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Cesar Millan shows he's still pack leader
IT'S been a dog's life for Cesar Millan - and that's just how he likes it. As someone who grew up on a farm in rural Mexico, crossed illegally into the United States in 1990 and somehow parlayed a natural affinity for canines into a career as a celebrity "dog whisperer", Millan's rags-to-riches story is the stuff of pure fantasy - an animal lover's version of The American Dream. He's a best-selling author, cable TV star and best friend to mutts and pedigreed pooches alike.
Millan, 47, knows a thing or two about canine behaviour: he's got the television shows, celebrity endorsements and a profitable line of doggie-related merchandise to prove it.
Some of his training methods have been dismissed by animal behaviourists or criticised for being cruel - he advocates turning aggressive or difficult dogs into submissive ones - but there's no denying his ability to get results. The trick, he tends to say, is to train humans to become "pack leaders", and their pets with automatically follow.
Working with nature
"It's all about finding balance and harmony - to work with nature and not against it," says Millan, who was in town recently to film another TV show.
He's visited the country several times and enjoys coming here, although he's not been that impressed with local training methods.
"Singaporeans have been able to embrace this modern style of living together with nature and have become very well-conditioned to know everything about living in a Super Country. But it's ironic to see dogs that don't behave because Singaporeans behave so well - it's about having rules, boundaries, limitations."
He points out: "We have to educate people to do with their dogs what we already do with ourselves. Let's not train dogs, let's train ourselves, because dogs reflect how we live our lives."
Some things are definite no-nos, and dogs have to be made to understand that, says Millan. "Certain things are not allowed, ever - biting, barking excessively, pulling on the leash, peeing and pooping in improper places."
Even though most dogs in Asia do their business in the house, it's against their nature to do so, he adds.
"Female dogs always keep their puppies clean and calm, and my goal is to teach people that this is what dogs do. You don't have to teach a dog anything, just nurture him - discipline is not the same as punishment. Remember there are boundaries for everything, even during playtime - that's the most important part in a dog's world and that's how we're able to keep the peace."
The Cesar Millan way involves showing a pet who's boss, and inevitably that includes discipline. "Humans have learned to believe that a dog is like a baby - but people see their dogs as babies forever," says Millan. "In Taiwan, the dog-stroller capital of the world, most dogs are transported around in baby strollers."
What is love to a dog and how does he accomplish his dream on earth? The Millan mantra is exercise, discipline, affection.
"People tend to overdo it with the affection," he explains. "Asian kids are known to adapt well to mental challenges - if this is good for humans, why can't it be good for dogs?"
Millan is credited with creating the profession of canine rehabilitation. It's something that he traces back to his time in Mexico when he had few human playmates but many animal ones. He earned the somewhat derogatory nickname "el Perrero" - the dog boy - because he was often trailed by a pack of them.
Now he's firmly entrenched as a prominent player in a fast-growing industry - US$67 billion was spent on pet-related products in the United States last year.
"It took years for people to start walking dogs in the US - people usually just let them loose in their backyards," notes Millan. "In Los Angeles, there were no walkers before I came around."
Now it's not unusual to see a walker with 20 dogs on leashes, although he concedes that the best dog-walkers are to be found in Argentina, where each walker can control up to 40 dogs at a time.
The guiding principle in getting a dog to obey you, according to Millan, is "fulfil the need, gain their trust and respect. The repetition of trust and respect creates a bond between human and animal - that's what I call love."
He adds that he still takes to heart the advice his grandfather - who lived to 105 years - gave him back on the farm in Mexico. "He told me: 'Never work against Mother Nature'."