Therapy for humans takes furry disguise

Psychologist says pet owners the real patients

The client is a gym owner in Southern California dealing with an extreme case of canine separation anxiety. Her dog, a mixed breed, refuses to be handled by anyone but her and thrashes wildly if she so much as ventures to a treadmill across the room.

Cesar Millan is quick to diagnose the problem party — and it doesn’t have four legs.

Minutes into a segment on “Dog Whisperer,” the normally irrepressible Millan turns to the camera and somberly notes the woman’s negativity and inability to make eye contact with him, as well as her extreme anxiety when he handles the dog.

More daunting than a pugnacious pit bull or an edgy Dalmatian, Millan says, is “a human in denial.” Millan has built his multimillion-dollar empire on the backs of just such stubborn beasts — pet owners whose troubled emotional states are picked up by their pooches.

Grudgingly, the woman watches and learns as Millan handles her dog, and a week later he encounters a newly confident animal.

“You should be a therapist to people,” the woman’s business partner tells him. If only she knew.

Millan’s intuitive grasp of folk psychology — what grandma and grandpa knew — allows him to focus on the animals on both ends of the leash. “I rehabilitate dogs and train humans,” says the 39-year-old. The result is symbiotic: Dogs are happier, and so are the owners.

“If I help you to make your dog balanced,” he says, “you automatically become balanced when you are around your dog.”

Like a good psychologist, Millan helps people recognize the energy they bring to a relationship, usually in the form of anxiety, anger and defeat in the face of their animal’s antics. By demonstrating good behavioral techniques for handling dogs, he models a calm, assertive and dominant leader for the dog owners.

Millan focuses on owners because dogs need leadership first and foremost. Then and only then should they receive love. He argues that giving an animal unconditional love upsets the dynamic of order and control, and elevates the human’s need to lavish affection on a pet above the dog’s needs.

This can be tough for anyone to enforce, much less Millan’s often high-powered clientele. Used to having their own needs served by their fellow man, they can become especially impatient with an uncooperative animal.

“Many of my clients are millionaire superstars, but dogs don’t know that,” Millan says. “All they know is your state of mind.

“We (humans) have angry and frustrated pack leaders. We are the only pack animals that follow instability.”

Millan spent his first decade on a farm in Mexico and says he learned how to manage animals in part from his father and grandfather, who taught him “never to work against Mother Nature.”

“When I’m around animals, I have no issues,” he says, mincing no words. “I never become anxious or frustrated.”

That’s not to say Millan considers himself the apex of emotional health. In fact, it was couples therapy that allowed him to first map out interventions that work on man and beast alike. He and his wife, Ilusion, sought counseling, in part to help him understand the fairer sex. “Women are a different species with a different psychology,” he says.

His therapist told him, “I’m not here for you, I’m here for the family.”

Says Millan today: “I love that concept. That’s the concept that I practice — a good pack leader cares for the pack, and the bad pack leader cares for himself.”

Nando Pelusi is a psychologist in private practice in New York City and a contributing editor to Psychology Today.