TV's 'dog whisperer'

By Joyee Chan

Understanding man's best friend is the speciality of Cesar Millan, who has two TV shows and trains not the dogs, but the owners

By Joyee Chan |

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Cesar Millan showed Oprah Winfrey how to get her dog out of attack mode.

Cesar Millan doesn't walk one dog. He typically leads at least two handfuls - all off-leash and without a problem - with calm control and confidence.

When it comes to all matters related to man's fluffy best friend, of course, Millan has reason to throw his weight around. He's the world's leading expert on canine behaviour, best known for his TV series Dog Whisperer and his dog-rescuing charity, the Millan Foundation. His new TV show, Cesar 911, just started on National Geographic Wild.

Next month, he's flying from his home in Los Angeles to Hong Kong for the first time to do a live show. If you go, you can expect plenty of educating and entertaining demonstrations on how to read your pooch's body language and fix common bad habits. But no pets, please - the evening is for people only.

With 25 years of experience tackling cases of aggressive, scared and just difficult dogs, Millan emphasises he trains not the animal, but the owner to rehabilitate their pets because he believes problems lie mostly in the way humans see and interact with dogs.

Our greatest mistake is to humanise dogs without thinking, he says. And that imbalance in a dog's natural identity and how we look at them leads to behavioural issues.

"We assume that dogs are human and that they have the same needs we do, but they are completely different. It's like saying pandas are the same as baby humans," Millan says in a phone interview.

"To love a dog the way you love a human, I understand. But I don't change their identity ... We have to respect, honour and care for the dog the way another dog would."

What dogs really want is not for the owner to shower them with affection and babble at them in high-pitched baby talk. Neither would they like it if the person-in-charge only bosses them around, giving commands and setting rules. Millan says a calm and happy dog needs an "authoritative figure" to look up to, someone who understands their physical and emotional needs. His approach, then, is to help dog owners to become pack leaders like parents are to children and coaches are to a football team.

"A leader is a person who takes the position of protector and director ..." he explains.

"When a dog and a human enter a relationship, we need to tell them what to do and set up the [rules] as to how to behave in certain environments for the dog's benefit."

One example was celebrity client Oprah Winfrey, who once had a cocker spaniel, Sophie. The problem was that Winfrey, despite having a powerful media presence in the US, became scared when Sophie would see other dogs and go into attack mode.

"When you're in front of a dog and you show fear, they don't feel secure," he says. "It's just like when you are with a friend in a dangerous neighbourhood and your friend becomes afraid. You don't feel as safe, and you try to control the situation. That's what happened with Sophie."

When Millan visited Winfrey, all he did was to take Sophie's leash firmly and confidently when she met his five dogs. Sophie, knowing she was protected and didn't need to act as a guardian, got along well with the pack. Sophie became a new dog in about 15 seconds.

Millan hopes his upcoming show will help dog lovers understand that being a leader comes before being an affectionate owner.