Cesar Millan, a “dog whisperer”, teaches us about the true nature of canines. Despite the media hype, there is no such thing as a “killer dog”
He runs along a dirt mountain trail, scampering over ragged rock formations and climbing steep inclines covered with brush and bramble. He is not alone. Following close behind are twenty-five Rottweilers, Pit Bulls and German Shepherds, kicking up a fine cloud of dust as they move. The dogs do not pass him. When he stops, they stop. When he sits, they lie down. Except for an occasional “Heeyah!” to call the pack together for traveling, there is no spoken language. He communicates with his body—and with his energy. Except for his having two legs instead of four, he could be just another dog, with one huge difference – Cesar Millan is clearly the alpha male. He knows it and the dogs know it too.
Millan was born on a small farm in Mexico. His family used working dogs and he learned a lot by watching how his father earned the animals’ loyalty and respect. He also discovered a great deal just by playing with the dogs and supervising them as they helped herd cattle. But it was by observing them in packs, under natural conditions, which taught him best how to connect with the animals psychologically and spiritually. Millan says he learned to feel what they were feeling. He claims that dogs don’t “think” they react; that there is no knowledge behind instinct. In a sense, Millan believes, he became part canine himself.
Coming to this to this country at age twenty-one with what he describes as only the knowledge God gave him, Millan was shocked to see people using choke chains and other restraining devices. He was appalled to hear dogs scolded, to see them being clumsily approached, grossly misunderstood and beaten. He felt a burning need to help the dogs — and to educate their humans in the process.
With no knowledge of English, he found work as a dog groomer to support himself. Naturally, he began chatting with customers about their dog-related issues — learning the human language around him while simultaneously teaching the language of dogs. Soon, as folks began bringing their unstable and troubled pets to Millan for treatment, it became increasingly apparent to him that the humans were the ones who needed training. Cesar Millan found his calling, his mission in life: To help dogs and people better understand each other’s wants and needs.
Currently, Millan directs the Dog Psychology Center of Los Angeles. Located in South-Central LA, the Center is a canine camp providing therapy for dogs with physical, emotional or psychological problems. Included in the roughly two dozen dogs currently comprising “the pack” are abandoned dogs rescued off the streets of Los Angeles and dogs from owners who wanted to euthanize troubled, but otherwise healthy creatures. Millan’s results have been remarkable. Among his many stories of successful rehabilitation are large numbers of un-neutered males, including German Shepherds, Rottweilers and Pit Bulls.
Millan is no dog “trainer.” He never uses choke chains, leads or any of what he considers the unnatural devices common to dog trainers. Instead, he relates to dogs as members of a pack– with himself as their leader. He believes the pack mentality socializes and balances the animals. He must be doing something right. His extraordinary work with even the most difficult of canine-human relationships has saved countless animals from death, earning him the reverential sobriquet “the dog whisperer,” and garnering such famous clientele as Will and Jada Pinkett-Smith’s Rottweilers, Dennis Rodman’s Shepherds, and Annie Potts’ little terror of a terrier. Millan’s work has been profiled in the Los Angeles Times Magazine and his television appearances include “Good Morning London,” PBS’ “Life and Times,” and NBC’s “Stop the Violence.”
Millan contends there is no such thing as an “aggressive” breed, and certainly no “killer” dogs, but only dogs that do not have a leader and thus have taken the dominant role. Such dogs, he says, must be dominated by their human in order to be rehabilitated. In order to do so, Millan emphasizes the necessity of developing an awareness of animal perception and psychology.
First, he says, we must understand how dogs learn about the world. They do so primarily through the nose, then the eyes, and lastly the ears. Dog trainers typically reverse this sequence, a practice that creates instability and confusion for the animal, tending to produce hostile, depressed, or hyperactive dogs. In other words, we are talking at our dogs rather than connecting with them, and then we blame them for not understanding us.
The issues surrounding misunderstood dogs are much more serious than torn-up couches or mere messes on the kitchen floor. Recently, for instance, the gruesome mauling and killing of a San Francisco woman named Diane Whipple by an English Mastiff cross-breed set off a massive public outcry of shock, fear and anger. Unfortunately, that well-publicized incident was only one among a huge number of canine-related problems.
The Humane Society of the United States estimates there are more than 4.7 million victims of dog bites each year, while the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention asserts that, from l979 through l996, dogs in the U.S accounted for more than 300 human deaths — most of them, sadly, children.
Clearly, we have a nationwide problem, one that is not being effectively addressed by any so-called animal control agencies. Such makeshift measures as banning breeds and destroying “bad” dogs cannot work because they fail to treat or even acknowledge the real issue. Namely, human beings’ fundamental misunderstanding of dog psychology. In March of this year, in a powerful news segment broadcast on KTLA, Millan illustrated this point by dramatically recreating the Diane Whipple killing and demonstrating how a better understanding of dog psychology may well have saved the poor, young woman’s life.
Not all of us can be “dog whisperers” but we all can learn the basics of more effectively reading and reacting to dog behaviors. If we do that, countless injuries– even lives—can be saved.
Marian Silverman, co-author of a book about Cesar Millan’s unique methods, (currently being offered to publishers) is a Licensed Family Therapist and Educational Psychologist whose life’s work has been in the field of Behavior, Psychology and Education. A former teacher and School Psychologist with Los Angeles Unified Schools, she is currently in practice as an Animal Assisted Therapy Specialist and consultant for the People Animal Connection at UCLA, where she specializes in working with troubled adolescents at the Neuro-Psychiatric Institute. Assisted by her registered therapy dog “Holly Go Lightly,” the team provides the physical, emotional, and psychological connection that facilitates healing and recovery.