The Milgram Experiment - Overview

In 1961 Stanley Milgram set out to explain how so many people could heartlessly participate in the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps.  Many war criminals justified their actions by saying that they were ordered to carry out these atrocities on other humans and had no choice.  Were the Germans inherently cold and evil, or was this a phenomenon that could be repeated under the right circumstances?  To answer this question, Milgram created an experiment to research the effect of authority on obedience.

Forty subjects from all different walks of life were recruited.  They were told that they would be participating in an experiment about memory and learning where they could be assigned as either "Learner" or "Teacher."  The Teacher would ask the Learner questions and administer an electrical shock if the answer was incorrect.  In reality each subject was assigned the role of Teacher and the Learner was an actor, but the subjects were unaware of this.  Each one believed that he had just as much of a chance to end up in the Learner chair hooked up to the electrodes as he had of being the one to administer the shocks.

The fake shock generator had 30 different switches marked for levels of voltage ranging from 15 to 450, at 15 volt increments.  Descriptions accompanied these labels, such as "slight shock" for the lower levels and "strong shock" at the 180 volt level.  The level that went up to 420 volts was labeled "danger:severe" and the highest level, at 450 volts, simply "xxx."  At each wrong answer, the Teacher was instructed to increase the level of shock he administered.  The actor playing the part of the Learner would respond to an audio prompt to react to the different levels of shock by starting out with grunts, and escalating his reactions as the shock levels were increased.  By 280 volts he would let out agonized screams and complain of heart pain.  After 330 volts, he was instructed to go completely silent.

The authority figure was the Experimenter.  If the Teacher hesitated in delivering the shock, the Experimenter would verbally prod him to continue.  As the actor's reactions to the different levels of shock were predefined, so were the levels of pressure from the Experimenter, from "please go on" to "it is absolutely essential that you continue."

As could be expected, most of the subjects were very reluctant to inflict pain on the human trapped in that chair, believing that they could have been assigned that position themselves.  And yet every single one of the subjects administered shocks up to the 300 volt level, past the point of screams, begging for mercy, and complaints of heart pain.  Amazingly, 65% of the subjects continued to administer shocks all the way to the maximum level of 450 volts after the man in the chair went totally silent.  Some of them believed they had already killed the man, and yet they continued caving to the pressure of the Experimenter to deliver more shocks.

This experiment proved that 65% of the subjects - people like you and me - would torture another human being even to the point of death if a person they believed to be in a valid position of authority demanded it.

So how does this relate to dog training?

The veterinarian

After adopting a new puppy or shelter dog, the first authority figure the owners encounter is usually their vet.  Though vets are surely experts in medical issues, those who are also well-educated in training and behavior are few and far between.  They should be answering questions about training by referring owners to a trainer or behaviorist, but unfortunately some of them take it upon themselves to spout advice based on old wives' tales and myths.

For example, most young puppies will nip their owners in play and need to be instructed in a scientifically-based and humane way how to behave more appropriately.  Far too many vets are telling people to take these trusting, impressionable little tykes, throw them on their backs, and pin them to "show them who's boss," an archaic technique referred to as an alpha roll.  The owner will certainly feel uncomfortable forcing this technique on a frightened puppy, but usually will do so if their vet tells them to.  Dr. Ian Dunbar, author, veterinarian, founder of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers and creator of Sirius Dog Training, says, "A wolf would flip another wolf against his will ONLY if he were planning to kill it.  Can you imagine what a forced alpha roll does to the psyche of our dogs?"

Another common piece of advice handed out by otherwise well-meaning vets is to handle potty training accidents in the home by dragging your dog to the puddle or pile, forcing him to smell it, and then disciplining the dog either by yelling or smacking him with a rolled-up newspaper.  This is a good way to teach your dog not to ever eliminate in front of you, and could possibly cause fear of paper products and/or your hands coming at him.  This nonsense does not help to teach him where to eliminate appropriately.  In fact, good luck with rewarding your dog for going outside if you have made him afraid to go with you standing there.

Do people want to drag their dogs to a puddle of piddle and bop them in the nose?  Not usually.  But if your vet tells you to, you probably will - even if it makes you uncomfortable to do so.

Question training and behavioral advice that comes from somebody whose expertise lies in a different field.  That's pretty obvious.  What's not so obvious is that there are far too many "authority figures" out there who claim to be experts in behavior and training, but their actions prove otherwise.

TV trainers

People love to watch reality shows on TV, proven by the proliferation of them over the last decade, and there doesn't appear to be any abatement of new ones cropping up yet.  But is there any reality in reality TV?

TV shows have one purpose, and that's to entertain and titillate viewers so that they continue to tune into the show.  If you were to sit down and watch an entire date shown on the Bachelorette, for example, you'd probably be bored out of your mind.  So editors choose certain sound bytes, add dramatic music, even use takes from scenes not related to the one being shown to add the element of drama they're trying to create.  By the time that edited portrayal of the date makes it onto your TV screen, what you see may in actuality have very little relevance to what really happened between the two people.

Unfortunately for dogs everywhere, TV shows about dog training are presented in the same way, for entertainment value alone.  Showing a course of therapy for a fear-biter using valid and humane desensitization and classical conditioning techniques would be quite boring.  However, setting a dog up for failure by thrusting him into a situation that guarantees a dramatic reaction, and then choking him into a physical collapse makes for very entertaining TV.  Real dog trainers watch that clip and are aghast at the abuse that they see.  Innocent dog owners who watch it on TV are subject to the Milgram Effect.  Cesar Millan and his publicity machine has portrayed him as an ultimate authority on dogs, and therefore not only is the general public blind to the cruelty, many would gladly choose to have it inflicted on their own beloved pets by their TV hero.

This very popular TV personality has brainwashed millions of dog owners into believing that their dogs are trying to achieve "dominance" over them, and that is his rationale to justify the sometimes extreme use of force that he portrays on his program.  For a sensible look at what "dominance" means and does not mean, see The Dominance Controversy and Cesar Millan.

With the success of this show has come, and will come, others trying to milk the same cash cow.  In Canada there is a popular TV personality named Brad Pattison who makes Millan's techniques look almost valid.  Pattison hits dogs in the face, yanks them violently off their feet for no apparent reason, grabs them and screams in their faces, (later in the same show portrayed in that clip he "teaches" a dog not to go through a door by slamming it on him), and commits other acts of violence in the name of "training."  It's hard to believe that he has a growing fan club of people who laud him and support his methods.  These are not people who hate dogs, they are caring dog owners brainwashed by the Milgram Effect.  A TV personality is a powerful authority figure in this society, possibly one of the most powerful.

The fall-out

So if you have a dog who bites, and you have watched these popular programs convincing you that this problem can and should be beaten out of him, would you have considered hiring this trainer?

Jeffrey Loy claims himself to be "the world's leading authority on the rehabilitation of fighting and biting dogs."  When a couple in NJ needed help with their 6 lb. biter, they hired him for $1,000 a session.  After baiting the small dog into biting him, the owners stood by and watched while he viciously beat the small Shih Tzu with a PVC pipe and his bare hands, more than once, and for several minutes at a time.  The dog suffered a broken rib, a bruised kidney and liver, and a ruptured blood vessel in its eye, requiring $1,100 in vet care.

The owners stood by and watched.  If they had been out walking the dog and a stranger came over and started beating it with a PVC pipe, do you think they would have reacted differently?  But here was a self-proclaimed expert that they believed to be an authority figure, so they stood by and allowed this violent beating of their 6 lb. dog to continue.  The Milgram Effect.

This is just one isolated recent case of dog abuse perpetrated by an individual who claims to be an expert.  Most cases of abuse don't result in such grievous injury, so much of it is never reported.  In fact, again due to the brainwashing power of the media, loving dog owners are often blind to the fact that what is being done to their dogs in the name of training IS abuse.  Some of these abusers' strongest supporters are those whose own dogs have suffered violence at their hands.

What can you do to protect your dog?

If you have a training or behavior issue with your dog, be very careful whose advice you listen to, and especially careful who you hire to help you.  There is never a need to use fear, physical force, intimidation or pain in order to train a dog.  If an "expert" tells you to do something that makes you in the least uncomfortable, listen to your heart!

There are common-sense guidelines to help you choose a dog-friendly trainer, determine what training tools are necessary and what aren't, and on the Truly Dog Friendly website are a list of trainers in both the Orlando area and all over the world who have been screened to assure the use of only humane and scientifically-based techniques.  (Note:  Even though the Association of Pet Dog Trainers mentioned above was created specifically to educate the training community about humane, scientifically-based, dog-friendly training methods, the website's list of members includes those trainers who use electrical shock collars, spiked prong collars, and other force-based tools and methodologies.  Using that listing to choose a trainer is not a guarantee that your dog won't be subjected to unnecessary intimidation at the very least.)

If you like to watch dog training on TV, you are not completely out of options.  Victoria Stilwell is a very competent TV trainer with good, solid advice.


The Milgram Experiment and how it relates to dog training