Lovey, the three-pawed dog who wouldn’t stop licking, has stopped licking. Sophie, who nipped at her foster owner’s cheeks like they were lamb chops, rests contentedly on the carpet.
Cesar Millan, known to a grateful and growing TV audience as the Dog Whisperer, continues chatting with meditative ease on a folding chair in the scruffy HQ of animal rescue center Last Chance for Animals. It’s a lazy Friday afternoon, just another low-key day shooting one of the most beguiling magic shows on television.
Millan doesn’t pull any puppies out of hats. He simply draws out the good behavior in any dog, however hopeless it might seem, and carefully explains how to maintain it. His tricks of the trade are tranquility and logic — a unique ability to size up dogs and (more importantly) their owners, and put solutions into action.
“Around dogs, I am going to absolutely admit I have been balanced,” Millan later says. “You never use anger, fear, frustration or nervousness around animals, because it doesn’t work.
“I wish they could tell me, ‘Don’t be insecure around people because you’re short.’ I have my insecurities around human beings, but not around dogs.”
Still, on this day’s “Dog Whisperer” shoot, Millan comes across as serene as Buddha — to animals and humans alike. Like Joseph Campbell dissecting the mythic hero, Millan turns his segments into a televised graduate class on the relationship between dog and master.
He talks at length — not lecturing, but informing. Not droning, but leisurely entertaining. Though the show aroused some skepticism when it first began airing on the National Geographic Channel, the moments aren’t manufactured at all — it might be the most laid-back set in television.
“Dog Whisperer” producer-director SueAnn Fincke prides herself on knowing to cut when a shoot has run its course — and Millan had been in that chair at Last Chance for Animals for approaching an hour. Yet what could she do? His insights never stopped.
“I’ll hear him say something that is interesting that I want to get into a little deeper,” Fincke says. “It’s pretty organic, so there’s no way not to take his lead.”
While his philosophies are clear, Millan treats every dog individually, and some of what he says is so nuanced that he has to pause and make sure that the pet owner understands.
“What are you learning?” he asks after a 15-minute stretch. “Getting there? Sinking in? So, put it in your own words.”
“His whole thing is you can only correct at the same level a dog is acting out,” explains Mark Hufnail, co-chair of MPH Entertainment, which produces “Dog Whisperer” for National Geographic. “So if the dog is acting out at level four, you have to correct at level four. … And that’s the subtlety that I think is maybe the toughest thing, which is why we’ll show a shot two or three times so people can actually see how he did it.”
Millan, who parlayed initial success as a dog trainer for hire (clients included Will and Jada Pinkett Smith) into the creation of his Dog Psychology Center in downtown Los Angeles, first became known to the television industry after a 2002 Los Angeles Times article publicized his accomplishments. A horde of producers sought to make a deal with him, but he responded most positively to Kay Sumner and Sheila Emery.
Sumner and Emery then partnered with MPH, and together they struck a deal with National Geographic.
“We liked Cesar a lot, and knew the producers, and knew that Cesar has some special talent,” says National Geographic special programming senior veep Michael Cascio. “The question was, ‘Would viewers be able to recognize it as we did?'”
Hedging its bets, National Geographic ordered 26 half-hours of “Dog Whisperer” but placed them at 6:30 p.m. Eastern/3:30 Pacific. Given budget limitations, the show essentially had no promotion. But word of mouth among viewers and critics helped the show build an audience, enough to convince the network to move “Dog Whisperer” into primetime and expand each episode to one hour for season two as well as film in high-definition.
In sync with the show’s expanding reach — the first-season average of 137,000 viewers per episode has multiplied by more than five — the quality of the segments has improved as the production crew became more accustomed to following Millan’s lead.
“They actually have to adjust when I come in,” Millan says. “They have to figure it out. When I’m in an evaluation environment … I can’t adjust to them while I’m working.
“By the second year, they understood why I had to do it this way. From a camera-guy point of view, it’s, ‘I’ve got to get the shot.’ From my point of view, you can’t get the shot if you make the dog unstable.”
That means it’s OK for a cameraman to cough while film is rolling or for a dog to run off for a potty break — that’s natural and won’t distract Millan. But ask for a retake and you’ll get nowhere.
“The crew has gotten to know his methods and internalize them,” says MPH co-chair Melissa Jo Peltier.
By the end of the day at the aforementioned shoot, pet owner Kim Sill is asking Millan, “Will you adopt me?” She looks around at her calm and collected canines and says, “I’ve got to get a picture of all this.”
“You’re (going to have) a video,” Millan reminds her, gesturing to the cameramen.
And so Millan’s Magical Mystery Tour rolls on.
“I can think of only two other people that I have met in the business that I think have the kind of magic that Cesar has,” MPH co-chair Jim Milio says. “One is Jacques Cousteau, whom I worked with for a little bit, and the other is Jim Henson. To me, (Millan) is in that category. He’s just a special soul.”
What: 100th episode of ‘Dog Whisperer With Cesar Millan’
When: 9 p.m. (Eastern and Pacific) Sept. 19
Where: National Geographic Channel