Being schooled by Cesar Millan the Dog Whisperer

This article was originally published in the National Post, June 22, 2011

After walking into the PawsWay Pet Discovery Centre on Toronto’s waterfront, Cesar Millan greets a reporter warmly. Although he exchanges pleasantries with the humans, he is clearly focused on someone else — namely, a two-year-old Border Collie/Labrador Retriever named Savannah.

Millan watches the dog drag her owner across the mat, tongue lolling, tail wagging. Her head darts around as if the room is filled with butterflies and she doesn’t know which one to chase. Millan also sizes up the owner, Darlene Wang De Martinez, noting the way she stands, the way she holds the leash, the way she corrects the dog.

If this was an episode of Millan’s hit National Geographic Channel show, Dog Whisperer with Cesar Millan, the voice-over might sound like this: “Darlene runs a dance company, and leading 75 dancers can be like herding wild dogs. But can dog behaviourist Cesar Millan teach her how to be the pack leader with her own dog?”

Millan, 41, takes Savannah’s leash and readjusts the chain so it is higher on Savannah’s neck. “This expression of excitement,” he says, “has to be addressed with an expression of calmness.”

He sits, relaxed like a man on a train, mid-vacation. Savannah paces a little, whines a little (“They have to go through a little venting,” Millan says) and then lays down beside him. He tells Wang De Martinez that her anxious jerking of the chain added fuel to Savannah’s excitement. He reminds her of his mantra: calm, assertive energy.

“My job as a pack leader is to give direction. I’m not asking her to lay down, I’m thinking ‘Lay down.’ People want to convince a dog to do everything with sound: ‘Sit down. No. No. No. No,’” Millan pauses and laughs. “The more excited that you get, the more frustrated you get, the more you lose the dog.”

Millan, in Toronto to promote his range of pet-care products, has a reputation for rehabilitating “red zone” cases — dogs that have killed other animals or injured owners. In his wildly popular show, which is in its seventh season, he visits families and pets with problems and when he leaves, the owners are incredulous that their chihuahua is no longer nipping or that their Greyhound is no longer hiding under the bed.

Anxious dogs are the most challenging cases because building self-esteem takes time, Millan says. “It’s easier to work with five aggressive dogs who want to kill me than one fearful dog.” He cites Baby Girl, a Doberman-Greyhound mix that he worked with for months who was afraid of linoleum floors, loud noises and eating.

Millan admits that some cases don’t make it to air.

“The most difficult [case] would be the human in denial: ‘It’s the dog, it’s the family, it’s the world.’ Sometimes they call me and when you arrive, they don’t want to change. It’s really disappointing.”

He’s also learned to relate to people as well as he relates to dogs. For example, he speaks to Wang De Martinez in references she will understand; he talks about having a dancer’s posture, tall and solid, shoulders back.

“The body language is great but the energy is not calm,” he says. “Dancing is just like walking a dog. Your audience has to believe that you are calm.”

The legend of Cesar Millan is about the man, as well as his methods. Millan is stocky with perfect posture, and he has an extremely calm demeanor, which could be misconstrued as standoffish if not for his brilliant smile.

Millan grew up in rural Culiacan, Mexico, where he was nicknamed “El Perrero,” slang for “the dog boy.” When he was 21, he crossed the border into California and lived on the streets of San Diego, surviving on hot dogs. He got a job as a dog groomer, moved to Los Angeles and started a freelance dog rehabilitation service where Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith discovered him in 1994.

Now he’s the author of six books, founder of Cesar’s Way magazine and hero to such celebrity clients as Oprah Winfrey and Nicholas Cage.

As for his auspicious title, he thinks it could be misleading. “I hope it doesn’t confuse people because it sounds magical,” he says. “In reality, I’m just a guy with good common sense.”

Dog Whisperer with Cesar Millan airs daily at 5 p.m. on National Geographic Channel. His products are available at Canadian Tire.

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