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The debate over the Dog Whisperer

His TV show is a hit and celebrities swear by him. But his tough-love training has detractors barking that positive reinforcement is less cruel and fetches better results.

Kenzie, an Aussie mix, gets a treat as reinforcement during agility class at City Dog Training in Somerville. Kenzie, an Aussie mix, gets a treat as reinforcement during agility class at City Dog Training in Somerville. (Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff)
By Joan Anderman
Globe Staff / December 12, 2009

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On a bench near the door at City Dog Training in Somerville there is a cooler filled with a substance that’s fondly referred to as doggie crack. Kenzie, an 18-month-old Australian Shepherd, knows it, and at a recent agility class he veers off of the A-frame ramp he’s learning to scale and starts sniffing around the plastic tub. Inside are baggies of roast beef, chicken, and what is reportedly the most tantalizing slab of edible incentive on the planet - Red Barn Premium Dog Food Roll.

“Dogs will type for it,’’ says City Dog founder Marjie Alonso, who is also director of the New England Dog Training Club, the oldest obedience club in the country. For Alonso and her like-minded peers in the positive reinforcement animal training movement, treats are their stock-in-trade. The approach is simple: Reward good behavior, ignore the rest.

But it wasn’t - and still isn’t - always thus in the dog training world. Alonso likens the feud to partisan politics. On one side are proponents of the “good girl!’’ approach. And across the aisle is Cesar Millan, whose hit television series “The Dog Whisperer’’ on the National Geographic Channel has spawned a cottage industry and turned the telegenic canine handler into a star. Millan’s methods involve correcting - i.e., punishing - unwanted behavior, and his dominance-based training philosophy centers on a dog owner assuming the role of pack leader. His PackPower Tour - part motivational seminar, part live demonstration - stops at Agganis Arena tomorrow, where a crowd of 4,000 is expected to turn up.

“My school was animals, not books,’’ says Millan, who was born and raised in Mexico and lives in Southern California. He is on the phone from a car en route to the airport in Los Angeles. “I grew up on a farm, working around animals, and learned from my grandfather. There was a lot of common sense available. When I came to America 17 years ago, America had mastered being dog lovers, and there’s nothing wrong with affection. But you can’t give affection to an abusive man or you nurture his behavior.’’

Millan embraces new age terminology like “balance’’ and “energy.’’ But some view him as a throwback to a hard-line school of animal training, which stretches back hundreds of years and became institutionalized as dogs were widely used as work animals and deployed alongside soldiers in wartime. Punitive methods were popularized by trainer and book author William Koehler, who trained dogs for World War II and then went to work for Walt Disney Studios, preparing his charges for roles in television and films. British trainer and television personality Barbara Woodhouse picked up the ball in the 1970s and ’80s, indoctrinating a new generation of owners and trainers - including Millan, who has a Woodhouse tribute page on his website, Cesarsway.com - with a brisk “Walkies!’’ and a heavy grip on the choke chain.

“If you’re good at it, it works some of the time, in some circumstances, but I don’t think it’s a good form,’’ says Karen Pryor, a behavioral biologist who lives in Watertown and is a pioneer of modern, force-free animal training methods developed through her work with dolphins in the 1960s. Her 1984 book, “Don’t Shoot the Dog!,’’ is considered a positive-reinforcement training bible. “If you think back to the ’40s, people were very strict with mothers and babies. Now pediatricians and schools and parents have swung to a reinforcement-based model. In the dog world, I think that operant techniques are gradually sweeping the system.’’

Pryor used psychologist B.F. Skinner’s theory of operant conditioning to develop the clicker training method, in which a small plastic noisemaker is used as a marker to let an animal know when it has performed a behavior that will earn it a reward; simply put, an animal tends to repeat an action that has positive consequences. Now widely used around the world by animal trainers in zoos, performing-animal handlers, and domestic pet trainers, the clicker method and other positive, noncoercive forms of training have scientific evidence backing up their effectiveness, according to Dr. Nicholas Dodman, director of the Animal Behavior Clinic at Tufts University.

So then why is “The Dog Whisperer’’ winning over so many, including celebrities like Oprah Winfrey, Scarlett Johansson, Will Smith, and Nicolas Cage, who have all had their dogs balanced (his word) by Millan?

“People like to see a knowledgeable sage, whether it’s Dr. Phil or the Dog Whisperer, come up with a simple solution,’’ Dodman says. “People want immediate results, not a program that takes three or six months. He has some talent and has learned how to handle himself around a dog. But what you see on TV is an apparently immediate fix that will unravel.’’

And that, Marjie Alonso says, keeps trainers like her in business.

“People come in and say ‘I tried hissing and kicking and now I’m coming to you.’ It’s odd that people don’t know the difference between entertainment and reality,’’ Alonso says. “I’m the president of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants, and I try to walk a middle ground because I don’t believe in factionalizing this profession. But Millan has single-handedly brought dog training back into the dark ages. He has episodes of hanging dogs.’’

Alonso is referring to a controversial scene from the television show in which Millan kicks and then jerks a large, aggressive Alaskan Malamute off his feet. During the ensuing struggle Millan is bitten and the dog ends up on the ground, tongue blue and gasping for breath.

“I stand behind that,’’ says Millan. “That dog was going to kill somebody. Obviously not everybody should do that. But the dog forgets about breathing. If you’ve ever seen videos about dogs fighting, that’s what happens. Like I said, I’m not for everybody and I’m OK with that.’’

Still, Millan has a big soapbox. (Victoria Stilwell, host of “It’s Me or the Dog’’ on the Animal Planet channel, is an emerging star of the positive reinforcement movement, but her reach doesn’t approach Millan’s.) “The Dog Whisperer’’ is now in its sixth season and the charismatic TV star recently published his fourth best-selling book; his message and his methods reach millions of dog owners. And while his critics dispute Millan’s claim that domestic dogs are pack animals and should be treated as such, Pryor proposes that Millan’s hard-line message speaks to the real pack animal in the room.

“We’re the ones who care very deeply about who’s boss and we don’t want to stop believing that humans are superior,’’ Pryor says. “We’re primates that have gone strongly in the direction of hierarchies. Dogs? They don’t care about that at all.’’

Joan Anderman can be reached at anderman@globe.com

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