A key component of faith—so I've heard, anyway—is doubt. You have to scrutinize your beliefs, pull away from the flock a bit and allow room for the possibility that your conclusions might be wrong. Only then can you come back and call yourself a true believer. I'm not a religious guy, but my wife and I did get a dog about 18 months ago, and we quickly learned that doggie culture feels a lot like religion. Actually, it's more like a cult. And almost immediately I found my cult leader (sorry, pack leader): Cesar Millan, also known as TV's Dog Whisperer.
Anyone who has watched Millan's show on the National Geographic Channel has probably experienced what we felt those first few weeks. We were mesmerized by Cesar, an illegal immigrant from Mexico who snuck across the border, wound up in Los Angeles and has transformed himself, by sheer force of personality, into a hyperarticulate pet guru with an almost shamanist power over every dog he meets. Snarling pit bulls turn into a cuddly puppies within seconds of meeting him! Yipping, crazy-eyed Shih Tzus settle down with a gentle touch of his hand! No trick cameras! No sneaky editing! His presence—his "calm, assertive" demeanor, to use his words—turns pooches into putty. I was hooked. I became a regular worshiper at the Church of Cesar, which is to say, his show got a season pass on our TiVo. My wife even read his autobiography.
But after a couple of months I began to doubt. My family's dog—an adorable sweetheart of a beagle named Aidan who lives most of the time with my in-laws in Boston—developed an intractable obsession with food, and no matter what we did we couldn't keep him away from the dining-room table. It's just the breed, everyone told us, there's nothing we could do. Beagles are hounds, and hounds follow their noses, period. Aidan's food issues were Aidan's fault. Or, more to the point, his genes were to blame, not us, and all of Cesar's lessons about discipline and boundaries were useless on a dog programmed by God to sniff out and salivate over food. Rule no. 1 of the Church of Cesar is that misbehavior is your fault, not your dog's; according to him the dog is just being a dog, doing whatever you permit, taking its cues from your behavior. But I began to wonder if our dog was the exception to Cesar's rule.
Then I began to pull further away. I started reading editorials and magazine columns picking Cesar apart, calling his methods cruel and dismissing his philosophy as an uninformed glorification of rigid discipline and "pack leader" hierarchies. One such piece in The New York Times last year, titled "Pack of Lies," called Millan "a charming, one-man wrecking ball directed at 40 years of progress in understanding and shaping dog behavior" and suggested that his techniques placed him "firmly in a long tradition of punitive dog trainers." The author, a writer named Mark Derr who, like Millan, has no academic training in animal behavior, even went so far as to call Millan sexist for his (admittedly oversimplified) belief that female pet owners have a tougher time disciplining their dogs than men. (Of course, just because it's sexist and oversimplified doesn't mean that it's wrong. It's certainly the case at my in-laws' house.) Every criticism I read of Cesar sounded a bit unhinged. Their descriptions of his methods, while never flat-out wrong, always seemed to portray them in the worst possible light. Still, even though I had seen the show countless times and knew for a fact that Cesar had never been remotely cruel to a dog—had never even become angry at a dog—these pieces started to chip away at my faith. On the written page, I had to admit, he did sound kinda mean.
All that changed last week, though, when I got to spend an hour with Cesar Millan, who was here in New York supporting his latest book, "Be the Pack Leader," in which he urges readers to apply his methods not just to their dogs but to their lives. As Cesar's fame has grown, he has begun morphing into a motivational-speaker type, and it's a bit discomfiting to witness, especially when he spends five minutes of our interview singing the praises of a guy like Tony Robbins. I'm joking about belonging to the Church of Cesar, but now that the guy is writing self-help books—for you, not just for your dog—I worry that he really is trying to build one. When our conversation stuck to dogs, though, Millan displayed the kind of bracing, common-sense clarity that has made him and his methods so popular. And when I challenged his approach, cited the editorials that call him a know-nothing, he didn't show a hint of defensiveness.
"It doesn't bother me," Millan said, picking through a tomato salad lunch in New York's Central Park. "Everybody gets criticism. Incredible people that I admire get criticism. I don't think I'm going to be the only person in the world that doesn't get it. And I've never said that my way is the right way or the only way, it's just a way that works for my clients. I'm an option. Not the only option." Millan believes that the fire he draws amounts to a "misunderstanding of what discipline means to me and what it means to them. A lot of people confuse discipline with punishment, discipline with cruelty. No! They get confused about what love is, and they think that discipline is not part of love. Animals don't have a problem with discipline, with rules, boundaries and limitations. They respect that." Beyond simple misunderstanding of his methods, though, Millan contends that there's another force driving the anti-Cesar contingent: "an underlying energy there that they feel about me." It's clear that he meant jealousy, but when I pressed him to be more specific about the "underlying energy," he just laughed. "That's for another interview."
Over the course of the hour Millan won me back with the simplicity of his logic. As his critics point out, there is a rigid uniformity to his methods and a one-size-fits-all nature to his philosophy of dog psychology. It brought to mind why I don't watch his show very much anymore: because it can get repetitive. In his hands every problem—no matter what it is, no matter what breed of dog—seems to have the same solution. On the other hand, it's hard to argue with his results. As Cesar says, "Seeing is believing." And after we finished talking, Aidan got some one-on-one time with the Dog Whisperer. It was just a few minutes and not, as Cesar prefers, in Aidan's home environment, where he can observe how our dog would behave on a normal day. But even in that short meeting, Millan's wizardlike facility with dogs—the calm he brings to them, the confident way he handles them—was mind-blowing.
Every now and then Aidan can be headstrong and, well, kind of a brat. He was in a public place with lots of people around—the kind of environment where he could go into excitement overload. But when Cesar turned his attention to our dog, Aidan looked at him as if he were the only person in the world. Cesar patted a spot on the bench where he was sitting and Aidan hopped right up to it, which is something he might do for us, but only if he felt like it. Aidan was behaving submissively, but not with the zombielike connotations that the word implies. He knew he was being good, and his swirling tail was a dead giveaway that he was pleased with himself for it. Then Cesar put a gentle hand on Aidan's rump and he sat down, threw his shoulders back and squatted proudly and patiently on his front paws while the two of them posed for a photo. (Yeah, we took a picture of them together. Sue me.) Aidan was a happy boy. That's all it took. I was a believer again.