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.
“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.”
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 whichplayers 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 suedfor 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!”
This feature originally appeared in the May 2009 issue of Los Angeles magazine