Cesar Millan is known as the ‘Dog Whisperer’ because of his uncanny connection and understanding of dogs. He hosts a U.S. cable television show on the National Geographic Channel that trains dog owners to train their pets. He first gained recognition for effectively rehabilitating aggressive domestic dogs, so-called ‘killer-dogs’ that have attacked humans. His method of rehabilitation is based upon a dominating model of animal interaction. While the show focuses on the behavior and training of dogs, his approach to the animal kingdom is a keen social commentary about the ways humans treat each other. His insights on the under-exercised animal dimension of human relations are one reason for his program’s immense success among pet-owners and non-pet-owners, alike. His success has led him to a new project. Millan believes his approach to dog training can be applied as a productive form of political leadership.
Born and raised in Mexico, he now directs the Los Angeles-based Dog Psychology Center, a training facility housed in a former auto-body shop in a district of densely packed warehouses. His compound contains large open spaces, an alley way converted into a dog-run, and a few small buildings including his house. At any one time, he has 40-50 dogs on the grounds that he trains for clients. Upon entering the double layer of gates, his first words are: ‘Don’t look into the eyes of the dogs, and walk straight ahead.’ He immediately corrects my next step by saying that walking to the side is a sign of aggression and animals take that as an intention to attack. Immediately, he takes command of the situation by describing his rehabilitation philosophy as we walk quickly and straight-ahead through the grounds followed by a pack of 30 dogs.
CM: We’re the only species that follows unstable pack leaders. Animals don’t follow instability. The majority of the population is afraid. The pack leader is creating that reaction. See how bad it is? I mean, this is a wonderful country, but this country is afraid.
JI: Do you think fear is created by a sense of instability that leaders project?
CM: Yeah. A good pack leader is not in it for himself. A good pack leader is for the pack. None of the pack leaders right now are for the pack. They’re for themselves. Look at the presidents of whatever country, they’re all for themselves. Their countries are poor, not because there are no resources there, it’s because there’s not balanced leadership. I come from a Third World country mentality. I know what it is to be over here and I’ve seen it over there. The message that I have created is that I want to teach the whole world about simplicity. Some things should never change. I don’t care how beautiful buildings are in the future if they make us unstable.
JI: Do you think that cities are that way too, that cities are unstable?
CM: Yeah. It’s a ripple effect, you can’t escape that. I mean, it’s so important to understand that a pack leader is going to create a ripple effect. Who would you rather be following, Gandhi, or any of the current presidents of the world? Gandhi! Because he’s going to project calm.
But not very productive in the animal world: animals will not follow the energy of Gandhi. Too risky.
CM: [He rolls his shoulders forward and looks down.] Animals will not follow a thin person with shoulders down, head down. They just don’t follow that.
JI: What would be an example of a person that animals would follow?
CM: Zorro. It’s that masculinity, that firm way of being. Animals walk like that, they check you out like that. And to them, when they’re in front of a higher energy, they just automatically follow. They don’t question that. If they’re in front of a higher-level energy, one animal is going to win, the one with the higher-level energy. Automatically, the dog will surrender for the rest of his life. That’s it. It’s over. No contract, it was just like a karate match, pow!
That’s it. If I win, you surrender to me. If I can defeat you once, I can defeat you. Psychologically I’m already in control. I don’t have to kick you any more. Good fighters are psychological. That’s part of Mother Nature. I teach in my seminars to go back. Before we humanized animals, we became them. The tiger fight, the monkey fight [referring to martial arts]; in all these imitations of certain species, we became them. Now we want that tiger to be called ‘Mikey’.
JI: For the tiger to act like a domestic cat.
CM: No, for the human to think that he knows what tigers are saying. You don’t know what he’s saying. There’s a psychology even in ants, so if you don’t understand the psychology of ants, you can’t know what they’re saying. You can think you know, and make things up. If you want to rehabilitate dogs at this level, you have to really master the basic understanding of leadership.
JI: In the kind of leadership that you project with animals there’s a high degree of regularity.
CM: Everybody’s consistent. It’s just that everybody’s consistent in the wrong way. As far as Mother Nature is concerned. I interpret what these animals are saying to humans. A lot of people interpret the behavior of animals as if they were human beings. ‘Oh, my dog hates me!’ No, they don’t do that, animals don’t hate. Hate is an intellectual thing.
To me, the journey for all of us is to learn to connect with the instinctual world first, then the intellectual, the emotional, and the spiritual. In that order. I would do instinct first. I would move this way. [Millan stands upright, closes his eyes, takes a deep breath, and relaxes his body – shoulders, chest, solar plexis. All the dogs stop suddenly, and stand or sit at attention.]
JI: In terms of leadership, human leadership of animals, what are things that dogs respond to? You say that it is a projected sense of energy. That they know you are present there and focused, but also it is a sense of being in full-time command, of being dominant.
CM: This is the ideal formula: Either you’re connected, or you’re not. But not in between. Animals don’t give you 50%, they give you 100%. Humans give you 50/50, and we actually live a life of 50%, instead of 100%. Not a lot of people live 100%. Animals do. In the animal world, who you are is energy. And then comes consistency, what do you do every day with them. On a day-to-day level you give them exercise, discipline, affection.
JI: So let’s say if two dogs are aggressive with each other, what do you do? How do you respond?
CM: You respond dominant about it. But without being angry or frustrated. There has to be a consequence for something with which you don’t agree. But this is when people see dominance as punishment. Punishment and dominance are two different worlds. Punishment comes from fear, frustration, anger. Dominance is a calm, assertive way of being. So when you are in that state, I’m not being angry toward you, I just block you. I’m seeing you as animal. I just want to create submission. That’s a good pack leader. A good pack leader doesn’t make his people fearful.
JI: In the animal world if you create fear then you’re not a good pack leader. What are the consequences of that? What does a pack do when the pack leader creates instability?
CM: In general, animals respond in one of four ways: fight, flight, avoidance, or submission. With a poor pack leader, they will not respond by submission. Submission is the ideal. Submission is when the mind is open. Right now, you’re in a calm, submissive state, I can have a wonderful conversation with you because you’re not blocking, you’re just absorbing. Which makes you in a submissive, surrendering state – that’s submission. Submission in the animal world represents being open-minded.
JI: Submission is being calm and receptive. But you’re also saying that a good pack leader is calm. The good pack leader creates an environment of stability and from there it is possible to develop intellectually, emotionally, and so on.
CM: Humans see submission as a harsh thing. They see the way their animals behave from an emotional point of view. My humans – ‘my humans’ – my clients, they come to me saying, ‘My dog is my baby’, or ‘My dog is my soul-mate.’ They believe that, before they believe that it’s a dog, and I’m its leader. They say, ‘I don’t know what’s wrong with my dog, I love him so much!’ What they have to do is go into an assertive state of mind.
JI: You understand animal responses and you see a way to interact with animals that differs from the way humans interact with each other. And you help your clients by teaching them to act in a more instinctual, animal way. You also are saying that this form of action is neglected in human-to-human action, right? Your interaction is on a physical, bodily level where you project a calm sense of command.
CM: Understand that you have to share balanced energy everyday as much as you share unstable energy. You’re not supposed to share unstable energy, but if you do, make sure you do at least 50/50. You come to a grounding state, and you, just for a little while, turn off the switch, and come back to earth, so you can have relationships on earth. The only way a dog will be stable is if you’re stable. He becomes your mirror. His stability depends on your stability. Balance has nothing to do with the intellectual, emotional, and spiritual world.
JI: And are there people that are successful that you’ve met, that you were impressed by their sense of stability?
CM: The Dalai Lama, Oprah, Anthony Robbins, Deepak Chopra, Dr. Andrew Weil, all the messengers.
JI: And what about leadership in general, what do you think about today’s political leaders. What do you think is a model for leadership that would be interesting for the state of things?
CM: You understand that it’s not a priority for any presidents to walk your dog everyday. It’s not a priority. They don’t care what your state’s doing to Mother Nature. They care about you paying the bills, and the mortgage, and the taxes. What is the priority? To create a stable financial world or to create a stable human being? I’d rather have a stable human being who’s really good financially than a good financial person who’s really unstable. So it would be ideal that presidents require their population, whoever has dogs, to walk them everyday. Just start with that. That is not part of their priorities. If we would just go back to basics.
JI: Can we walk around, because I love the way the dogs respond to you.
CM: Let me do this. [CM gestures with his arms spread and hands open toward the ground as if to command the space in the direction of a large dog new to the pack. The dog steps back slightly and without lifting its leg begins to urinate excessively.] That dog was one of the biggest cases. That dog wanted to kill Patti LaBelle. That’s an insecure dog, see how he’s moving away? Insecure. But you can’t show intimidation to an insecure dog. [CM steps toward the dog again, and gestures again with arms open in the direction of the dog. Immediately, the dog urinates again.] Typical move: it creates the release of the bladder. If the animal shows you insecurity, you can’t show hesitation. [Dog slowly steps down into a nearby plastic wading pool. CM calms the dog with long hand strokes on the animal’s back. Dog relaxes.]
What I do for a living is to create the trust and respect that animals have lost in us. I make that happen. With insecure dogs the first thing you need to build is trust. Respect comes later. With aggressive dogs, you build respect right away, and then trust later. That’s the only way you can stop an aggressive dog from killing you. Only if he respects you. I have a lot of clients who establish an emotional connection with an animal, which gains them trust. It doesn’t mean they’ll respect you. Only leadership makes them respect.
JI: Okay, what did you discover, why do they respond to touching and exercise? Because it’s a physical interaction?
CM: Because that’s what they do in their natural habitat. Domestication means they’re not going to hunt for food, it doesn’t mean they’re not going to work for food. So I’m just imitating what they would do in a natural environment. Living in buildings is unnatural to animals. That’s why they can be nervous, fearful, tense, from the presence of such a closed environment.
So what we need to do is exercise, discipline, and then affection for them to coexist in an unnatural environment. Exercise and discipline create a calm, submissive state. Exercise gives you a calm body. And then you love them in that state of mind, you love them when they’re calm, submissive.
Leadership is not only the political side; leadership is parenting. Nature is where rules, boundaries, and limitations exist. But the whole point is that, because America’s so influential, Americans can also influence people by the way that we behave among each other. So Americans can use common sense. A lot of people say, ‘What are they [Americans] talking about? Look at how they treat each other! They want to discipline us? What are they talking about?’ So the whole thing that we’re doing is pretty bad. So I say, look, let’s still be a very influential country, but let’s change our behavior, and let’s start with the dogs. You know, I know I’m going to make a difference, because in America, people love dogs. In America, dogs get birthday parties. In America, if somebody passes away, they leave money to the dog.
JI: You make a distinction between the emotional and the instinctive. You’re saying that humans personify their pets, they give them the personality profile and range of feelings that humans understand themselves to have. Whereas, you’re saying that if you interact on a more animalistic, instinctive level you can better interact with your dog, but more importantly that you begin to act and think on a more basic animal level with other humans. It is a form of behavior that we are disconnected from at the moment.
CM: I’m talking about experience around dogs, around cats, and having absolute control over them. If you manage to master the walk with a dog, which is just being able to walk anywhere you want without a dog misbehaving, or without him creating a bad ripple effect in the neighborhood. If you can do that, that gives you a sense of instincts. It’s that simple. But for a lot of people, it’s very difficult to walk with their dog.
JI: But where does that come from?
CM: What you just said, that they don’t trust their instincts. That’s why a dog is so important for everybody. A dog is going to keep them to practice that state of mind. Yes, so even if you’re poor, medium, or very rich, you’re always going to have access to Mother Nature. A lot of people do things under stress. Yeah, you’re getting the job done, but you’re doing it under stressed energy. It’s a very magical thing, but not a lot of people are instinctually connected.
JI: Do you think politicians face unique challenges in attempting to get into a mind-frame where they can be both an instinctive and intellectual pack leader?
CM: Yeah! But that is the balanced pack leader. I’m not saying you’ve got to stop making money and setting rules, managing limitations for illegals. It’s just, educate them! You give them education, they’re going to go back to their country and make it happen over there! But instead, you make them afraid. I’m just seeing it from my cultural point of view and how we [as immigrants] want to help. I’m one of those immigrants who is making a difference in the United States. We can’t be disregarded. And anybody who makes a difference cannot be disregarded. So the whole project, the whole way of fixing or building a better country, doesn’t at this moment have a ripple effect that will benefit everybody. Come on people, let’s just get back to basics, and re-think leadership skills, and what energy you’re sharing everyday.
JI: So how does it work in a community? Can there be more than one pack leader?
CM: Yes, oh yes, we need it! The bigger the pack, the more the supervision. So all the supervisors are going to become pack leaders.
JI: And can there be different kinds of leaders? Let’s say you have numerous leaders, do you think all leaders need to be…
CM: Yeah, in the same frame of mind. Because, if they’re all going to be in an angry state of mind, frustrated state of mind, nervous state of mind, what difference does it make? It’s not going to create what we really want. It’s not going to create the beautiful ripple effect of millions of humans being in that calm, assertive state of mind or calm, submissive state of mind at the same time. Right now we are collectively in a frustrated, angry, fearful state of mind around the world.
It’s really up to us. We could change tomorrow. We could all start walking dogs tomorrow, all of us! Right now, boom! Make sure that practicing Mother Nature is part of your life, that’s all you got to do. So imagine if people around the whole world, at their own particular time, walked their dog.
JI: But when you say, walk a dog, you mean in general for everyone to connect with Mother Nature, or do you mean literally walk a dog? Connect with your dog?
CM: With themselves. Within themselves. What I’m saying is to change your own personal life. To live in a calm, assertive state of mind, 30 minutes a day, 40 minutes a day. Just that. When you’re born, you are an animal. Everything you do is animal behavior. You don’t know fear. You sense energy. From birth to 2 years, you are animal.
There can be a very intelligent, emotional pack leader. There can be, but it would be ideal to have instinctual, intellectual, emotional and spiritual pack leaders.