Simon says, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn what Cesar says.”
by Beth Clifton
As practically everyone who knows celebrity dog trainer Cesar Millan from a Caesar salad must know by now, the February 26, 2016 episode of the National Geographic channel’s Cesar 911 reality TV series went from demonstrating a really bad idea to worse, in live time, when a problematic French bulldog named Simon, with a history of severely aggressive behavior towards pigs, was led into an enclosed fenced area with several pigs.
Millan, who prefers to be identified by his first name, like Elvis, told viewers, “I am going to use the fact that this is a new environment for Simon to my advantage…He has already killed two pigs in the past, but if I can give him a new positive memory with them, it will be a great foundation that can translate to a better behavior with all animals.”
Creating a brand-new memory
Recounted Seattle Pets Examiner blogger Tracy Campion, of what most viewers would see in the Nat Geo video, with Simon still on-leash, “Cesar states to Simon’s owner, Sandy, ‘So you watch, okay? We don’t want him to become alert or excited because we don’t want him to get in touch to his old memory. We want to create a brand-new memory.’
“Sandy tells the camera that she lost her pet pig because of Simon..Simon initially only glances over at the pigs when he’s on-leash and Cesar states that he’s placing the dog near the pigs as part of his rehabilitation.
“But once Simon is off-leash, he presents behaviors that are clearly high arousal: his ears are up, his stance is rigid, and he’s very focused on the pigs. And when one of the pigs squeals, Simon lunges…One pig’s ear is bloody and torn, but Cesar tries to correct Simon, holding him by the collar.
“Simon appears to calm down and the camera pans over to Sandy, who looks visibly shaken and who was already traumatized when this same dog killed her own pig. And then Simon goes for the pigs again. Cesar dives for the dog, but misses; Simon chases the terrified pigs as they scream and run…The clip ends with Cesar holding the dog at his side while Sandy looks on. The worried expression on her face says it all.”
Elaborated Psychology Today blogger Mark Derr, “While on a long line––an extended lead––held by Millan, the dog seems fine, but when his human companion unleashes him on Millan’s order, Simon turns demonic.”
Observing from the perspective of having worked with dangerous dogs myself, I was initially encouraged when I saw at the outset of the Nat Geo video that Millan had Simon leashed and in his control.
That’s when all hell broke loose. Millan inadvertently set the Frenchie Simon on the frantic pigs, just as surely as if he had pointed and said “Sic ‘em!”
First Millan lost control of Simon, who raced repeatedly around the enclosure while the pigs ran for their lives, squealing in terror.
The camera crew tried to head Simon off at the pass, more or less, blocking his pursuit of the pigs as best they could, while Millan channeled a soccer goalie diving but missing a corner kick. It was a “loose dog” rather than “greased pig” catching contest, but when Simon and one of the pigs were finally cornered behind an oversized potted plant, and Millan dragged Simon out while one of the camera crew tried to herd the pig away, it appeared that a bloody massacre might have been prevented.
Playing to the audience
Instead of holding Simon securely until the pig was safely beyond danger, however, Millan elected to play to the audience. With Simon not even Millan’s own height from the pig, Millan released Simon again, attempting to control him with a “tsk,” or some other equally ineffective command that Simon showed no sign of having heard, and a hand signal which to the dog could as easily have been pointing as saying “Stop!”
This was predictably to no avail, and was all the French bulldog––basically just a little pit bull––needed to tear off a portion of one of the pig’s ears.
A pig’s ears, like the ears of most animals, including humans, bleed heavily when torn by the grip of a vicious canine.
Does Millan hear himself?
Where do I begin in evaluating Millan’s many mistakes?
Let’s start with Millan’s semi-confession several years ago that pit bull-type dogs are not like other dogs: “They have power behind them.”
Millan later appeared to have forgotten this fact when he placed his own family pit bull in close proximity to another pit bull known to be very aggressive and dangerous. The more aggressive pit latched onto Millan’s dog Daddy on camera and began to do what he was bred to do: rip, shake, and tear.
Millan, Daddy’s own guardian, who had experience enough with the other dog to know the dangers, set Daddy up to be attacked. It took several men to break up the dog fight.
There have been other incidents involving pit bulls under Millan’s control or lack thereof.
Gus the pit bull
Reported Brandy Arnold of Dogington Post on February 6, 2015, “A critical care nurse from Florida is suing Millan after a dog that was trained at, and released from, his Dog Psychology Center attacked and permanently disfigured her. Alison Bitney was allegedly attacked by Gus the dog [a pit bull] just six days after he was released from the Center. Claiming she suffered ‘disfiguring open wounds, deep muscle and tendon lacerations’ and bone fractures from the September 23, 2014 attack, Bitney is seeking punitive damages from Millan and his Dog Psychology Center, claiming they negligently released a dangerous dog back to his owner.
“Bitney claims the dog had an ‘extensive history of vicious and unprovoked attacks on individuals and animals,’ and that in 2013 the dog was impounded in Texas,” after attacking trainer Amber Rickles.
Rickles was on May 18, 2015 awarded $1.3 million in damages for the Texas attack, suffered after she boarded the dog for pit bull rescuer Jennifer Romano.
Never had control
Responded Dog Psychology Center vice president Jen Woodward to the Bitney lawsuit, “Cesar Millan did not have any contact with Gus during his time at the Dog Psychology Center, nor was he asked to directly train Gus. Gus was removed from the DPC against the strong advice and objection of his trainer, before his rehabilitation was completed. Because the DPC is not the legal owner of Gus, we were unable to prevent the premature removal by his owner. After the dog bite incident, the owner returned Gus to the DPC and we followed dog bite protocol placing Gus in quarantine.”
In other words, Millan’s defense in the Bitney case is that he never had control of the dog. Viewers of the February 26, 2015 Cesar 911 episode will likely have no difficulty believing it.
“The Dog Whisperer”
Millan’s first Nat Geo show, The Dog Whisperer, debuted in 2003, at a time when new attitudes toward dog ownership, including recognition of the importance of proper training, were becoming part of the public consciousness.
I admit to having given Millan more credit, at the time, than he probably deserved. As positive reinforcement came into vogue as the preferred dog training method, Millan came under fire for his aggressive approach to disciplining dogs.
“Be the pack leader”
“Be the pack leader,” Millan emphasized––and used that phrase as the title of one of his books.
In other words, take charge of your dog and show him who’s boss.
As the times changed and views changed about how we should train our dogs, apparently Millan at some point changed his mind about the nature of pit bulls. The overabundance and unrestricted breeding of pit bulls in eventual need of “rescuing” may have had some influence in his turnabout, since pit bull rescuers were a growing market for dog training books and videos, but even many pit bull rescuers did not take Millan’s bait.
Fall from grace
The dissing that followed did not deter Milan as he proceeded hot and heavy with his pro-pit campaign. Many pit bull advocates accept any ally who comes their way. Cesar made his comeback on the backs of pit bull advocacy, and in the faces of victims of pit bull attacks.
Credit should be given where credit is due. Much like the pit bulls Millan now promotes, he never quits, and is as game as the dogs who have caused him great consternation.
If it were not that three pigs suffered because of Millan’s showboating, I would be amused at his overestimate of his capabilities. But the outcome of this and many of Millan’s other mishaps has not been funny. Time and time again Millan has placed other animals at risk in ways that resulted in injuries of innocent animals.
Campion, Derr, and thousands of Change.org petition signers have now called on National Geographic to, as Derr put it, “Take a stand for dogs, pigs, and other animals, and remove Cesar Millan from the air until he reforms his act.”
Getting it wrong
National Geographic has built reader and viewer trust since 1888, but even the biggest and most trusted media sometimes get things wrong, as evidenced by the Las Platas dolphin who was in February 2016 reportedly killed by Argentinian beachgoers taking “selfies.” This was alleged to have been so by more than fifty leading news outlets, including CNN, Fox News, and the Washington Post.
They all got it wrong. The small dolphin had washed up to the beach already dead. The “selfie” video of the incident showed care and compassion by those who found her. Children mobilized around the dolphin to say goodbye.
Big name trainers get it wrong, too
Miller and other big name dog trainer celebrities––Victoria Stillwell––comes to mind––have also gotten it wrong, and have amplified their wrong ideas with the help of media corporations who pay much attention to “hit counts,” but none to “bit counts.”
Pit bulls should not be promoted by people who have influence on public opinion. Humans, pets and livestock are killed daily by these so-called misunderstood nanny dogs.
Terrified and in pain as the pigs thrown into a pen with a land shark were, the loss of part of an ear was mild compared to the loss of a child by the jaws of a pit bull.
This is what National Geographic should be thinking about when considering whether to keep Millan on the air.