Sparky is a rambunctious terrier who attacked other canines without provocation. His owner, A.J., worried that she wouldn't be able to rely on her "service dog" to steady her during occasional panic attacks.
Desperate, A.J. took Sparky to Cesar Millan, the star of National Geographic's Friday night hit show, "Dog Whisperer," now in its second season. After a few sessions (at a mere $350 per hour), Sparky can now sit as pretty as you please next to any dog on the block, be it a pit bull, a Doberman, or a sassy little pug.
Sparky is just one of hundreds of success stories the Mexican-born trainer has produced. (Mr. Millan claims a 99 percent success rate.) Hyperactive and vicious dogs have been transformed into happy, calm animals, suitable as a family pet even in a household with young children.
The key, says Millan, who now lives in Los Angeles, is not the animal, but the owner. "Mother Nature is simple," he says. "We make it complicated. The only time they develop issues is when they live with us. In their natural habitat, there are no issues. It's only when they live with humans because humans don't provide exercise and discipline on a daily basis."
Millan's approach is based on the notion that dogs are pack animals and require a "pack leader" to set the boundaries for them. He trains owners to be that pack leader. "We set the rules, the boundaries, and the limitations," says Millan. "And then we love. Most people get a dog because they want someone to love. So they're going after what they need, not what the dog needs. And that creates instability."
In its first season, Millan's show was a half-hour long. It's been expanded to an hour because of its popularity.
Many owners call Millan's training a life-changing experience, akin to therapy. Sparky's owner, A.J., says learning to set the right tone for her pet has helped her handle her panic disorder. "I hardly need Sparky to help me any more," she says with a laugh, adding that when it comes to "problem" dogs, she's learned one important lesson about where the solution lies. "It's always the owner," she says.