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A week ago, Hollywood dog whisperer Cesar Millan scarcely registered. But now, after a single appearance on UK’s ITV’s normally sedate Alan Titchmarsh Show, he has become one of TV’s most controversial characters.
The normally genial host turned on him, saying: “You punish dogs. You hit them. I’ve seen you punch a dog in the throat to get it to behave, and to most people, like myself, this is totally unacceptable as a way of training an animal. You also work with electric shocks and spikes on collars and that’s pretty barbaric treatment.”
Unsurprisingly, the spat triggered an internet frenzy.
Many critics were vituperative about Millan’s controversial methods. Others say the Mexican-born dog trainer, who is rumoured to charge £60 000 (R832 439) to tame Hollywood pets, uses tried-and-tested methods.
Millan robustly defends his methods.
“I am not brutal or cruel to animals,” he insists.
“My mission has always been to save dogs, especially troubled and abandoned dogs. I’ve dedicated my life to this. My new TV series is all about having helter dogs and rehabilitating them so they can be adopted by good families.”
Millan insists he uses the more controversial techniques only on what he calls red-zone animals: aggressive and abandoned dogs who could never be rehabilitated without proper training.
He says he never hurts the animals, only touches them lightly. But he also says that spike chokers and electrical devices can be helpful.
He says: “I use many techniques to rehabilitate dogs.
“In extreme cases, by which I mean cases where I’m the last resort before a dog is put down, these tools may be helpful.
“But they are just one of many techniques.
“The processes I prefer are exercise, discipline and affection.
“I realise there is debate about what techniques are best or right, but I focus on the fundamentals of the problem; the question of why the dog is behaving like he is.”
A-list celebrities including Scarlett Johansson, Oprah Winfrey, Charlize Theron and Yasmin le Bon are all fans.
While animal rights groups voice disquiet about some of his methods, many on the internet seemed to side with Millan.
Jessie of Stoke-on-Trent spoke for many when she posted: “There is no point asking a red-zone dog to sit and offer him a treat. His behaviour demands immediate action to dominate the dog and that is what Cesar does.”
Millan himself insists that calmness is the key to canine obedience.
Nor should you judge a dog by its breed, he says. “Don’t suspect a rottweiler or a pit bull before you’ve met it. And look at the owner.
“That will tell you all you need to know about the dog.”
Wherever your sympathies lie, 43-year-old Millan’s personal story is extraordinary, even by Hollywood standards. He was born into abject poverty in Culiacan, Mexico, where three generations of his family lived in a one-room shack.
His spare time was spent on the farm where his grandfather worked, which is where the young Millan learnt about dogs.
In December 1990, he left home to seek a new life in the US, crossing the border illegally. He went
to the town of Chula Vista where he got a job in a dog-grooming parlour, despite not speaking a word of English, after demonstrating that he could calm a snarling spaniel.
Millan taught himself English by listening to the radio. Two months later, he moved to LA.
It was in LA that his reputation as a dog whisperer began to grow.
Scarlett Johansson asked him to help her mother’s wayward bulldog. Charlize Theron needed to train a rescue pit bull.
Then Oprah Winfrey mentioned on her show that her dog, Sophie, had started biting other dogs.
“We made contact with her and it all went from there,” he says
In the human world, Oprah is a leader. But in the animal world, she isn’t. That is a position Millan seems very keen to hold for himself, however controversially. – Mail on Sunday
l The Dog Whisperer is on National Geographic (DStv channel 260) on Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7pm.