(File photo) Cesar Millan.

London - A week ago, Hollywood dog whisperer Cesar Millan scarcely registered in the British consciousness.

But now, after a single appearance on ITV’s normally sedate Alan Titchmarsh Show, he has become one of Britain’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 Cesar’s controversial methods. Others say the Mexican-born dog trainer who is rumoured to charge £60,000 to tame Hollywood pets uses tried-and-tested methods.

Speaking to The Mail on Sunday, Cesar 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 saving shelter dogs and rehabilitating them so they can be adopted by good families.”

Cesar insists he uses the more controversial techniques only on what he calls red-zone animals: aggressive and abandoned dogs who could never be re-homed without proper training.

He says he never hurts the animals, only touches them lightly. But he also says that spike chokers and electrical devices may be helpful .

On his website, Cesar says that an electronic dog collar is the most successful at stopping unwanted barking, but says owners should seek expert advice before using them.

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. Then I know what technique from a wide range of options is the best to solve the problem.”

A-list celebrities including Scarlett Johansson, Oprah Winfrey, Charlize Theron and Yasmin Le Bon are all fans. Le Bon’s husband, Duran Duran star Simon Le Bon, tweeted: “What did Alan Titchmarsh say about Cesar Millan that s seriously put my wife on the warpath? He should be afraid, very afraid! Cesar Millan is pretty close to holy in this house.”

While animal rights groups voice disquiet about some of his methods, many on the internet seemed to side with Cesar.

Jessie from Stoke-on-Trent spoke for many when she posted: “There is no point asking a red-zone dog, as they’re called, to sit and offer him a treat. His behaviour demands immediate action to dominate the dog and that is what Cesar does. If people took the trouble to actually watch him at work on his TV show, they might realise that dogs are not children and should never be treated as such.”

Cesar himself insists that calmness is the key to canine obedience. “When I approach an animal, I want to demonstrate that I’m calm” he says. “Then I ask myself what he needs. Both those considerations must come before any needs of the human. If you’re calm, the animal will pick up on that. I believe a calm dog is a happy, obedient dog that won t get into trouble.

“There’s a time for excitement but it isn’t first thing in the morning. Don’t start your dog’s day with excitement.

“We’ve got to become better at listening to what a dog is trying to tell us. I always start off by teaching the owner to relax before I start working with their dog. Otherwise, they’re influencing their dogs negatively.”

“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. Dogs don’t see themselves as breeds. When a beagle meets a pit bull, he’s not thinking: ‘Are you the one everyone talks about?’ They see themselves as individual dogs.”

Wherever your sympathies lie, 43-year-old Cesar’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 Cesar learnt about dogs.

In December 1990, he left home to seek a new life in America, crossing the border illegally.

“I wanted to be the best dog trainer in the world. It felt like a calling I couldn’t ignore,” he says.

A decade later he has a 43-acre ranch in Santa Clarita, California, a new house in the affluent Studio City area of LA, a TV series syndicated to 110 countries (including National Geographic channel on South Africa’s DStv), and a string of celebrity clients.

It was a transformation that nearly stalled at the very start. Cesar tried for two weeks to cross the border.

“Luckily, I was always stopped by the US guards. They’d give you a sandwich and a can of cola and send you back,” he says.

“They didn’t abuse you like the Mexican guards. You didn’t want to get caught by them.”

Cesar had only $100 to his name - exactly the sum demanded by a man who told him that he could get him over the border into America. “He was a dirty, skinny guy,” he says. “But for some reason, my gut told me that I could trust him.”

That night, they stood up to their chests in water in a hole while they watched until the border guards changed shift. “That’s when we ran for it across the border and into a sewage tunnel, where I was told to wait.”

The man eventually returned in a taxi that took Cesar to the American town of Chula Vista. For weeks, he slept rough, sweeping floors and washing cars to get enough money to eat. Then 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. The parlour’s owners even allowed him to sleep there.

Cesar taught himself English by listening to the radio. Two months later, he moved to downtown LA. “My goal was Disneyland or Hollywood, the home of Lassie and Rin Tin Tin - the dogs that inspired me to come to America,” he says. “Our dogs on the ranch back home didn’t do tricks like them. I found out later, of course, that there were lots of Lassies, lots of Rin Tin Tins so the whole thing was fake.”

It was in LA that his reputation as a dog whisperer began to grow. “The LA Lakers played basketball nearby. A lot of them had rottweilers and pit bulls that were causing problems, and I started dealing with them” he says.

Music producer Tony Spoon heard about Cesar and asked him to train his rottweiler, Kanji. Spoon’s friend Jada Pinkett, Hollywood actress and Mrs Will Smith, was so impressed she asked if he would train a dog for her.

“She wanted me to see her two rottweilers who were pretty much out of control. She introduced me to Will, but I didn’t know who he was, either. It was only when the movie Independence Day came out [in 1996] that I realised who I was dealing with.”

“Will’s animals had received plenty of affection but no direction. They lived in a fabulous house but they were frustrated. They needed good, long walks. I also taught them discipline when it came to eating. A dog’s natural tendency when there s food around is to keep checking that another dog isn’t about to take it from him. They re very competitive. So I clicked my fingers and made them concentrate on the dog bowl in front of them.”

Cesar’s fame was spreading. Nicolas Cage asked for help with his dogs. Scarlett Johansson asked him to help her mother s wayward bulldog, then her own timid chihuahua. 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 office and it all went from there,” he says. “In the human world, Oprah is a leader. But in the animal world, she isn’t.”

And that is a position Cesar seems very keen to hold for himself however controversially. - Daily Mail