Cesar Millan is the ‘dog whisperer’ the stars swear by, but are his controversial techniques really brilliant or just ... Barking?
From illegal immigrant to top dog in Hollywood, superstar trainer Cesar Millan is in Belfast next week. Audrey Watson hears his amazing story
Oprah Winfrey, Scarlett Johansson, Vin Diesel, Will Smith and Nicolas Cage may be top dogs in the celebrity world. But when it comes to their pooches, real-life Doctor Dolittle Cesar Millan is definitely the leader of the pack.
These A-listers are just a few of the famous names who have sought assistance from the Mexican-born, 40-year-old, who shot to fame with his TV series, The Dog Whisperer.
On March 16 at the Odyssey, Belfast, he will demonstrate his magical methods of controlling and understanding our canine companions to a Northern Ireland audience of animal lovers.
Some 11 million viewers worldwide watch The Dog Whisperer on National Geographic Wild and Cesar’s books regularly top the international bestseller lists.
Then there’s the hugely successful monthly magazine, Cesar’s Way, online training courses and his dog psychology training centre in Los Angeles — not a bad achievement for a man who arrived in the USA from Mexico 20 years ago as an illegal immigrant with no money and very little spoken English.
In typical living-the-American-Dream fashion, Cesar in conversation is upbeat about his impoverished childhood and subsequent rise to fame.
“There were seven of us living in a small house in Culiacan, with no TV or luxuries, but lots of love and I felt the need to come to America to progress in the world,” he says.
“People who come to the USA the way I did (spending hours hiding in a water hole to escape border controls), don’t have wealth in monetary terms, but what I had was a wealth of knowledge my late grandfather Deodoro gave me.
“I grew up on his farm and observed how he created a harmonious relationship with his animals which included eight dogs, chickens, horses and donkeys. Just being with dogs, I learned their ways and began to appreciate things from their point of view.
“As a boy, my nickname was ‘El Perrero’ or ‘Dog Boy’ because I always had a pack running at my side.”
His first job in the US was in a canine beauty salon in San Diego where Cesar quickly gained a reputation for being able to handle the most difficult dogs and began walking and training pets belonging to the rich and famous, most notably actors Will and Jada Pinkett Smith’s Rottweiler. The couple were so grateful that they paid for him to attend English lessons for a year.
Soon he began to construct his theory of dog behaviour, which, at its core, is simple — dogs are pack animals, human beings should be the dominant pack member.
His growing fame led to an article in the LA Times and subsequent calls from television producers wanting to transfer his skills to the small screen. The first episode of The Dog Whisperer aired in 2004. It is now in its sixth season.
Oprah Winfrey, one of his biggest fans, previously called dogs “little people with fur”, and was chastised for not showing any canine leadership to her dog Sophie.
Says Cesar: “Many dogs grow up without rules or boundaries. They need exercise, discipline and affection in that order.
“Owners lavish love on their pets and nothing else, which is why so many go from non-aggressive pups to being out of control when they're older. People don't realise that their dog must respect them as leader of the pack. We mustn’t use them for our own emotional yearnings.
“Oprah's Cocker Spaniel, Sophie, had difficulty mixing with her other dogs for 11 years. That amazed me. Oprah is a powerful woman, the embodiment of a pack leader, yet she was nervous about this one pet and wasn’t able to assert her leadership over her animal — a major mistake made by many powerful people.
“When you see the President of the United States coming out of Air Force One, you always see the dog in front. When you see the President going inside the White House, you see the dog going inside first. You should never let your dog walk in front of, or lead you.
“Bill Clinton couldn't control his Labrador. Nancy Reagan had to exile her Bouvier to the family’s California ranch. You can't let a powerful breed take the lead. If you did that with a Rottweiler, there would be no presidents to meet with.
“People say I train dogs, but in many ways I train people.”
Until recently, one of the stars of The Dog Whisperer was Cesar’s beloved pit bull, Daddy, who died a few weeks ago after a long battle with cancer.
This submissive, calm rescue dog became an ambassador for a much-maligned breed that is often over-bred and abused and was the star’s long-time partner in canine rehabilitation.
Cesar is adamant that it is humans who are responsible for the ever-increasing amount of so-called dangerous dog attacks.
“When you have a dog such as a pit bull or Rottweiler, most people do not have any idea how to control or train that dog and this is going to cause the dog to manifest its strength and frustration whether it is small or large,” he explains.
“All dogs will become aggressive when they are under-exercised, unhappy, or have been trained that way — only obviously a pit bull has more strength than a Chihuahua.
“Aggression is a state of mind, not a breed-related thing.
“It all comes back to the way we humanise dogs. They are not our children. Because dogs are pack animals, their hierarchy in their pack (ie the family with whom they live) has to be established and maintained from the minute they arrive.
“If controlled correctly, any dog will do what the leader of the pack (the owner) trains and tells them to do. If it is not controlled, trained and exercised correctly, it will not know how to act or react in situations and become frustrated and aggressive.
“Dogs take their lead from their owners — how they are feeling, their personality — confusion over hierarchy and the absence of clear commands causes the problems.
“We don’t have a problem with breeds, we have a problem with education and understanding the concept of loving and caring for a dog properly — the consequence we are paying is aggression.
“Dogs don’t want to live in a complicated world, they want a leader to be in control. Otherwise, they observe aggression, anxiety and fear and because they are pack animals unless ordered otherwise, will mirror our thoughts and feelings.
“We make them human and consciously, or sub-consciously project human psychology on to them and as you know when you are depriving somebody from being themselves, it creates instability.”
Cesar is equally vocal about the current celebrity trend of using a small animal as a fashion accessory.
“I don’t agree with that at all,” he says angrily when asked about Paris Hilton and her ever-changing handbag dogs.
“This trend comes from humans prioritising their own needs, making sure that their need for accessories is more important than the needs of the animal. It’s not even a baby or companion substitute — it’s a fashion statement.
“It’s humans using nature and animals for their own benefit and not for the animal’s or nature’s good. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t love our dogs, what I’m saying is that we should never forget that they are not human and they should never be allowed to control or dictate to us.
“They won’t be happy being carried around in a handbag, they will react either with fear, incontinence or anger.”
When not touring, Cesar lives in Santa Carlita, California with his wife Illusion, sons, Andre (15) and Calvin (9) and 30 pet dogs — made up largely of rescue pets so out of control that previous owners were advised to have them put down, but who now live as part of the Millan family.
“Having so many dogs is not a problem,” he says. “They are pack animals. So they eat, drink, sleep and poop all at the same time.”
And he insists that any dog, no matter what its age or personality can be rehabilitated.
“There are no quick fixes,” he warns. “Owners need to train their dogs every day to prevent unwanted behaviour returning and lots of exercise plus strong leadership and an assertive stance is vital. Unconditional love isn’t enough to control a dog — dogs don’t follow an emotional leader.
“If you don’t tell a dog what to do, it will tell you.
“I want to teach people about this psychology. If people want to call it a gift, then that’s fine, but I’m just passing on what my grandfather taught me.
“My father still can’t understand why Americans paid me to walk their dogs,” he laughs.
Cesar Millan The Dog Whisperer Tour is at the Odyssey Arena, Belfast on March 16, at 8pm. Tickets available from Ticketmaster and Odyssey Box Office: 028 9073 9074. www.odysseyarena.com