This past August Vladislav Roytapel, a dog trainer from the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan, moved to Newport Beach with the intention of becoming the most famous dog trainer on earth. Roytapel, who used to train dogs for the KGB and the Red Army, has a patent-pending method that involves speaking a language called Doglish.
Before settling here, Roytapel had spent a decade in Detroit, where he achieved as much fame as a person can teaching Doglish in Michigan. He eventually became so well known that people there would stop him on the street to ask for his autograph. A few years ago Roytapel appeared on Letterman, after which he accepted a job hosting segments on Animal Radio, a nationally syndicated pet show. But this was not enough for a man of his stature. One morning Roytapel, who often refers to himself in the third person, woke up and said, “Vladae is hot. Vladae is a genius! Why I am not on TV like Cesar Millan?” and moved to California.
It is no easy thing to become a world-famous dog trainer. In the beginning you must apprentice yourself with other dog trainers or glad-hand a lot of people in pet stores and parks and ingratiate yourself with veterinarians so you can put your brochures in their waiting rooms. If you are good at self-promotion, which you must be to become a famous dog trainer, you will imply that your method is faster and cheaper or less cruel than your competitors’. It also helps to imply that you can read dogs’ minds. But most important, you must be able to handle people. Because as every dog trainer will tell you, it is not the animals you train but their owners, who are often too lazy or weak to stop their pets from biting postal carriers or leaving “chocolates” in the house. If you are lucky enough to teach the right dog manners, its master will tell all his friends, one of whom will be a movie star who will refer you to other movie stars until the Los Angeles Times publishes a profile calling you a celebrity dog trainer and you are besieged by producers offering you your own television show, which is such a success that soon you have books on the best-seller lists and have begun to manufacture your own line of dog food in both chicken and beef.
This is more or less the trajectory of Cesar Millan, the most famous dog trainer in the history of the universe. His oft-told story takes on biblical tones when you consider that he came here illegally from Mexico without speaking English and was given succor by kindly dog groomers in San Diego before setting off for Los Angeles to be discovered by Jada Pinkett Smith and her rottweilers and is now the star of a televised dog training show viewed by millions of people in 80 countries, including Malta, Suriname, Poland, Israel, and Monaco. Dog Whisperer went on the air in 2004, and its format rarely varies: First we meet the troubled dog and learn of all the pain and destruction it has caused its family. Millan arrives and inevitably blames the dog’s problems on its master and proceeds to cure the animal using methods never before seen on television. He is forever chasing canines around the pool, sometimes pinning them to the ground, and forcing them to face their fears. Once he made a dog that was scared of toasters sit with its head next to one while he popped it up and down again and again. Another time he rehabilitated a military dog that had been traumatized in Iraq by shutting it in an Airstream trailer and making it watch war movies with the volume turned high as it walked on a treadmill.
It goes without saying that many of Millan’s fellow dog trainers have regarded his rapid ascent to superstardom with envy. Roytapel is one of them. He feels infinitely more qualified than Millan on numerous fronts. For instance, Millan is not the least bit funny, and Roytapel believes himself to be a comic genius. He has a persona that is not unlike that of Borat, the charming buffoon from a far-off land played by Sacha Baron Cohen. Roytapel is tall and loud, with a sliver of a goatee and hair that is unusually vertical and bushy. On special occasions he likes to wear white shoes. Roytapel seems to relish having a thick accent and whenever possible uses metaphors that involve Russian military devices. Moreover, while Millan is self-taught, Roytapel has university degrees in economics and animal behavior. “Vladae’s authority is huge,” says Roytapel. “I have trained guard dogs, search-and-rescue dogs, gas-sniffing dogs, drug-sniffing dogs, and dogs for the blind. I have also trained monkeys to do tricks in the zoo and marine animals in Odessa.”
Roytapel is not vague about his plans. Once he gets past the celebrity clients and the shows and the product lines, he expects to open an international chain of academies to spread Doglish, which he learned from a deaf-mute in Russia and entails a lot of sudden movements accompanied by growling and hissing and the baring of teeth. Ultimately, Roytapel sees himself training President Obama’s new dog, then sitting down with Obama and Vladimir Putin and, using techniques learned in his 27 years as a dog trainer, patching up the relationship between our two countries, which he feels has eroded to an alarming degree.
In January I drove to Newport Beach to meet Roytapel. Being new to town and anxious to make a good impression, he handed me a candy bar and threw his arms around me, shouting, “I am Vladae, the world-famous Russian Dog Wizard.” Roytapel thinks the name conveys magic, and he introduces himself this way even if you’ve met him before. The reason he moved to Orange County instead of Hollywood was that his wife, a computer programmer, got a job there. As soon as they arrived he sent out a press release saying, “Watch out Cesar Millan: Vladae has come to California,” and started making the rounds of veterinarians and shelters. Within a month he was up to three clients a day.
Roytapel drives a white minivan filled with magazines and newspapers featuring articles about him. He is frequently accompanied by his German shepherd, Mika, who lies in the back among candy wrappers. Though the van has a global positioning system, Roytapel’s sense of direction is so poor that he is always getting lost. En route to meeting a new client, he went around in circles for 25 minutes before finding her house. The client had not told him anything about her dog except that it was crazy, and Roytapel rang the doorbell excitedly, saying, “I cannot wait!” He was wearing a freshly pressed short-sleeved maroon shirt that said VLADAE.COM on the left side and RUSSIAN DOG WIZARD on the right. He has seven shirts like it. “Here I change my shirt every day,” he joked as he rang the bell again, “but if I was in Russia, I would only change the shirt one time per month.” When nobody came to the door, Roytapel began to knock impatiently. Then he realized he was at the wrong address and hurried to the house next door, where barking could be heard coming from inside. “Dog is barking already like Russian AK-47 in downtown Beirut,” he said.
A moment later a short blond woman in her sixties opened the door. It was a Dutch door, and she stuck her head out the top portion as Oliver, her Welsh corgi, hurled himself against the lower half. “I am Vladae, world-famous Russian Dog Wizard,” Roytapel shouted over the barking. “Is this dog going to bite me?”
The woman assured Roytapel that although Oliver often tried to kill other dogs and liked to bark at people, he’d never actually bitten anyone. “I just wonder if he behaves this way because he’s a herding dog,” she said, “and if it’s part of who he is and he can’t be changed.”
“Everything can be changed,” Roytapel shouted back.
“Yes, but should he be changed if this is who he is?” she asked.
“We all have instincts,” said Roytapel. “When I see a beautiful woman, I want to jump on her. But I have self-control. That dog needs self-control. Now open, please, this door. We’re going to fix this behavior problem with speed of Russian guided-satellite missile.”
Once inside, Roytapel lunged at the dog and made a long guttural sound, whereupon Oliver immediately stopped barking and ran to the corner. “Amazing,” the woman said. “Now sit down, dear lady,” he replied before delivering his standard rapid-fire lecture about how we are a nation of whiners and how in America no never means no. The key to dealing with dogs, he believes, is to be more like a mother dog. “Canine mama has only two commands,” Roytapel said. “She licks puppy when happy and bites puppy when she’s mad. Everyone knows how to lick. ‘Nice doggy, nice doggy, nice doggy,’ ” he said in a high, lilting voice. “But how we must bite? Through the leash! The leash will be the new extension of teeth!” He put the leash around the woman’s wrist and walked her like a dog around the living room. Roytapel does this with clients to demonstrate what can be conveyed through a leash, how some tugging is authoritative and other tugging projects a weakness of character that can be exploited by the dog. “You must be the canine mama,” he said. Then he had the woman walk him and informed her that she was lacking in assertiveness. “More confidence, please!” he told her. “Did you see how Vladimir Putin talks to the Bush, even though he’s a little shorter? He talks like the Russian tank. That type of attitude I would like you to have.”
Later they went outside so the woman could walk Oliver. Roytapel stood across the street, critiquing her performance every time Oliver gave her trouble. “Have attitude like American girl. ‘Don’t look. Don’t touch. I’m going to sue you.’ ” It worked. When another dog approached, Oliver only growled and sniffed at it. “It’s important to let him sniff the other’s butt,” Roytapel said, “because when dogs sniff the butt, it’s like going to Google or Yahoo! for information.” By the end of the session, the woman had thanked Roytapel over and over. “Yesterday he would have killed that dog,” she kept saying. “He would have killed him.”
Roytapel got back in his van. He was tired and hungry, and he drove to a restaurant for hot tea and a steak. It was the first time he had stopped moving that day, and to see him so still was disconcerting. “I am bored with all this peeing and pooping and aggression,” he said. “For me it is like asking the brain surgeon to put a shot in the dog’s butt. I don’t even need to listen when the women are telling me what is wrong with their dogs,” he said. “I listen only to be polite. Because when Vladae comes to the door, he always knows what is wrong. I need a challenge,” he said. Roytapel paused a moment to sip his tea. “You know what the difference is between the whore and the prostitute?” he said. “I’m the whore now. I am poor, but I am famous.”
If you are a person like Roytapel, the most enviable aspect of Millan’s success is that he will never have to endure the excruciating boredom of basic training again. In addition to his show, Millan has three best-selling books and a host of Dog Whisperer products, among them leash-and-collar sets and mugs and T-shirts and posters and all manner of gewgaws. These products are distributed through two companies, Abundancia and Cesar Millan Incorporated, the latter of which is run by Millan’s wife, Ilusion Millan, who has been merchandising her husband at a rate that would be hard to surpass. Last summer Millan released a line of organic dog food that sold out 20 minutes after it was introduced on QVC. That was followed by a line of pet products such as dog beds and bottled breath-freshening water and canine shampoos in raspberry and lavender scents. A few months later Millan released a video game in which players use his methods to remedy bad dogs. Next came an online dog training seminar series for paid subscribers. He also holds live training seminars several times a year, which nearly always sell out, and delivers motivational speeches for $35,000 per half hour of speaking time, along with first-class airfare for him and his wife. These are things no dog trainer would have thought possible before Cesar Millan.
Millan was not the first dog trainer from another land to achieve celebrity in Los Angeles. In the 1920s, Fritz Bache, the former chief dog trainer and instructor for the German government’s police department, moved from Berlin to the Midwest. Unfortunately, the police in America had no need for police dogs. Bache blamed the invention of the automobile, telling a reporter that criminals in Europe rarely have access to a car, whereas the criminals in this country make their getaways in automobiles and leave few trails. Forced to modify his original plans, Bache settled in L.A., where he served as headmaster of the Hollywood Boarding and Training School for Dogs on Ventura Boulevard and catered to the famous and wealthy. Bache worked with Jean Harlow’s Irish setter and is credited with stopping Fay Wray’s terriers from tearing down her curtains and eating her shoes. He later trained dogs for the movies, most notably a police dog that was taught to impersonate a mountain lion by wearing its carcass.
Nor was Cesar Millan’s show the first of its kind. In the late 1970s and the 1980s, there was Barbara Woodhouse, an unflappable British woman in her sixties who bore a striking resemblance to John Cleese in drag. Her show, Training Dogs the Woodhouse Way, became a hit in England, after which PBS broadcast it in the United States for one season, in 1983. The primary difference between Millan and Woodhouse is that Woodhouse never thought to package herself as having mystical powers. Evidently it was enough in those days to be a bossy old dog lover in a plaid skirt and comfortable walking shoes who took no nonsense from naughty dogs. After Woodhouse came Matthew Margolis, a former Fuller Brush man from New York who referred to himself as Uncle Matty and launched a dog training academy in Monterey Park, where he advocated speaking to dogs in a falsetto voice. Margolis hosted two PBS specials in the mid-1990s, after which he had his own show for a couple of seasons. But he had fallen out of favor by the time Dog Whisperer came around. While many famous dog trainers, including Millan, have been the target of lawsuits, Margolis’s have been particularly sensational. Once he was sued for holding a pair of dogs hostage and another time for sexual harassment. He was also sued for selling John Candy a dog with chronic diarrhea.
Dog Whisperer was a significant departure from the shows before it, which might best be described as basic dog obedience courses held in front of a camera that rarely moved. This was in large part because among those who wanted to make Millan a star were producers of Rescue 911, who opted to cast the worst dogs imaginable and shoot his encounter with them as if they were bullfights, thereby infusing drama into a genre that had never had any. Then there was Millan himself, who has the rare ability when speaking about dogs to leave the impression that he is speaking about things much deeper than dogs. His melding of self-help and dog training may be the result of having read so much Deepak Chopra and Wayne Dyer and Dr. Phil. Theirs were the first books he read in English, he often says, and it is through them that he first learned the notion of manifesting one’s dreams.
Less notable to the public was that Millan was using techniques that had fallen out of favor in the dog training industry. The world of canine obedience had long been monopolized by traditional guard-dog trainers who hit and shouted at the animals when they did something wrong. In the 1990s, they were eclipsed by trainers who espoused positive-only reinforcement, which generally means training with treats. The traditionalists regarded the positive-only contingent with disdain. The legendary Arthur Haggerty, who trained the dogs of Henry Kissinger and Leona Helmsley, called them people who “hypothesize, talk philosophy, and whisper in the dog’s ear kissy-face nice-nice…”
But the positive-onlys won out, which is why so many have condemned Millan’s use of choke chains and roughhousing and his belief that dogs have a need to be dominated and find peace in submission. He has been called misguided, outmoded, dangerous, and inhumane by animal behaviorists. Someone in a New York Times op-ed piece said he was a “charming one-man wrecking ball directed at 40 years of progress” in dog training. However, the public liked Millan from the start, and people whose dogs he has worked with seem to find the experience cathartic. At the end of an episode they might stare into the camera with tears in their eyes and say something like “Cesar Millan showed me how my relationship with my dog is exactly like my relationship with the world. I let people walk all over me. But never again, because from here on out I’m going to be leader of the pack!”
Since Dog Whisperer first aired, it has spawned a legion of other dog programs. Last July CBS introduced Greatest American Dog, a reality show about dogs and their masters. There’s It’s Me or the Dog, hosted by British actress-turned-trainer Victoria Stilwell on Animal Planet, which has also featured Divine Canine and a raft of damaged-animal shows, from Underdog to Wonderdog to Animal Cops to World’s Ugliest Dog. Among the people approached to host such shows is another heavily accented trainer, Tamar Geller, a former Israeli intelligence officer who calls herself a “life coach for dogs” and charges $500 an hour for her services. Geller is a positive-only trainer who has been known to introduce herself as the anti-Cesar Millan. She is tiny and blond and cheerful and has a client list that includes Ben Affleck, Owen Wilson, Oprah Winfrey, and other wealthy people whose dogs she is flown around the world to train. Sometimes people hire her to help them pick out a new dog. Last July she flew to New York to visit shelters with Natalie Portman, who eventually settled on a Yorkshire terrier from Harlem. Then Geller flew to Rome to train a rottweiler that, by the time she was done with it, had learned to carry a Gucci bag in its teeth.
While she does not have her own television series yet, Geller has certainly come close. A few years ago Al Roker, the weatherman on the Today show, sent out a press release announcing that he and Geller had teamed up for a new dog series. “A former Israeli intelligence officer,” the press release stated, “Tamar will show us how to make the most of our loving relationship with dogs. And if you do not watch the show, she knows 17 different ways to kill you with a paper clip. That’s television!” Geller’s desire to be on TV appears to be grounded less in vanity than in a moral obligation to provide the public with an alternative to Millan’s philosophy and technique. Though she is too diplomatic to criticize him publicly, she does not mind saying that his approach makes her cringe. “Personally,” she says, “I would never want to be in a relationship with a person or a dog that’s submissive. I want my relationships to be happy and playful.” Nor does she mind adding that one of the people who trained Oprah’s dogs before her was Cesar Millan and that he wasn’t asked back. Geller has spread her message, which she calls the Loved Dog Method, through her own best-selling book.
Not long ago Geller invited me to watch her train three puppies at the Hollywood home of a hairstylist named Chaz Dean. His Web site stated that he had two children named Montgomery Clift and Grace Kelly, but when I arrived it became apparent that they were Labrador retrievers, not children, and that they had recently died. Montgomery had succumbed to cancer, and Grace had died 33 days later of a broken heart, Dean explained. The house was full of photographs of the two dogs and mementos from the memorial service Dean had hosted, at which they played “Amazing Grace” and released butterflies. The dogs’ ashes were in an urn at Dean’s hair station. Their deaths had been so devastating that he had decided to have no fewer than three dogs in the future. “That way if one of them goes,” he said, “no one will be alone and die of a broken heart.”
Dean had named the puppies Ella Fitzgerald, Tab Hunter, and Spencer Tracy, and as soon as they saw Geller, they began barking and running around and trying to lick her face. Evidently Geller had trained them not to do those things the previous week. “This is shocking,” she said. “I know,” said Dean, slightly ashamed. “I haven’t been consistent with them.”
“Shocking,” Geller repeated as she took out two bags of the Loved Dog-brand treats and set to work. “Here’s what’s going to happen,” she said. “When the dog is good, she’s going to get a treat. And when the dog does really great, she’s going to get seven or eight treats, which we call the jackpot. And when she’s going to do something we don’t like, what we’re going to do is turn our back and make noises like we’re disappointed. We don’t beat them. We don’t turn abusive. All we do is turn around and cross our arms and make noises like ‘feh!’ and ‘ugggh!’ It’s easy, you see? A child could do it.”
Geller separated the puppies so they wouldn’t reinforce one another’s bad behavior. Ella went first. As soon as Geller removed a treat from the bag, Ella leaped up and tried to snatch it out of her hand, whereupon Geller crossed her arms, turned around, and snorted “feh!” and “ugh!” Dean hovered nearby. “She has a scarcity issue,” Geller told him with her back still turned to Ella. “It’s like when people think they’re going to miss out, they get pushy. Other dog trainers would say she’s being stubborn, but she’s telling me she’s feeling insecure and worried. It’s not being a jerk to say in the best way she can, ‘I’m worried.’ How many of us get emotional when we’re asked to perform?” Geller turned back to Ella, who sat with her head up, looking both alarmed and contrite. “You see,” Geller went on, “she’s saying, ‘I’m sorry, I’m such a worm. I know I made a mistake.’ But at the same time notice she doesn’t act fearful. She’s trusting me. She’s confident. She says, ‘You never swear at me. You never hurt us. You don’t use choke chains.’ ” After 20 minutes of the Loved Dog Method, Ella was markedly improved and Geller was on her knees giving her jackpots, hugging and kissing her and letting the dog lick her face.
Geller, too, blurs the line between dog training and human self-help. The Loved Dog Method is partly an attempt to redress her ghastly childhood in Israel, where her mother abused her and her father beat her dachshund. Serving in the army, she witnessed more cruelty toward dogs. Geller began formulating her technique on a trip to the desert, during which she observed a wolf pack and the way it disciplined its young. But Geller had no intention of being a dog trainer. She only came to Los Angeles to see a Pink Floyd concert and then decided on the spur of the moment to apprentice herself to a well-known dog trainer. So Geller’s first days in this country were spent driving through the dry brown air of the city training dogs that the well-known trainer couldn’t be bothered with. One of them turned out to be Kenny G’s cocker spaniel, who would not stop chewing on the musician’s socks. Geller has trained so many dogs since then that she now finds herself using dog-training methods on the men she dates, though she is the first to admit that positive reinforcement with men isn’t necessarily wise. “People always tell me, ‘Stop thinking to give people as many chances as you do,’ ” she says. “ ‘ They’re not dogs. You have to run away faster.’ All my friends say this to me. Someone just said that this weekend.”
Roytapel will never forget the first time he watched Dog Whisperer. “Like many of those new Russians who come to this country with great ambitions, I have bathroom with big bathtub and a TV on the wall, and I am lying there watching this Dog Whisperer, and I cannot believe what I’m seeing,” he says. “He’s correcting the dog with choke chains and using words like ‘dominance’ and ‘submissions’ and ‘choke chains,’ which for years have been practically illegal to say. And I am so shocked I am jumping out of bathtub naked and running to the telephone, which also I have in my bathroom, and I call this very conservative dog trainer I know and say to him, ‘Have you seen this program? This Cesar Millan?’ And we were both saying the same thing—that this show will be gone in a week because Cesar Millan will be sued and the TV station that has made this program will be sued. And all of them are going to disappear.”
Roytapel regarded Dog Whisperer as an act of heroism on Millan’s part. Philosophically, he has positioned himself somewhere between Millan and Geller, but he is far closer to Millan. He considers training with food to be an ineffective method that makes dogs fat and the whole positive-only approach merely reinforcing America’s collective inability to say no, not to mention the fact that it is repetitive and makes a person sleepy to watch it. This, perhaps, is the reason Tamar Geller does not yet have her own show. If there is anything Roytapel has learned from Millan’s success it’s that Americans love it when an animal runs amok and a good-looking man with an accent forces it into submission.
This past summer I went to see if it was as exciting to watch Millan train in person as it is on TV. He was shooting an episode in a tiny house in El Monte, where a twentysomething man in a wheelchair lived with his two pit bulls and his mother and sister. There had also been a small white poodle named Easy, who used to taunt the pit bulls. For a long time they didn’t react because they were trained service dogs, but evidently the dogs had had enough of Easy because one of them killed her while the family was out. Millan had been called in to determine if the guilty pit bull was a menace to society, and to this end he’d brought two small dogs with which he planned to bait the pit bull and reveal its predilections.
The encounter held the promise of bloodshed, but when the time came for the three to meet, the pit bull simply sniffed the other dogs until one of them lay down and went to sleep on the floor, its legs splayed so that it resembled a flounder. Millan stood over the pit bull triumphantly. “You see?” he said into the camera. “There is nothing wrong with this dog!” After this pronouncement, the crew decided to go to a Mexican restaurant for lunch. Millan was at the far end of the table, sitting quietly, as his team went on about how Easy was to blame for her own death. A producer said she had no manners—“She used to jump up on the table when they were eating!” A cameraman added that it wasn’t fair to say that the pit bull had killed her. “She didn’t actually die until she got to the hospital,” he said, “and if he wanted her dead, he’d have killed her right there.” Soon a mariachi came along and drowned out the conversation with a love ballad as Millan sat with a faint smile on his face, looking a little sad and far away. He’d been on the road for weeks, promoting his empire and the many new things in it.
It is hard to know how much longer Dog Whisperer will last. Millan recently committed to a sixth season, and in April 2008 he marked his 100th episode with a celebration at a grassy venue in Burbank that’s usually reserved for wedding ceremonies. Someone had placed red plastic fire hydrants along the aisle customarily reserved for brides, and a long line of dogs Millan had cured walked down it, accompanied by their owners. There was the ridgeback mix that jumped through a plate-glass window, the Pomeranian that kept urinating on its master’s best friend, the Chihuahua-dachshund mix with no front legs that kept biting the fingers of people who pitied it, and all the dogs that had previously suffered from phobias—fear of linoleum, fear of vacuum cleaners, fear of grass. Eventually Millan appeared. He was wearing a shiny blue shirt and jeans, and he waved to the crowd. “Thank you so much,” he said. “I really appreciate it. What beautiful energy. Rehabilitating dog is great. But training the human is awesome!”
There are rumors that Millan wants to move on from Dog Whisperer to new opportunities, and Millan’s producers have had such a hard time finding bad dogs in L.A. that they’ve resorted to holding auditions at PETCO. They plan to shoot next season in Australia and other countries, where Millan looks forward to meeting trainers more exotic than himself. I once asked him whether it was beneficial for dog trainers to have accents. He considered this for a moment. “Americans love accents,” he said, positing that it is only natural to assume that people with accents understand things the rest of us don’t. “I sometimes think of meeting aborigines,” he added, “so I can see how they do it and learn what their ancestors told them.” When I asked whether he ever worried about his competition, he laughed. “Oh no,” he said. “I don’t have any.”
Before Roytapel came to America, he made a fortune off the new oligarchs teaching their fancy dogs to hunt, and in this season of Madoff and crumpled banks he shows no fear. Recessions are good for dog trainers, he says, because as dog owners become tense, their dogs grow tense and start biting people until there is no choice but to call in an expert such as himself. By February Roytapel was up to four clients a day. He was charging them $120 an hour, and he had just been offered a guest appearance on several episodes of Dog Tales, a nationally syndicated television show. It was a good start considering he’d been in California only six months, but Roytapel was still impatient. He had an idea for his own show, something “never seen before on TV” that would be shot entirely from the dog’s point of view. He was also thinking of signing with a lawyer, Susan Keenberg, who was going to help him pitch the show to studios.
Keenberg was so impressed with Roytapel that she had applied for an agent’s license to represent him. “I was the president of a Beverly Hills firm that managed Barbra Streisand and Don Johnson and wonderful people like that,” she said, “and I really do believe he’s got something special. We just have to harness it—take some of those Russian rough edges off.” In March, Keenberg, who is businesslike and has short hair, invited Roytapel to her home in Torrance to formulate a strategy for making him famous. Keenberg was accompanied by her son, Michael, who works in television postproduction. The two were convinced that if they worked diligently together, Roytapel would be ready for pitch meetings in 90 days. The first order of business was to find Roytapel a dialect coach who could make him more understandable. In addition, she wanted him to lose the white sports jacket and white shoes he reserves for public appearances.
Keenberg preferred a more uniform look—something like the shirt he had on, albeit tailored. Roytapel was wearing a baggy maroon shirt similar to the one he had on the day he trained Oliver, only this one had his old logo on it—RUSSIAN DOG CZAR rather than RUSSIAN DOG WIZARD. Above the word CZAR was a smiling dog wearing a crown. “Instead of a dog with a crown on it,” Keenberg said, “we thought you should have a dog dressed like Rasputin. A sidekick. That way when you’re giving tips, you can say, ‘Rasputin always tells me this or that.…’ We really want to develop this idea of your sidekick.” Michael Keenberg showed Roytapel a logo he’d been working on that consisted primarily of the word Vladae in big block letters. Believing that the whole Russian thing needed to be played up, the Keenbergs had inserted the onion domes of Saint Basil in the empty space of the V. “It’s such a great thing in this country to have one name,” Keenberg said. “Like Madonna.”
As the topic turned to what they should say to producers who wanted to know the difference between him and Millan, Roytapel began to appear worried. Since moving here from Detroit, he’d been given plenty of advice on how to fit in. “If you come from Michigan to California, it’s like you come from Algiers or Zimbabwe,” he says. People told him never to drive the minivan to meetings (he takes his wife’s Lexus). He was told to buy a Mac instead of a PC and to change his wardrobe, which is why he favors the white sports jacket and white shoes—so he’s ready at a moment’s notice to make a guest appearance or be interviewed. After all, he says, he is a European gentleman.
“If you ask me,” Keenberg said, “I’d say Vladae’s methods are much easier to understand, and he’s hilarious! Cesar is a genius, too, and I love him. He’s just not funny,” she went on. “But I think it’s a mistake to create phony distinctions between them. Like if Cesar Millan is white, you have to be black. There’s plenty of room in the world for strawberry ice cream and chocolate ice cream. It’s not like one of you has to be flan and the other chocolate cake. He’s from Mexico. He’s butter pecan. You’re strawberry.”
Roytapel, who had been excited at the beginning of the meeting, sat in Keenberg’s home office looking dejected. He had waited so long, and he did not understand why he should wait another 90 days. “You just have to trust me,” Keenberg kept saying. “You can always fire us if it doesn’t work out.” After two hours of back-and-forth, Roytapel finally relented. He agreed to go to the dialect coach and to tailor his shirts and to alter his logo and to be more patient. “I’ll be a good boy,” he said. “I promise.” But he was pale, and his eyes were watery. The world had changed so much since Cesar Millan. “I feel I should have moved here years ago, even two years ago. This is the problem,” he said. “For too long I was putting things off. I was saying to myself, ‘I can wait another day.’ But now every morning when I wake up I say to myself, ‘Today is the day it must happen. It has to be today.’ ”
Photograph by Catherine Ledner