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When we got our first dog as a puppy, we did our puppy school at San Francisco SPCA, and had plenty of success with reward-based training for learning new tricks. But then we had a breakdown: there was no way to stop our dog from doing things when doing the thing gave her a reward.

Eventually we went through training with a private trainer who worked similarly to Cesar: I believe Cesar uses the Koehler Method. Most of his time was spent teaching us how to read our dog and understand her motivations. We learned that the best way to correct bad behaviour was to give one really harsh correction that didn't need to be repeated, rather than a lot of smaller, ineffectual corrections.

You would not believe the number of people who have told me I am abusing my dog. I think we may have to give her a really harsh correction for misbehaviour once every couple of years now, but anybody who happens to see it thinks we do it all the time.

I do think these training methods can be utterly disastrous if the owners are not trained to read the dogs and pay attention to them: if people just see the corrections and not the hours of attention and reward and interaction with the dog, they might behave in a way that destroys a wonderful animal.

Anyway, here's my vote for choosing the training method that works best for dog and owner.


You have to see the hilarious South Park episode in which Cesar Millan trains a recalcitrant Cartman to obey his mother after the British nannies from Supernanny and Nanny 911 fail to restrain the kid.

Ann Michael

I did read the article in the New Yorker. One of the things that struck me was the story of one woman who supported her dog more than her son (who was, by the way, constantly being "corrected" by the DOG!). I love dogs. I have two and grew up in a home where we bred Great Danes. A family (including the dogs) has to learn to live together. Just as you have to correct my children, you need to correct your dogs. One of the messages in Cesar's method with which I heartily agree is that often the problem is the owner failing to read the dog and manage its behavior appropriately.


Perhaps your New Yorker article should have been about National Geographic Channel's false representation of Cesar Millan's methods. Is this a characteristic of all National Geographic reporting?

Rob Winchester

Malcolm - Have you considered an article comparing the conventional wisdom on the discipline of children versus that of dogs? Many people approve of strong negative reinforcement of dogs, but would never consider the same for children...


Thanks Malcolm, it's reassuring to know that Cesar perhaps has a gentler touch than is portrayed on his show and writing.

That being said, I think you'd find that many academics and studied canine behaviorists would still take issue with these methods because they are based on assumptions which we are learning to be untrue – for instance, there are studies at Purdue University's School of Veterinary Medicine based on wolf and dog pack observation that indicate there is no such thing as an absolute “alpha”; that the pack leadership dynamic is fluid depending on the environment. That Cesar insists one become the “alpha” then really loses weight as it is not a strategy that can work consistently and may breed “learned helplessness”, which is not conducive to good/correct decision making on the part of the dog.

I think what’s really interesting about Cesar, as a dog trainer who admits he learned most of what he knows from walking dogs in L.A., is that he’s convinced thousands that his way is *the* way – he has attached a mystique to his technique, has developed a presence as your article investigates, that I think may be more telling in the way it modifies the behavior of people, not dogs.


I watched some of the tapes with Malcolm and directed him to Suzi Tortora, the Certified Movement Analyst and Dance-Movement Therapist he also wrote about in the piece, precisely because I was seeing much more than a man who used one particular "technique" to discipline dogs.

Malcolm saw the ability Cesar had to adjust and adapt to the owners, the dog, and the INTERACTIONS between them, and that was, in MY opinion, what made him successful more often than not.

Over the past week, the article has sparked many conversations about the nature of intervention into patterns of human behavior and interactions through movement analysis. As several here have pointed out, the dance between parent and child, or owner and dog, or even teacher and student, is complex and shifts, depending upon needs of both.

Dogs, it appears, need boundaries, just as children do, and owners need to teach those, just as parents do, in order to feel safe and to get what they need.

Of course, the need for boundaries and clarity in the interactions does not include physical abuse, but it often does include play, affection, and standing one's ground when necessary. Can a casual observer assess the content and depth of complexity of a nonverbal interaction between two people in a dependent relationship?

Not usually, because we PROJECT our own experiences onto the observation. Therefore, behaviors that appear threatening to someone for whom such interactions led to abuse in their own lives may not be to those engaged in the relationship.

Analyzing human and animal behavior accurately takes training. As Malcolm rightly points out, the show itself is an unpacking of MOMENTS of Cesar's process. We, the audience, are only seeing an outline, not the depth and complexity of time and relationship-building that is required in raising dogs, children, and ourselves.

Suzi unpacks the analysis of the dances we do with each other so beautifully in the article. But it is this quote that really got me:

Certain people, we say, "command our attention", but the verb is all wrong. There is no commanding, only soliciting.

We invite each other to the dance, all of us, every day, and we see if it works. We need to be conscious of the sweetness of our interactions, and we need to notice our effect on the world. And mostly we need to provide our loved ones the honest and true engagement in the dance that they need in order to share a life with us and find their way too.


A caveat: I do not believe that dogs and humans are the same, but share some social behaviors. And I know that Malcolm's point that dogs have learned to read humans nonverbally, at least at a fairly primitive and self-preserving level, is also true. Dogs are not alone in this ability. CMAs observed dolphins some years ago, and in the end, the dolphins tended to have expressive movement characteristics ("phrasing") much like their trainers. There was no signature "dolphin movement".

Eric Goebelbecker

Gladwell says:
"In his book "Cesar's Way," which has been in the top five on Amazon for several weeks, he talks a lot about the importance of humans being behaving as pack leaders, and establishing dominance over their dogs. Along the same lines, his shows feature a number of episodes with quite spectacular footage of Cesar wrestling large and aggressive dogs into submission. That is what the critics are responding to."

"If you do what he says, and not what he does, I think you miss what makes him effective."

This may have deserved some more attention in the New Yorker piece. Whether intentional or not, many of Cesar's fans -including those who have apparently misunderstood him by reading his book and actually listening to him - are using your article as further proof that his ideas are correct.


I don't want to dominate this thread; I want to see what people are thinking about in terms of unpacking Cesar's appeal and talent.

Posted by: Eric Goebelbecker | May 23, 2006 at 11:46 AM

I just have to add onto Eric's comment: YES, there is no FORMULA.

No cause and effect.

No one way to do it.

I teach dance and it is always interesting how many incredible dancers cannot articulate the rich process they use to execute the movement. They tend to tell their students how to do it using words they themselves heard from THEIR teachers ("Tuck under" is a common one, referring to the buttocks muscles). But no one can execute the movement is all they do is listen to the words.

Cesar's skills ARE transferable to others, but only if the student is willing to learn from him over time and in a number of different contexts, noting that there is no formula but there IS a map.


Children and dogs both need nutrition, shelter, health care, exercise and love -- like ANY "domesticated" creature should have.

Beyond that, there is absolutely nothing you can learn from comparing the two.

The complexities are radically different in terms of behaviour, the needs are utterly different in terms of stimuli, education, communication, and socialization, and no one in their right mind would treat the two the same way because the results would be disastrous.

And I've seen it more than once, too.

Pets should be loved. But they are NOT children.


Cesar did a session with our dog last year, and Malcolm is entirely correct - he does NOT continuously correct the dog. In fact, he put our dog in situations where she had to fend for herself rather than rely on constant commands.

I don't know what Cesar's critics are responding to, but it has nothing to do with facts.


Karen said, "I teach dance and it is always interesting how many incredible dancers cannot articulate the rich process they use to execute the movement. They tend to tell their students how to do it using words they themselves heard from THEIR teachers"

I have trained both horses and dogs, and worked with some horse trainers (how I loathe the locution "the XXX whisperer") who achieved remarkable results. Often they cannot replicate verbally what goes on within their bodies. When the student can't replicate the movement from the (inaccurate) verbal description, the whole learning process breaks down. Interestingly in the dressage world, high-speed-film analysis has shown that some of the required attributes of certain movements are physiologically impossible for horses. The results were attacked by purists. The debate is ongoing.

Malcolm Gladwell said, "I really wanted to focus on Cesar, and on the broader question of what meaning dogs—and human beings—attach to movement.

I think this whole area of movement analysis is a rich field for exploration, especially with the advances in technology that make very-high-speed video cameras more affordable. I can see applications to improve classroom teaching (esp. at the k-4 level), psychotherapy (especially for affective disorders such as depression) and

Malcolm Gladwell said, "I think as well that Bradley and others are quite right in worrying about the impact of an unsophisticated reading of Cesar's approach on the way we treat dogs. If you do what he says, and not what he does, I think you miss what makes him effective."

This has happened again and again in the equestrian world. John Lyons and Monty Roberts come to mind--brilliant horse trainers who have acolytes who do what they say, missing the nuances of what they do.

brent toellner

I think all of these comments tie nicely into Malcolm's book Blink, when he talks about how we can memorize faces nearly perfectly, but have a terrible ability to verbally communicate our vision -- and the very act of TRYING to verbally communicate what someone looks like can distort our memory "vision". I think this is very similar to what karen and liz both mention...and in fact, could be a problem with how Ceasar teaches his methods -- because he, himself, may not be aware of what he DOES that creates "calm submissive" in the dogs.

I've experienced this many times in my own life of taking and giving golf lesssons...many outstanding golfers have a very difficult time communicating what it is they do that makes them successful.

Looking forward to finding the New Yorker article -- it's a very interesting subject.


This is a little off topic, but does anyone have any clue as to what "scientific review" Gladwell cited in the original Troublemakers article from the 2/06/06 New Yorker? Gladwell wrote:

" 'They are often insensitive to behaviors that usually stop aggression,' one scientific review of the breed states. 'For example, dogs not bred for fighting...' "

I can't find the "scientific review" online, but I have found a University of Minnesota study that included portions of the above quote and cited "Troublemakers" as their source. I also found a letter to an editor in which the writer essentially copied Gladwell's passage in order to discredit pit bulls.

The U of Minnesota study:

The letter to the editor:

Martha Garvey

I guess one of the main questions I have...and Ron, I'd love for you to answer it, since you've worked with him directly:

It is: does Cesar leave you with a method that you can replicate with your dog, that makes both you and your dog happy? Because Gladwell left me with the impression that Cesar's methods--controversial or not--are so uniquely Cesar's that you can't easily show someone else how to do them, except in broad strokes. It was intriguing to me that one of the "troubled owner" cases Gladwell cited was an *actor* with a successful career, who couldn't mimic Cesar successfully. And actors are supposed to be able to mimic.

I've only seen Cesar when he's been on Oprah, so I can't somment on the National Geographic's representation of Cesar's technique. I do own a dog who's needed a lot of training, and so I've met a number of trainers, nearly all of whom were quite adamant about how their way "worked," even if it wasn't working on my dog. I always tried to take what I liked and leave the rest. One thing I've learned is that dog trainers can be as cantankerous as dogs...so you have to use a little training on them, too.


Your comparison of Cesar and dog to movement therapists and autistic child makes me ask: Have you also encountered Temple Grandin? For example: "Animals in Translation : Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior"
by Temple Grandin, Catherine Johnson

Grandin's websites:


I routinely enjoy your writing and choice of subject matter. For me, though, this one was a bit of a dud. And, at times, was kind of a pretentious bore. I'm a fan of ballet and most forms of dance, but found the descriptions of the dog walker's 'gorgeous' and symmetrical movements downright silly.

While I'm sure spending more time with Cesar would influence my opinion, his alpha male approach to dogs and, seemingly, women left a sour taste in my mouth.

This article DID make me wish that you might some day explore the relationship between humans and their pets. Obviously there's a lot of pathology being expressed in relationships with animals. Both on the co-dependent, indulgent end of the spectrum and the opposite, abusive and cruel owners.


Unfortunately, this and other articles about Millan fail to acknowledge that most dog trainers spend a significant amount of time educating owners before they even pick up the leash. Millan is in no way unique in that respect.

Frankly, it doesn't matter what Millan does in the other 50 minutes of his work with the dogs. The fact remains that the 10 minutes of outdated and forceful methods he applies is where the damage is done. While not all dogs in Millan's care may end up with damaged tracheas, there is a deeper trauma being inflicted to the dog. The signs of stress in the dogs he works with are neon signs to those who study canine behavior. Yet to the average dog owner and even respected columnists, these signs go unnoticed.

Rather than continue to write articles about how wonderful Millan is, perhaps journalists can start interviewing those who have devoted their lives to studying behavior such as Ian Dunbar, PhD, Patricia McConnell, PhD, Jean Donaldson or Trish King. If one spent an hour with them, they would see that the same, if not better results, can be accomplished without "establishing dominance" over a dog through the use of alpha rolls, neck jabs, or hanging a dog by the leash.


An acquaintance of mine went to see Steve Miles of One Day Dog (onedaydog.com) and seemed happy with the results. (I've never met his dog myself.)

Miles apparently can train your dog (in one day) to understand you are the "alpha" dog and the dog should listen to you.


I have read a lot of your material including your two books and I am a regular visitor to your blog. I think that if you had finished your article with your blog entry above the piece would have been more complete. When I got to the end of your article... I was like, "thats it?!".


I loved reading your article. I, too, wrote about Cesar for an in-flight mag back in January. He's an interesting guy. I wish I had been able to spend time with him in person, but being on the East Coast and having deadline issues, I didn't get to.



Hi Malcolm,

You've opened pandora's box with this subject. So here is my two bits :)

I joined a local dog club on whim a few years back, with my young pup.

I now have a good understanding of dog psychology, to complement my understanding of sports psychology. I competed at a national level for a few years, sportswise. I have starred as a character in a few national TV ads, and know the basics of shooting a commercial.

My mutt has developed into an loving, intelligent companion. He usually obeys commands unless he is in pain (i.e. a thorn in a pad, bee sting), frightened (i.e. clinging to me or under a bush), or exhausted. In these cases his expression conveys his understanding of the command, his refusal to obey and a plea for help. I am the dominant individual in the relationship. I had to, else I'd be following his lead. We can now do almost everything seen on any dog training video, incl. the advanced stuff and agility. We may do it slightly differently, and our repeatability may vary, but so do the weather.

Any relationship should be based on love and respect. That includes respecting the needs of the other. Dogs and kids need leadership and guidance. How many parents are lead by their kids? "Look how cute he is!" while wrecking the furniture or ignoring commands. Leadership requires some measure of disciplne on occasion.

Video media, including dog training videos and doccies, need to be short, attention getting, and fast paced to accomodate the average twit's lack of attention. A ten day trek in the Amazon or Outback is an hour on TV including ad breaks. Blame the media or oneself for taking it at face value.

If one gets a pup, join a dog club where it can socialise off lead. And the pair of you can be trained to the max of your potential.
Once one has a well trained mutt and handler, the handler is ready to enter parenthood.

Most of the problems presented by difficult kids and mutts is due to inadequate leadership provided by the handler/parent. Exceptions exist of course.

Leadership involves seeing and understanding the others perspective and adapting accordingly.

A mutt/kid is not a toy or a TV that responds to the press of a button. They respond to love, respect and direction.

End of two bits, plus inflation.



"I routinely enjoy your writing and choice of subject matter. For me, though, this one was a bit of a dud. And, at times, was kind of a pretentious bore. I'm a fan of ballet and most forms of dance, but found the descriptions of the dog walker's 'gorgeous' and symmetrical movements downright silly."

I have to disagree. Any attempt at understanding physical or human phenonena can seem silly to closed-minded people. You could claim most of the issues and studies in Blink were silly too if you were so inclined.

I thought the article raised interesting issues about body language and "presence". Stuff like this (the field of human and animal non-verbal communication) is still understood, in general, at somewhat of a crude level, and there is lots of potential for study and exploration. It kind of ties in with the face discussion in Blink (awesome book, btw).


"I have to disagree. Any attempt at understanding physical or human phenonena can seem silly to closed-minded people. You could claim most of the issues and studies in Blink were silly too if you were so inclined."

Would you mind elaborating on this?

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  • I'm a writer for the New Yorker magazine, and the author of four books, "The Tipping Point: How Little Things Make a Big Difference", "Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking" and "Outliers: The Story of Success." My latest book, "What the Dog Saw" is a compilation of stories published in The New Yorker. I was born in England, and raised in southwestern Ontario in Canada. Now I live in New York City.

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