Cesar Millan (The Dog Whisperer) Review: What a Certified Trainer Thinks

Dog Training


Kayla Fratt

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If you love dogs and had a TV in the early 2000s, you know who Cesar Millan is. Known as The Dog Whisperer, this celebrity dog trainer was extremely popular on television for nine seasons. His training techniques influenced generations of dog owners and trainers. 

Of course, being on TV doesn’t mean you’re the world’s best dog trainer. The quality of celebrity trainers varies quite significantly. 

Today we’ll dive into Cesar Millan’s history, philosophy, and services. And then, I’ll give you my thoughts on Cesar Millan, his videos, and his training lessons, as a certified dog behavior consultant. 

Cesar Millan: The Basics

Cesar Millan

While Cesar Millan’s peak as America’s dog training front man was nearly a decade ago, you can find his newest show  Better Human, Better Dog on National Geographic. His other shows include The Dog Whisperer (2004-2013, 2016) and Cesar 911 (2014-2016). He has co-authored five books with Melissa Jo Peltier.

Unlike some of the other celebrity trainers who primarily release content via social media channels, Millan is primarily a TV-oriented trainer. You can find him promoting his material on YouTube, his website, and social media, but he is most influential through his TV shows. 

Millan grew up in northern Mexico, where he learned about canines by watching his grandfather work with the farm dogs. He crossed the US-Mexico border at age 21, speaking no English but dreaming of training dogs on TV. 

Thanks to a friendship with Jada Pinkett Smith, he learned English and moved from the world of dog grooming to training. He operated two large training facilities before a feature article in the Los Angeles Times helped him connect with MPH Entertainment for a TV show

Cesar Millan’s Training Philosophy

cesar millan philosophy

Cesar Millan’s training philosophy is centered on the idea that dogs are pack animals who adhere to dominance hierarchies; their behavior is almost always explained through the lens of a power struggle. 

There’s no gentle way to put this, but this is outdated rubbish that has triggered widespread criticism from the professional dog behavior community

Millan’s “training techniques” involve repeatedly exposing the dog to a trigger, and then punishing the dog for responding. While he terms the dog’s response “calm submission,” he is actually creating learned helplessness

Here is an example video in which he repeatedly has a cameraman approach a cornered dog, and then punishes the dog for reacting. This is the first video I found on his YouTube channel, published in summer 2023. In other words, I didn’t dig or cherry-pick to find this example.

Millan does, however, encourage some things that are helpful for dogs. 

dog exercise is important for wellness

For example, he advocates for exercise, which I fully support. I love that he suggests owners take their dogs outside and give them exercise more often. 

However, his “pack walks” are highly regimented marches that disallow any truly dog-like behavior, which is not what I think of when I think of enriching exercise. 

Millan rarely uses treats, advocating for weight control in pet dogs. While I applaud the importance of weight management, it’s entirely possible to get the training results you want through treats while maintaining dogs at a healthy weight! 

Instead, Millan controls dog behavior through choke chains, prong collars, physical pressure, and “touches” that look a lot more like punches. He repeatedly and consistently moves into the space of dogs that are asking him with crystal-clear body language to back off. 

Millan advocates for “calm, assertive leadership” that often comes off as downright sexist, blaming women (and men) for their dog’s behavior problems if they’re not willing to be violent enough towards their beloved pets. 

He often blames affection from the owners for a dog’s behaviors, suggesting that being too kind to a living being is the issue. While I agree that boundaries are necessary for successful cohabitation with any species, this doesn’t mean withholding affection!

Some of Millan’s articles read like a self-help blog that I can broadly agree with. 

For example, he argues that the three principles of a balanced dog are exercise, discipline, and affection – in that order. 

I fully agree that you cannot have a “well” dog if the dog is chronically under-exercised. I also agree that building a relationship based on affection and trust is key to a successful dog-human bond. However, I strongly disagree with his focus on discipline. Coercion through fear, threats, and pain simply is not necessary to train or live with a dog

Perhaps most irresponsibly, Millan also states that he doesn’t learn anything about dogs before meeting them for a training session

This is flat out irresponsible and sets everyone up for a stressful (even dangerous) situation. 

Whenever I work with new clients, I ensure that I read a full history of the dog and family. This allows me to meet the dog in the least stressful way possible, setting everyone up for success using leashes, gates, and muzzles. I also need to know about physical ailments or allergies for the dog and potential triggers. 

Of course, avoiding conflict in this manner wouldn’t make great television. 

What Does Cesar Millan Offer?

Millan’s training show is not meant to be a training school. In fact, it comes with a warning not to try his techniques at home (that’s probably for the best, given how often he’s bitten doing them). 

However, Millan is still best recognized and makes the most impact as a television star rather than a one-on-one dog trainer. I’ve had hundreds of conversations with people who say that they learned their training techniques from The Dog Whisperer TV show.

If you are interested in actually learning from Millan, there are options. Millan’s website shows two multi-day courses to learn to train dogs:

  • Fundamentals 1: Five days ($6,000). There is no curriculum published or information on deliverables, other than that the course is “packed with practical tips and techniques that will help you build balanced relationships with your furry friends.” The FAQ page covers logistics such as number of students (up to 50), whether you can bring your dog (yes, with behavioral limitations), discounts, and vaccination requirements for dogs. The program is not meant to be a rehabilitation program, so most behavior issues are not permitted if you want to bring your own dog.
  • Fundamentals 2: Four days (no price listed). As of September 2023, there are no Fundamentals 2 courses scheduled so there is no information on the curriculum. This course involves working with shelter dogs, so you are not permitted to bring your own dog. While there is a sample schedule, there is no information on what specifically students will learn other than “we invite you to go beyond the foundation and into the core values of pack leadership, focusing on energy and intention. This hands-on program puts you at center stage, working with dogs in real-life scenarios under Cesar Millan’s personal guidance. You will learn to master each situation using your own energy and body language — going beyond your comfort zone and learning how to be calm and assertive.”

Overall, I personally would be hesitant to sign up for such an expensive course without a clear idea of the syllabus and what’s covered. There are much more affordable options through more highly-regarded trainers, such as at the Karen Pryor Ranch, which offers a five-day course for $1250 with a detailed curriculum

What Do Dog Owners Think about Cesar Millan?

Here’s the thing that drives accredited dog behavior consultants crazy: People love Cesar Millan

All I had to do was click on the first video YouTube recommended to me, and I found dozens of comments from adoring fans asking him for further help, thanking him for his videos, and highlighting what they appreciated about his teachings.

I agree with many of the commenters: I love how focused Millan is on exercise and how our own behavior affects our dogs. I don’t always agree with how to improve those interactions or meet those goals, but truly I appreciate that he’s made those centerpieces of the dog-owning conversation. 

However, there are also many, many people who are deeply disturbed by Millan’s actual training techniques

It’s hard to find truly neutral spaces, as most channels are either run by Millan-lovers or Millan-haters. Millan’s own channels are likely tidied up routinely by deleting unfriendly comments. 

It’s not surprising that under the anti-Millan videos, you find many anti-Millan comments. Underneath this video about Millan being accused of animal abuse, comments point out that relatives who follow Millan’s advice were routinely bitten and promote other celebrity trainers like Victoria Stillwell. 

Accusations of Serious Wrongdoing Against Cesar Millan

There are honestly more disturbing videos of Millan harassing, hitting, and cornering dogs than I can count.

He is growled at, snarled at and snapped at consistently because he refuses to put in place safety measures, such as learning about clients beforehand and using physical barriers. 

But Millan’s tactics don’t just put him and his cameramen at risk for dog bites. 

Dogs released from Millan’s training center have attacked their owners shortly after completing their program, leading to lawsuits. One dog was deemed dangerous and was sentenced to euthanasia in 2013, but was taken to Millan’s training center, when: “Cesar Millan and his Dog Psychology Center, agreed to take over custody and control of the pit bull and not to release it until it was ‘fully deemed a safe member of society.’” 

The owner suffered broken bones and serious lacerations. Given the suggested severity of the case prior to Millan’s company’s involvement, this dog likely should have been muzzled and tightly controlled if euthanasia orders were to be evaded. 

Clearly, this did not happen. Again, this shows a disregard for public safety.  

The same article stated that “In 2006, a television producer sued Millan and claimed his dog was injured after being suffocated by a choke collar and forced to run on a treadmill at the training facility.” 

Videos published on Millan’s shows further show his disregard for safety and well-being

Cesar Millan controversy

In this video, he allowed a dog that had killed pigs before to roam unmuzzled among pigs; unsurprisingly the dog attacked a pig on camera. He claims that a long line is the same as a muzzle, which is a very alarming and false claim

He then tells the owner to take the leash off. The dog immediately rips part of a pig’s ear off. Despite a clear lack of muzzles, leashes, barriers, or any other safety protocols, Nat Geo Wild claimed this was a “safe and controlled environment.” 

Millan has been repeatedly accused of harboring dangerous dogs.

Yes, it’s laudable that his goal is to rehabilitate and live with dogs that no one else will. However, taking on aggressive dogs comes with a huge responsibility to the public that it seems Millan flouts

His dog Junior is accused of mauling a young gymnast whose mother was employed under Millan, sparking a lawsuit. According to the lawsuit, the dog was unattended, loose, and unmuzzled despite “a history of violence.” That is a flagrant disregard for safety and management that is deeply concerning, and that negligence led directly to a serious dog bite. 

Millan has also been accused of covering up the fact that one of his dogs had killed Queen Latifah’s dog, instructing his staff to tell her that the dog had been hit by a car. Again, the risk of taking on dogs with a history of aggression must be balanced with appropriate safety measures, which Millan repeatedly and consistently neglects. 

My Thoughts on Cesar Millan’s Training

dog training philosophies

We’ve already explored several of Millan’s training videos, so now let’s explore the written content on his website.

How to Break Up a Dog Fight

Published September 24

I selected this article hoping for clear, safety-oriented advice. Expert dog trainers across the spectrum agree on how to do this safely, so I thought Millan may echo those best practices. 

He did not. 

In this listener letter response, Cesar suggests “not to get rid of your instincts,” which is extremely dangerous advice since most people’s first actions during dog fights involve sticking their hands into mouths full of knives. Millan then explains how to prevent dog fights by reading body language, which I broadly agree with. 

However, the question is how to stop a fight that’s already started. 

Then, Millan explains that you need “the right touch” to the aggressor’s ribcage. He claims that this forces the dog to open its mouth. Sticking your hands into a whirling dogfight is dangerous, and if a dog is truly clamped down, jabbing him in the ribs won’t help

He suggests that “You can use a loud, strong voice or grunt directly at him and pull up from the back of his neck and collar – not from the top, but from the back and pull up.” If a dog is latched on, this is an excellent way to tear the flesh of the other dog. You are also at high risk of being bitten.

We have an entire article on safe, proven methods for breaking up dog fights. It’s honestly astonishing that Millan, who claims to be an expert in aggressive dogs, does not mention a break stick, hoses, boards, or towels as safe, effective, and proven ways to break up dog fights. 

5 Keys To Handling A Dominant Dog

Published July 2023

I selected this article because it was one of the most recent on the website, and I wanted to see what Millan’s team is suggesting in 2023. Perhaps his methods have improved lately? I was also eager to see if he would give five specific and clear tips.

The article (which actually includes 10 tips, rather than five) starts by explaining how to determine if a dog is dominant. 

Unfortunately,  it’s entirely wrong

Up top, nearly every possible dog behavior is listed as a sign of dominance, such as: begging, screaming when being forced to do something he doesn’t want to do, walking proudly with a high head, getting annoyed when sleeping, walking in front of you, and jumping on people. All of these are extremely normal dog behaviors that have absolutely nothing to do with hierarchy or rank.

Some of these behaviors even correlate with juvenile or subordinate behavior in wolf packs, such as begging, excited greetings after being apart, and trying to “kiss.” 

It’s entirely backward.

Let’s pause and clear the air once: Dominance in dogs is basically a bunk concept

Yes, groups of dogs may display an order establishing who accesses which resources first. This does exist and is what ethologists consider to be dominance. 

But in pop culture, especially as popularized by Millan, dominance is a catch-all term for any behavior in dogs that we humans dislike. It’s so diluted and overused that it’s useless. 

Originally, the idea of dominance in dogs was published by Dr. David Mech, a wolf researcher. In a group of captive, unrelated wolves, the wolves exhibited a lot of conflict. This was probably due to captivity and being separated from their family groups. 

He then extrapolated these observations to domestic dogs, who are behaviorally very different from their wolf cousins

Trainers like Millan then extrapolated to involve cross-species relationships between humans and dogs. Mech has now expressed regret over the study and has published several articles pushing back on how it’s been interpreted

In the wild, dominance hierarchies are used to minimize conflict within a group; aggression and anxiety are not signs of dominance. In fact, wild wolves live in family units with minimal conflict between the adult parents and growing pups. Some adult offspring eventually “bud off” to start their own pack. 

This is quite different from the image of a violent struggle for rank within an organization – in fact, it’s us humans who do that far more than wolves or dogs

Learn more about the alpha dog myth and why it’s terribly flawed.

With that information out of the way, let’s see what Millan has to say. 

Now that every single dog on earth is defined as a dominant dog, Millan is ready to give us advice.  

  1. Be more calm-assertive. He claims dogs won’t follow unstable energy. I actually agree that being a calm presence is helpful for many dogs, but this is very unclear advice. I still don’t really know how to be calm and assertive. 
  2. Set rules, boundaries, and limitations. Again, on its face, I agree with this sentiment. My dogs station on the couch during meal prep rather than scavenging underfoot. They’re not allowed in my lap during work meetings. They do not do whatever they want, whenever they want! However, Millan states, “At a minimum, there should be rules for where they can go in the house without your permission.” I don’t quite see what that has to do with dominance or with practical control of your household, or how to teach a dog to ask permission to enter the living room. The point closes out with a random suggestion to try agility training. I’m not sure what that’s got to do with rules, but sure, it’s a nice idea!
  3. Don’t force affection. I like this one, generally! If your dog isn’t seeking affection or actively enjoying it, don’t push it. You’ll never strengthen your bond with a dog by trying to force affection. However, Millan’s reasoning is that “If your canine is dominant, the best approach is to ignore her. She will come to you when she wants attention, reinforcing your role as the Pack Leader.” This is very confusing, given that above seeking affection was listed as a sign of a dominant dog and something to not tolerate. So your dog is dominant if they seek affection, but also “Pack Leaders” don’t seek affection? And you can’t ask for affection because it makes you weak, but your dog shouldn’t be allowed to seek affection because that makes them dominant? It makes my head spin. 
  4. Use meal time to your advantage. Millan states that dogs are not to approach humans while we eat and that they must wait for our go-ahead to eat their own food. This can be a useful impulse control exercise, but at its extreme can add unnecessary stress to mealtime for many households.
  5. Give your dog a job. I love this idea! I work with my dogs in a professional capacity and it truly strengthens our bond while filling their lives. Honestly, I have no objection with this tip.
  6. Stay consistent. This is another great tip! Being consistent with rules and boundaries greatly reduces confusion and can improve the relationship with your dog. Consistency has nothing to do with dominance, but it’s a solid piece of advice. 
  7. Use positive reinforcement. Wait, really? After all the videos where Millan yanks dogs around, intimidates them, and never once offers a treat, he’s going to suggest positive reinforcement? Baffling…. Until you realize that 50% of Millan’s advice about positive reinforcement is explaining that it doesn’t need to be food. I like this point, but his explanation and advice is borderline useless. 
  8. Utilize professional help. This is excellent advice! I worry that anyone who uses outdated dominance-based methodologies and trains anything like Millan is downright dangerous and unhelpful for you and your dog. However, Millan’s advice on when to seek a trainer is solid, and he adds “Look for trainers who use positive reinforcement techniques and understand dog psychology well. It is also essential to ask for recommendations from other dog owners and thoroughly research the trainer’s credentials and reputation.” I agree – but this does not describe his own training methodologies, credentials, or reputation!
  9. Provide mental and physical stimulation. This is another great point, but here he states that dominant dogs often have high energy levels. Dominance and hierarchy have nothing to do with energy levels. However, the basic advice here is exactly what I offer to all of my clients and what I provide for my own dogs. Enrich your dogs’ lives, and they’ll be happier and more fulfilled. That makes for a better life together!
  10. Establish yourself as the pack leader. This point essentially summarizes the above information and offers little new other than the advice to “follow your gut,” which isn’t always great advice when we lead with our emotions! 

I could spend the rest of my lifetime picking apart articles and videos from Millan, but I hope this gives you a clear idea of what he stands for and why many trainers cringe when hearing his name. 

I do agree with him on many points, though we differ on how and why to implement them.

Other Popular Online Dog Trainer Reviews

Cesar Millan may be one of the most famous online dog trainers out there, but he’s certainly not the only one! Check out some of the other dog trainers we’ve reviewed:

Fair warning: That last one is a doozy!

Cesar Millan: FAQs

Still have questions about Millan’s training approaches? We’ve got you covered! Check out some of the most frequently asked questions and answers below. 

What Kind of Training Does Cesar Millan Use?

Millan is considered a dominance-based trainer, who views dog behavior as a violent struggle for rank. He uses physical pressure, leash pops, and noise to interrupt dog behavior rather than introducing clear training on what the dogs should do in given situations. Millan advocates for exercise and rules for dog-owners. 

Is Cesar Millan self taught?

Yes, Cesar Millan is self-taught. He is not accredited with any major dog training organizations and famously failed the required exam to work as a dog trainer in Germany after filing for an exception. That exception was denied. 

How Much Do Cesar Millan’s Training Programs Cost?

Learning to be a dog trainer under Cesar Millan will cost nearly $6,000 for the first five-day course. The rates for training your dog at his Dog Psychology Centers are not published online.

Are There Coupons Available for Cesar Millan’s Courses?

We cannot find any discounts for Cesar Millan’s courses. 

Does Cesar Millan Offer a Guarantee? 

At this time, Cesar Millan does not publish a guarantee for his courses or training. 

Along with many other professional dog trainers, I find Cesar Millan to be one of the worst modern influences on training and behavior. While I agree on his suggestions for exercise, enrichment, and boundaries, Millan’s actual training tactics are outdated, ineffective, and downright dangerous.

Millan demonstrates a consistent disregard for the emotional or physical wellbeing of dogs in his care by pushing into their space, forcing them into scary or upsetting situations, and advocating for owners to not emotionally connect with their beloved pets. He works with aggressive dogs without leashes, muzzles, or gates and has been sued multiple times for the bloody consequences. 

It’s no wonder that most trainers, even those who consider themselves balanced, wince at the mention of Cesar Millan.

Did you watch the Dog Whisperer? Did you try his techniques? We’d love to hear your thoughts below!

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Written by

Kayla Fratt

Kayla Fratt is a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant through IAABC and works as a conservation detection dog trainer.

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