Remembering Daddy (My Friend and Colleague)
By Melissa Jo Peltier
“When Daddy smells a flower, he doesn’t just smell the flower and move on. He goes and smells one petal. Then he smells another petal. Then the next one, and the next one, and he doesn’t stop smelling until he’s smelled every petal.”
That’s what Cesar Millan told me last week about his amazing pit bull, Daddy, who passed away on Friday at the age of 16. Cesar and I had flown up to Berkeley to go meet with the Pine Street Center, a group of researchers who have successfully taught dogs to sniff out cancer in human breath samples. When I say successful, I mean a 90% success rate of detecting breast, lung, pancreatic and ovarian cancer at stages 1,2,3, 4 and even stage zero. Yes, the dogs can detect cancer even before modern medicine is capable of discerning it. One of the scientists there told me, “Science has nothing anywhere near as accurate as a dog’s nose.”
We are working on our fifth book together, Cesar and I, and for it, Cesar wants to meet with people at the cutting edge of dog training (what Cesar does on the show Dog Whisperer, of which I am one of the executive producers, isn’t training at all. So many of his critics get that so wrong. It’s rehabilitation – he focuses his “training” efforts on the owners, teaching them to take responsibility for what they are communicating to the dog). What we learned at Pine Street, of course, is the clinic dogs weren’t really “trained” to smell cancer. They already knew how to do it. What the Pine Street folks taught the dogs was how to tell us when they smelled cancer. This is the kind of dynamic that fascinates Cesar right now. He believes that the future of dog training won’t be finding new ways to teach dogs tricks or human words like “sit, stay, come” and “heel.” It’s really training ourselves how to recognize and utilize the miraculous instincts and abilities that dogs already possess. Really, in Cesar’s mind, our dogs have always had much more to teach us than we to teach them.
I’ve been blessed to have known and loved and worked with Daddy since Cesar first came into the lives of my MPH Entertainment partners and myself back in 2004. In fact, Daddy came with Cesar the very first time the soon to be christened Dog Whisperer walked into our offices. Cesar and his wife and business partner, Ilusion, came into our conference room together, followed off-leash by a tough looking golden pit bull with what seemed like a tiger-sized head. While his appearance indicated ferocity, his demeanor was mellow, gentle and tolerant. During our first conversation, Daddy crawled under the conference table and lay down at my feet. I kicked off my shoe and started rubbing his belly, a distraction he enjoyed so much he soon stretched out on his back to get the full tummy rub treatment. We didn’t know it then, but Cesar always brought Daddy along to business meetings, in order to silently observe his behavior. Cesar trusted Daddy’s innate reaction to people and animals implicitly. If Daddy had reacted negatively to us, Cesar told us later, he simply wouldn’t have done business with us. Flocks of other producers had visited him at his Dog Psychology Center and all it took for Cesar to decide to send them away was to notice a negative reaction from his pack. “You can lie to a human, but you can’t lie to a dog,” he always says.
Working with Cesar over the years and traveling to direct Dog Whisperer episodes now and then, I’ve had the amazing experience of watching Daddy at work. Just like the seeing-eye dog that knows its job is to guide its blind owner across the street, Daddy somehow understood that his job was to help other dogs that didn’t have his serenity, wisdom and balance. A famous science-based animal trainer I interviewed the other day said to me, “I don’t know what you mean by balance.” It may be tricky to explain in words, but I know that anyone who had the good fortune to meet Daddy would understand exactly what Cesar means when he uses this term. Daddy exuded balance from every pore, and I have personally watched the mere fact of his presence turn a fearful Vizla into a courageous walker; a lazy bull terrier into a playful puppy; an aggressive German Shepherd guard dog into a laid-back friend. Cesar learned early in the Dog Whisperer’s history that if a particular case seemed to stump him a little, it was time to call in Daddy to get his insight. By raising Daddy in a loving, peaceful yet challenge-filled environment, around all manner of different dogs and people, Cesar succeeded in channeling the dog’s powerful pit bull energy into something few people think that the breed is capable of: Daddy grew up to be a teacher, a guru, a healer.
About two years ago, Cesar recognized that Daddy – though no less enthusiastic about his canine life’s work - was beginning to slow down noticeably. He took the opportunity to let Daddy himself choose a pit bull puppy who would become his successor, as Cesar’s right hand dog and the new ambassador of this much- maligned breed. I’ve watched this blue pit puppy, “Junior”, blossom from a winsome pup to an energetic adolescent with rippling muscles and forelegs of steel, under Daddy’s tutelage. Having Junior as his adopted “grandson” also gave Daddy an added purpose in life and brought out the still-active puppy in him during his waning years. I saw Junior today, just a day after Daddy’s departure, up at Cesar’s ranch, happily digging in the dirt and leaping about with Cesar’s other dogs. I’m sure he’s got some grieving to do, but like his mentor, his default setting is balance. I have no doubt that he will take up Daddy’s mantle with pride and purpose.
Daddy’s passing Friday wasn’t totally unexpected by those of us who loved him. While we were traveling to Pine Street, Cesar told me that Daddy’s health had been deteriorating rapidly over the past couple weeks since I had last seen him. There was no one thing that was wrong – it was just that extreme old age had taken its toll on his once strong and sturdy body. He was totally deaf, nearly blind, and could barely walk due to crippling arthritis that targeted his front and back legs. For years, Cesar had exercised him in the pool and given him weekly massage and acupuncture treatments to keep that affliction at bay, but even those therapies weren’t helping anymore. Daddy was also showing signs of a canine version of dementia. Watching a fine specimen of dog like Daddy fade away is a powerful reminder that all beings on this planet – even the strongest and fittest among us - are only here on a lease, one that eventually will run out. The last time I saw Daddy, he was able to recognize me and wag his tail, but there wasn’t a lot of passion in it.
There are some animals (and a few special humans) that seem to bring with them into this world inexplicably magnetic souls. It’s like they know they are a part of something larger than all of us, and if we’re lucky to be around them and remain open, we too can taste a bit of that eternity. Whenever I was around Daddy, I felt a palpable sense of peace and serenity. Up at Cesar’s ranch today, I swear I could still feel his presence in the cool, humid air. He will, of course, live on through his television appearances, some of which are in episodes that haven’t even aired yet. Just a couple months ago during a filming, he coaxed a fearful cell-phone search dog out from its hiding place under a desk - just by showing up and offering to lead. He wasn’t “trained” to do this – he just knew. Even in his infirmity, he still carried that magic with him, everywhere he went.
The fact that Daddy never passed a flower without smelling every single petal is a metaphor for his long – in dog years, anyway – life. Rest in peace, my pit bull friend. You changed my life, and I feel so blessed to have known you.