"Everyone get on the elevator. We can all fit," the guy says and sure enough we all fit.
I'm standing in a Metro Toronto Convention Center elevator packed in with an entourage of volunteers and staff from Toronto Animal Services and International Fund for Animal Welfare, Cesar Millan's production staff, Canadian Tire stage coordinators, and three dogs.
We reach our floor and all get off the elevator, dogs first, and step onto the show floor where it looks like the MTCC has been turned into one big Canadian Tire store. The only thing missing is the Canadian Tire smell (all CTs have that smell - I think it's patented). I don't get why people would want to go down to the Convention Center to see Canadian Tire products when they could just go to a regular Canadian Tire store but I'm obviously in the minority because the place is well populated.
We wind through a throng of people to get to the stage, the dogs and their handlers way ahead now to the point where I lose sight of them and I wonder how it is they've managed to weave through the crowds so quickly. When I catch up to them, they're already on the other side of the red velvet rope and I have to explain to security that I'm with the others. Security lets me duck under the barrier.
The dogs are panting, a little anxious, but not nearly as anxious as I would expect them to be in this new environment given that less than a week ago they were mostly running around on a reservation up north. For a few years now, TAS and IFAW have been partners in bringing unwanted reservation dogs to Toronto where the dogs are adopted out. In IFAW's latest transport earlier in the week, ten dogs were brought down.
I don't know what the chain of events were exactly but I guess phone calls were made, emails sent and somehow or other, Cesar Millan, who was making an appearance at the Canadian Tire convention, arranged to showcase his dog whispering skills using three dogs from Toronto Animal Services. I didn't hear about the event until the morning of and then I thought, well, this is an odd enough combination that I think I'm going to have to postpone everything I had planned for Saturday afternoon and head down with the gang to check this thing out.
I did have to do some rearranging of my schedule, however, and by the time I got down to the MTCC, Millan had already picked the three dogs he'd be bringing on stage. The three chosen were the most rambunctious of the IFAW dogs: Lolita, a Black Lab mix, Dootie, a Pointer mix and Goldie, a Yellow Lab mix. The only problem was, I thought, the dogs weren't really that rambunctious. Pleasant, though untrained, tends to be the norm with reservation dogs and these three were no exception. Sure, they were somewhat excitable but nothing like any of the dogs featured on the Dog Whisperer TV shows. I couldn't help but wonder if Millan was disappointed we couldn't provide him with bigger challenges.
When I first heard about Cesar Millan years ago, a relative unknown at the time, it was from a Malcolm Gladwell article he wrote for The New Yorker (complete article is here with additional commentary here).
As Millan's popularity grew, so did the legion of critics, mostly people who disagreed with his training methods. I suspect that this anti-Milan backlash may have been perhaps a small contributing factor to Millan's suicide attempt in 2010 which was mostly triggered by the death of his Pit Bull Daddy followed shortly by his divorce.
For me, the show business of training dogs is more a problem than Milan's methods. The show business of training dogs manipulates people hungry for instant gratification into thinking they can fix a dog's problems with a few finger taps on the torso, vocalizing "ch" noises and a maintaining an internal mental state of "calm energy". Just this morning at the dog park, there was a Pug barking a little too insistently for its owners liking and the owner kept trying to chase it down while making "ch" sounds and air tapping because she couldn't reach down fast enough to tap the dog itself since the dog just kept staying out of her reach. As expected, that particular training method didn't produce the intended result.
Whatever criticisms might be applied to the Dog Whisperer TV shows, Millan himself has always been a huge supporter of both shelter dogs and Pit Bulls. And now there is a new National Geographic series featuring Millan, called Leader of the Pack, which focuses specifically on finding homeless dogs a home. From the trailers I've seen, the premise of the series is a bit gimmicky (three candidates vying for one dog) but it's a gimmick which hopefully educates and advocates on behalf of shelter dogs. Millan's doing his part for shelter dogs and that he chose to showcase today three homeless dogs from Toronto Animal Services personalizes my appreciation for this aspect of his work.
On stage, Millan is an enjoyable showman. He is comfortable and knows how to appeal to the crowd with grand gestures and one-liners. But, the first part of the show, with Millan advising and handling the three dogs and their "problems", is a bit anti-climactic. The dogs are too well-behaved to give him much of a challenge. Lolita is supposed to be toy-obsessed but she's more interested in sniffing the floor of the stage. Dootie is supposed to be food obsessed but turns out to be just as happy playing flopsy bunny and kissing faces. Goldie is supposed to be a puller on leash but on stage she walks gently and with relative ease. I wonder if Millan is bored. I wonder if the show business of working with dogs has taken away from his enjoyment of actually working with dogs but if that's the case, he doesn't show it. His energy level is up. His smile is on. The crowd cheers and claps.