"Dog Whisperer" Cesar Millan on his critics, the American Dream, and why not to buy a puppy

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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of critics (who like to point out that he has no formal training, and charge that his methods are dangerous and outdated).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. See also: Temple Grandin, Colorado cow whisperer, gets local premiere

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.

Why is it that there is so much difference of opinion among dog trainers?

It's because there are a lot of different techniques for trainers to choose from. None of them are right or wrong in themselves, but trainers, including me, tend to stick with what works for them. This can lead to a tendency to reject all of the other techniques. It also depends on what kind of dogs trainers work with. Somebody teaching obedience, for example, would never have to use the same techniques that I use in dealing with extremely aggressive dogs.

There's an old joke in this business: The only thing that two dog trainers can agree on is that neither of them likes a third trainer's methods. This really shouldn't be the case, and I hope that I can help to change that attitude some day. We're all here to help dogs. We should be working to support each other.

What is your response to trainers who say your methods of physical-touch, alpha-rollover and negative reinforcement are outdated and potentially harmful to both the dog and the dog-owner?

I'd ask them to remember that I started out dealing with the very difficult dog cases that other trainers hadn't been able to solve, particularly involving aggression. Extreme cases like that require more extreme techniques, but my methods have evolved since my early days hosting the Dog Whisperer program.

I think that sometimes people just misunderstand my goals. I don't see a dog as a student, but rather as a teacher. My goal is to influence people's understanding of a dog. I want to teach people how to respect them.

How have your techniques evolved over the years you've been working with dogs? Is there anything you've condoned in the past that you do not today?

The biggest change is that I now focus more on the human, and how they trigger everything in their dog, good or bad. I want us to take responsibility for what we are doing wrong. Dogs aren't born unstable. We make them unstable.

Most people see the dog's aggression or fear, but they never take the time to find out where he learned to be this way. On Dog Whisperer, the focus was entirely on the dog. I'd come in, rehabilitate the dog, and then move on to the next case.

But now, in Cesar 911, it's about the people, too -- how they are directly causing their dog's misbehaviors. It's also about the other people who are affected by that dog misbehaving -- friends, family, neighbors. One misbehaving dog can affect an entire community.

In your books and TV show, you often say that human psychology should not be applied to dogs; instead, as I understand it, you attempt to recreate the dynamics of dog-packs in human-canine relationships. Though isn't the relationship between dog and a human wildly different than dog and a dog, particularly dogs in the wild?

The human-dog relationship is only wildly different because we, the humans, make it that way. I like to say that life is simple, don't make it complicated. When we approach a dog using human psychology, we're going against Mother Nature and we end up with misbehaving dogs with psychological problems. When we approach a dog understanding its psychology, though, then we can find a balanced relationship.

Humans and dogs can have exactly the same relationship that dogs would in the wild with each other as long as the humans are the leaders. All pack animals naturally follow strong leaders, which is why there are friendships between all different species of animals.

I've seen dogs following and getting along with elephants, tigers and polar bears. It works the other way, too, with dogs being pack leaders and protectors for cats, rabbits and even an owl. And up at my Dog Psychology Center in California, I have a horse and a llama. Two completely different species, but they work together as a pack, with the horse being a natural leader to the llama.

The reason it works is because the animals all communicate with each other the same way, through their energy. When humans learn how to do this, then they discover that having balanced, well-behaved dogs is a lot simpler than they thought.

Have you encountered any dogs that were so dangerous that they were beyond saving?

One of the few times I was unable to do anything to rehabilitate involved two dogs that were terribly inbred, which caused severe neurological problems. Neither one of them could ever have been trained to be safe in human society. As for being injured, of course I've been bitten a few times. Every professional who works with animals is sooner or later, but I've been lucky in that I've never been severely injured.

With your sidekick, Daddy, now passed away, how are things working out with Junior as your chief rehabilitating assistant when working with other dogs? Are their personalities different?

Luckily, Junior was raised and trained as a puppy by Daddy, so he learned the rules early on. Although he's still not quite up to Daddy's level, I'd say he's at about 80 percent by now. Daddy always knew exactly what to do in any situation, while Junior isn't quite as confident yet. Junior also gets distracted sometimes and I have to "tsch" him to get his attention.

He's much more of a show-off when I take him on stage during my show than Daddy was. I think the word you'd use is "ham."

Many young people in my generation believe that the American Dream is dead, yet your story of poverty to success as an immigrant seems to embody the conventions of the American Dream. How do you feel that your story impacts this debate, as well as the identity of illegal immigrants, since you were not initially a citizen when you came to the U.S.?

It was the American Dream that brought me here. From the time I decided I wanted to be the best dog trainer in the world when I was thirteen, I knew that I had to go to America to do it because my perception was that everything here was the best.

But I came to the American Dream with the Mexican Work Ethic, which is if you want your dreams to happen, you have to work very hard to make them happen. I knew that I wasn't just going to cross the border and be discovered instantly as a dog trainer. I was washing cars before I started my first training business. But I never gave up, and so here I am now. My advice to your generation is to do what you love and become the best at it that you can be, and never stop working toward your dream.

With so many middle-aged to senior dogs going unadopted and euthanized in shelters, and so many puppy mills making money hand-over-fist in the torture of dogs, do you dissuade potential dog owners from getting a puppy?

Yes, and this is a big part of the mission of the Cesar Millan Foundation. There are 600 million unwanted, abandoned dogs in the world, many of which will never be adopted because they've been branded as aggressive, or somebody decided that they can't be rehabilitated. In America, this happens a lot to pit bulls in shelters because the breed is incorrectly labeled as aggressive and dangerous.

What people don't realize is that an adult dog is often a better choice because they've already been trained and socialized, and just the association of you being the person who took them away from a cage can help them bond immediately. And senior dogs are ideal for people who don't have as much energy or time to care for a dog.

Raising a puppy takes a lot of time and attention if you want the dog to turn out balanced and well-adjusted -- it really can be a full-time job, especially for the youngest adoptable puppies. If you don't take that time from the beginning, then you'll be dealing with behavioral issues down the line.

Cesar Millan will be speaking at the Paramount Theatre at 8 p.m., Friday, March 28. Tickets start at $39; for more information visit www.paramountdenver.com Follow me on Twitter at @JosiahMHesse.

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