Illegal immigrant who became TV's top dog

Cesar Millan, a Mexican who illegally crossed into the United States 20 years ago, appears to be just another ambitious entrepreneur exploiting man's obsession with pampering their pets. He runs a business in Los Angeles, after all, called the "Dog Psychology Centre".

There are early clues, however, that his success has gone beyond the healthy receipts of your run-of-the-mill doggy spa in Manhattan's Upper East Side or canine holiday camp in Beverly Hills. He has a new best-selling book, Cesar's Way, and a "how-to" DVD that began flying off the shelves yesterday.

Then there is the roster of his famous clients from Vin Diesel to Nicolas Cage, Scarlett Johansson and Hilary Duff, all of whom have entrusted him with the training of their wayward pooches. He has been on Oprah Winfrey's television show twice, offering handy hints on getting the best out of her own little Sophie.

Meet the "Dog Whisperer", the title of a show on National Geographic Television that in recent months has transformed Millan, 36, into the biggest new phenomenon on American cable television. And his audience is still building.

Millan's message is not about pampering pets with scented shampoos and gastronomic chews. It is about reinstating the lost arts of tough love and discipline.

Catch his series on television and you will become a fly on the wall as Millan goes to the homes of owners with dogs as out of control as any you are ever likely to encounter, gnashing dobermans and rottweilers who never saw a human ankle they didn't want to shred. As the household watches in astonishment, he brings the pets to heel, if necessary with a little physical coercion along the way.

If the show is addictive, however, it may have more to do with Millan's interactions with the owners than the pets. He chides them - and by extension most of the audience - that if the dogs misbehave, the fault lies with them. Usually that means they have allowed the dog to become the boss, rather than the other way around. Or that they have confused dogs with humans.

"I teach owners how to practise exercise, discipline and then affection, which allows dogs to be in a calm, submissive state," says Millan. "Most owners in America only practise affection, affection, affection, which does not create a balanced dog! You have to continue to practise being the pack leader."

Our sins extend even to how we walk our dogs. "Every time I go to New York I see dogs in front of people. Oh, brother. The dog should be behind the person. In the natural dog world, the dog is always behind the pack leader. Pack leaders never, ever tell the dog to go in front."

Millan learned his skills growing up on his grandfather's ranch in north-western Mexico. In his teens, he left and snuck across the border ending up in San Diego where he quickly got a job in a dog-grooming shop. He later moved to Los Angeles where his reputation of working magic with even the most devilish of dogs eventually reached the ears of Hollywood celebrities. This month, he even earned a praiseful profile in The New Yorker magazine.

Not everyone is convinced, however. This spring, he was sued by a man who alleged his labrador was badly injured while in Millan's care, and some dog behaviourists have started to challenge the dominate-your-dog tenets of his approach.

As for the manner of his arrival in the US and the current political controversy on illegal immigration in the US, Millan offers no apologies. "We've got to migrate to eat," he says. "It's part of the natural world. For whatever reason, people are saying this is not allowed now."

Now a legal resident in the US, Millan is married and, with his wife, Ilusion, has two sons. He intends, meanwhile, to apply for American citizenship soon. All the better if his plans for his burgeoning Dog Whisperer brand progresses as he hopes, potentially with more television series and with branded products in the pet-care industry.

In partnership with the production company that makes the programme, he already has full control over his DVD sales as well as all foreign syndication rights.

The Woodhouse phenomenon

Britain is no stranger to dog psychology. In 1980, the fierce Barbara Woodhouse became a household name, at the age of 70, for the television programme Training Dogs the Woodhouse Way. Having trained more than 17,000 dogs and their owners, her philosophy was that there are no bad dogs, only owners who lacked experience.

Wearing a woolly kilt and sensible shoes, her programme became popular as she used her forceful techniques to teach dogs obedience - her trademark "Walkies" and "Sit-t" swept the nation. Her disciplinarian methods were criticised at the time, but her books are still on sale now, including No Bad Dogs: the Woodhouse Way.

Ms Woodhouse was born in 1910 and died in 1988, aged 78, of a stroke. She studied veterinary science at agricultural college and, in the 1930s, she worked as a horse whisperer on a ranch in Argentina.

Geneviève Roberts

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