Provocation is not the Answer

I posted a status update the yesterday in response to the controversy surrounding this video showing Cesar Milan, The Dog Whisperer, confronting a resource guarding lab named Holly. My status update was:

Isn’t provoking a dog into defending itself proof that the method is flawed from the start?

I don’t really want to make this post about Cesar; I want to make it about the method of provoking a confrontation in order to claim ownership.

In my mind there are only two possible outcomes to any scenario where we purposely provoke aggression and conflict in a dog that is guarding a resource.

  1. If you’re unable to get the dog to back down and cede ownership to you, then the dog has learned their behavior is an effective technique for keeping whatever they want and you have just increased the chances of being bitten and the likelihood of the behavior expanding to other items.
  2. If you’re able to get the dog to back down, you haven’t earned respect or higher status; you’ve just shown your dog that you can be dangerous, unpredictable, and possibly bi-polar, clearly someone who is not to be trusted or relaxed around. This again can lead to the dog behaving fear aggressive because it views your presence as a source of anxiety.

I feel that either outcome supports the idea related in my status update; provocation is flawed regardless of outcome.

Resource guarding has a threshold. Below the threshold various techniques can be used to increase the dog’s tolerance to the point where the threshold no longer exists and the fear and aggression disappear. Working above threshold by using confrontation and aggression against a dog can only result in a fight in which the winner will be trusted less by the loser. There is no noble victory here or a warrior’s respect after combat, only the feelings of bullying and being bullied.

Combating resource guarding can be accomplished without resorting to confrontation. A couple of excellent resources on dealing with resource guarding are:

Resource Guarding by Grisha Stewart

Mine A Practical Guide to Resource Guarding in Dogs by Jean Donaldson

To learn more about working with aggression under threshold, I recommend checking out Grisha Stewart’s blog on the BAT (Behavioral Adjustment Training) technique at She also has a book on BAT titled Behavior Adjustment Training: BAT for Fear, Frustration, and Aggression in Dogs that I highly recommend.

Cheers and happy training,


7 thoughts on “Provocation is not the Answer

  1. This dog lacks the ability to speak it’s own language. There was no provocation. This dog is mentally unstable and dangerous. Dogs don’t “feel” bullied, and stating so is Anthropomorphism at it’s finest and has no place in animal training. It’s the greatest way to fail the animal in the end. I think you need to take a close look at the dog, it’s lack of language and it’s dangerous instability before judging the person working with it.

    • I hate to disagree with you but this dog was speaking in as clear a language as it could. Your statement that there was no provocation on the part of Cesar is not only ludicrous, it is blatantly false. We can disagree about the efficacy of the techniques and the reasons behind the behavior, but to actually say that there is no provocation here just blows my mind. Yes I used anthropomorphising to make a point (something Cesar does all the time by the way). To anthropomorphize some more let me make my point this way, If a person were to violate your personal space the way that Cesar did to this dog, body posture forward, staring, making claws or whatever you want to call it in front of your face, you would not feel that is being aggressive or provocative? Clearly I think we will have to disagree but I thank you for taking the time to speak your mind.

  2. You are absolutely dead-on with this, Kevin. An important thing to keep in mind with thresholds, too (which you did touch on), is that depending on the dog, once you have surpassed a certain point in it’s behaviour, every subsequent “battle” becomes a tougher one.

    Few dogs – unless they have been conditioned to not growl – will take a confrontation straight to a bite. There are steps dogs take when they are feeling uncomfortable or threatened. When one method or threshold doesn’t work (ie. growling or baring teeth), they will often elevate to the next. So, even if you “win” in a confrontation where your dog was growling or barking or lunging, the next time it wants to guard something, the behaviour is likely going to escalate at a quicker pace and the risk of being bitten is that much higher.

    As for Shelley, to say that a dog cannot “feel” bullied is a very ineffective statement. Sure, we cannot know if the dog feels bullied in a way that we define bullying, but the possible outcomes that are a result of Milan’s behaviour, are incredibly similar to the behaviours found in children that have been bullied. Heck, even adults. It can go one of two ways: the victim can internalize their emotions and completely shut down OR they can lash out with violence. So, I don’t think it’s too far-fetched an idea.

    In any case, the human in the situation knows and understands exactly what bullying is, what it entails, and what it can result in, so why do it? Intimidation and coercion are archaic ways of dealing with people and animals. Period.

  3. I couldn’t finish watching the video. There’s something terribly sick and masochistic about CM’s very intentional provoking of poor Holly, but good for ratings it seems. I hope Holly is allowed to find a home where she can find a haven for the rest of her life. BTW, regarding the image above, maybe CM should change his handle from “Dog Whisperer” to “Dog Ninja”.

  4. Anthropomorphism is back in style since we now have fMRI machines showing us how our brains and dogs’ brains can work in very similar ways. Then there are those fabulous mirror neurons which help us, dogs included, understand what someone else might be experiencing.

      • The field is comparative psychology. A good (though older) book is “Wild Minds: What Animals Really Think”. If you Google or Google Scholar this topic there is TONS of research out there. I personally think the work of Dr. Pepperberg with her African Grey parrots are fascinating. For your interests, perhaps the studies on dogs versus wolves- there was one talking about how dogs know the meaning of a point (that you are referring to an object that is not your finger) whereas wolves do not. is the link to it.

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