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Thursday, Feb. 10, 2011

Interview: Cesar Millan, The Dog Whisperer

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“The Dog Whisperer” star Cesar Millan doesn’t fit the Dr. Phil mold of television experts. Far from the serious, imposing presence of many T.V. gurus, Millan is diminutive, non-threatening and often self-effacing.

“Before I was called the Dog Whisperer, I was called the Mexican guy who can walk a pack of dogs,” Millan says, and though he’s half joking, that background is key to his dog-training pitch. He’s not some haute trainer who studied his way to the top of his field; he’s an unassuming immigrant sharing simple, ways-of-the-world advice that America seems to have forgotten. At lectures like his upcoming Riverside Theater on Friday, Feb. 11, Millan tells the story “of how this Mexican guy came into America and wanted to learn from America, but realized that when it came to dealing with dogs, Americans were very disconnected.”

“When you live in Third World country, or you come from a Third World country like myself, you learn common sense,” Millan says. “I only finished high school, but I am teaching doctors and psychiatrists. I have clients who are Harvard graduates, but they can’t work a Chihuahua. An American dog has everything, but what he doesn’t have is a human who is in tune with him. He has all the outside things: the bed, the toys, the house, all those wonderful things. Many dogs have birthday parties. Some dogs even inherit the money when their owner dies. Country dogs don’t have that, but what they do have is common sense. Dogs in Third World countries are skinny but they don’t have problems. Dogs in modern countries are chunky but they have problems.”

American dogs are so troubled, Millan says, because they are over-pampered and under-disciplined.

“Modern society humanizes a dog,” he says, “So I say, slow down, practice common sense, and then we can humanize them. I have a ritual, or a circle, for how to treat dogs: exercise, discipline, affection. The exercise and discipline are for the dog’s benefit, the affection is for the humans. Do dogs enjoy affection? Yes. But they need order. Just think of raising kids: imagine only giving them affection, affection, affection. No exercise. No rules. No manners. No limitations. They’d go nuts.”

At the core of Millan’s dog-training philosophy are very American concepts of strength and leadership. A dog owner is a pack leader who must guide his pet with calm but assertive certainty. The dog must know to defer to its master at all times. Doing so actually relaxes the dog, Millan contends, since as pack animals dogs are more at ease when there is no doubt who is in charge.

That Millan sells his training techniques as incontrovertible common sense, though, downplays how contentious they are. In 2006, the American Humane Association admonished them as "inhumane, outdated and improper," a view shared by many trainers who believe it’s more effective to reward dogs for good behavior than punish them for bad. These trainers take particular issue with Millan’s confrontational approach to correcting bad behavior. While he does not hit dogs, he often intimidates them with finger jabs or forcibly rolls them onto their backs—potentially dangerous displays of dominance that can incite dog bites.

One of Millan’s most elegant critics is Victoria Stilwell of Animal Planet’s “It’s Me or the Dog,” a program that plays like the mirror opposite of “The Dog Whisperer.” Where Millan is disarmingly nice to his clients, Stilwell is harsh and judgmental, dressing and carrying herself like a dominatrix. Yet despite her callous facade, she trains dogs with a far more gentle touch than Millan.

“He's spreading the message of responsible dog ownership, but his methods are old school," Stilwell told me in a 2009 interview, calling Millan’s methods quick-fix training. "You can't go into a house in one day and deal with a very aggressive dog, then beat the dog into submission and say that it's a massive success,” she explained. The bottom line, she said, is “do you want your dog to follow you because it wants to, or because it fears what will happen if it doesn't?"

Full disclosure: I didn’t get a chance to ask Millan about these criticisms during my phone interview with him. Actually, I didn’t get a chance to ask him a lot of things—once he starts talking, he just pretty much keeps going, rapidly and affably chattering on and on about celebrity clients like Oprah and his take on America. [A typically scattered excerpt of my transcript from the conversation: “Americans don’t lead simple lives. They focus on how can they be wealthy. Look at television shows. It used to be that famous people, they worked for that. They had some sort of skills. Now all you do is just make the tabloids, and you are famous and you make money … [American] society is not following common sense. The role models we put on television, the things we are selling … What controls America right now is politicians and people on television. This is what influences people; ‘What is he wearing; what is he saying.’ … Look at politicians. Presidents, they walk a dog in front. Celebrities walk a dog in front, and they put them in a bag….”]

Even when Millan’s points aren’t entirely clear, however, his affection for dogs is, and despite their differing training ideologies, he shares many of the same values and concerns of even his biggest critics. That becomes especially apparent when he speaks out against puppy mills and the superficiality of boutique breeders.

“I understand that certain people are particular about wanting a dog with a certain look, or a certain fur, or a certain size, but those things are superficial,” Millan says. “Society needs to become aware that there are 4 to 5 million shelter pets that die every year. They’re not all the same breed, but they’re all the same species. They’re all dogs: They all pee on a tree, they all make you laugh, they all want to follow you, and they’re all amazing cuddlers.”

Cesar Millan speaks and takes audience questions at the Riverside Theater on Friday, Feb. 11 at 8 p.m.