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Millan on quest to teach people to live happily with canine friends

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Pet owners hoping Cesar Millan will tell them how to train their dogs might be a bit disappointed.

The man known to canine-obsessed TV viewers worldwide as the Dog Whisperer is actually more concerned with altering human behaviour.

"When I came to America and I saw how people were (caring for) their dogs, I said, 'I'm not going to train dogs. I'm going to train Americans,'" said Millan, 43, whose latest live show, the Trust Your Instincts Tour, stops at MTS Centre on Sunday at 7:30 p.m. (tickets $35 to $138.75 at Ticketmaster).

"I came to America (from Mexico, at age 21) to learn from Americans how to train dogs (after) watching Lassie and Rin Tin Tin. I wanted to do that. I wanted to have that same relationship that Lassie and Timmy had, but then I observed what the rest of the population in America had with their dogs.

"For example, when I came to people's home (for) my first consultation, I knock on somebody's door, and the first thing I hear is 'Arf, arf, arf, arf, arf!'... Then I hear 'Get the dog! Put him in the bathroom but stay calm!' In the meantime, I'm waiting outside, and that's my experience... That's why I said I'm going to train people and rehabilitate dogs. I'm not going to train dogs."

Speaking earlier this year with TV critics gathered in Los Angeles for the U.S. networks' semi-annual press tour, Millan -- whose hugely popular Dog Whisperer series ended its eight-season run (on National Geographic Channel and NatGeo Wild) in September -- said the main reason he has become so successful is that most people try to impose human values and qualities on their dog and are unable to recognize and satisfy a basic hierarchy of animal needs.

Simply put, dogs aren't people, and treating them as if they are is a recipe for pet-ownership failure.

"Exercise, discipline, affection; body, mind, heart," Millan recited. "It creates trust, respect, loyalty... Humans prioritize the needs in the wrong way, in my opinion. The formula (is) exercise, discipline, affection. My clients do affection, affection, affection.

"Dogs in America have three beds, four beds with their name on them. They have birthday parties. They go see Santa Claus. But that doesn't mean the dog listens to the human. People come to me and say, 'My dog is very smart, very intelligent, Cesar, but he doesn't come when I call him.'"

Millan's live shows are an extension of the TV-series franchise (which will be expanded early next year when a new show, Leader of the Pack, premieres on NatGeo Wild in January), in which the self-taught animal "therapist" showed beleaguered dog owners how to amend their pets' behaviour by better controlling their own energy.

(The Trust Your Instincts Tour, by the way, is not a bring-your-dog event. Canines used in the seminar have been pre-selected; only service dogs are allowed in the audience portion of the arena.)

"Who you are in the animal world is energy," said Millan. "When I was growing up in Mexico on a farm, my grandfather said, 'Never work against Mother Nature. You must earn their trust, earn their respect, and they're going to give you something beautiful that's called loyalty.'

"That's what I had heard at an early age, and that made me feel calm, and so the dog felt calm, or the chicken. So it's understanding what allows them to trust you -- animals don't follow unstable pack leaders; only humans follow unstable pack leaders."

In an upcoming documentary titled Cesar Millan: The Real Story, TV's Dog Whisperer reveals that he recently faced events that forced him to reconsider his own stability. Early in 2010, after the death of his beloved lead dog, a pit bull named Daddy, and being told that his wife of 16 years planned to divorce him, Millan fell into a depression that led to a suicide attempt in May of that year.

He recovered, he told the Associated Press recently, by employing the same formula he prescribes for dogs -- exercise, discipline, affection -- to heal his own wounded psyche, and has since formed new human and canine relationships that have filled the void and made his life once again complete.

During the press-tour interview earlier this year, Millan expressed a sentiment that reinforces his assertion that a simpler approach can be the answer to a lot of woes.

"You can't buy integrity in the animal world," he said. "No matter how smart you are in the human world, if you understand who you are in the animal world, it allows you to have a conversation with nature.

"And that's pretty much the bottom line. Life is simple. We make it complicated."

brad.oswald@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @BradOswald

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 17, 2012 G1

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Updated on Saturday, November 17, 2012 at 10:32 AM CST: replaces photo, adds fact box

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