When did you realize you had the skill to relate to man’s best friend?
I came to America 23 years ago with the mentality that I was going to learn from Americans how to train dogs. I loved watching Lassie and Rin Tin Tin, and I believed that everybody had that type of relationship with their dog. But soon I realized I could do something different. I saw people didn’t know how to walk their dogs. The dog was always in front pulling them. At people’s homes, the dogs were always barking. I came from a different environment—from Mexico—where the dogs are never on a leash. That’s when it hit me that I can actually do something or teach something different.
You rehabilitate all kinds of dogs. Is there any breed that you have found is tougher to train than another?
No, but people stereotype dogs a lot. They think one breed is smarter than another. Rehabilitation is just bringing someone back to his or her natural state. For example, a nervous dog, he has just lost his trust, so it doesn’t matter what breed he is. Just like people: There are different races, but anybody can get angry, anybody can get fearful, anybody can get insecure. It has nothing to do with race. What I work more with is the psychological aspect, not the trainability aspect, like agility and dog training and tricks.
What is the biggest mistake that dog owners make?
They don’t go into the relationship knowing how to be with a dog. People go into a relationship loving the dog, but love is one thing; knowing is another. People can love cars—doesn’t mean they know how to drive them. If you don’t know how to relate to a dog, you’re not going to be able to mold its behavior with rules, boundaries and limitations to create what everybody wants: an obedient dog. The obedience comes from knowledge. … All my clients are dog lovers, but they don’t trust their dogs, or the dogs don’t respect them. There are three ingredients dogs need: trust, respect and love. Most of my clients only have love.
Which species is more amenable to behavioral change, man or dog?
Dog. Because they’re not thinking, they’re reacting. The only goals dogs have are harmony and balance, while humans have goals like to become wealthy, to become famous, to get a degree. Sometimes it’s hard for humans to use common sense.
How did you come up with the idea of doing a live show like your upcoming one at the Palms?
It comes from the honest understanding that people don’t know dogs. I wanted to create a show that is educational and entertaining, so people can see themselves in certain cases and be able to reflect. It’s not just a show for people with dogs. It’s important that everybody understands dogs.
What’s the biggest takeaway from the live show?
I always talk about energy—calm-assertive energy—and that it’s not the dog. Those two elements are the most important part. People don’t realize that an excited dog can eventually bite, and most bites that happen are created by an excited human. So, it’s very important to understand energy: how you feel, how you behave—that’s how the dog is going to treat you. You know how Oprah is calm and confident on her show and Kathy Lee [Gifford] is more excited, people are going to react completely different to those energies. People around Oprah are going to be much more calm and much more trusting. It’s the same thing with a dog.
How do you get a dog to trust again if it was mistreated or abused by a former owner?
Dogs that are fearful are going to take a bit longer, because those are the ones that have lost the trust. Aggressive dogs are actually easier to rehabilitate. You can mistreat a dog in many different ways. For example, if you don’t exercise a dog each day, that to me is mistreating a dog. If you don’t guide the dog or challenge the dog psychologically or mentally, that’s mistreating the dog. A lot of people only think that mistreating is when you hit the dog. Mistreating a dog is not allowing it to achieve its ultimate goal of a normal life.
A lot of people spoil their dogs, and that’s all they do. I’m not saying it’s bad to give a dog whatever you can afford, but if you only give affection, that is mistreating a dog. A lot of dogs can become extremely aggressive, extremely dominant because they’ve never been told “no.”
A few years back South Park depicted you in an episode titled “Cartman vs. The Dog Whisperer.” Did you see it, and do you think someone like Cartman is really trainable?
Oh yes! But, what did my kids think of it? Even though I have my own TV show, it’s not a cool thing, but when I was on South Park, I became a cool dad.
It obviously worked. Exercise and affection did it. Standing your ground did it. [Cartman’s] mom was doing positive reinforcement.
What’s been the scariest or most challenging moment in your career?
The main challenge is not the aggressive dog. I’m working with dogs that have bitten people many, many times. Right now I’m shooting Cesar 911, and I’m working with two [dog owners] who are really challenging. When people are in denial, it’s really hard, because they don’t think anything is wrong with them. They think it’s the dog or the neighbor or their family—they blame everybody. I can change the dog, but if the person doesn’t change, that’s the biggest challenge.
Say you have an older dog, one that doesn’t like to be around other dogs. Is it too late to retrain it to perhaps make it to the dog park one day?
If you observe dog parks, they’re not always the most social environments. Often, dog parks are separated—say by the Starbucks people versus the Winchell’s Donuts people. I like to bring a dog that has lost his social skills to an established pack like the one I have. Dog parks are for when you know how to assess and evaluate, because people may bring overexcited dogs to the dog park. If you have an older dog and you put him in front of all these excited dogs, it can cause to him to want to fight or hide. It’s important for the dog that has lost its social skills to be around a balanced pack, not separated into small dogs versus big dogs.
How is the calm-assertive energy training you implement more beneficial than, say, a different style such as positive reinforcement?
It is positive reinforcement. Positive reinforcement is when you help a dog achieve his goals in life. There is a big misunderstanding that food is the only thing that gives positive reinforcement. Food is a technique, but positive reinforcement is when you get a dog to its balanced state of mind.
In the dog-training world, there’s a lot of “sit, sit, good boy” followed by food. Then “good boy, come here, come here, good boy.” If you think about it, that is a very excited state of mind, and you don’t want an excitable dog.
Leader of the Pack
Cesar Millan brings his live dog-training show to the Pearl at the Palms at 8 p.m. Aug. 15, $39 and up, Palms.com.