Long queues of ticketholders were snaking their way to the entrance of the Plenary Hall, KL Convention Centre, last Saturday. Among them were a young man on crutches, a few grandmothers, and smiling young children posing as their mother snapped photos of them.
“Dog whisperer” Cesar Millan was in town, for one night only, for his Love Your Dogs Tour 2015 live show.
“Before, I was known as ‘the Mexican who can walk a pack of dogs’. Then they called me the dog whisperer. I wasn’t even a Mexican anymore. I was my own race … like an alien,” he quipped.
His TV reality series Dog Whisperer With Cesar Millan (2004 to 2012) was hugely successful.
As soon as he walked on stage, the crowd burst out in hearty applause. There were a few Mexicans in the house that night, and one of them was proudly waving the Mexican flag.
He’s always wanted to come to Kuala Lumpur, Millan said, drawing another round of clapping from the audience. This trip took a whole year to plan, he added.
Pursuit of happiness
“What is happiness?” he asked the crowd. “To some, it is a jersey,” he continued, unzipping his jacket and revealing his Malaysia 2014-15 Home football jersey underneath.
Since young, he’s wanted to be the best dog expert in the world. His mission in life, he said, is to help dog owners and their dogs find happiness. And by that, he doesn’t mean that owners should indulge their pets or unreservedly shower them with affection. Far from it, actually, as such gestures can reinforce bad behaviour.
The issue with many dog owners, he said, is that they humanise their beloved pets. They treat them like children, sometimes even calling them “Baby”. They make them wear clothes and accessories, take them for walks in a stroller and carry them about in a designer handbag while shopping.
Showing a video clip, he compared the dogs in Mexico with those in the United States.
The pooches in Mexico were skinny but they didn’t have psychological problems, he said, referring to his canine companions when he was a young boy growing up in his native homeland.
“In America, we have chunky dogs but they have psychological problems. So America invented Valium for dogs … drugs for dogs. In Mexico, we might have a human drug problem but our dogs are drug-free.”
The canines in the United States, in contrast, are so pampered that they develop health and psychological problems (such as separation anxiety and depression).
When Millan invited on stage a representative from SPCA Selangor who was holding a very cute puppy, the crowd adoringly went “Aww!” That sent the pup quickly scampering back to the SPCA rep.
Our dog behaviour expert said that we had made a mistake: The sound of our collective sighs had frightened the little furball. That’s because dogs perceive the world in this order – by smell, sight and hearing.
When meeting a pup or dog for the first time, Millan said, one should avoid eye contact and talk. Then he held out a handful of pet food. The pup instinctively walked towards him because he could smell the food.
He said that puppies are born perfect but they are “ruined” by humans. The result? Confusion and misbehaviour.
So, as Millan put it, his job is to “train people and rehabilitate dogs”.
“We, humans, can be happier by connecting with instincts and practising pack leadership.”
Who’s the leader?
“To understand dogs, we must understand their instincts,” said Millan. Dogs instinctively follow a calm-assertive leader.
“To a dog, we are energy. It’s a powerful force that influences our dog’s behaviour. If the human is unstable, or excited, the dog will mirror that state.”
When Shannon and her mini Schnauzer, Shanna, first came on stage, the dog was barking away and jumping excitedly on its owner. At Cesar’s instruction, Shannon began to walk Shanna across the stage. It was unmistakable who was in charge: Shanna the dog was in front, followed by Shannon.
“It’s not what you say, but it’s the energy behind what you say,” said Millan.
As dogs can sense people’s energy – whether high or low – dog owners should work towards developing the right kind of energy. Not “soft” energy nor aggressiveness but calm-assertive energy.
“Calm-assertive means to clearly and calmly communicate to the dog what you want. You’re in control,” said Millan.
As soon as he took the leash, Shanna quietened down right away, and followed him during the short walk.
We usually watch TV or eat when bored. But for dogs, they become obsessive or depressed.
“Dogs need a job. There are millions of unemployed dogs,” joked Millan. “They’re living without a purpose. Dogs need to have a specific purpose in life – that’s how they achieve harmony and balance.”
One such “job” can be to ignore – vs being attracted to – the plethora of smells that it picks up during a walk.
“There can be hundreds of smells on one side walk,” said Millan.
We were introduced to Victor, who had to walk Chino his Golden Retriever across the stage. Along the way, they had to pass three bowls filled with dog food, all different flavours. Each scent represented a new challenge.
Victor braced himself for the walk by winding the leash a few times around his hand to shorten it, in order to be more in control of Chino. But as they walked past the food, Chino strayed and headed for one of the bowls and ate some of the food. “His job becomes finding things and eating them,” observed Millan.
Then he took the leash, adjusted Chino’s collar by sliding it higher up the neck, and proceeded to walk Chino. Instead of looking at the food, Chino just kept his eyes on Cesar. “Chino is like, ‘The food does not exist’,” quipped Millan. “So he learns the food is here, but stays calm.”
He explained that if the collar is on the lower part of the dog’s neck, the dog will tend to have his nose to the ground, sniffing away at the various smells. But place the collar higher up on the neck, and the dog will tend to look upwards, at his handler.
The ‘other’ dog
For lots of dog owners, walking our dogs is a real challenge.
“Taking a walk with our dog should be ‘happy hour’,” said Millan. But the way some people walk their dogs, it’s like they are treasure hunters, he said, referring to the way they follow their dog as it wanders off in all directions.
Then there are the so-called environmentalists or “tree-huggers”: When they come across another dog owner and pet during a walk, they get nervous, twirl the leash around one hand, and “hug” a tree with the other. Just so that the other pair can pass without a fight breaking out between the two dogs.
A participant, Mandy, had brought along her handsome dog, Nono. She said that her two-year-old Husky would growl at other dogs whenever they passed each other.
Mandy and the other dog owner (with her little Pomeranian named Bear Bear) were instructed to walk past each other with their dogs, while allowing a safe space between themselves.
Bear Bear turned out to be the cili padi, yapping aggressively at Nono, as if challenging him to a fight. It’s just as well that Nono seemed uninterested then.
Even though Bear Bear calmed down noticeably when Millan took the leash, it still turned around and tried to bite. Besides saying “Shh!” and “Hey!” firmly, Millan also poked the ferocious bundle of fur with two fingers – to surprise the brain and make the dog snap out of its “attack” mode, he explained. He added that the prodding doesn’t actually hurt the dog.
“Bear Bear is a drama queen,” described Millan. We saw how he gradually brought down her level of aggressiveness to a state of calmness.
Time to say goodbye
A video clip of Millan and his dog Junior came on the screens, showing the incorrect and correct ways of preparing our dogs for a period of separation.
Wrong way: Letting the dog constantly follow him around the house as he prepares a meal, opens the fridge (“It’s like opening a bank … all those smells”), and talking to Junior in an affectionate tone the whole time. The dog’s tail is constantly wagging, even as he follows Millan right up to the front door. And then suddenly Millan walks off, shutting the door behind him. Junior looks confused and begins to whine. And he’s not wagging his tail anymore.
“I lied to him, in a very sweet way. Junior didn’t know I was going to detach myself from him. He actually thought I wanted him to follow me,” said Millan, pointing out the mistake that creates separation anxiety.
Right way: Showing Junior to a comfortable corner of the house, and telling him to stay there, while Millan goes about cooking and opening the fridge door. The dog is relaxed but still observing Millan from a distance. (“Everything he sees, hears, smells, represents calmness.”) No talking to him in a doting manner. Then as he’s walking towards the front door, Millan again tells Junior to “stay”, to remind him of what is expected of him. When Junior hears the door shut, he remains quiet, relaxed and calm. No confusion or whining. No separation anxiety. All is well.
What dogs need
Millan highlighted three important things that make a dog happy, in this order: Exercise, discipline and affection. Too much or too little of one thing, and it becomes imbalanced.
If a dog lacks physical exercise, all that pent-up energy will cause him to chew on shoes or furniture, for instance.
Dogs need boundaries. And if they overstep those limitations, discipline is necessary. So owners must show them what is expected of them, and be consistent.
There are appropriate and inappropriate times to lavish them with affection so that we don’t end up unintentionally reinforcing bad behaviour. The dog has to work and earn the affection.
Animals don’t follow emotional pack leaders; they follow calm-assertive ones. “No matter what size, breed, age or sex a dog is, if the human is the pack leader, the dog will follow. And they’ll be sociable because they’re not leading but following,” said Millan.
He showed us video clips of a few unusual pack leaders in the animal kingdom, including an orang utan among dogs; a dog with a cheetah; and – “One of the bravest pack leaders I’ve ever seen in my life” – the rabbit that herded a flock of sheep.
“If this bunny can do it, you can do it,” he said.
If Millan ever decided to quit the doggie business, he can easily switch to being a comedian, given his wonderful brand of wit and humour.