Treat me like a dog! How Oprah became a better Pack Leader
By Cesar Millan
Oprah Winfrey has always been one of my role models. Her life story is an inspiration, and she is the example I use to help people visualize what I mean by calm, assertive energy. So it’s no surprise that one of the highlights of my career as the Dog Whisperer was an invitation from Oprah to visit her at her beautiful home in Montecito, California, to help her with dog problems she was having with her cocker spaniel.
Oprah’s dog Sophie had two big problems. The dog would go into attack mode when she saw other dogs; the second dog problem was that when she was left alone, she would howl. Oprah attributed both of these to low self-esteem. When they had first met more than 10 years earlier, Oprah told me she had to coax Sophie out from under a table.
But as soon as I met with Oprah I saw another, bigger problem—Oprah herself! The calm, assertive pack leader who was totally in control on her TV program took a back seat when she was around Sophie. Here is how she described her dog: “She’s our darling, sweet little four-legged daughter. I love her like I gave birth to her myself!”
Sitting with Oprah in her living room, I saw that we were both looking at Sophie in a fundamentally different way. To me, she is first Animal, then her species is Dog, next her breed is Spaniel, and then she is the individual, Sophie. But here is how Oprah introduced her: “This is Sophie, my Spaniel, and she’s my daughter.” The reverse!
Can you see why Oprah wasn’t able to help Sophie with her issues?
Oprah told me she had brought in a number of trainers to help Sophie over the years, but that nothing had worked. The trouble is that training is a technique, and what I wanted to do was address the root cause. If you fulfill the needs of a dog—as a dog—you will help it to be the balanced animal it was meant to be. To get the right outcome, you have to begin with the fundamentals.
I wanted to introduce Oprah to the power of the pack because there is no stronger image than actually seeing the transformation that takes place. But I also knew that because of past incidents with Sophie around other dogs, she was fearful, and I had to be sure that her energy was not a factor. So when we went outside, I invited Oprah to watch from about 20 feet away—for a dog this is public space—while I stood in Sophie’s intimate space, just three feet away, with my calm, assertive energy.
I had intentionally chosen a 25-cent leash, because I wanted to show Oprah that it was not about the tool but the energy you project.
Then I brought Sophie outside to meet my pack. I had Daddy and four other dogs with me. When I work with an insecure dog, I want her to make all the moves. So I had my pack stay still. Sophie stood and took in the situation. Her first reaction, as in past encounters, was to become aggressive. But then she moved from being insecure to being curious, and her tail started wagging. She took a small step toward the pack, and my dogs responded by moving closer to her. At this point Sophie’s dog instinct kicked in. When she saw five dogs coming toward her, she quickly figured that she couldn’t fight and she needed to be accepted by the pack. She lowered her head in a signal of submission and moved toward them.
The transformation of Sophie had taken maybe 20 seconds, and all that I had to do was correct her once with a slight pull on the leash when she first came out, to stop her from making strong eye contact. What Sophie needed was to reconnect with the “dog” in her—and as soon as she encountered a calm, balanced pack, instinct took over and did the work.
When we see our dogs first as a member of our human family, we can lose sight of what they really are. Oprah is one of the wisest people in the world, and she has transformed millions of lives. But when it came to dogs, she was making the mistake of not seeing them as dogs.
Do dogs recognize breed? I don’t believe so. Dogs recognize energy, and it is only humans who are breed-conscious. And this was another mistake Oprah made. When I told her that I was going to introduce Sophie to my pack, which included Daddy, my pit bull, she was horrified. “A pit bull! Oh, no! Oh, God…please tell me you are not going to let Sophie get hurt!”
It is a human habit to simplify the world by putting people and things into categories, and this is how we end up with stereotypes. Whether it is about people of a different color, or who wear tattoos, or are overweight, we jump to conclusions. And this is exactly what Oprah was doing when she heard “pit bull.”
But Oprah is a smart woman, and as soon as I explained to her that Daddy was just wearing a pit bull outfit, she quickly got it. Sophie definitely didn’t see a pit bull—she saw only a calm, submissive energy!
Before Sophie passed away I made two more visits to Oprah, once to help when she brought new dogs into her family. And I am happy to say that Sophie was a balanced dog for the rest of her life. Once Oprah learned to trust what I was telling her and saw the transformation of Sophie, she, too, was able to move on and let go of her fear.
We love our dogs, but please remember that all that affection is satisfying a need in you, the human. Our dogs live to make us happy, and they read our body language closely to see if they have succeeded. They will know you love them long before you tell them!
What we owe our dogs in return is not to lose sight of their nature. Before you love your dog as a four-legged human, love and honor her for being one of the most wonderful creatures on the planet: a dog!