A MEXICAN who crossed illegally into the United States 20 years ago is now being lauded as ‘Top Dog’ in the USA, after he set up a thriving business in canine psychology, earning him the title of the USA’s own ‘Dog Whisperer’.
On the face of things Cesar Millan appears to be just another ambitious entrepreneur exploiting certain peoples’ obsession with pampering their pets. He runs a business in Los Angeles called the Dog Psychology Centre. In a culture where anybody who is anybody has at least one therapist, it is easy to see why he has no shortage of Californian canines as clients.
However, Millan’s success has gone beyond the healthy receipts of your run-of-the-mill doggy spa in Manhattan's Upper East Side or canine holiday camp in Beverly Hills. He has a new best-selling book, ‘Cesar's Way’, and a "how-to" DVD that began flying off the shelves when it went on sale last week.
"Meet the "Dog Whisperer", the title of a show on National Geographic Television that in recent months has transformed Millan, 36, into the biggest new phenomenon on American cable television. And his audience is still building.
And in a society obsessed with‘celebrity’ Millan’s list of famous clients does his business no harm either. His celebrity clients include Vin Diesel, Nicolas Cage, Scarlett Johansson and Hilary Duff, all of who have entrusted him with the training of their wayward dogs. He has been on Oprah Winfrey's television show twice, offering handy hints on getting the best out of her own little Sophie.
Millan's message is not about pampering pets with scented shampoos and gastronomic chews. It is about reinstating the lost arts of tough love and discipline and this seems to have struck of chord with people who have tired of the softly-softly approach to life in general, and not just dog training.
Viewers become a fly on the wall in his TV series as Millan goes to the homes of owners with dogs as out of control as any you are ever likely to encounter, many of them quite dangerous, with a history of biting and aggression. As the household watches in astonishment, he brings the pets to heel, if necessary with a little physical coercion along the way.
If the show is addictive, however, it may have more to do with Millan's interactions with the owners than the pets. He chides them - and by extension most of the audience - that if the dogs misbehave, the fault lies with them. Usually that means they have allowed the dog to become the boss, rather than the other way around. Or that they have confused dogs with humans.
"I teach owners how to practise exercise, discipline and then affection, which allows dogs to be in a calm, submissive state," says Millan. "Most owners in America only practise affection, affection, affection, which does not create a balanced dog! You have to continue to practise being the pack leader."
Even dog walking has to be carried out correctly in order for the dog to have good discipline. "Every time I go to New York I see dogs in front of people. Oh, brother. The dog should be behind the person. In the natural dog world, the dog is always behind the pack leader. Pack leaders never, ever tell the dog to go in front."
Millan learned his skills growing up on his grandfather's ranch in northwestern Mexico. In his teens, he left and snuck across the border ending up in San Diego where he quickly got a job in a dog-grooming shop. He later moved to Los Angeles where his reputation of working magic with even the most difficult dogs eventually reached the ears of Hollywood celebrities. This month, he even earned a positive profile in The New Yorker magazine.
Not everyone is convinced, however. Earlier this year, he was sued by a man who alleged his Labrador was badly injured while in Millan's care, and some dog behaviourists have started to challenge the dominate-your-dog approach to training. However, Millan shrugs off such criticisms and says that his high success rate speaks volumes.
As for the manner of his arrival in the US and the current political controversy on illegal immigration in the US, Millan offers no apologies. "We've got to migrate to eat," he says. "It's part of the natural world. For whatever reason, people are saying this is not allowed now."
Now a legal resident in the US, Millan is married and, with his wife, Ilusion, has two sons. He intends, meanwhile, to apply for American citizenship soon.
All the better if his plans for his burgeoning Dog Whisperer brand progresses as he hopes, potentially with more television series and with branded products in the pet-care industry.
In partnership with the production company that makes the programme, he already has full control over his DVD sales as well as all overseas syndication rights.