LAS VEGAS — At first blush, the notion of a live Las Vegas show about dog training seems a little odd. But when the star is Cesar Millan, the show becomes more than just a canine obedience lesson.
"When I think Vegas, I think ... the Rat Pack," Millan told USA TODAY Network the day after his show was recorded live at the Palms Casino (to air on Nat Geo WILD in early 2015). "I want to do the Dog Pack."
Millan's television shows — Dog Whisperer with Cesar Millan, which aired for nine seasons, and now Nat Geo WILD's Cesar 911 — have made the Mexican-born dog trainer a household name. But Millan, 44, is not without his critics, who say his approach is dominance-based and who object to some of his techniques, such as his willingness to use choke chains and other physical corrections.
"They haven't seen the message, they haven't read the books, they haven't really experienced the over 300 episodes that I have done," Millan said of those who take issue with his approach.
On stage in Las Vegas, Millan seems anything but controversial to the Palms Casino crowd. They laugh along as he cracks jokes and dramatizes the mistakes of some dog owners.
It's the owners, he says, that his message is geared toward.
"My goal is not to train dogs," he said in the interview. "My goal is not even rehabilitating dogs." Rather, he said his aim is to educate people.
John Ciribassi, president of the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior, a group that has criticized Millan's methods, says Millan's popularity stems from the fact that he "comes across to the public in a very theatrical way."
"What he does is more flashy," said Ciribassi. "What we do is more methodical." He said his group advocates positive reinforcement, not putting dogs in positions where they can engage in behaviors that could trigger problems and, in many cases, the use of anti-anxiety medications to deal with underlying issues.
Ciribassi said that Millan's methods may suppress certain behaviors, but they do not address underlying emotional issues that some dogs have, and can cause increased anxiety and potentially aggressive reactions. He added that there "is no place for using punishment as a primary means for training."
Millan said he does more than suppress problematic behavior. "The underlying problem is what I address," he said.
He also rejected the notion that his approach is punishment-based.
"I don't punish." he said. "I do give direction. I do believe in leadership."
He said he has "saved many lives" and that he is often the last resort for dogs that have particularly challenging issues.
Though she did not discuss Millan specifically, Penny Leigh, a North Carolina dog trainer who runs the AKC Good Dog! Helpline, a telephone service for training issues, told USA TODAY Network she supports a positive-reinforcement approach. She said a common mistake people make in working with dogs is assuming they think like humans.
"People think their dogs are people, and they're not," she said, adding that dogs aren't scheming to get revenge on their owners because they're mad.
Millan stresses the notion of being a pack leader when training your dog. "Assertiveness, confidence, those are feelings that you develop so you can lead, not just dogs, but lead your life."
He said that the "humanizing" of dogs can be "detrimental" to them and humans' "lack of understanding" can make dogs "unstable."
Near the end of his show, Millan told the crowd that much of what he'd learned in life he'd learned from dogs. In the interview, he elaborated on what these lessons were.
"They live in the moment," Millan reflected. "Every moment is precious."
He added: "They are absolutely, brutally honest. They will never lie to you."
Millan acknowledged there is "no one formula" to use with dogs. "I'm not saying my way is the best way," he said. "It's just one way."