Dog Whisperer Talks About the Secrets of His Success


The 100th episode of the hit television show Dog Whisperer airs on National Geographic Channel tonight.

Show host Cesar Millan has earned a reputation for rehabilitating problem pooches as well as training their frustrated owners.

National Geographic News contributor Stefan Lovgren spoke with Millan from his home in Los Angeles about everything from the most challenging cases he’s faced to the secrets of his success.


Photo courtesy National Geographic Channel

You work with dogs with severe behavioral problems. What are the most common problems that you see?

My expertise is aggression, what I call red zone cases. The [canine] mind can do four things: fight, flight, avoid, or surrender. The goal is to have a surrender mind. But when the mind is in a fight state, it means the dog is dominant, territorial, aggressive, or hyper. When the mind is in a flight state, the dog is insecure, fearful, panicky, or neurotic. In the avoiding state, the dog is going to run and ignore humans. Sometimes we see a combination of all of these minds, which is a very lethal cocktail for the dog.

What are the most challenging cases you have had?

That’s going to be Gavin, the ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives) dog. (Gavin was sent to Iraq for 45 days of active duty and developed post-traumatic stress disorder.) Gavin is a hero who helped out the country, but he became very traumatized. Then there was Luna (a lab mix with an extreme fear of parks and walks). She was one of the most fearful cases I’ve worked with in my life, very afraid of smells. Usually I work with dogs that are afraid of sounds, like Gavin. From a human point of view, the most challenging case was Bandit (an aggressive Chihuahua). The owner was in denial about correcting the dog. She would rather protect the dog and forget about the family, which was mind-blowing to me. That’s the only case that I almost walked away from, not because of the dog but because of the owner.

Studies of canine cognition have shown that dogs have greater mental capabilities than scientists have given them credit for. If dogs have the smarts and emotions that humans have, should we treat them like humans?

No, we must respect the identity of the animal before we fulfill our needs with them. Dogs have the capability to do things that are beyond human behavior — they may know when you’re about to have a heart attack, they could tell you that an earthquake is coming. But they do it from a dog a point of view. Do they observe behavior? Absolutely. Do they see people grabbing a phone and getting things done? Absolutely. But can they dial the phone? No. Can they go on the Internet? Of course not. Humanizing a dog first is a mistake but treating them like a human after you fulfilled the dogness in them I think is a wonderful combination.

National Geographic News will publish Stefan Lovgren’s full interview with Cesar Millan next week.

Changing Planet

Meet the Author
More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn