With man’s best friend

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With man’s best friend

‘Dog behavourist’ Cesar Millan talks to Sarah Young about growing up as the ‘dog boy’, the problem with friendly Ilamas, and how he’d like to wave a magic wand to save millions of abandoned dogs in the UAE and worldwide

By Sarah Young

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Published: Sun 21 Apr 2013, 9:25 AM

Last updated: Sat 4 Apr 2015, 7:55 AM

Mexican-born American Cesar Millan rose from impoverished illegal immigrant to international television superstar through his uncanny ability to connect with ‘man’s best friend’ and his sometimes controversial approach to showing your dog ‘who’s boss’.

He entered the US without a visa when he was 21 — knowing no one and speaking no English — where he first worked in a dog-grooming store, tasked with dealing with the most aggressive of dogs. The self-taught expert went on to create the Pacific Point Canine Academy and then the Dog Psychology Center in Los Angeles. Picked out after a profile piece appeared in the Los Angeles Times, he made his foray into television with his first show premiering in 2004.

Millan’s new show, Cesar’s Leader of the Pack, looks at big questions around adopting and owning a dog, and puts new dog owners to the test, in an attempt to highlight the plight of abandoned dogs around the globe.

I understand you were called el Perrero — “the dog boy” — as a child. When did you realise you had a talent, and why dogs?

I started learning to work with dogs as a child, visiting my grandfather’s Sinaloa (farm), and it was always just a natural thing. I’m a very instinctual person, and so are dogs, so it was a good fit. I was 13 when I told my mother I wanted to be the best dog trainer in the world, and she always supported me in that goal. My grandfather was always very in touch with nature, and that’s where I got that from. I am learning to work with other animals, such as horses. All animals communicate with energy and body language, just in slightly different ways.

What qualifies a person as a ‘dog behaviourist’?

In my case, it began by growing up with dogs, followed by over twenty years’ experience of actually working with them. For aspiring behaviorists, I’d advise them to work with as many dogs as they can — volunteer at a shelter, work for a vet or groomer. Let the dogs teach you. Pay attention to how they communicate, and how they react to you. I don’t know if you can define a talent as a dog behaviourist, but you can certainly see it by how the dogs react to the human. Dogs do not lie, and they’ll let you know whether someone has the ability.

So what are the most common mistakes dog owners make?

Not being aware of the signals they’re sending to their dog, particularly the energy they’re presenting. Far too often, people will wind up unconsciously rewarding a dog for its misbehavior through affection — have you ever seen someone pick up a small dog because it’s barking? They just told the dog: “I like it when you act this way,” and so it makes the behavior worse. The most common problems are aggression, barking, and problems on walks.

Do you get many requests for help from the UAE? How much of a problem are abandoned dogs here?

I hear from dog lovers all over the world, including the UAE, and I’ve had a lot of invitations to come to Dubai. From what I understand, the issue of abandoned dogs in the UAE is huge, but this is true in many countries. There are 600 million abandoned dogs worldwide, and the simplest thing we can do to reduce that is to spay and neuter our dogs. Another thing people can do is adopt from shelters...I hope people will learn almost any dog can be rehabilitated, and make a wonderful addition to the family.

If you’re going to adopt an abandoned dog with behavioural problems, what kind of person do you need to be?

(Someone with) patience and consistency. Sometimes, a dog will “get it” right away but more often than not, it takes time to reduce and eliminate unwanted behaviour. The wrong thing to do is to become angry or frustrated when your dog misbehaves. That can just make it worse, especially if your dog has problems with aggression or fear.

You’ve done a fair amount of work with celebrities, such as Jada Pinkett Smith, Patti LaBelle, Virginia Madsen and Ed McMahon, and their dogs. Spill the beans — which celebrity’s dog was the worst-behaved? And did your cure last?

Now you’re trying to get me in trouble! I don’t like to tell stories or make judgments like that. When it comes to dogs, they don’t know whether you’re a poor student or a billionaire. I’ve worked with celebrities who succeeded and never had a problem with their dog again. I’ve worked with regular people who just couldn’t learn what I taught them and kept having problems. And, of course, the other way around. As I always say, I rehabilitate dogs; I train people. Some people can be trained and some can’t, and they’re ultimately the source of the dog’s problems.

What’s the funniest situation you have encountered in your work?

Because dogs are honest and can’t lie, funny things happen all the time. But the funniest thing that’s happened recently involves a llama I rescued and brought to my Dog Psychology Center. His name is Lorenzo, and he has no respect for personal space — he’s a little too friendly. He loves people but if you go into the enclosure with him, he’ll get right up into your face and lean on you. If you’re male and you’re not careful, he’ll also try to mount you. Since he’s a little over six feet tall, he can be intimidating. The staff have had to help more than a few people tell him to get down.

The San Francisco SPCA director of The Academy for Dog Trainers criticised you in 2006 for physically confronting aggressive dogs and using choke chains for fearful dogs. How do you respond to your critics?

Everyone who becomes well-known in any field has critics, and I generally ignore them, especially when their complaints don’t change year after year. When you get two dog trainers together, the only thing they can agree on is that they don’t like a third trainer’s methods. I am constantly refining my methods, always learning new information. I was probably doing things a little differently seven years ago — but who wasn’t?

I imagine it must have been hard to deal with the public spotlight though, following your marriage breakup in 2010 and the death of your best friend, (pit bull terrier) Daddy. How has success affected your personal life?

When I was going through all the trouble in 2010, I wasn’t really aware of being in the public spotlight. I was too depressed and preoccupied with my own problems. But, once I came back from all that and was touring and doing live shows and meeting people again, I was reminded that those fans are why I’m here, and why I do what I do. I do get recognised everywhere I go, but I also get to hear wonderful stories — “Cesar, I was going to get rid of my dog, but then I saw your show.”

So, what’s next?

If I could wave a magic wand and suddenly every dog on Earth has a happy home, I’d do it. But, of course, things don’t work that way. I’m doing everything I can to raise awareness, and to end things like animal abuse, dog fighting, abandonment, puppy mills. Through (the Millan) Foundation, and with Leader of the Pack, I hope I can educate people to become part of the solution.

‘Cesar Millan’s Leader of the Pack part 2’ will screen on National Geographic channel on April 24 at 10pm.


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