members say Millan’s techniques are outdated. “There is nothing new about his methods, which have been used by many people and abandoned because they were not effective,” said Andrew Luescher, DVM, PhD, DACVB, director of The Animal Behavior Clinic at Purdue University.

To alter behavior, Millan uses what Luescher describes as flooding techniques, which Luescher believes are inhumane. In one episode, Millan pulls a Great Dane onto a slippery floor with a choke chain in an effort to help him overcome his phobia. Instead of using that approach, Luescher would have employed systematic desensitization, a relaxation technique that gradually teaches dogs not to react to a stimulus, or counter-conditioning, which teaches dogs to reassociate problematic situations with pleasurable outcomes. “There are lots of humane ways that induce appropriate behavior with rewards versus using punishment,” Luescher said, adding, “All of his [Millan] rhetorical explanations [for behavior problems] are wrong,” and if owners do try some of them, they can worsen situations.”

Luescher fears that pet owners will watch the show and try to mimic the techniques improperly, which could exacerbate some behavior problems over time and lead to aggressive behavior, Luescher said. To prevent this, National Geographic publishes warnings during each show advising viewers not to try the techniques at home.

“We hope viewers will go to professionals with questions,” said John Ford, executive vice president of programming for National Geographic. “We wanted to highlight one man’s results-oriented approach. We don’t pretend to offer dog medicine.” In each episode, Millan states that his goal is to rehabilitate animals who suffer from behavior problems, some of which stem from the lack of an alpha or dominant owner, he believes. “He [Millan] works to rehabilitate dogs and train owners so that they understand how to better deal with their dogs,” Ford said.

Martin Deeley, president of the International Association of Canine Professionals, initially praised the show, but he has become increasingly concerned that pet owners may not properly implement the techniques that are briefly shown to viewers. He said he is also worried that Millan is misinterpreting behavior problems.

“At first I thought it was nice to have a show that would show owners that they didn’t have to euthanize these dogs, that behavior problems could be solved, but the more we have watched, the more concerned we have become,” Deeley said. “We feel the solutions shown are short-term, near-sighted approaches. In order to change behavior, you have to train a dog, and the [show’s] only message is that the owner has to be in charge.”

The show also does not address the fact that some behavior problems mask medical problems, said Deeley and Luescher. In addition to a physical exam, Luescher suggests that veterinarians conduct a neurological exam and a urinalysis before referring clients to behavior specialists.

“Any aggression or anxiety-related problems should be referred to a veterinary behaviorist,” Luescher said. Obedience issues can be dealt with by dog trainers, and certifications for dog behaviorists and trainers are offered by the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists, the Animal Behavior Society and the Association of Pet Dog Trainers. Soon there will be a certification for veterinary technicians at Purdue University, Luescher said, and the Society for Veterinary Behavior Technicians offers continuing education and networking opportunities.

Despite what seems to be an initial lack of industry support, “The Dog Whisperer” may provide veterinary staff members with an opportunity to discuss behavior issues with clients. Luescher suggests initiating behavior conversations with clients when pets are between six and 10 months old so that the focus can be on prevention. “I recommend that [clients set up] behavior wellness appointments so that [veterinarians] can ask specific questions about behavior that would predispose an animal for relinquishment,” Luescher said.