Tales From The Set - Part 3: Kay Sumner
By Kay Sumner
Origins of the "Dog Whisperer"
I first read about Cesar in a 2002 Los Angeles Times article. My first thought, was that there was hope for my dogs that were creating havoc in my life. My second thought was that this guy was a TV show waiting to happen.
I loved the Bouvier de Flanders breed of herding dogs- and we had two. They were the worst dogs imaginable! Despite the best of care, they would nip the joggers, start fights, bark at the postman and the list goes on. The article about Cesar showed me that I was not the only person with misbehaving dogs and I had the idea that a dog training show could help other people like me. I discussed it with my business partner, Sheila Emery, and off we went to find Cesar!
It turns out that a lot of other Hollywood producers had the same great idea. We got a meeting with Cesar, but basically were in a position where we were competing against some well-known production companies and heavy-hitter producers.
Our first meeting with Cesar was not your typical Hollywood pitch meeting and was one I will never forget. We met him at his Dog Psychology Center when it was still based in downtown. In the first ten minutes, Sheila and I were introduced to Cesar’s “criminal” dogs who were “doing time” for misbehavior. It was clear that Cesar had a supernatural understanding of dogs. One of the pit bulls started growling and in a micro-second Cesar jumped over a six foot fence and stared the dog in to submission. Problem solved with just a look! We were in love! Fortunately Cesar felt a connection with us, because he chose us to produce his show. Years later, I asked him what made him select us over all of the other production companies. Cesar’s answer: “Because the dogs liked you!”
On the first day of shooting, we had a huge Great Dane named Kane who would not walk on shiny floors. Wherever she went with Kane, his owner had been taking carpet, which she would unroll for him to walk on. My first thought was that with this kind of issue we would be there all night. Well, Cesar had him on a leash and within ten minutes the dog gave up his fear of shiny floors and will happily walk on them for the rest of his life. What a start to the show! Every day we shot with Cesar, we were so excited about the immediate changes that would occur. Cesar was the king of the dogs. No matter what the problem was, he would take the dog on a leash and, like magic, you had a well-behaved dog!
One of my favorite shows was about a Bouvier named Gus, a puppy with so much energy that he was always getting into trouble. Cesar walked into the backyard of the home and talked to the family. While he was standing there, super hyper Gus fell asleep on his foot! Later, we took Gus herding and it was wonderful to watch this herding dog gathering the sheep and doing what he was born to do. Gus’s family started taking him herding on a regular basis and he became a model citizen, eventually becoming a service dog and visiting hospitals.
One of the difficult aspects of producing The Dog Whisperer is that Cesar is rarely told in advance about the dog’s issues. We do this for a variety of reasons. One of which, is that you want the viewer to see the spontaneity of Cesar’s assessment and the resulting effect on the dog. Additionally, Cesar wants to form his own opinions and does not want any pre-conceived notions about either the dogs or their owners. What makes for great television however, can sometimes make things very challenging for a producer.
During the taping of the story of Gavin, a retired ATF dog with a fear of loud noises, I assumed Cesar would take him to a shooting range. I arranged a shooting range close to Gavin’s home, thinking Cesar would want to take him there to work with him. When Cesar met Gavin he did the unexpected and wanted Gavin to go swimming! We had to quickly find a swimming pool instead of the shooting range. Gavin was probably one of the longest stories of recuperation, but an amazingly heartwarming one. Cesar worked with him for months to help overcome his fear of loud noises. In the end, Gavin did go to a shooting range and is no longer terrified of the noise.
In the upcoming season, my favorite story is one where Cesar went to a homeless encampment to help a pregnant young woman who would not give up her dog to move into a shelter. Her dog Tucker attacked strangers who walked near her. In some ways this was a wonderful trait, as Tucker had saved her from a drunken, knife-wielding thug that tried to attack her at the encampment. On the other hand, Tucker’s behavior was preventing her from being accepted into any other living arrangement. Watch this episode to find out the ending.
What has continued to amaze me throughout the years is Cesar’s ability to relate to and connect with dogs. He knows and teaches that each dog is an individual and must be treated as such. We have worked with the rich and famous as well as the homeless. Over the last nine seasons we have worked with dogs that have every type of issue that we could imagine. What remains the same, throughout every episode, is Cesar. By being attentive to the dog and consistently treating them with love and respect, he has allowed us to produce shows that have changed our lives and hopefully our viewers’ lives as well.
As for my Bouvier de Flanders, I have taken Cesar’s lessons to heart and found some goats for them to herd. Now I can also call myself the proud owner of model citizens!