Counter-Conditioning and Desensitization- Taking Fear Out of the Equation

aggressive dog trainer

Ceaser Millan, best known as “The Dog Whisperer” has been accused of animal cruelty. What was supposed to be a counter-conditioning/ desensitization exercise, turned into an ambush between a pig and French Bulldog named Simon. During the exercise, Ceaser lost control and Simon attacked a pig (belonging to Simon’s owners). The bites drew blood and the pig was obviously in pain.

 There is a debate in the dog training industry on whether or not Ceaser’s techniques are effective. “Dominance Training” according to Dr. Sophia Yin, a veterinarian, animal behaviorist, author, and international expert on Low Stress Handling, is defined as 

“a relationship between individuals that is established through force, aggression and submission in order to establish priority access to all desired resources (food, the opposite sex, preferred resting spots, etc). A relationship is not established until one animal consistently defers to another.”

According to Ceaser, to train our dogs, we should look at how wolves establish their packs. In the 1960’s, researchers found that wolves (in captivity) formed their hierarchies by defeating their fellow members. The top wolf was known as the “alpha”. This however is old research. Modern day science has shown that wolves in the wild act much like humans today. Once they find a mate, wolves no longer care who is on top. They care about protecting their families. Millan suggests however, that his clients display themselves in the old way of thinking. He advises sustaining power over their dogs just like wolves do in captivity. The problem with this is that it doesn’t last. Good, lasting behavior is based on trust, not fear.

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Positive reinforcement, the friendlier approach to training involves rewards to encourage and uphold good behavior.

According to the Humane Society of the United States, Positive Reinforcement Training is defined as

"using praise and/or treats to reward your dog for doing something you want him to do. Because the reward makes him more likely to repeat the behavior, positive reinforcement is one of your most powerful tools for shaping or changing your dog’s behavior."

Contrary to Millan’s theory of dominance training, owners should use positive reinforcement to establish a trusting relationship. Once this relationship is established, counter-conditioning and desensitization can begin.

Ceaser makes it seem like eliminating a dog’s aggression happens quickly. However, counter-conditioning, especially for a territorial dog like Simon, takes a long time. Before attempting counter-conditioning, owners need to establish a trusting relationship with their dog through positive, repetitive and consistent training. According to Nicholas Dodman, director of the Animal Behavior Clinic at Tufts University, mistrust is the core issue of most aggression. In order to resolve the issue one must

“make sure that the dog understands that all good things in life come only and obviously from you (the owner).”

 Aggression in dogs is based on fear. Dogs become aggressive because they want to protect whatever it is they are guarding. This can be certain toys, bones, food, their owners, etc. Relieving your dog of fear is possible. In order to relieve the fear in Simon, Ceaser forced Simon to be “walked” by the pig. This was in an attempt to teaching Simon how to get along with the pig.

positive reinforcement dog trainer

Simon is without a doubt still uncomfortable with being around pigs. For example, he is resisting the pig pulling him and tries to put as much space between him and the pig as possible. The fact that Ceaser is forcing Simon to be walked by the pig is unethical. Force does not need to be used. The goal is help Simon get along better with pigs. It can be accomplished in other ways than forcing the dog to do something he is uncomfortable with. Demanding that dogs be put into an uncomfortable environment without any type of positive outcome for the dog is completely one-sided. There is no benefit to the dog if he becomes “friendly” with the pig. This is why “dominance training” doesn’t last. 

The reason why positive reinforcement works is dogs associate rewards with good, happy feelings. They associate stimuluses (whatever it is they are afraid of) with bad, harmful ones. Presenting your dog to the stimulus for short periods of time along with a consistent supply of yummy treats, praise and a command or two, will teach your dog to associate the stimulus with good, happy feelings. It will also continue to build trust and bonding in your relationship. Eventually, when the stimulus arrives, your dog will know what is expected of him because of your consistency in showing him what he needs to do. He knows he will be praised for pleasing you. 

I believe Ceaser’s technique for training Simon was outdated. As discussed before, his premise on “pack theory” needs to be updated based on current research. To know if his techniques are successful, revisiting his old clients would be necessary. That’s the only way to see if his training was effective.

In conclusion, dominance training not only results in dogs fearing their owners but it also confuses them on what their owners expect. I endorse positive reinforcement as my preferred training technique for managing aggression in dogs. It not only builds trust with the owner but also makes the dogs feel good. Not only will owners experience satisfaction knowing they have control over their dogs, no negative outcome results and the training is enjoyable for everyone. The established relationship between the dog and the owner is lasting and much more effective with positive reinforcement training. 

Alice Tong Dote