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Why Calm Assertive Energy is Bullsh*t

Why Calm Assertive Energy is Bullsh*t

Last year a woman came to me for help. Before that she had been desperate to stop her Rotti mix, Mason, from behaving badly and found a “boot camp” style trainer that promised to rehabilitate her dog. Upon meeting Mason, the man put a choke collar on the dog, and after Mason growled, the man hung him from his neck off of the tailgate of a truck. Amazingly, his only physical injury was tracheal damage, but emotionally Mason was heavily scarred. He suffered through a handful of sessions, as the woman still believed that a heavy hand was needed for such a big and powerful breed.  Eventually though, she realized that the man was abusing Mason, and she filed a complaint with local humane society.

When Mason came into my office, he was broken. He was completely shut down. Not understanding which behaviors caused the man to hurt him, Mason simply stopped doing any behaviors. (We call that “learned helplessness” in dog training, and unfortunately I see it all too often. Mason’s was the worst case I’ve ever encountered, though.)

Over time, with a complete change in working WITH Mason rather than AGAINST him, not only did he make significant positive changes, his owner was relieved that she didn’t have to use force and punishment to address his fears.

So, why am I telling you this story, if this blog post is about “calm assertive energy?” Well, one popular television icon associated with dog training has coined the phrase and his reach is far and wide. I often see the phrase splashed on websites and marketing materials from those that follow that belief. In fact, if you’re a dog, you’ve likely heard the phrase “calm assertive energy,” because it is so readily used—especially when talking about fixing behavior problems, as it was with Mason.

If you’re looking to actually make lasting behaviour changes with your dog or a clients’ dog, allow me to walk you through the reasoning behind why you should tuck tail and run the other way if someone tells you that you should have “calm assertive energy” with your dog.


What does “calm assertive energy” actually mean?

You tell me. It leaves for a lot of interpretation. Calm could mean one thing to one person and another thing to someone else. The definition of assertive is “having or showing a confident and forceful personality.” So, if I remain calm and confident but I am forceful with my dog, they will change what I want them to change?


Which leads us to …


It isn’t quantifiable.

When I train any dog, I craft a training plan that spells out exactly what the dog can do today and what I need him to learn to do at the end of it. We come up with clearly defined steps outlining how to get from A to B. For effective behaviour change we need a desired and measurable outcome. How do we quantify “energy?”


Your dog doesn’t care about your energy/aura/mystical presence.

While we’re on the topic of “energy,” let me relieve you of one burden: severe behaviour problems are not due to your energy. It doesn’t help things if you are extremely stressed or anxious when trying to work with your dog; however, your aura is not what got you to where you are today. If your dog reacts aggressively towards other dogs or toward people, it’s not because you weren’t being Zen enough around him. There are so many variables that contribute to reactivity, and the way we fix it is to address and modify the way your pup feels about things that set him off. We fix the problem by teaching him that something he once perceived negatively is now a good thing. Change the emotional response, and the problem goes away.

A thorough behaviour change program including training plans and, often times, working with both a veterinarian and a behaviour consultant is necessary. Asserting your presence or strength by using force will only weaken the relationship you have with your dog and often times suppress true behaviour which will result in worsening the issue—just like we saw in poor Mason.


It perpetuates a dangerous behaviour myth.

Assertiveness relates to the dominance myth—that we’re in a power struggle with our dog, and we need to show him who is the boss. This is not only a falsehood; worse than that, it leads us down a dangerous path of using force and coercion to change behaviour. There is plenty of scientific evidence to accurately identify that dogs are NOT trying to assume an alpha position and that asserting dominance will not solve your problems. Beyond that, it can actually cause your dog to become aggressive, as a study led by University of Pennsylvania researcher Meghan E. Herron demonstrated.

In her study, the following techniques elicited an aggressive response from the percentage of dogs indicated:

• hit or kick dog: elicited aggression from 43 percent of the dogs studied,
• growl at dog: 41 percent,
• physically force the release of an item from a dog’s mouth: 39 percent,
• alpha roll (physically roll the dog onto its back and hold it): 31 percent,
• stare at or stare down: 30 percent,
• dominance down (physically force the dog down onto its side): 29 percent
• grab dog by jowls and shake: 26 percent.

“This study highlights the risk of dominance-based training, which has been made popular by TV, books and punishment-based training advocates,” Herron said. “These techniques are fear-eliciting and may lead to owner-directed aggression.”


It doesn’t help you, or your dog.

My goal as a trainer and behaviour consultant is to help you define the problem you are having and to give you a clear training plan to get there. We change parameters based on measurable results. There’s nothing murky about how this is executed. As a client, you deserve to spend your hard earned money on a service that actually gives you a clear path for behaviour modification.

Otherwise, it’s bullsh*it.


Edited by Tracy Krulik


I am reposting this article which goes back a few years but it’s just as relevant today. The public is slow to catch on to how damaging Cesar Milan’s “methods” really are. And honestly, I get it. If you watch the show it all looks so amazing and wonderful, the dogs are changed and the owners are happy. That is…. until the film stops rolling and the editing is finished. Fast forward to many of the cases Milan has touched and you will understand why so many trainers and behaviorists are up in arms about him. Many have been damaged severely or shut down completely, also known as learned helplessness. Suppressing behaviour through punishment and intimidation isn’t something new and it’s neither effective long term or ethical. With so many more effective techniques backed by science, why gamble and go with a tv personality’s “theory” on how to improve their behaviour?

Ruby was on Cesar Milan’s show. Ruby shows frequent multiple signs of stress during this episode, including refusal of food.

Update: Ruby later bit a child in the home and her owners chose to have her euthanized. The vet intervened and attempted to arrange for the show to work with the family further. We don’t know Ruby’s fate after that.


Why veterinary behaviorists can’t stand Cesar Millan

A few years ago one of my close relatives took a bad dog bite to the face. Plastic surgery––the works. Strictly speaking, there was no doubt it was her fault. He growled at her…and she bit him. 

Yes, you heard right. After years of dealing with this dog’s seizure/personality disorder by the book (neurologists, behaviorists, trainers, acupuncturists) his owner lost it and bit him. On the ear. It was a corrective kind of a bite he might have expected from another dog. Hence his reaction: A swift, punishing bite to the face.

I offer you this close-to-home story by way of explaining how easy it is for humans to become emotionally overwhelmed by a dog’s aggressive behavior. That’s when all of us feel the natural drive to turn around and treat our dogs on the violent terms we can all understand. Sure, we may not act on the impulse, but we undeniable feel it.

Problem is, while aggression may be a natural, universal language, its interpretation is typically species specific. Thus, a dog cannot read human signs of aggression anywhere near as well as he reads his own species’ dialectical subtleties. Nor can he be expected to. Ultimately, even our sophisticated human attempts to convey our emotions at the canine level are likely to be misread by a large percentage of even our most docile dogs.

Enter Cesar Millan “The Dog Whisperer” and his ilk. Promising almost immediate success through basic dominance-based concepts any human can understand makes the message compelling. The entertainment factor and deliverer’s charm gives it traction. And the media massage of our basest instincts allows for ready acceptance of an almost irresistible idea: Great behavior through good pack leadership skills.

It’s not a wrongheaded concept in and of itself, of course. Many trainers and vet behaviorists use it to great effect. Fundamentally, however, expressing canine “leadership” through the prism of our humanity is not as DIY as it sounds. There’s just too much room for misinterpretation.

A recent article in The Journal of Applied Animal Behavior (sorry, no link yet) agrees with this latter premise. But it offers us the dark side of these Cesar-esque tricks far more scientifically than intuitively, helping highlight how simple corrective measures conveying dominance can be futile, misconstrued, prove counterproductive, and often result in bodily harm to humans.

According to lead study author Dr. Meghan Herron at the University Pennsylvania (my peeps),

Nationwide, the number-one reason why dog owners take their dog to a veterinary behaviorist is to manage aggressive behavior. Our study demonstrated that many confrontational training methods, whether staring down dogs, striking them, or intimidating them with physical manipulation, do little to correct improper behavior and can elicit aggressive responses.

Dr. Sophia Yin, a veterinarian, applied animal behaviorist and newbie veterinarian blogger in San Francisco (check her out at AskDrYin.com!), clued me in to this research and urged me to help foster pet owner interest in pursuing non-punishing, non-confrontational, less Millan-ish ways of handling basic and problem behavior, alike.

Her website, citing the Penn-based research, compiles a list of dominance-based approaches to canine aggression that fan the flames of these unwanted behaviors.

The highest frequency of aggression occurred in response to aversive (or punishing) interventions, even when the intervention was indirect.

  • Hitting or kicking the dog (41% of owners reported aggression)
  • Growling at the dog (41%)
  • Forcing the dog to release an item from its mouth (38%)
  • “Alpha roll” (forcing the dog onto its back and holding it down) (31%)
  • “Dominance down” (forcing the dog onto its side) (29%)
  • Grabbing the jowls or scruff (26%)
  • Staring the dog down (staring at the dog until it looks away) (30%)
  • Spraying the dog with water pistol or spray bottle (20%)
  • Yelling “no” (15%)
  • Forced exposure (forcibly exposing the dog to a stimulus – such as tile floors, noise or people – that frightens the dog) (12%)

Again citing the research, she reports that:

In contrast, non-aversive methods resulted in much lower frequency of aggressive responses:

  • Training the dog to sit for everything it wants (only 2% of owners reported aggression)
  • Rewarding the dog for eye contact (2%)
  • Food exchange for an item in its mouth instead of forcing the item out (6%)
  • Rewarding the dog for “watch me” (0%)

Though science and soothing is undoubtedly less sexy to the average pet owner than Millan’s testosterone-fueled fare, studies like this are necessary to help explain the potentially damaging effects of “pack leadership”-based training methods.

Back to my relative: After two years (and $20K-plus) of hard work the right way, one small bite based on the concept of pack mechanics undid it all. Her beloved (and I mean one really adored dog) was euthanized in the aftermath.

It may take a while for these more subtle methods to reverse the muscly trend Cesar Millan has espoused, but it’s crucial to remember: Confrontation? It can kill…and almost always, it’s the dog that suffers in the end.