The idea that dogs are pack animals who require a pack leader was introduced in the 1940s. It became known as dominance theory, and eventually alpha theory. But it wasn’t until many decades later that the idea of the pack leader became a staple of the American dog owner’s vocabulary and conceptual scheme, thanks to the “Dog Whisperer,” Cesar Millan.
Millan’s enormously popular TV show ran from 2004–12 and brought dog training before American audiences like no other show has, before or since. It became National Geographic channel’s No. 1 program during its first season and was broadcast in more than 80 countries worldwide. Millán went on to have multiple shows, a magazine, a live lecture series, three NYT bestselling books, and line of products, including dog food sold in major grocery stores.
In late July, Nat Geo premiered his new series, Better Human Better Dog. The introductory sequence gives the pandemic as the reason why the dog whisperer had to be called back to action like a retired superhero: The shelters are empty, which means more people than ever need help with their dogs. It is time for viewers to show their Chihuahuas who is boss.
Millan’s methods are rooted in dominance theory. The trouble is, dominance theory has been debunked for a long, long time. Millan himself has been called a “poseur” and a “one-man wrecking ball” destroying years of progress in the field of dog training. His methods have been called cruel, and were rejected by the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior. The criticism is centered on his insistent promoting of dominance theory, which experts say can lead to a dog becoming fearful and insecure—and fear doesn’t equal obedience. But Millan’s fans remain loyal, with some going so far as to call him a messianic genius. What exactly is the appeal of alpha theory and of his shows? Is it as simple as the appeal of Millan, the celebrity, himself, or is something more at stake?
Alpha theory was introduced by Swiss zoologist Rudolf Schenkel in 1947. Based on his study of captive, unrelated wolves, Schenkel concluded that packs consists of individuals who fight for dominance. Such fights result in the strongest individual, the alpha, leading the pack. His findings were true of the specific wolves he studied—but they were erroneously extrapolated onto wild wolves, and then onto dogs, and finally onto dog-human interaction.
Wolf researchers, most notably Dave Mech in 2000, showed that the alpha paradigm does not apply to wolves in the wild. These wolves live in families and are led by breeding pairs, not individuals. The breeding pair mate for life and are the oldest individuals in the group, the ones who never leave. There is no one pack leader; even the breeding pair is not “dominant” in any of the usual meanings. They are simply the parents: In addition to being the only ones who reproduce, they teach manners to the rest of the pack. And none of this has anything to do with domestic dogs: Animal behaviorists agree that when dominance-submission relationships do occur in nature, they are a means to allocate resources, a problem that does not reflect what happens between dogs and humans at home.
And yet, Millan—who, yes, came on the scene after the theory he uses was debunked—obsessively repeats the idea that owners must set boundaries in order for dogs to be happy and healthy, and that one of those boundaries is teaching the dog who is boss. His approach equates setting boundaries with correction and “consequences”—another word for punishment. The most common nonverbal corrections are leash jerking and the use of choke and prong collars, but Millan also advocates for the use of “alpha rolls,” in which the dog is pushed onto its side and held down until it stops struggling and surrenders. Millan presents alpha rolls as a tool for only the most aggressive dogs, though experts say that this can actually worsen aggression and lead to a bite. Unlike Millan, most trainers today who advocate for the use of some corrections reject dominance theory and do not rely on a “pack leader” framework. And in “pure positive” training, which rejects the use of corrections altogether, boundaries are taught in noncorrective “boundary games,” in which the dog is showered with treats and praise for remaining in a certain area. For pure positive trainers, boundaries have no obvious or necessary connection to corrections. From their perspective, dominance might appear to work, but that’s only because the dog is suffering from learned helplessness, not because it is confident and calm.
Part of the reason Millan’s methods endure might be because of the allure of Millan and his promises. Audiences were transfixed by his “whispering,” by how could relax a dog almost immediately and without words, or by how he could evoke the desired behavioral changes without extensive repetitions. In every episode, Millan refers to his favorite abstraction, “energy,” and appears to fix dogs with one meeting, something that dog behaviorists will tell you is impossible. Millan also promised that the most difficult dog behavioral cases could be rehabilitated (as opposed to the available alternative, euthanasia). To many viewers, Millan introduced a new perspective, revolutionary for its time: What you think is a scary dog is actually just a scared dog. And there is no way around the fact that Millan is a celebrity, who peoples his show with celebrities.
But there’s something even more basic at play in Millan’s continued popularity. The appeal of alpha theory lies also in its clarity and neatness as an idea, its easy communicability and apparently easy transferability from canine-only to canine-human ensembles. The fantasy of the pack begins with the underlying assumption that we know what a successful social structure—a family unit—is supposed to look like at all. It offers an easy solution in times of turbulence and distress: You’re in charge. To that, Millan adds a sheen of wholesome values. The pack code is a term Millan invented, defined as consisting of “loyalty, honesty, and integrity,” which are qualities humans look for in their human-to-human relationships, qualities in particularly short supply in conditions of scarcity, social instability, and general precarity. In quarantine, in the year ahead of the release of Millan’s new show, people and their dogs were all cooped up together, managing extremely stressful living dynamics. The world was very, very confusing. The hierarchical model offered by alpha theory is simple, understandable, and offers an immediate explanation of why conflicts occur (fighting for dominance) and how to resolve them (gaining dominance). It’s nothing less than a simple, communicable formula for how to live with others—including other humans—in relative peace.
Millan’s own pack once boasted 65 dogs, though more recently the number has dropped to about 30. When less wealthy people keep unusually large packs of dogs, it’s considered dog hoarding, a form of mental illness where people use dogs as substitutes for their failed human relationships. But in Millan’s world, owning a ton of dogs successfully is just about having a clearly organized hierarchy and the right attitude. The new show’s intro and ending sequences are rife with exhilarating, sometimes slow-motion imagery of Millan running on a beach with multiple dogs running behind him, or walking what looks like 10 dogs of different sizes and breeds calmly on lead. As soon as guests arrive at Millan’s Dog Psychology Center with their badly behaved dogs, they—and we, the viewers—enter a many-dog, multispecies, communal utopia in set in gorgeous Southern California. But while it looks like it’s all held together by one confident pack leader, it’s actually sustained by Millan’s celebrity and money. It’s a fantasy land. No wonder we want to go there to escape.