Millan is the Dog Whisperer. He believes that to control a dog you have to think like a dog, act like a dog — and prove to the dog that you are its pack leader. If that means rolling it on to its back, jabbing it in its face, and attaining the near-universal condemnation of dog behaviour experts, then so be it. Tens of thousands of devoted dog owners — and a handful of specially selected troublesome dogs — appreciate his approach, and have tickets to his UK tour to prove it.
A consortium of 26 animal welfare organisations, meanwhile — including the RSPCA, the Australian Veterinary Association, the Kennel Club and the British Veterinary Association — has written an open letter ahead of the show, warning that Millan’s methods will lead to “pain and fear”, and are “not only unacceptable from a welfare perspective, but not necessary for the modification of dog behaviour”. Some, privately, say that they will be attending to see if he breaks animal welfare laws.
Millan is used to this criticism and his producers have a standard response letter. “The canine experts, pet shelters and rescue groups around the world that agree enthusiastically with Cesar Millan’s techniques far outnumber Mr Millan’s detractors,” it says.
In any case, Millan is a man with a higher mission. “The goal that God and I have together,” he says, “is the whole world transformed through a dog.”
Divine or not, all that’s important, say his many clients, is that his methods work. Millan has trained Jada Pinkett Smith — Will Smith’s wife — to be pack leader to her rottweilers. The action stars Vin Diesel and Nicholas Cage have been shown how to be alpha males in their own homes. Oprah Winfrey, who previously called dogs “little people with fur”, was chastised for not showing any canine leadership to her dog Sophie. They are all grateful, and highly remunerative, clients. And 2010 is the year that Cesar Millan expands his doggy empire into Britain: starting with a national tour and leading to a British version of his hit TV show,The Dog Whisperer.
All of which is very impressive for a man who began his career 20 years ago as an illegal immigrant from Mexico, without any English or any money. Millan’s legend — a canine American Dream — is by now familiar to most of the 11 million Americans who watch his TV show. Penniless in California, he found himself in a world of dog beauty clinics and dog birthday parties. Originating from a Mexican village, where he was known to his family as El Perrero (dog boy) this was confusing.
He started walking dogs, handling difficult animals and inevitably, this being LA, gained some extremely powerful clients. It was then that he started to formalise his theory of dog behaviour, which, at its core, is simple: dogs are pack animals, human beings should be the dominant pack member.
“If what you do is say, ‘I’m sorry, baby, Mommy has to go, blah, blah, blah’, the dog only understands that you are in a soft state and he is dominating you,” Millan explains. This is not good for you, or a healthy dog. “If a dog is OK with just love, I would not be in business,” he says. Dogs need discipline, they need to know you are in charge. “Don’t let a dog walk in front of you. You’re the leader.” His fans love this approach, but to conventional animal behavourists it is snake oil.
“Basically, with a smile, he’s going to war with these dogs,” says Nicholas Dodman, a veterinary behaviourist.
If it is a war, then it’s a war fought with the rhetoric of a self-help guide. “Anything that is realistic, if I create it in my mind, it can become reality,” Millan says of his ambitions. He says he likes dogs because “they accept you as who you are . . . but they won’t be around unstable energy.”
On the covers of his books — Be the Pack Leader, Cesar’s Way, A Member of the Family — his grin is so fixed and dazzling, his forehead so tight and tanned, that every picture looks as if it could be the same headshot, Photoshopped into different, soft-focus doggy Utopias.
Alas, however, his is not quite the doggy Utopia it once was. Daddy, the pitbull star of so many of his shows, died last week. The obituary on Millan’s website described him as “one of the most influential pitbull ambassadors the world has ever known”. And for those who might consider the world of pitbull ambassadors to be too rarefied, it adds: “His name is now added to that honourable roster of dogs gone by whose influence is still felt today . . . Rin-Tin-Tin,Lassie.” It is not an idle boast. Beneath are 50 pages of condolences, each containing 50 comments. Some of those commentators will doubtless be watching on Wednesday night, eager to learn from the world’s greatest dog guru.
But Millan must know that the crowd will also contain representatives from Britain’s most-respected animal welfare bodies — watching, with equal keenness, to see if the dog-boy-made- good is breaking the law.
Cesar Millan’s UK Tour, March 3-21: 08444 99 99 55;cesarmillanlive.co.uk
Problem dogs? Try my mother’s poodles
We all know that a selfish parent creates a needy child, an angry parent a chaotic one. And, so it turns out, the same psychology is true of dogs and dog owners. Happy calm people tend to own happy calm animals. My mother, by contrast, owns two anxious poodles — Milo and Oscar — who hate each other: they never obey commands and have no respect for authority. My mother’s last hope was Cesar Millan. He is a short, stocky man with intense eyes and when he walks into the room he is much like a dog himself: sizing up Milo and Oscar, taking in their every move, analysing their relationship with my mother, my mother’s relationship with me. Oscar is snarling at Milo and my mother holds him to reassure him. Millan is having none of it.
“This is the wrong time to give the dog affection,” he says. “You are going to nurture his anxiety. You are going to reinforce it. Dogs don’t know that you are trying to protect them. They only sense the energy, your state of mind. He knows that you are nervous and that’s making him more nervous.”
Millan grew up on a farm in Mexico. There he learnt how to communicate with dogs. He discovered that he could always elicit a calm, submissive and co-operative response from dogs by being confident and being the pack leader. Now 40, he left Mexico as an illegal emigrant for California. He has a ranch in the hills outside Los Angeles and a dog psychology centre. He lives with his wife, Illusion, and sons Cesar Andre, 13, and Calvin, 8. And 30 dogs ranging in size from chihuahuas to American bulldogs.
He warns us against humanising the dog: “Dogs don’t live intellectually. Humans live in four worlds: intellectual, instinctual, emotional and spiritual. Dogs live only in instinctual.”
He encourages us to be what he calls the “leader of our own pack” , to find our inner dog and walk it. What he seems to be saying is that there are no problem dogs, just problem people. But in front of me are two problem poodles and a mother struggling with her inner canine. Oscar is afraid of going down the stairs, so he simply whines at the top and has to be carried down.
Millan thinks it’s possible that a human being can transfer fears and phobias to the dog. “A dog will mirror how you feel: phobias, depression, anxiety. Dogs are afraid of what the humans are afraid of, it’s not so much the stairs as the human projecting.”
Millan takes Oscar on his lead down the stairs and then he does it again without his lead. In minutes Oscar is cured because Millan doesn’t have fear of stairs and Millan is a leader of the pack. He tells us that powerful people who control everything at work are often reluctant to be domineering at home. “CEOs have worked hard all day. When they come home they want to be loved. But as they take off the hat of leaders and put on the hat of love, it means the dog will do what it wants.”
All very well, but some dogs are difficult. “Their self-esteem is on the floor. It can take months to build it. It is easier to rehabilitate an aggressive dog than a fearful dog. An aggressive dog has good self-esteem and I can redirect aggression by rollerblading with them or putting them on a treadmill. Moving forward makes you happy. Depression keeps you in one place. Depression doesn’t exist in the animal world, only in the human.”
Having sized up the situation, he recommends that we buy a doggy treadmill for Oscar and Milo so that they can run off their energy. My mother is nodding appreciatively, but I’m sceptical. Millan asks my mother to take the dogs for a walk, but the second the leads are out, the dogs start growling and snapping. “Let me do that,” Millan says. He drops the leads on the floor. Oscar and Milo register shock: nobody is going for a walk. The dogs quieten down. Millan slips the leads on effortlessly.
Then my mother has a go. Oscar immediately panics. She attempts to pet him, but Millan tells her not to “reinforce his anxiousness”. “The ritual of putting on a lead shouldn’t be this hard. By dropping the leads we are breaking the pattern. You must constantly correct them when they misbehave.” He concedes that separation anxiety is a difficult problem between dogs and their owners. “It’s in their DNA: you must stay with the family. They are pack animals. You have to teach them that it’s OK not to be together all the time. Exercise plays a big role here because it is easier for a dog to stay on his own and sleep when he is tired.”
Millan departs with two golden rules: don’t nurture a dog in an unbalanced state of mind. And get a treadmill. A month later, what have the dogs learnt? They don’t yet have a treadmill, but my mother has mastered the Cesar art of putting on their leads and has learnt to control her anxiety in their presence. It turns out Millan is a mother whisperer too.