Telegraph Magazine, Feb 2007
Cesar Millan is America’s favourite dogbehaviour expert with a host of Alist clients, but do his methods go too far? Sanjiv Bhattacharya takes his pets Cujo and Onion along to find out.
Photos by me
Also at the Telegraph
Meeting Cesar Millan is an intimidating experience. Not because he is America’s most famous dog behaviourist, with a hit television show, a bestselling book and a client list that includes Nicolas Cage, Will Smith and Oprah Winfrey. But because his socalled Dog Psychology Centre is located
in the gang infested heart of south central Los Angeles, not the balmy suburbs of west Hollywood or Beverly Hills, as you might expect.
It is almost impossible to find – an unmarked green gate down a potholed alley of warehouses and barbed wire fences. By the time I have parked the car and dragged my two dogs past the clanking delivery trucks, yelling Hispanic labourers and angry guard dogs behind tall spiked fences, we are all a bit rattled. And then Millan’s assistant, Cherise, appears, her eyes darting left and right.
‘Where’s your car? Don’t tell me you parked it on the street! Quick, let’s move it. If it’s still there…’
I’m here because my dogs don’t listen. They are a far cry from the snarling pitbulls that Millan wrestles into submission each week on his show, but nevertheless… Onion is a two year old Boston terrier who doesn’t come when I say, and Cujo is an eight month old Bug (half Boston, half pug) who goes crazy when she sees other dogs on our walks.
I want to tell Millan all of this when he appears to greet me, but he seems strangely distant. He ignores my dogs. And he doesn’t smile as he shakes my hand, he just looks me in the eye and says, ‘Hi, I’m Cesar.’ Then he walks to a bench in one of several gated enclosures in his spartan facility of asphalt and chickenwire, where he sits, ready to observe my dogs’ behaviour at first hand.
Onion and Cujo run around the small pen, sniffing and exploring.
‘Just be normal,’ Millan tells me, in his sharp Mexican accent. ‘I’m evaluating everything – how you behave, your energy, everything.’
My first test comes almost immediately. Onion grabs Cujo’s harness and yanks her around. She always does this when we are out in the open, anywhere she can get away with it. I snap, ‘Onion! No!’ But it doesn’t work. So I try again, this time clapping my hands. Finally, I get up and run over to Onion clapping and yelling, ‘Stop it, Onion! No!’ Immediately, she starts doing backflips and barking. It’s her dance of defiance. Usually this delights other dog owners – ‘Ooh, look, she’s doing somersaults, did you teach her that?’
Not Millan. He says, ‘OK, so after the command, then what?’
I don’t know, Cesar, I say. If I chase her, I can’t catch her.
‘When we use sound, it is no different from a dog growling – it’s a warning,’ he explains. And he starts growling, baring his teeth.
‘Then, if he doesn’t get what he wants, he follows through with a physical touch.’ And he snaps out his hand and ‘bites’ my arm with his cupped fingers. It’s a pretty firm nip.
‘You keep saying, “Onion, Onion”, but in the animal world, they don’t have names,’ he explains. ‘If you have a dog in an excited state, using sound only intensifies it. So I use sound one time, as a warning.’ He turns to Onion, and says, ‘Pssht!’ Onion pays no attention. ‘And then I use energy and body language.’
He stands up, his chest out, shoulders square, posture erect. ‘Like a bodyguard, see?’ He is only about 5ft 6in, but he is stocky and muscular. He was a judo champion at school. And as he walks over to Onion, his arms out at the sides, palms open, Onion lets go of Cujo. She flips twice – flips him off, essentially – and runs off. But Millan calmly follows, never rushing.
‘Energy and body language,’ he repeats. ‘If I chase her, then it’s a game and I lose. So I set the pace. And the more she jumps, the better for me, because she’s wasting energy and I’m not. Eventually she will sense that she is getting weaker and I am still strong. Animals listen to stronger energy.’
The way Millan frames it, he and Onion are in a long drawn out battle – only one of them will prevail. Now he has her cornered, standing maybe six feet away and staring at her intently. Onion sighs, and stops flipping and barking. She paces about a little and then looks up at him.
Immediately, Millan walks back to me. ‘She became calm and submissive, which is what I want. And she gave me eye contact, which means we have an understanding. This is just the beginning.’
Millan describes himself as a psychologist, not a trainer. ‘Dog training is about one human, one dog – obeying commands like sit and fetch,’ he says. ‘Dog psychology is about returning dogs to a pack mentality.’ He believes that dogs have behavioural issues because owners treat them like humans rather than animals and that by employing pack psychology we can restore their natural ‘balance’. We just need to learn to be pack leaders ourselves, to ‘dominate’ our pets so as to induce ‘calm and submissive’ behaviour.
Millan currently has 19 dogs – his pack – at the centre, 16 of which he owns, and three that are in his care. And this is small potatoes for Cesar – a few months ago he had 60. He often takes in and rehabilitates dogs from rescue organisations, aggressive dogs that are at risk of being put down.
‘This one here is dog aggressive, so is this one. That one was humanaggressive,’ he says, pointing out some of his pack members. ‘But now, look – they’re all calm. Whatever dog you give me, my pack can balance it’ – he clicks his fingers – ‘like that!’
What dogs need, according to Millan, is ‘exercise, discipline and affection, in that order’. So each morning, he takes his pack for a fourhour hike in the canyons. All the dogs are off the leash – it’s quite a spectacle – and when the smaller dogs get tired, he puts them in backpacks carried by the bigger dogs. Then, in the afternoon he has the pack pull him along on inline skates, followed by occasional games of fetch. There is even a swimming pool at the centre for the animals to splash around in. If a dog is still over energetic after all that, he has a treadmill to thoroughly wear them out.
He is similarly rigorous about discipline. When one of his heftier pitbulls angles to hump Cujo, Millan swoops in with a ‘bite’ to the ribs, making the dog yelp and retreat. Only the pack leader can show dominance – if anyone is going to hump my dog, it’s Cesar. And there’s precious little affection here. His staff are specifically instructed not to pet the animals.
Millan is utterly unsentimental about dogs. In his view, love is nothing without dominance. ‘Dogs don’t see love as leadership, they see it as soft energy. My clients are dog lovers, but their dogs are out of control.’ It’s an attitude he credits to growing up in Mexico on his grandfather’s farm, a place where dogs knew their place. ‘Dogs in Mexico were considered lowly, dirty beasts,’ he writes in his new book, Cesar’s Way, but at least ‘they knew they were dogs’.
Part of Millan’s appeal is his unapologetic advocacy of no nonsense, old school, conservative values. ‘In Mexico,’ he says, ‘dogs are skinny but they don’t have psychological problems. Dogs in America are nice and fat but they have a lot of psychological problems.’ Like the people? ‘Exactly.
This whole culture is out of balance. It doesn’t respect old people. In the native American culture, the elders were the pack leaders, now it’s the kids. That’s why you have Supernanny, Nanny 911. The parents are not providing leadership.’ Like an old fashioned schoolmaster, Millan doesn’t spare the rod. Problem dogs need a corrective tug on the leash. Tugs not hugs, that’s Cesar’s motto.
If there’s one thing Americans love more than a straight talker, it’s a rags to riches story. Millan started out on his family farm with no running water, but he was happy despite the obvious poverty. When he was seven, his family moved to the tourist city of Mazatlan, in order to give Cesar and his sisters a decent education. While his father found work as a photographer, the teenage Millan found it hard to adjust to the comparative claustrophobia and intensity of city life. He started fights, he was angry. Something of a loner, he always preferred the company of animals, and soon found work at a vet’s office, helping with the dogs. He became known to his friends as ‘el perrero’ – ‘the dog boy’. Mesmerised by Lassie and Rin Tin Tin, he dreamt of some day becoming a top Hollywood dog trainer.
So at the age of 21, some 16 years ago, he set off for Tijuana in northern Mexico and found a ‘coyote’ (or people smuggler) to take him over the border for $100. It was a treacherous crossing – to evade the border patrol, he had to spend a night up to his chest in water. Once he arrived in San Diego, hungry and covered in mud, he had to sleep on the streets, earning a pittance as a busboy in Mexican restaurants.
After a month or so, he landed a job as a dog groomer. Two elderly white ladies who couldn’t understand a word he was saying nevertheless paid him a wage and let him sleep in their shop at night. It wasn’t long before he had saved enough money to travel to Los Angeles where he set up his own dogtraining business, starting with a pack of rottweilers from rescue organisations. He would walk them off the lead up Runyon Canyon, a popular hike for celebrities and residents of the Hollywood Hills. Before long he was leasing his current centre. ‘It was actually a favour – the owner of the place was having a lot of breakins, so he needed the security, and I had 15 rottweilers!’
His fortunes changed one day when ‘a beautiful black woman’ called Jada pulled up at his gate, and emerged from her gleaming car requesting help with her rottweilers – they were aggressive and might have to be put down. She left her address and a few days later Millan paid a visit to her mansion for a consultation.
‘When Will Smith opened the door, I nearly fell over,’ he says laughing. Jada was Jada Pinkett Smith, the actress who is married to Will Smith. She not only became Millan’s longeststanding client but also his mentor, paying for his English lessons and spreading the word among her celebrity pals about the Mexican with the magic touch.
Millan signed a television deal with the National Geographic channel to produce his show, Dog Whisperer – ‘They just let me do my thing, they didn’t try to change me’ – and was soon being endorsed by Oprah Winfrey. He had made it.
Yet even then, Millan’s detractors were gathering their arguments. Now, a large and growing coalition of experts, trainers and professional associations dismiss his methods as at best outdated, and at worst cruel. The American Humane Association has taken the lead in denouncing Millan’s techniques. ‘We believe that his methods are just not applicable to most dogs,’ Marie Belew Wheatley, American Humane’s president, says. ‘They’re techniques of last resort for extreme cases.’
She is referring in particular to the ‘alpha rollover’, in which the offending dog is flipped on to its back and pinned by the neck until it stops struggling and lets out a deep sigh. Millan interprets the sigh as relief – Wheatley strongly disagrees. ‘There are two cases on the show where we’re convinced that the dog is being asphyxiated,’ she says. ‘We know better these days – we know that reward based methods are much more effective than the punitive approach.’
Millan’s notoriety has revived a schism in the dogtraining world between positive reinforcement (rewarding good behaviour) and punishment.
‘The whole domination/punishment thing is simply passé,’ Nicholas Dodman of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists. says, ‘Dogs want to please, it’s in their nature. You can’t train a dog to fetch slippers with that Vulcan grip he uses. But Cesar hasn’t seen the science, he’s not trained, he hasn’t studied. He just knows the use of physical corrections. Just because the only tool you have is a hammer doesn’t mean everything you see is a nail.’
Given the weight of opinion against Millan, Claudia Kawczynska, the editor of The Bark magazine, finds his popularity baffling. ‘When you have experts with PhDs who disagree with him, why have we Americans chosen to follow this unschooled guy?’ she says. ‘He says he learnt everything by observing dogs on a farm. Is that how you become an expert? I think Americans have a proclivity to prefer the common man who follows his gut. We don’t trust the qualified. That’s why we voted for George W Bush.’
Cesar Millan remains bullish: ‘These positive reinforcement people don’t tell the truth, which is that they’re jealous.’
Quite apart from his disciplinarian approach to dogs, Millan also brought from Mexico a deeply patriarchal view of women, an attitude he hasn’t quite shaken off. He admits that in the early years of his marriage to a young Mexican-American girl named Ilusion he was unbearable. ‘She told me either we try counselling, or divorce,’ he recalls. ‘So we tried it. And sitting there in the therapist’s office, that’s when I realised I was fulfilling my dogs, but not my wife.’
His ‘light bulb’ moment was when he came to the conclusion that ‘dogs need exercise, discipline and affection, but a woman needs affection first and then exercise’.
‘I used to get up in the morning and say, “Where’s the breakfast, why isn’t everything ready?” Which is a third world mentality. Now I say, “Good morning, honey, is there anything I can do for you?” Which motivates her to make me breakfast. You see, at the end I still get what I want!’
As a result of this breakthrough, he now wants to travel to ‘third world’ countries encouraging men to respect women more. ‘That’s my next mission,’ he says. ‘And I’m going to start in my own home in Mexico. My dad is going to be the first one in the class. He was great with dogs, but he sucks as a husband. I’m going to be the Dad Whisperer!’
Something about the speed and scale of his success has given Millan an urgent sense of destiny, the conviction that ‘God has a plan for me’. Not content to advance our understanding of dogs, he wants to illuminate our understanding of human relationships. ‘What I’m creating is a great thing for the world,’ he says. ‘That’s why karma has helped me get to where I am. I don’t do this for money or fame. I do this to bring balance back to the world.’
Millan’s vision begins with a series of dog psychology centres all over America. He has just bought a 40acre property in Santa Clarita (an hour north of LA) where he intends to build a huge facility where people can live and bond with their animals. ‘I want to balance men, empower women and make children aware,’ he says. No mention of dogs. ‘Dogs are just the vehicle!’
He is also working on a book about leadership and even a line of dog food. ‘Everything I ever wished for in life, I got. So why not?’As we speak, Millan receives an urgent call – his fourth television series has just been given the green light. the controversy, the Dog Whisperer juggernaut rolls on.
And yet, at the end of our session, I’m left with plenty of doubts. Certainly Millan has an extraordinary hold over his pack, and an ability to control the most violent and forbidding of dogs. And his system may well be teachable – apparently his son Calvin is at the home of the actor Jamie Foxx today, giving a consultation on how to dominate three adult pitbulls. Calvin is eight years old.
But something about ‘Cesar’s Way’ feels counterintuitive. To bring Onion and Cujo into line, I would have to radically change my demeanour – become more stern, less affectionate and start using strange hand-biting actions. Cesar has advised me to stop calling my dogs so much, and to use more gestures. He tells me not to pet them in the mornings, until they have been exercised and fed. He says I have to make sure they walk behind me when we are out, and if Cujo starts barking at other dogs, I should immediately nip her in the ribs. I have no doubt his methods would work, the way they have tamed many a vicious pitbull, but my dogs are hardly in the same category.
And besides, it’s just not me. Sure, more assertive body language might be a good thing. Maybe I would get served quicker at the bar. Women might think I’m taller. But in the end, I don’t want to just dominate my dogs. They are pets, and I want to pet them. They deserve it, they bring so much love into my life. Onion can backflip all she wants.