The problem with “whispering”

“To co-opt a word like ‘whispering’ for arcane, violent and technically unsound practice is unconscionable.” – Jean Donaldson

When someone asks me what I do for a living, and I say I’m a professional dog trainer, I’m quite often met with the same response: “Oh, so you’re a dog whisperer!” Although people are entirely well-meaning when they say this, I inwardly cringe.

The concept of “whispering” when it comes to dogs is inextricably linked to National Geographic’s program, “The Dog Whisperer.” I don’t want to get into all the things that are wrong with Cesar Milan’s approach to dog training, but do want to comment on the lack of science circulating in dog training circles and pop culture.

Dog training should be based on the science of animal learning. I doubt anyone would place their lives in the hands of a “cancer whisperer” who doesn’t know the science but is “good with cancer cells.” Would someone decide to eschew a  neurosurgeon in favor of a “brain whisperer?” I certainly hope not! Then why do we do the same for dogs?

The brilliant thing about science is that theories undergo rigorous testing and re-testing. Published studies are peer reviewed, challenged and re-tested for accuracy. While scientists, ostensibly, could say whatever they want, they better be prepared to back those statements up with sound evidence to have any credence in their fields of study. The goal is as little error and assumption as possible, and as much sound data and observation as possible.

The not-so-brilliant thing about “dog whispering” and non-scientific approaches to dog training is that those scientific safeguards and controls disappear. Someone could wake up tomorrow, call himself a dog trainer, and start taking money for services rendered – services that are simply his opinions on how dogs should be trained. He might have all the right ideas, but chances are, he won’t.

What’s worse is the public has come to accept these myths about dog behavior and training techniques as truth. Some of the most egregious violations I’ve heard lately:

– Swishing a finger under a dog’s teeth fixes leash reactivity and barking
– A dog is dominant if he places his paws on your shoulders
– Some dogs require a firm hand

None of these statements hold any merit in the scientific community, yet they are rife among trainers and dog owners.

In the words of Neil DeGrasse Tyson, “One of the biggest problems with the world today is that we have large groups of people who will accept whatever they hear on the grapevine, just because it suits their worldview—not because it is actually true or because they have evidence to support it. The really striking thing is that it would not take much effort to establish validity in most of these cases… but people prefer reassurance to research.” 

Accepting dog training information through the “grapevine” without well-vetting it puts public safety and dogs in danger. Using abusive practices and arcane views of dog behavior puts dogs at risk of developing aggression, bite histories and euthanasia. Not to mention the ethical problem of subjecting countless dogs to punitive, inhumane training techniques like choke, prong and shock collars.

How, then, do we fix this problem? Does it mean every dog owner must be an expert in animal learning science, or that dog owners who don’t know how to train their dogs are in the wrong? Absolutely not. As DeGrasse Tyson so succinctly phrases it, “…there is no shame in not knowing. The problem arises when irrational thought and attendant behavior fill the vacuum left by ignorance.”

Society needs to fill the vacuum with science. With fact-checking. With reading up on potential trainers and checking their references. With taking a step back and seeing if what someone is telling you would hold true in a scientific journal. And with viewing “dog whisperers” with a good dose of skepticism.

– Maureen Backman, MS, CTC

Maureen is the owner and trainer of Mutt About Town in San Francisco. You can contact her at