Dog is my copilot

"The Dog Whisperer" trains problem pooches and their wayward owners. But could he get my dog, Potus, and me to behave?

Published February 16, 2005 11:25PM (EST)

My dog and I are not very well-trained. I don't floss regularly enough, I'm badly in need of a haircut and I sometimes don't return e-mails for weeks on end. Potus, who turns 1 year old this week, can sit and stay, but she hogs the bed, she doesn't always come when called, and she barks at other dogs if they look at her the wrong way.

Naturally, we were both extremely excited to meet Cesar Millan, aka "The Dog Whisperer," since we watch TiVoed episodes of his show together, usually at lunchtime. We love it when the dogs get really nervous or angry and Cesar puts them in their place with just a glare or a gesture. Potus picks her head up and stares at the screen whenever a dog runs around, whines or growls. "Yeah! Look at that bad doggie!" I say, then pass her a piece of my pizza crust.

I imagined that, at best, Cesar might offer a few tips on how to train Potus not to bark at other dogs while she's on the leash. But after meeting Cesar and visiting his Dog Psychology Center in South Central Los Angeles, it became clear that training was entirely beside the point. If I wanted a good dog, I'd have to develop the self-discipline and calm, assertive state of mind to be a good leader. Plenty of dog books stress the importance of dominance, but Cesar seems to embody his pack leader status with such grace and ease it makes the bellowed commands of other trainers look clumsy and ineffective. Having illegally immigrated from Mexico 14 years ago, Cesar has worked hard to emulate this country's icons of positive reinvention -- Oprah, Phil, Deepak -- and has developed the kind of self-possession and charisma that doesn't demand attention, but somehow calms and relaxes those in his midst. As he told me his story and explained his approach to his life, his relationships and his career, it quickly became clear that Cesar's ability to inspire easily transcends the realm of dog behavior.

But when I first greeted Cesar at the door, I mostly just wanted to pretend that Potus wasn't the boss of me. Like a whipped guy who acts tough, I yelled at Potus to lie down, and when she jumped up on Cesar seconds later, I feigned surprise and forced her into the down position again. Cesar didn't even look in the dog's direction -- which was very frustrating for her, since she's such a big fan of his work.

Cesar looked fit and drank from a big bottle of water, as if he'd just worked out. I imagined that he'd just gotten back from rollerblading through the streets of South Central with a pack of dogs, like at the beginning of "The Dog Whisperer." It's an absolutely mesmerizing image, the kind of thing I daydreamed about as a kid -- what could be better than being the boss of a whole team of loyal dogs, dogs obedient enough that they wouldn't tangle their leashes or chase cats or pull you into oncoming traffic?

But while you've never caught Timmy fixing Lassie with a domineering stare or imagined St. Francis of Assisi issuing silent reprimands to the little animals that clutched at the hem of his robes, Cesar makes it clear that having a pack of obedient animals in your midst isn't about speaking softly and carrying a big bag of Snausages.

"Most of my clients say, 'Well, my dog is my soul mate, but he wants to kill another dog!' So they achieve emotional energy or spiritual energy, but that doesn't mean the dog listens to them. You see? Dogs don't follow a lovable leader or a spiritual leader. We're the only species that has Gandhi. We're the only species that rescues other species: pandas, zebras, gorillas. The rest of the species won't. If they see somebody that's weak, they exterminate them."

Sadly, I assumed, like many dog owners probably do, that Potus was special and somehow transcended the instincts of her species. She's always been good-natured and relatively calm for a puppy, she listens pretty well, and she loves other dogs. At the dog park, she licks other dogs' faces and acts confident but easygoing. I figured I had the upper hand. Plus, I always thought that bad, dominant dogs were easy to spot, like my mom's Jack Russell, who quite possibly files as head of household on her tax return. But when Potus hit about 8 months, something changed: She started to act aggressive toward other dogs whenever she was on a leash. And all the "bad dog!s" and "no's" in the world seemed to have little effect.

Cesar suggests that trouble begins by giving dogs love without making them earn it. "You never hear that a homeless person's dog attacks somebody. It's always the dog that has a house with a professional human," he says. "Even in third-world countries, dogs are starving but they're not out of balance."

And why is that? "First of all, they're not behind walls. Walls create frustration," he says. "And then, they have a job. So they use their bodies and their minds every single day to survive. Dogs in America don't use their bodies and their minds to survive. They get food because they're cute. They get food because somebody loves them very, very much and they're somebody's kid, or a replacement for something else -- which is really good for the human."

"I'm not saying it's bad. I'm just saying the human is fulfilling himself first."

Guilty as charged. Cesar feels that training is fine, but it doesn't help much when it comes to bad behavior. If you're not the pack leader -- which you sometimes don't discover until a problem emerges -- you won't be able to control the dog when instinct takes over. Fulfilling a dog's real needs, and behaving in ways that a dog understands naturally, Cesar says, are the keys to having a calm, submissive, balanced dog. This means lots of exercise with you as the leader, in front of the dog, and lots of discipline.

As opposed to, say, just for instance, waking up first thing in the morning and showering your dog with kisses? "I'm not saying not to share affection -- I love what I do, it's my passion! -- but I give that as the dessert. After they're calm from exercise, submissive from the psychological part," he says. At his center, Cesar sees a lot of wealthy clients whose dogs are very loved, have huge houses, get lots of treats, but they develop behavioral problems because their owners aren't actually giving what they need first and foremost -- daily exercise and psychological discipline. "The dog is not going to get the benefit of being loved because he is out of balance."

This is a key to the appeal of "The Dog Whisperer," by the way; Cesar may be a dog charmer, but his attention to the humans on his show is what makes it so entertaining. He focuses as much on the dog owner as on the dogs themselves. "I rehabilitate dogs. I train people," he says during the opening credits. And whether it's the owner who is more manic and hyper than Flirt, her pet Chinese Crested, or the lonely, recently divorced owner who babies Sunshine, her Doberman, Cesar is constantly uncovering the psychological needs in the human that create the neurotic tic or aggressive streak in the dog.

Such sensitivity wasn't always Cesar's strongest suit. He grew up on a farm in Mexico in a family where the men were in charge. When he was 21, he paid a coyote to help him illegally cross the border into San Diego, where he held down a series of menial jobs. Eventually, he got a job working for a limousine salesman who helped teach him English and encouraged him to pursue his interest in dog training. He met his wife, Illusion, 29, around this time, but quickly learned that his macho Mexican ways stood in the way of keeping his marriage together.

"What I learned when I came to America is, third-world country men do not fulfill women. The third-world country way of being is physical/psychological. That's perfect for animals, because animals want physical and psychological challenges," he says. "Animals want to be told what to do.

"A woman requires affection, a woman requires emotion, a woman requires you to say, 'You're so beautiful and you're so great,'" he says, before adding: "In America, dogs receive more affection than women in third-world countries.

"I really became aware of how much my mom suffered from the lack of emotion. She got exercise, discipline every day. But not affection. And then I came to America, and read the book 'Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus.'"

Yes, Cesar's been in California for a while now. And who gave him the book? Actress Jada Pinkett, of course. Cesar worked with Pinkett's Rottweilers, and the two became close friends. "We had a lot of sessions together, a lot of conversations together, and she became my mentor. But the most beautiful thing she did was, she hired a special English teacher to come to me for a year, because she believed in me. We didn't know each other, but somehow we clicked."

Did Pinkett point him in the direction of TV? "Yes. She always thought, 'This has to be on TV.' But of course, she knew better than that because my English was really bad. And I was nervous, I was insecure, and you know, all these things you go through because you think you can't pull it off. But then I figured out that I have this past pattern with people. I was a follower. In order for you to be on TV, you have to be the leader. Oprah is another of my role models in that area. She's a calm, assertive individual. So I start seeking help from people by observing them."

As Cesar and I spoke, Potus, who was supposed to be lying down at my feet, started rolling around and tugging at my shoelaces. "Has she exercised yet?" he asked.

Next thing I knew, we were walking down the street, with Cesar keeping Potus on about 2 inches of leash, giving her a little yank every time she pulled ahead of him, or her ears moved up into an alert position.

He explained that as long as she was alert and locked into her environment instead of submissive and attentive to him, her instincts would override her ability to listen and obey. Potus, meanwhile, was casting me dismayed glances.

Down the block, two yapping dogs emerged from their house and jumped around, growling and barking, behind an iron gate. Potus reared up and wriggled, trying to break free of Cesar's grasp so she could bark at the dogs.

Instead of becoming agitated, Cesar seemed pleased. "This is good. This is an opportunity to learn," he said. He calmly pushed Potus into a sitting position, facing slightly away from the dogs. Potus reared up again, yelping, and he pushed her down again, forcefully, but without any sign of aggression or unnecessary roughness. When she looked in the direction of the dogs, he gave her choke chain a little yank. After about two minutes, she was sitting calmly, ears back, not looking at the dogs at all. Then we moved forward -- a reward for achieving a calm, submissive state.

Around the next block, a guy from a city work crew across the street spotted Cesar as we walked by. "Hey! It's the Dog Whisperer!" Cesar waved at the guy.

"I love your show, man! It's the best! Keep up the good work!"

Cesar didn't look surprised. "Does that happen a lot?" I asked.

"Yeah. Not in South Central, though. They don't watch National Geographic there."

Cesar gave me the leash, then noted that I seemed tense when we walked by a barking dog. Having watched the show for months, I was annoyed that I hadn't successfully imitated the calm, dominant stance I'd seen Cesar demonstrate. But imitation wasn't good enough, Cesar explained. I had to feel completely relaxed in my role as boss. Some of my ex-boyfriends would be alarmed that this role doesn't come naturally to me, but Potus' immunity to my attempts to subdue her had left me with a Pavlovian response to the sound of jingling dog tags, and Cesar could sense that. Instead of imagining quick results, he explained, I needed to focus on setting up good habits and maintaining a calm, confident attitude. He was right -- I was hoping for some endpoint when I wouldn't have to work as hard, and Potus and I could go back to being lazy peers.

When I drove down to South Central to visit his Dog Psychology Center the next day, he rounded the corner on his rollerblades with a team of dogs on leashes, just as I was pulling up in my car. All of the dogs were looking straight ahead, and moved at the same pace. Once we were inside, I said hello to one of the dogs behind a fence, which prompted Cesar to explain the ground rules: no eye contact, no petting. The key is not to do anything that will excite the dogs or make them think you're not dominant. "If you don't act dominant, these dogs might think that women aren't dominant. I can't have that."

Potus looked nervously at the sea of dogs behind the fence, which included at least 15 pit bulls, four or five Rottweilers, a few German shepherds, a standard poodle, a Boston terrier, two Italian greyhounds, a smattering of mutts and one tiny Chihuahua. Cesar pointed out the Chihuahua and said, "That one has been attacking big dogs."

Cesar slowly let the dogs in to smell Potus, and while many of them were once troubled dogs, I wasn't nervous. On his show, Cesar sometimes brings aggressive dogs to the center. In one episode, one of the dogs in the pack acted up, and Cesar merely pointed in his direction, and he backed up 5 feet, and then rolled onto his back, exposing his belly. Wouldn't it be nice if you could elicit the same response in an annoying human?

But Cesar was far from egomaniacal about his role as pack leader. For about an hour, I watched as he controlled about 50 dogs without raising his voice. We went into a back alley area where the dogs run and play, and he would point or say, "Hey!" when any of the dogs stepped out of line. A few times I didn't know which of the dogs had acted up until Cesar singled it out for a hard stare. Even then, the dogs could clearly tell which one of them was the focus of his ire, but I couldn't.

"Did you see that?" he'd say. "He walked up with his mouth ready to bite. The energy was no good."

"That one behind you? How did you even see that?"

"The energy. I could feel it coming up from behind, so I looked, and there he was."

By this time, Potus was tromping through the mud with a few of the other dogs, looking happy and relaxed. So where did all these dogs come from? Cesar says about half were problem cases from local rescue organizations, dogs that couldn't be placed in homes until their behavioral problems were addressed. The other half were the pets of private clients who could afford to spend thousands to have their dogs rehabilitated. For many of them, Cesar is the last resort, and he claims that he's only encountered two dogs that he couldn't rehabilitate.

Which of these bruisers are Cesar's dogs? A few of the Rottweilers, maybe, and a pit bull or two? No. Cesar's dogs are the poodle, the Boston terrier and the two little greyhounds.

But the more you learn about Cesar, the more he confounds expectations. He talks about running through the hills of Los Angeles with a pack of dogs off-leash and pulling an angry Rottweiler off a German shepherd, then segues easily over to couples therapy and Deepak Chopra. His wife, Illusion, runs the business because he says she's much better at that stuff than he is, and he trusts her completely. And despite the growing popularity of the show (its ratings have soared the past two months), and Cesar's clearly ambitious nature, he talks mostly about -- what else? -- maintaining balance. It's remarkable that someone who started with nothing could be self-disciplined and centered enough not to become anxious and egocentric in the face of having it all.

"This wave of opportunities can control your life. I don't want that, I want to control my opportunities. I want to be the best dog trainer in the world; I said that when I was 13 years old. I wished for it. So I know I have the power to create whatever I want to be. That is already a reality in my mind. But I don't want that to control me. I just don't. Then I will have no freedom, and I love the freedom."

When I was putting Potus in the car, Cesar finally acknowledged her, and she licked his face gratefully. Like the other dogs, she seemed to cherish the attentions of this person who was so clearly in charge. My affections would always come cheaper than that, but Cesar's poise and confidence were still genuinely inspiring. In the past week since then, I've been running with Potus every morning, and she's getting less and less riled up by other dogs along the way. I even cut her toenails the other day, a task that used to make her think I was trying to kill her. It was my calm, confident manner, not any trick or shortcut, that made the difference. And even though Potus still hogs the bed, and I still need a haircut, we're both happier, more balanced animals, thanks to the Dog Whisperer.

By Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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