They say you should never meet your heroes because you'll only be disappointed. But when that hero is Cesar Millan, internationally renowned dog psychologist and people-trainer, it is perhaps worth taking the chance.
Did you know cesarmillan is a verb? As in, "my dog was out of control but I cesarmillaned him into submission"? Well, I use it, anyway - and a new verb is not all the man has given me. But more on that later.
It's May 10. I've braved the pouring rain to get to Stanley Plaza for an outdoor event ahead of Millan's Hong Kong show, part of his Leader of the Pack world tour.
After the interview there'll be a photo shoot on a third-floor veranda where it doesn't rain quite as much as it does outside, and Millan's team have picked out a pack of dogs for him to pose with.
While the cameras flash, the dogs' owners will try to get their pets to play up for the camera so Millan can subdue them with his trademark calm and assertive energy.
"I've got this," he will say, smiling patiently, but the dog owners will keep shouting and clicking their fingers, apparently thinking they are better at communicating with dogs than Cesar Millan. They're not.
IN A DARKENED ROOM in a restaurant in Stanley Plaza, eagerly watched through a glass wall by tour organisers, handlers, impresarios and general hangers-on - important people with plastic cards around their necks - Millan, 44, is having a quick lunch by himself between interviews. He dabs fastidiously at his mouth with a handkerchief like Gustavo Fring in Breaking Bad, and I imagine he is wishing he were running up some hill somewhere with a pack of dogs. Although courteous to a fault, he seems tired, which is perhaps not surprising given he has toured several cities with his show and thousands of people want a piece of him.
A girl from some dog organisation barges in front of me to give him her card. She has much to say and it's eating into my interview time. I feel like kicking her hard on the shin but can't show impatience in front of Millan. Finally, the show organiser deftly manhandles her out and the interview can begin.
"I grew up on a farm in Mexico where the dogs were working dogs," says Millan. "They had to work otherwise they wouldn't get fed, but dogs also need something to do; a purpose in life, just like humans."
Millan says he felt a special connection with the dogs on his grandfather's farm and they used to follow him around hoping for his approval - and food. There were no treats in that household, no "good boy, GOOD boy!" just, "yeah, we'll let you live another day and here are some scraps".
When the family moved to a nearby city he would again be a magnet for dogs, but now this was met with jeers and scorn. Other children would mock him and call him El Perrero, "dog boy".
"It was like I had leprosy. So I became introverted and wary about people because I felt rejected by society. I thought, 'Give me your dog, just don't talk to me.'"
Although never envisaging himself handling people with the nonchalant ease he does today, he knew from an early age, he says, that he wanted to be the best dog-trainer in the world and asked his mother if she thought he could pull it off.
"You can do anything," she said. Unfortunately, Mexico wasn't the place for these kinds of dreams - but the land of Lassie and Rin Tin Tin was just across the border.
The young Cesar thought all American dogs were super-dogs; noble, ears perpetually pricked up, always shiny and groomed, and busy with solving mysteries too baffling for humans.
He made his way to the United States at the age of 21 and, for the first couple of months, slept under bridges, but, he says, he never lost sight of his goal. He found a job cleaning limousines. Between limos he learned English from a highbrow radio station, because he wanted to be well-spoken, while walking Rottweilers, pit bulls and Staffordshire terriers for drug dealers and other shady characters in the rough Los Angeles neighbourhood in which he lived. People were amazed - how could he walk so confidently among these scary dogs with their terrible reputations, and with them off the leash?
He started training the dogs to turn the water hose on and off and fetch buckets of water for him. This spectacle naturally attracted an audience - and the audience was impressed.
His first celebrity customer was Jada Pinkett, at that time an aspiring actress who had yet to marry actor Will Smith. She wanted big dogs for protection but they weighed more than she did, so Millan stepped in, providing exercise and guidance. This led to a lifelong friendship as Millan established the Dog Psychology Centre in LA and, through friends and contacts, his own TV programme, Dog Whisperer with Cesar Millan, which began airing in 2004.
Now he tours the world and says his fame is "a beautiful platform because I have access to world leaders and can actually do something to change the world".
"It's not about the money," he says, offering me a biscuit. No, not a dog biscuit! A chocolate-chip cookie. "I wanted - and still want - to really change the world by showing people how calm and assertive energy can transform their lives with dogs."
If you haven't seen his shows on the Nat Geo Wild television channel, they tend to run something like this: we're introduced to a person (normally a woman, let's call her Timidity) and her Chihuahua, Fang. Fang won't let Timidity sleep in her own bed (a recurring theme) thus ruling out the possibility of her ever finding a boyfriend. In fact, Fang chases away anyone who comes to the house and snarls Timidity out of whatever room she's in. Timidity is afraid to take back her bed and other furniture because she's worried the dog will be sad. He had such a terrible childhood you see; he was abandoned by his first owners and then bitten by another inmate at the rescue centre so it would be cruel not to give the poor pooch exactly what he wants, she reasons.
Millan rolls up in his SUV. Hearing the doorbell, Fang goes ballistic and tries to chew through the front door. Timidity cowers in the background, wringing her hands.
Completely ignoring the hysterically barking Fang, Millan casually claims back the furniture in Timidity's house, including the bed, by sitting on it, leaving the defeated Fang to sulk in a corner. Timidity has been sleeping on the floor for three years. Time elapsed since Millan entered: four minutes.
"Wow!" exclaims everybody. "How did you do that?" And Timidity admits that, although she called Millan because she was at the end of her tether, she never thought he could actually do something about her demon dog. They then sit on the badly chewed sofa and talk, and we soon find out the real reason the dog is demonic: it's Timidity herself!
Fang never gets any exercise because old T is afraid he will attack the neighbourhood children. The little pooch is therefore bursting with pent-up energy, which he releases by racing around on top of furniture and chewing through all her things, such as condoms that are now, sadly, past their expiry date. He has never had any discipline or guidance because Timidity feels sorry for him; in fact, no matter what he does, he gets petted, is given special treats and is told he's a "poor baby" by T, who considers Fang her child.
Millan then puts on his rollerblades and takes Fang for a proper gallop around the neighbourhood until the little s**t is well and truly winded. Then he hands the leash over to Timidity, who marvels at how Fang just walks past a group of teenagers without murdering them. And when Fang starts scowling at the youngsters, a quick "Tsht!" from Timidity makes him snap back to attention and trot on.
Timidity is made to realise she must do everything in her life differently from now on and, lo and behold, when the film crew swings by three months later she has conquered her agoraphobia, lost 30kg and started her own consulting service for retired stuntmen. Fang gets three walks a day and must earn his keep. Best of all, doggie now sleeps without complaint in a basket on the floor and Timidity in her own bed, complete with handsome boyfriend!
As amazing as the transformation of the dogs on Millan's shows may be, it's even more interesting to watch the change in the humans. One woman was on the verge of bankruptcy because she felt she had to buy her dog two expensive toys every day "otherwise he'll be disappointed".
"I deal mostly with rock-bottom cases, where the owners have tried everything in the way of dog behaviourists, trainers and so on and are now at a point where they have to kill the dog or change themselves," says Millan. "Once they realise the dog's behaviour is a direct result of their actions, it's much easier for them to change than for those who are muddling along thinking they can't change. My clients desperately want to change their situation, and I show them that it's not impossible. I bring hope."
Don't I just know it! Millan is the only reason my excellent dog Koldbrann is alive today. I met him on wetlands, trailing a leash. I picked it up, calmly and assertively, naturally, seeing as I had been glued to the Dog Whisperer for several months. Although a hulking brute, he followed willingly. I had never seen this dog before, so I figured he must have run away from a local rescue centre, and he had.
This is when I decided cesarmillan was a verb. Many was the time I had to wrestle an overexcited Koldbrann to the ground and lightly strangle him until he calmed down.
Millan's words would keep ringing in my head: "You are the pack leader. Dogs need to follow. They need leadership. Be persistent. Be consistent. Follow through."
So through I followed.
"You must see dogs as animal, then dog, then breed, and only then as name," says Millan, who has infinite patience but surely must sigh inwardly over people like Oprah Winfrey, who introduced her cocker spaniel to him thus: "This is Sophie. She is my daughter."
When Millan entered that house, he saw Winfrey, "the most powerful woman in the world", completely ruled by her dog, unable to control it. The real boss of the household, however, was the cat. Any sign of disobedience from Sophie and the canine got a cat-clip round the ears quick smart. So the cat lorded it over the dog and the dog could wrap powerhouse Winfrey around her front paw. How did things get so out of control?
"I would say the No1 and most common mistake dog owners make, whether the dog is fearful or dominant, is to give affection at the wrong time. To be a good dog owner your ideal should be: first exercise, then discipline and only then affection. And the dog should have earned the affection," Millan says, flashing his famous neon-white smile while eyeing the biscuits.
"So, when your dog is afraid of something, firecrackers for example, don't pet it and say 'poor baby'. That only reinforces the fear, making the dog think that it being afraid is what you want. You are actually rewarding it for unwanted behaviour."
It's the same with aggression or dominance; if your hand-sized dog is the scourge of the neighbourhood and enjoys mangling your visitors, don't pick it up and say, "No, noooo" in a rising tone while simultaneously petting her. That makes her think, "Biting people is not only great fun - look at them bleed! - it's also what my grovelling servant [you, the owner] wants! Win-win!"
AT HIS SOLD-OUTMAY 11 show at the AsiaWorld-Expo, Millan imitates, to great roars of laughter, dog owners (normally, alas, women) telling off their little manicured terrors: "Trixie, noooo, I've told you a hundred times not to poo in my handbag, you know Mummy gets very angry when you do that. No. Noooooo, I mean it. Oh, all right, have a biscuit. But only if you promise me not to bite the postman, except on Thursdays."
Everybody laughs, some of us perhaps a little uneasily because we all know those people - and sometimes we are those people. Dogs are so smart they can find a 100th of a milligram of heroin in a steel container buried under 10 metres of reinforced concrete, so why shouldn't they understand common sense?
But a dog is not an unusually hairy child; it is an animal. It is we who have to understand them and fulfil their needs (exercise, discipline, affection) because they understand us instinctively based on the energy we send out, according to Millan. They know at once who is trustworthy, fearful, a pushover.
"So after not giving affection at the wrong time, exercise is the most important," says Millan. "Nothing beats daily walks when it comes to bonding with your dog. And when you've drained their energy you can start guiding them to do what you want with rules, boundaries and limitations."
That piece of advice certainly worked with Koldbrann. After a few weeks of strenuous walks and wrestling, I started taking him to my house and he treated it with the utmost respect. Before I knew it, I had microchipped him and become his legal master. That's when I discovered he'd been on death row at the rescue centre, having been branded "unadoptable" and "completely out of control".
As the building shakes under the onslaught of another thunderstorm, a girl is fretting on the AsiaWorld-Expo stage. She's getting increasingly nervous about her tiny dog, Puta, afraid it will harm Millan.
"It's OK, I've got this," says he. Then, while making the dog sit just by looking at it, he remarks as an aside to the audience, "After all, I am the Dog Whisperer."