Leader of the pack

By JEFFREY GANTZ  |  August 6, 2007

Some owners get it right away; some don’t. A single mother has a possessive chihuahua who bites her son whenever he gets too close to mom. Mom thinks it’s cute that she has such a protective “man”; Cesar can hardly believe she’s more concerned about the dog than her son. Another woman has a boyfriend and a dog named, uh, Boyfriend. Then there are the couples with a dog who won’t let the husband share the sofa or the bed with the dog and the wife. Cesar’s eyebrows go up: “And how do you deal with this?” The wife blushes; it’s clear she prefers the dog to her husband. Cesar’s eyebrows go further up.

After the Talk comes the Walk. As they leave the house, Cesar points out that the pack leader is the first one out the door, and, invariably, we see the dog preceding the walker. Cesar sets the dog straight as to who’s in charge — via body language, body blocking, and a steely stare — and then goes to work on the owner. Teaching a dog how to be a dog, it turns out, is relatively easy; teaching people how to be dog owners is the hard part. Most walk their dogs with weak energy, slumping, angsting, and getting pulled about. Cesar shows them how to be confident, relaxed, and in control. Sometimes he takes to roller blades to drain strong-running dogs of excess energy. Hard cases — dogs and owners — are invited to visit the Dog Psychology Center, where what he calls the “Power of the Pack” induces the newcomers to become quiet and submissive and the owners get to see how calm, balanced dogs behave. At the end of each show, Cesar, while hugging a member of his pack, reports on how the dogs and their owners — but really the owners — are doing.

This is not live TV, and though Dog Whisperer is uncensored to the degree that we’ve seen Cesar get bitten, it would be naive to think that every case he takes on is as successful as the ones that are aired. What’s more, Cesar has critics — veterinarians, animal-behaviorists, SPCAs — who criticize his constant leash corrections and his use of choke collars. But he never yells or gets angry at the dogs (the owners, sometimes), and at the end of each show, we see happy, well-behaved dogs and owners who are smarter and more responsible than they were before his visit. “Sit, and stay,” says Cesar, with a wink, before one commercial break. Woof.

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