Leader of the pack

Cesar Millan and Dog Whisperer
August 6, 2007 11:21:46 AM

“When good dogs go bad,” goes the voiceover introduction, “there’s one man who’s their best friend. Cesar Millan.” Then we hear from Cesar himself. “No dog is too much for me to handle. I rehabilitate dogs; I train people. I am the Dog Whisperer.”

That’s the lead-in to the Emmy-nominated Dog Whisperer (National Geographic Channel, Friday, usually at 8 and 9 pm; new season starts September 7), reality TV with unpaid, unspoilt (except by their owners) stars. Born in Mexico in 1969, Cesar came to San Diego as an illegal — and non-English-speaking — alien in 1990, with the idea of becoming a Hollywood dog trainer, but he found his niche as a dog rehabilitator. He and his wife, Illusion, now run their own Dog Psychology Center on two acres in South LA, where they have a pack of 30 to 40 residents and visitors. Cesar has appeared on Oprah and been written up in the Times and the New Yorker; he has a New York Times #1 bestseller, Cesar’s Way, and Dog Whisperer is heading into its fourth season. At his Web site (, you can find out about his live seminars, sign up for “Webinars,” get acquainted with the members of Cesar’s pack (his right-hand dog is pit bull Daddy, who has to be the most relaxed canine on the planet), check out the Dog Whisperer TV schedule, read Cesar’s blog, subscribe to his monthly on-line newsletter, and buy merchandise ranging from the Illusion collar to Becoming a Pack Leader DVDs and “Pack Leader” sweatshirts.

Although there have been special editions of Dog Whisperer devoted to “Pups on Parole” and dogs left homeless by Katrina, the typical hour-long episode has Cesar — in T-shirt, jeans, and sneakers — climbing into his jeep and visiting three owners/families with problem dogs. Each segment begins with Cesar and his host(s) sitting in the living room and Cesar asking, “How can I help?” Italian greyhound Dasher is obsessed with his favorite toys; bassets Sophie and Riley are sibling rivals; vizsla Booker is afraid to go outside; bulldog Matilda attacks skateboards; border collie Milo herds tractors; rottweiler Bella has anger-management issues. The owners acknowledge — often without prompting, even proudly — that their dog runs the household.

Cesar then gives them the straight dope, which goes something like this: “A dog is not a human. A dog is a pack animal. In a pack, there is a pack leader, and there are followers. You are your dog’s natural pack leader: you provide shelter and security and food. But if you don’t take control, your dog will. Dogs communicate through energy; you display leadership by projecting calm, assertive energy. If you’re tense and nervous, your dog will be tense and nervous; if you project weak energy, your dog will know there’s a leadership vacuum. Your dog needs exercise, discipline, and affection — in that order. Exercise means a long walk every day, not just hanging out in the back yard. Your dog needs rules, boundaries, and limitations, the same way children do. Your dog needs to socialize with other dogs. Your dog needs you need to understand what it means to be a dog.”

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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