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‘Dog Whisperer’ Cesar Millan says if you want a better behaved dog, be a better human

Some might say Cesar Millan speaks dog.

The charismatic dog trainer has spent decades building something of an empire on the deceptively simple concept of educating owners about their pet’s behavior. Via his television series, New York Times best-selling books and videos, the three-time Emmy-nominated celebrity woof expert extolls the virtues of the bond between man and dog.

“Everybody wants a loving, well-behaved dog, everybody wants to have a dog as a soulmate – all of that is a good dream and goal,” an earnest Millan says during an interview via Zoom. “But to achieve it, the human needs to be educated the same way he learns computers, because dogs have their own program.”

With more than 19 million people following him on social media worldwide, Millan is also an entrepreneur with a comprehensive product line, including his popular educational courses under the Training Cesar’s Way brand.

From hilarious parodies on “South Park” and “Saturday Night Live,” references on shows including “Jeopardy!” and “The Colbert Report,” and appearances on “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon,” “Dr. Oz,” “Today,” “The View” and “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” Millan is part of our cultural zeitgeist – his influence can be found everywhere. Through his teaching methods, millions of people have learned that “energy is everything” when dealing with their dogs.

After being a celebrity dog behavior expert for 25 years, Millan maintains that he continues to evolve.

“Nowadays, I focus more on the human before they even get a dog,” he says. “Prevention – versus intervention – is key. This is why I created an education that I call ‘Training Cesar’s Way’ (TCW). I tell the world, ‘Before you get a pup, come and see me.’ Because they need to learn about energy, philosophy and activities. Once they understand that, then they work on choosing the right dog by compatibility.​​ The energy of a dog needs to be compatible to theirs.”

‘Dog whisperer’

Talking to Millan, one senses his deep connection to animals. He grew up working with animals on a rural farm in Culiacán, Sinaloa, Mexico with his grandfather, and from a young age gained a reputation as someone who was naturally good with dogs.

“I didn’t come to America to get a television show,” he insists. “I came here to learn. After watching shows like ‘Lassie’ and ‘Rin Tin Tin,’ I thought that every dog in America was just like them. I figured I would learn then go back home, but I realized that I have something to offer. And since that day, I have not stopped. I was never focused on the fame, I just wanted to contribute.”

Cesar Millan at his Dog Psychology Center in Santa Clarita Tuesday, June 14, 2022. (Photo by Hans Gutknecht, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

Millan described America as the “land of opportunities, the platform of the world where it’s literally Disneyland for all the dreamers.”

“And when I heard the (JFK) quote, ‘Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,’ I wanted to do something … to make sure what I learned in Mexico with my grandfather, that America gets it.”

Millan shot to fame with his popular National Geographic series, “Dog Whisperer,” which aired domestically from 2004-2016, and has been broadcast and streamed in 120 countries worldwide.

“People heard that title and thought, ‘Okay, that guy has special powers.’ Because the title makes me sound mystical. And I said, ‘No, no, no, we are all dog whisperers. Maybe you can’t walk a pack of dogs like me, but you should be able to have an amazing relationship with one dog.’”

And yet, it’s evident Millan does have a particularly strong connection with dogs, which his organization boasts has helped rehabilitate more than 50,000 aggressive, unbalanced dogs over the years.

“Some people go to India or Peru for enlightenment. I have found that [enlightenment] with dogs, and ongoingly learn so much from them. I admire how they follow the moral code – honesty, integrity, loyalty. They live in the moment, pursuing happiness every single day. Whereas, humans, for the most part, look for money, fame and power to begin their happiness.”

He believes there’s a message here: “That means that everyone around the world can experience enlightenment spending time with a dog, seeing life through their eyes. Remember, dog is God backwards. So a dog is the Earth’s way of manifesting what God teaches. Whatever religion you follow, you can see it in a dog or in an animal. Obviously, dogs are easier animals to be with, because evolution has created domestication. But enlightenment or spirituality, any animal can give it to you, you just have to connect.”

Supporters agree. “The afternoon I spent interviewing Cesar Milan displayed to me his inherent connection to the animals he cares for,” acknowledged Julio Martinez in Written By, a magazine from the Writers Guild of America West. “His advice to me regarding my dog was invaluable.”

Millan’s critics

But not everyone is a fan of Millan and his training methods. Over the years there have been several controversies; everything from fellow dog experts disputing the validity of his techniques to accusations of animal cruelty. And last year, the loss of Queen Latifah’s dog while in Millan’s care resulted in a lawsuit.

“Cesar is truly genius – which he prefers over people,” observes Sheila Emery, a former producer on “The Dog Whisperer.”

Nevertheless, like him or hate him, Millan remains popular with viewers and dog lovers.

“Controversy and lawsuits spark attention, which for a broadcaster could mean added viewers,” explained television critic Marc Berman, editor chief of Programming Insider. “So, when a name like Cesar Millan gets in any hot water, so to speak, that does not mean his television show will end anytime soon. Just look at docuseries ‘Chrisley Knows Best,’ with Todd and Julie Chrisley. After being convicted of fraud and waiting for a jail sentence, their show is opening a new season.”

‘Better Human Better Dog’

With dog adoptions hitting record highs due to the pandemic, and now many are faced with the consequences of pet ownership, it’s no wonder why Millan’s latest series for National Geographic and Disney+, “Better Human Better Dog,” was renewed for a second season. It kicked off on July 22.

In the show, Millan focuses more on deepening the human-dog connection rather than “fixing” dogs’ behavior issues, working with dog owners in each episode to help them better understand their four-legged friends.

“I work with humans a lot more in this series, focusing on their energy, philosophy and activities. I almost become like a mix between Tony Robbins, Eckhart Tolle, Oprah and Dr. Phil!” he enthuses.

Over the years, Millan has grown even more careful to deliver his advice to people in a kind rather than commanding manner.

“I try to prepare people in each episode as much as possible, focusing on how the human has become responsible. I help them to understand what they did wrong without making them wrong. Because people don’t like it when you pinpoint (criticism); they feel judged. So what I’m involved with is being a great teacher, asking them to be accountable. And then the end result is them saying, ‘You know Cesar, I understand exactly what you are saying.’”

One of the highlights this season for Millan was interacting with an extremely fearful dog.

“While I’m known for rehabilitating aggressive cases with a high level of danger, in this episode, I began to work with a dog named Zoe, who was so petrified she wouldn’t move. She became like a rock. And every time the owner wanted to pet her, she would scream, like somebody was hurting her. But she was just terrified. And if the owner tried to get her to move, she would attack. This dog was living this way for two years before I came into the picture.”

The first thing Millan did was put Zoe in water.

“I wanted her to be softer and fluid, because she was so stiff. So by doing that, I was able to encourage movement and gain her trust. In a matter of two weeks, this dog completely shifted who she was being. I was able to send her back to her owner and she had become a completely normal dog. Without a doubt she is my Picasso! Zoe is definitely my work of art. It was beautiful, because I never worked with a petrified case like this in my entire life.”

Understanding Fido

Despite attacks by critics and legal battles, Millan says he remains committed to spreading his message of “calm, confidence, love and joy.”

“Life should only be natural, simple and profound, a philosophy that you will find at my Dog Psychology Center in Santa Clarita. It is there that I work on transforming canines – and families – one case at a time.”

While every dog owner must learn how to gain the trust, respect and love of their beloved pets, Millan believes there is little comprehension on how to go about that.

“What I have learned over the years is that dog lovers like to make a dog human. So they humanize it. Instead of using dog psychology, they end up using human psychology. This inadvertently hurts the dog, because (dogs) simply don’t have the right knowledge.”

The veteran dog trainer asserts that a behavioral problem goes beyond breed.

“I always say, we don’t have problems with dogs and we don’t have problems with breeds. So when people say, ‘Are pit bulls aggressive, are bulldogs stubborn, are huskies impossible to train?’ what that says about humanity is that we still don’t understand connection, communication, relationship. We still don’t use a natural, simple profound way of being.”

This is why Millan remains such a firm believer in his calming methods.

“If you’re not calm in front of a dog, you’re gonna create an excited dog. Most people when they see a dog, they get excited. But horse people don’t get excited, they stay calm. So, in my experience and in my opinion, rehabilitating dogs and training humans, we have to behave the same way we do with elephants, bears, bees, chickens – calmness is number one.”

Millan encourages building the relationship of calmness with your pup because it leads to trust.

“If you’re not calm, an elephant will not trust you. So why would a dog trust you if you’re excited? Because humans believe that a dog is human. We like excitement and enjoy greeting our friends with enthusiasm.

“And at the same time, we are ears, eyes, nose. We like to hear things and we like to see things. But a dog wants to smell things, then see things. And the last thing is to hear. Nose, eyes, ears. Every TV show that I have done is with the sole purpose of education to humankind.”

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