Dog Training Shows On T.V.

They say that the only thing two dog trainers can agree on is what a third dog trainer is doing wrong.

And that’s especially true when you’re talking about celebrity dog trainers.  Those among us who seek out fame and fortune–usually catering our services to the Hollywood crowd and the Jet Set pack and often receiving magazine write ups, interviews and sometimes even television shows.

“None of them ever really captured
the public’s imagination before…”

Before Cesar Millan, the Dog Whisperer, there were others.  Barbara Woodhouse.  Matthew “Uncle Matty” Margolis.  Joel Silverman and his “Good Dog U” television show.  But none of them ever really captured the public’s imagination before like Cesar Millan.

Born In Mexico

Born in Mexico, Cesar Millan had a pretty typical third-world upbringing, as far as I can tell.

Except that he liked dogs a lot — something fairly rare in Mexico.  In my experience, there is a culturally-based fear of dogs in many Latin American countries.  This is usually because there are many stray dogs and dog packs running loose, both in the city and in the country, carrying disease and asocial behavior.

From a young age, mothers will scoop up their children at the first sign of a stray dog pack and often run worriedly in the opposite direction.

So, to find an excellent dog trainer who comes from Germany, Belgium, the Czech Republic or Holland (all big “dog training” countries) wouldn’t be too surprising.  But that Cesar Millan is from Mexico– a country not known for it’s dog training community is all the more exceptional.

“He’s Good… He’s Really Good!”

Cesar Millan is different from most of the other celebrity dog trainers:  He’s good.  Really good.  Whereas many of the others are just adequate (and some outright kooky, ala Tamar Geller), Cesar Millan on the other hand has real skill.

Although his show, “The Dog Whisperer” on National Geographic is heavily edited– I’ve been impressed that they’ve shown as much footage of “real” dog training as they have.  Originally when I heard about the show, I figured that if he was a really good dog trainer, they’d gloss over the corrections or anything that might make for “un-Politically Correct” viewing.  Like lifting the dog off his back feet when the dog is showing dog aggression.  Or breaking up a dog fight in a public dog park.

“There is a lot of hype surrounding Cesar Millan.
But much of this is forgiveable… “

In order to get press and notoriety, it’s often necessary for the spin doctors (the publicists) to  “craft a story” that paints a very sellable image of their client.

According to his press, Cesar Millan illegally crossed the border to come to America when he was 21 year-old and with only $100 in his pocket.  After working for a dog groomer, as a limosine washer, and as a dog walker, Cesar Millan started picking up celebrity clients after moving to Los Angeles and advertising his dog training skills by word of mouth.  Most notably with the help of actor and hip hop star Will Smith and wife actress Jada Pinkett.

My hunch is that at this time in his life, he probably received some sort of mentorship from other dog trainers in the Los Angeles area, although I haven’t heard any gossip, yet.

Why do I think this?  Because nobody is simply born with the kind of handling ability that Cesar Millan has.  It’s taught.  It’s an acquired skill, and not one you acquire by just “watching and observing” dogs.  You may have a natural kinship with animals.  But knowing how and where to hold the leash when an aggressive dog is lunging at you is not something you automatically acquire.  Nor is knowing when to put pressure on a dominant dog and when to back off.

But this criticism is not meant to demean Cesar Millan or his skill.  I think it’s probably more just that it plays well for the producers of the television show to claim that he’s some sort of Mexican dog wizard who walked straight out of the hills of Mazatlan and into your living room.

In interviews, Cesar Millan comes across as humble and very devoted to helping dogs and owners.

To listen to an interview of Cesar Millan that was on National Public Radio, click on this link:

As you can tell, the interviewer is very much a ‘humanist” in her approach to dogs.  Cesar Millan (rightfully) insists that dogs are dogs, and must be treated as such.

Which is another thing I like about Cesar Millan: He respects the dogs as animals and works mostly by training the owners.  I have no idea how he keeps his patience with many of his clients.  I owned a dog training company for seven years, and by the time I left Los Angeles I was about ready to shoot some of these people.  Let me tell you– training the dogs is the easy part.  Training the owners is the difficult part.

“The television show does a good job of showing
the fretting dog owners as Cesar Millan goes to work.”

Cesar Millan is good at dominating the situation without coming across as domineering.  And at explaining what he’s doing so that the viewer is on his side.  The television show does a good job of showing the fretting dog owners as Cesar Millan goes to work.

But in the end, they’re always appreciative.  The show sort of reminds me of “Trading Spaces” for dogs.  (A TLC channel program from a few years ago).

One of the more impressive aspects of Cesar Millan‘s show is the footage taken from his “Dog Psychology Center” in South Los Angeles.  If I heard correctly, it’s a couple of acres, which means he’s either got some financial backers with deep pockets or it’s in a really rough part of town.  Which is probably the later, as it’s less of an issue when you’ve got a yard of 30 or 40 Pit Bulls and Rottweilers.

One of the interesting things I noticed (but the show didn’t draw attention to) is that his yard is divided, with some dogs on one side and other dogs on the opposite side, separated by a chain link fence.  This leads me to believe that the dogs on one side of the fence will get along with each other only if he (or one of his staff) is present, and the other dogs can probably be left alone unsupervised.

As I’ve said before: dog aggression can be controlled but not eliminated.

While some of Cesar Millan‘s techniques may differ from mine, the underlying approach to dealing with dogs is very similar: Communicate with dogs on a natural level, the way they communicate with each other.

It appears that most of the show is centered around teaching dog owners who overly anthropomorphize their pets.  (Applying human attributes to their dogs).  This is the role of a good companion dog trainer.  The dog training part is really quite easy.  It’s teaching the owner that’s the  difficult part.

Cesar Millan‘s mantra is: “Exercise, Discipline and Affection.”

His mantra is a truism, and it plays well on television without going into too much detail about training technique.  Which admittedly, is not the focus of the show– to highlight the human drama surrounding dysfunctional dog ownership.

One of the quirkier aspects of Cesar Millan‘s spiel is that he frequently talks about “energy.”

Your “energy when you walk into a room with the dog.”  The “energy that you project when taking your dog for a walk.”  “Your energy when correcting your dog’s behavior.”

Initially, this was a big turn-off for me as it seemed to play overtly to the Hollywood crowd and their pension for anything holistic, alternative, green and sometimes just outright wacky.  It also reminded me of Linda Tellinton’s “T-Touch” method, which claims something along the lines that massage can transfer energy and erase aggressive behavior.  Yeah, sure.  And if you believe that, then I’ve got a dog here who can use a good massage.

But the more I started to reflect upon my own process of learning to speak Spanish, the more I reminded myself that English, for Cesar Millan, is a second language.  Often, the words don’t translate exactly from one language to the next, even when it seems like a person is fluent in the language.

What I’ve come to realize is that (I think?) when Cesar Millan talks about energy, what he’s really referring to is body language and the way that you carry yourself.  All of which a dog can pick up on, in seconds.  So, taken in this light the whole “energy” thing makes a lot more sense.

I really have only two criticisms of the Dog Whisperer show:

  1. It’s obvious that the show is heavily edited.  It would be interesting to see the footage that gets left on the cutting room floor, but I have a hunch that it simply wouldn’t play too well to the “politically correct” crowd.  Heck, I’m surprised they included the footage of the Jindo going crazy and trying to bite him.  Nonetheless, don’t expect any “lost footage” to be on the dvd release  for next season.
  1. It is my speculation that many of the behaviors–specifically the aggressive behaviors–that Cesar Millan works with are truly cured but only for the time that Cesar Millan is around.  After a month or two, it’s more likely that most owners will slip back into their old behavior patterns.  This is why it’s so important for owners to continually work with a trainer, even after the initial problems are fixed…  to break their old behavior patterns.  However, the sad truth is that many times, it’s not a matter of technique but rather temperament match between dog and owner.

But Cesar Millan can’t be blamed for that.  It’s something that all of us professional dog trainers struggle with.  Training the humans as well as training the dogs.

My hat is off to Cesar Millan for re-injecting a bit of realism into the dog fancy about what it means to really train dogs with behavior problems without thinking that cookie-bribery will fix everything.  Because it won’t.  Especially not with the “red zone” dogs that Cesar Millan is often working with.


This article is a work in progress.  If you have something you’d like to share about Cesar Millan, please e-mail me at: