Unleashed

The house calls, the competitors, the pet owners—trying to succeed in the capital of celebrity dog trainers can be trying, but armed with a technique he calls Doglish, Vladislav Roytapel knows fame will be his
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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 newdog. 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 themturned 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 necessarilywise. “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.”

“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.”

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 considerstraining 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.’ ”


This feature originally appeared in the May 2009 issue of Los Angeles magazine