Cesar Millan, Dog Whisperer
Credit: Photograph by James Minchin III
At the core of of Millan's approach - which combines lessons he learned from his grandfather with the language of inspirational new-age personalities like Deepak Chopra and Wayne Dyer - is a simple, radical message: The dogs aren't the problem; the people are. Like wolves, Millan argues, dogs are pack animals, and pack animals need a "calm, assertive" leader. Too often, we bring our own neuroses to our relationships with dogs, and then we blame the dogs for the results. "I meet a lot of people who are Harvard graduates, but they can't walk a Chihuahua," he says. "A human thinks, 'How can I train this dog to listen to me?' instead of 'How can I train myself to listen to the dog?'"

In other words, if you want your dog to learn to sit, stay, or heel, don't call Cesar. "Those are tricks invented by human to control dog," he says. "I want you to relate to dog, not control dog. If you learn to live by the principles, you will be able to say 'good boy' at the right time, just by giving him a smile or by your heartbeat – your relaxation is more than enough for the dog to know this is what makes you happy." As he talks, his voice rises with excitement. "A dog can detect stage-one cancer; a dog can detect seizures before they happen," he says. "Not even a child's own mother knows that the kid is going to have a seizure! So for the happiness to come out of your mouth and for you to think that's the only way the dog understands you – you are underestimating his ability to know you."

When you first see Millan with dogs, you might think he doesn't even like them very much. He rarely gives physical affection or addresses them by name, preferring a more primal communication that involves subtle body language and lots of eye contact. One afternoon on set in North Hollywood, Millan sits on his trailer (a beat-up camper, actually) eating salad from a Tupperware container, while nearby a regal but extremely nervous three-year-old Belgian Tervuren named Sahzi is tied to a bench, panting and shaking.

"Six and a half weeks ago, if you play the piano, this dog runs away," Millan tells me. "And when another dog comes by, she bites the dog to keep them away because she's weak, so she tries to protect herself that way. And if you put the owners in the equation, it gets worse. The owner is tense, scouting around for problems everywhere she goes, so the dog has no choice but to be scared – the owner is actually bringing fear into the dog."

Millan plans to take the dog to the DPC for a week of rehabilitation and instructs crew coming in and out of the camper to "ignore the female." Still, as Sahzi sits there shivering, it takes all my willpower not to kneel down and try to comfort her. Millan tells me this would be precisely the wrong thing to do. "Then you are nurturing the behavior. I'm not feeling bad about her; I'm taking a strong position," he says. "That's what she needs. If you move toward her, you will overwhelm her even more. The person who moves toward her is not reading the dog right."

AΒ  couple of hours later, once Sahzi seems calmer and less anxious, Millan ties her leash to Junior's and takes the dogs for a stroll through the neighborhood. "It's always good to connect an insecure dog to a secure dog," he says. By now Sahzi is breathing normally, trotting along next to Junior with her tail wagging and ears back. "It's like a tornado," he says. "After it's over, there is a lot of peace. That, to me, is always the case – a dog can be in that nervous state for only so long, so I wait for a more peaceful state. That's one of the things that people who criticize what I do don't understand. They say, 'Oh, he's holding the leash too tight,' or 'He's not petting the dog or rewarding the dog.' The reason is, that's not what the dog wants! How do I know? The outcome, that's how."

Some animal behaviorists argue that Millan's methods lack scientific grounding and are based on an overly simplistic view of wolf behavior. (One of his controversial techniques, for example, is to correct a dog by "biting" its neck in the way a wolf's mother would, with his hand shaped into a mouth and his fingers acting as teeth.) Many trainers, especially those who practice positive, reward-based techniques, call his dominant, pack-leader approach outdated, even cruel. A 2006 New York Times op-ed described Millan as "a charming one–man wrecking ball directed at 40 years of progress in understanding and shaping dog behavior."

Millan says his critics don't work with the kind of "red zone" cases he takes on, and points out that many of the dogs he's successfully rehabilitated were given up on by other trainers and would have been euthanized had he not intervened. "They totally disregard that it's not about me training a dog. It's more like honoring what a dog can do for us. You can use positive reinforcement - fine! Whatever technique you choose is up to you, but I'm telling you, positive reinforcement won't work if you are not calm, if you do not bring the right energy. That's what I'm teaching: balanced human, balanced dog."