"Dog Whisperer" Cesar Millan on his critics, the American Dream, and why not to buy a puppy
The world of dog training can be as divided as religion or politics. And so it's no surprise that America's first canine expert to become a household name often comes under fire for his methods and eccentric personality. Now known to the world as "The Dog Whisperer," Cesar Millan originally came to the U.S. via an illegal border crossing from Mexico at the age of 21. After founding his own dog-training business, he was discovered by actress Jada Pinkett Smith (wife of Will Smith), who helped him build his brand, leading to the National Geographic Channel developing the wildly popular The Dog Whisperer show around him.
To launch his new show, Cesar 911 on Nat Geo Wild, Cesar Millan is now on a national speaking tour, bringing his message of "calm, assertive energy" to live audiences across the country. Millan has no shortage of critics (who like to point out that he has no formal training, and charge that his methods are dangerous and outdated). In anticipation of his appearance this Friday at the Paramount Theatre, we asked Cesar Millan about some of these concerns, also discussing his life with dogs on a Mexican farm, how dog training relates to being a parent, and why buying a puppy is usually a bad idea.
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Westword: You often say, "You may not get the dog you want, but you always get the dog you need," insinuating that dogs help people in their personal development. Looking back to your childhood in Mexico, how did your relationship with dogs affect you then, and later in life as a husband and father?
Cesar Millan: I think my relationship with dogs is something I was just born with. My mother has told me stories of how drawn I was to all animals, but especially dogs, even before I can remember anything. I was also very lucky to have a grandfather who was a farmer. When he worked the farm, so did the dogs. Whenever I went there as a kid, which was often, I was fascinated by how the dogs there just knew what to do.
There was this huge pack that lived on the farm. They weren't what people would call pets, but they were the smartest, most well-behaved dogs I've ever seen. They would instinctively head off to do whatever needed to be done -- mostly guiding animals from one place to another and protecting my grandmother from the pigs when she would take lunch out to the workers. Watching those dogs and my grandfather, I learned the value of working always with Mother Nature, never against her.
As a parent, dogs have taught me many things, among them empathy and the ability to actually listen. When you're raising two kids, especially two sons, this is very important. And calm, assertive energy works just as well with children as it does with dogs.
What is the most common obstacle in your line of work?
The dog owner. If they are not receptive to understanding what I teach them and then following through, then the dog's misbehavior isn't going to change. This is why I say that I rehabilitate dogs, and I train people.
As I understand it, your ethos is to remain calm during potentially dangerous situations when training your dog. Yet the production of your show uses dramatic music and camera styles that induce panic in the viewer, the last emotion you want associated with dog training. Isn't that somewhat counterintuitive?
People have to remember that the dogs appearing on my shows are the most extreme cases to begin with, and that we have to tell a compelling story to keep the shows interesting. When the editors use slow motion or dramatic music, it's to heighten the importance of the problem behavior, and to highlight key moments where the dog misbehaved or the owner did something to contribute to that. If you'll notice, by the end of each story, the style is much calmer.
And, of course, none of those creative touches are there when I'm actually working with the people and their dogs.