Cesar administering an “alpha role” on Simon
As many of you know, Cesar Millan is currently being investigated. According to the Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputies and Animal Control Officers paid a visit to Cesar’s Santa Clarita animal training facility in the evening of March 10, 2016 to investigate a report of animal cruelty. The visit was in response to animal cruelty complaints related to an episode of Cesar 911. The full episode (Cesar 911 Season 3, Episode 2) was posted by Cesar 911, and is available online on YouTube. The dog in question, Simon a French Bulldog, Boston Terrier mix, was brought to Cesar because of aggression issues.
Based on the YouTube video, it appears that Cesar is likely guilty of animal abuse based on his grossly negligent conduct in permitting Simon to attack multiple animals during training. This included an attack that severely injured a pig. Whether or not the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office will prosecute may be a political matter, but Simon’s aggressive nature and Cesar’s willingness to put pigs and other dogs in danger in order to make good television is obvious. Cesar’s training techniques which do not follow those generally accepted in the dog behavior community likely only amplified the attacks.
Cesar 911 Season 3, Episode 2
At the beginning of the episode we discover that Simon has a history of attacking other dogs and animals. The owner, Sandy, tells us that Simon started showing aggression towards other dogs at 9 weeks old. This in itself is remarkably early for a puppy to begin showing aggression. Cesar admits early on that the aggression is likely based on Simon’s insecurity and/or anxiety. In other words, Simon reacts to fearful situations by attacking.
Simon’s History of Killing Other Animals
Sandy goes on to tell the audience that Simon has had a violent history with other animals. Sandy previously owned two young pigs. At some point, Simon was accidently left alone with the pigs. According to Sandy, the result “was a blood bath.” Simon killed one of the pigs and injured the other animal so severely that it had to be put down. Simon had ripped their ears off. Sandy admits that she had studied Cesar’s techniques and tried to implement them in the past with little success.
Cesar first observes Simon at a park, passing another dog on leash. However, Simon had only a modestly aggressive response to the dog. Cesar wants to see a more intense response by Simon. As a result, they next go to Sandy’s home to see Simon interact with a rescue dog named Stella staying with Sandy. Simon and Stella have a significant history of aggression issues.
Intentionally Setting Up a Simon for Repeated Failures
Stella is located in a dog run in the backyard of Sandy’s home. After arriving at the home, Cesar watches Sandy as she enters the back yard with Simon on leash. Cesar monitors the situation using a remote camera through his tablet. We see Simon enter the back yard with the owner on leash. At this point, Simon is not reactive.
Then Sandy takes Simon off leash. Immediately after being let go, Simon runs at Stella and begins to severely fence fight through the chain link fence. I assume this is at the request of Cesar, because the camera men were waiting to film the fence fight. Cesar remained in the front yard watching the events on his tablet unable to help.
Two camera men are in the background waiting to film the fight along with the camera at the fence
The owner then attempts to break up the fence fight by attempting to grab Simon almost getting bit in the process. She is unable to catch the fleet footed dog and the fence fight continues. Shortly thereafter Simon appears to be biting the lip of the other dog through the fence. The camera crew and Cesar do nothing to help the owner.
After the owner finally gained control of Simon, Cesar comes to the back yard and states that he sees that despite Simon’s good behavior on leash, he is a “Red Zone” dog who could fight to kill. Cesar then explains that in order to stop the problem, Simon would need to receive a “strong correction” to stop the attacking behavior. We are not shown the “correction” administered by Cesar, but a clip is then shown of him using his patented “Tsch” to keep Simon from fence fighting while off leash. The correction used by Cesar must have been strongly aversive based on Simon’s body language (much more than just saying “Tsch”). Post correction Simon purposely avoids Cesar. Simon also shows other well documents signs of stress including avoiding eye contact, lip licking, panting and pinning his ears back when backing away from Stella’s fence.
Cesar next leaves Simon off leash and takes Stella out of the dog run while on leash in order to calm her. Stella pulls on the leash toward Simon and Cesar heel kicks Stella while saying “Tsch” to stop her pulling. Simon immediately attacks Stella after the correction. He was already close to being over threshold (emotionally on edge and close to the breaking point). It appears that either the kick and Stella’s reaction, or Cesar’s “Tsch” sent Simon back on the attack. Cesar then gives additional corrections (this time physical jabs along with saying “Tsch”) to make Simon back down.
Cesar then takes Simon on a walk with Stella. He gives more corrections when Simon reacts to other dogs in the neighborhood. Cesar is shown giving multiple pokes and leash yanks to stop Simon’s barking and lunging. When Simon stops showing signs of aggression, Cesar stops the corrections and gives an occasional pat on the head.
When Cesar sees a neighbor’s dog off leash, he uses the opportunity to approach the dog several times with Simon to correct Simon’s aggressive reaction to the other dog. More pokes and leash pops are given which appears to calm Simon down as he stops barking and lunging. But when the neighbor’s dog attempts to sniff Simon, this again puts Simon over threshold and leads to another attack. Cesar concludes that Simon needs to come to his facility to be around pigs and other animals to get better correct his problems.
The next day Sandy brings Simon to Cesar’s facility. Sandy lives in the San Diego area therefore the drive to Cesar’s Facility must last three and a half hours or more with traffic. Immediately after the long drive, Cesar takes Simon into a pen containing multiple pigs. At first Cesar puts Simon on a long line which Cesar claims is equivalent to a muzzle. Cesar then begins his training by correcting Simon any time he begins to show signs that he is becoming anxious in the presence of the pigs. Eventually, Cesar is able to take Simon on leash close to the pigs without Simon showing signs of aggression. The pigs at this point are relaxed. Cesar then suggest taking Simon off leash with the pigs. Initially, Simon continues to ignore the pigs. However, apparently in an attempt to cause Simon to react, one of Cesar’s assistant grabs a pig by the back leg causing it to squeal. The squeal is heard before Simon reacts. Simon immediately goes into attack mode and rushes after the pig. He attacks the pig which is clearly being held by one of Cesar’s staff members.
Cesar is able to stop Simon initially. He gives Simon additional corrections and puts him into a stay. All this time, the assistant continues to hold the pigs back leg causing it to squeal and struggle right next to Simon. Despite Cesar’s corrections, Simon immediately attacks the pig again. Simon’s inability to control himself is unsurprising as he attacked on almost every prior occasion where Cesar has pressed the situation.
This time Simon bit the ear of the pig. It appears he may have taken a chunk out of the pig’s ear and additional scrapes can be seen on the neck of the pig.
Simon escapes one additional time during this training session before Cesar roles Simon on his back to make him submit (an “alpha role”). At this point, Simon is panting excessively avoiding Cesar and showing severe signs of stress. At one point he bites Cesar. It is well known in the veterinary community that laying a short nose dog (Bulldog/Boston Terrier etc.) on their side when exhausted creates a risk of asphyxiation because of their anatomy.
By the conclusion of the episode, Simon is shown being around other animals and dogs without attacking them. However, his body language still looks stressed. In media reports, Cesar claims he saved Simon’s life by preventing him from being euthanized for aggression. Cesar also claims that Simon hadn’t shown any signs of aggression toward the pig prior to being taken off his leash so Cesar thought it would be safe. Cesar admits that this is not the first time he’s brought an aggressive dog face-to-face with an animal, although he does not state whether other animal injuries from dog attacks have occurred. Cesar has also since claimed that the original bite was just a nip by Simon and that the pig received immediate medical attention.
The camera view of the initial bite indicates otherwise. Injuries to the pig’s neck are apparent and a piece appears missing from the pig’s ear. More importantly, it appears that the pig may not have received immediate medical attention. In the stock footage of the pigs before the attack occurs, the neck wounds to the pig can be seen. The pig is sleeping in the background but the bright red injuries to the pig’s neck are apparent and it appears that a significant amount of time had passed with no medical treatment.
Background and Criticism of Cesar’s Correction Based Training
At this point, I need to go into some background regarding the problems that essentially all Veterinary Behaviorist and the those that study canine behavior have with Cesar’s training methods. These methods involve “correction” based training. Sometimes this is also referred to as traditional training.
Correction based dog training primarily relies on principle positive punishment as opposed to positive re-enforcement. These terms are often confused, but in essence positive punishment means that the trainer adds a correction (often pain) to stop a behavior or to try to change a behavior. Positive reinforcement trainers on the other hand add a reward (most often food) to increase a behavior or to encourage an alternative behavior.
The corrections from Cesar initially come in the form of a choke or prong collar pop, poke in the side or neck, kick with his heel or occasionally a shock collar. All of these, corrections have been shown at some point on his past Dog Whisperer programs. Cesar adds his “Tsch” consistently during these initial corrections. Sometimes the dogs can be seen attempting to bite Cesar after his corrections as Simon is seen doing below.
Soon the dog equates the “Tsch” with punishment. This is sort of a reverse of Pavlov’s dog. With Pavlov he learned that if you ring a bell every time you feed a dog enough times, the dog will associate the bell meaning it is being feed. As a result, the dog will drool and exhibit signs of eating when a bell is rung even with no food present.
With Cesar, the dogs experience pain/discomfort every time they hear the “Tsch” initially. Eventually Cesar learned that after enough physical corrections, he could just say “Tsch” and the dogs would experience much the same emotional response as being poked/kicked/shocked. Often the dogs exhibit signs of stress when they hear the “Tsch” such as Simon’s cowering, pinning back of the ears and lack of eye contact as seen below.
When training, Cesar uses his physical and verbal corrections to get the dog to do what he wants. If Cesar does not want a dog to growl at another dog he introduces a correction (a “Tsch” and poke) to stop the growling. If Cesar asks a dog to sit and the dog remains standing, he will add a correction to punish the dog for standing and not sitting. In each of these cases Cesar is giving a correction for an unwanted behavior (growling or standing) and therefore is giving positive punishment.
Much of Cesar’s training method is based on the theory that the corrections are necessary to prevent the dogs from being “dominant” over the owner. Cesar often states that the owner must be the “alpha” or “pack leader.” Many correction based trainers believe that if dogs are not consistently corrected they will not respect their owner’s authority and some believe that punishment is the only way to effectively stop behaviors such as aggression.
Science, however, has proven that these theories are simply untrue. Over the last 20 years a significant amount of research has been conducted showing that using correction based training causes many long lasting problems in a dog’s behavior including anxiety, fear and aggression. On the other hand, positive reinforcement techniques have shown to be as effective or more effective in changing behavior. Additionally, scientific research has shown that Cesar’s theories regarding dominance and alpha positions are unsupportable.
As a result, the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior has published position statements on dominance theory and correction based training that are diametrically opposed to Cesar’s training techniques. It is important to understand that these position papers don’t claim that Cesar’s techniques are completely in effective in changing the behavior of dogs. However, the position statements warn of many negative side effects of pain based training such as stress, anxiety and fear.
In particular, the position paper on using correction based training specifically identifies the dangers of using punishments in dealing with aggression problems. It states: “Punishment can suppress aggressive and fearful behavior when used effectively, but it may not change the underlying cause of the behavior. For instance, if the animal behaves aggressively due to fear, then the use of force to stop the fearful reactions will make the animal more fearful while at the same time suppressing or masking the outward signs of fear; (e.g., a threat display/growling). As a result, if the animal faces a situation where it is extremely fearful, it may suddenly act with heightened aggression and with fewer warning signs. In other words, it may now attack more aggressively or with no warning, making it much more dangerous.”
It appears that Cesar’s training with Simon had this exact result. Cesar and Sandy consistently punished Simon when he expressed fearful and/or aggressive behavior toward other dogs and animals. This had the effect of suppressing Simon’s visual signs of fear and aggression (barking, growling and lunging). However, Simon’s underlying fear and anxiety remained as was apparent by his attempts to avoid the situations, cowering and signs of stress. When Cesar’s assistant elevated the situation by grabbing a pig, Simon’s underlying aggression broke through and the attack occurred causing the pig to be injured.
Additionally, the injury occurred as a result of Simon being off leash with a pig on the second day of training. Credible trainers and/or veterinary behaviorists would never let a dog that had attacked another animal three times the previous day and previously killed two pigs off leash. The chances of an attack would be far too high. Intensifying the situation by causing the pigs to squeal within a few feet of a dog known to easily escalate into attack would be unthinkable. Even more remarkable, Cesar’s assistant continued to hold the pig’s leg so it could not escape during the first two attacks, which has been largely ignored by most media outlets.
Sadly, Cesar could have taken many easy steps to keep the pigs safe. He could have used a muzzle on Simon, had the pigs on the other side of a chain link fence or kept Simon on a long line the whole time. Any of these techniques would have prevented the injuries, but I suppose would not have made for good television.
Negligent Animal Abuse Under California Law
I think it is safe to assume that Cesar did not really intend to injure the pig in question. However, his gross disregard for the safety of the pigs and Simon is obvious. The question becomes whether Cesar can be held responsible for negligently causing an injury to the pig.
In the California State Penal Code (criminal law) the section concerning the inhumane treatment of animals is 597. Subdivision (b) reads: “(b) …. whoever, having the charge or custody of any animal, either as owner or otherwise, subjects any animal to needless suffering, or inflicts unnecessary cruelty upon the animal, or in any manner abuses any animal, or fails to provide the animal with proper food, drink, or shelter or protection from the weather, or who drives, rides, or otherwise uses the animal when unfit for labor, is, for every such offense, guilty of a crime punishable as a misdemeanor or as a felony or alternatively punishable as a misdemeanor or a felony and by a fine of not more than twenty thousand dollars ($20,000).”
Under this code section Cesar could be found guilty if he acted with criminal negligence if that negligence caused needless suffering or unnecessary cruelty to the pigs or other animals. (People v. Brian (1980) 110 Cal App.3d Supp. 1) Criminal negligence requires a finding that Cesar’s conduct was a reckless departure from the conduct of an “ordinarily person under the same circumstances.” Id. The ordinary person standard can be a bit confusing, because it does not consider how an ordinary person off the street would act under the circumstances. Rather it assumes the ordinary conduct of a person with a similar background and experience as the defendant.
Therefore a jury would consider whether Cesar’s conduct was reckless when compared with other dog trainers with roughly the same amount of experience. Any dog trainer with the years of experience of Cesar should have some understanding of the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior’s position statements and research on punishment and dominance training. Additionally, trainers with Cesar’s experience should know that a dog that has killed pigs and attacked other dogs on three occasions the previous day should not be left off leash with someone immobilizing a pig. Unless the District Attorney’s office bends to political pressure or believes that the injuries to the pig were not significant, Cesar will likely be convicted or plead guilty to at least misdemeanor animal abuse.
So far Cesar’s defenses have been that Simon was not showing signs of aggression before he attacked, the pig was not permanently injured and that Cesar’s training successfully kept Simon from being euthanized for aggressive behaviors. As indicted above, the fact Simon was not showing signs of aggression is not surprising as Cesar had corrected him so harshly for showing signs of aggression.
With regard to the claim the bite was only a nip, the photos indicate a much more serious attack and indicate the pig may not have been medically treated. Finally, Cesar’s claim that his training saved Simon is simply not a legal defense at all. Even if Cesar did fully fix Simon’s behavior problems (and that is a big if), this does not excuse harming other animals in the process.
Moreover, the scientific literature indicates that the training techniques used by Cesar likely only exacerbated the attacks. Using harsh correction based training tactics and essentially using a pig as bait for Simon was recklessly dangerous plain and simple. This is especially true as there are numerous positive reinforcement techniques that could have been used that would be as effective if not more. These techniques include but are not limited to: Keeping the pigs in an enclosure then gradually desensitizing and counter conditioning Simon to the pigs by rewarding him when he chose to ignore the pigs. In other words, giving treats to Simon to not attack the pigs as opposed to encouraging Simon to attack the pigs so Cesar could correct him.
Legally speaking, the door for trainers to use harsh punishment based training techniques is closing. Just as parents are no longer permitted to hit their children with belts because numerous studies have shown that such harsh punishments do more harm than good; shocking, hitting and kicking dogs into submission will soon open dog trainers up to possible criminal prosecution. Personal civil liability is also on the horizon for these trainers. If this case involved a civil matter, such as a client of Cesar’s being bit as a result of administering a correction, he would be in even more hot water. For civil liability reckless conduct is not required, the plaintiff would only need to show that Cesar’s advice fell below the standards for an ordinary trainer with equivalent experience.
As this case and others like it progress, trainers who rely on punishment based training techniques should pay close attention or they may receive a painful correction themselves.
***The original video was taken down but another version is available here.
Written by Shannon Coyner and her husband California Attorney Jeff G. Coyner