Sunday nibble special: Reality bites

I worked for Cesar Millan for ten years, and I was there when the incident in question with Lidia happened. Here are my thoughts on it.

Truly about a nibble, indeed.

I suppose that I should just address this now, sooner than later, because I know I’m probably going to start drawing some sort of media attention because, reasons. Also, the public story broke on Friday, and friends started sending me links left and right.

The media has been hyping it as “Cesar Millan’s pit bull Junior killed Queen Latifah’s dog,” with a side of, “Oh, and bit a top young gymnast.”

Although the second part did happen a bit over four years ago, it’s just now making the news. The very short version is that a woman named Lidia Matiss has filed suit against Cesar Millan, primarily because, she claims, his recently deceased pit bull Junior mauled her leg, leading to the end of her promising gymnastics career.

In addition to that, she alleges that Junior also mauled one of Queen Latifah’s dogs to death at Cesar’s Dog Psychology Center and, she says, that was covered up by the staff being told to claim that the dog was hit by a car.

As my readers may know — and the name of the website is a big clue — I used to work for Cesar. In fact, I worked for him for just over a decade, originally as operations manager for his online business, but then as his head content creator and editor and in-house ghostwriter.

So there are things I know and things I don’t, but I can really only comment on what Lidia alleges in her lawsuit. Not that I’m under any kind of NDA but, like I said, there are things I know and saw and things I don’t, so I have to tread a very fine line to avoid committing libel.

What I can say is that there is at least one misrepresentation in the story, and that’s that every single version I’ve seen states that Lidia was bitten in a building that Cesar owned. I know that that one is not true because I was at many a meeting before we moved into it and near the end of my tenure there, and it was all about leasing the space.

What Cesar did own was his Dog Psychology Center, but let me pull back the veil here a little bit on how his whole enterprise operated.

The first thing you should know is that Dog Whisperer and Dog Nation and Better Human Better Dog and anything that appears under the National Geographic banner had nothing at all to do with the company I worked for in more than an arms’ distance way.

Well, with one exception that I’ll bitch about later.

But, in other words, Cesar on TV was an entirely different division from our company, which started out as Cesar Millan, Inc. (CMI) and eventually became Cesar’s Way (CW), both of which handled the business of his online presence and etail sales. It may or may not have been his loan-out company as well, but I was never privy to that information, so I cannot comment on it.

While it was CMI, it shared offices with MPH Productions, which was the company that originally brought Cesar to NatGeo and pitched the show. Well, okay… they took the idea that two female producers had pitched to them, because they’d found Cesar, and sold it to NatGeo.

CMI shared offices with MPH for the first few years in a space on Hollywood Way in Burbank that was long since converted into a Target Express across the street from a Model Train Shop. If you ever want to hang out where my desk was, stroll inside and find the aisle that gives you a straight-line view of the optometrist across the street. Near the back of that aisle and about eight feet from the wall is where I would have been sitting.

What I can say about those days is this: Cesar got screwed by MPH — that much was proven in a lawsuit that dragged on for ages but finally resulted in the two women and Cesar winning back the rights to the name “Dog Whisperer.” Second was that MPH was ridiculously generous to everyone on their staff and CMI’s — because they were apparently spending Cesar’s money.

And yet, there was still this weird arms’ distance thing. In those days, if Cesar ever came by the office, he was definitely kept on the south side, where MPH was, and even though the CMI folk were the ones who ostensibly worked for him, we were treated like red-headed step-children, at least by MPH.

Back to the division of labor thing, though. MPH dealt with NatGeo to make the show. Meanwhile, CMI dealt with Cesar’s wife at the time, Ilusion, in order to design and market various products, including DVDs not produced by NatGeo, training accessories, toys, and so on.

We also coordinated and staffed his seminars which, at the time, were nationwide.

During my first two years there, we had two gigantic issues with third parties. Well, sort of third parties, but this brings up yet another division in CesarLand.

In addition to the NatGeo side of things, mostly run out of Washington DC, and our Burbank offices, there was the Dog Psychology Center. When I started, it was located in what was basically a donated parking lot in South Central L.A. It wasn’t given a lot of attention on the show, but functioned mainly as a long-term rehab place for problem dogs Cesar was training.

Eventually, he did make enough money from the show to buy the acreage in Santa Clarita, California, that became the Dog Psychology Center (DPC), and I was very privileged to visit that place many, many times over the years, and meet a lot of the animals, including Lorenzo the Llama, Marty the Donkey, who was a total sweetheart, and Cesar’s entire flock of goats, who would play hard to get until you thrust a handful of lettuce at them.

But, again, the DPC was a totally separate entity. It had its own staff and director, and as far as any of us from CMI were concerned, we only got to go up there by special invitation.

That’s probably getting a step or two ahead, though, because those DPC trips didn’t become regular until another event happened and, again, while I’m not privy enough to the internals to make any positive assertions, the short version is that outside auditors were brought in, they looked at the books, and cried, “Foul!”

That was in 2009, when a Man Called Bob (which should be in all caps with TM next to it) swept in, saw what was going on, announced, “Well, this is bullshit,” and CMI divorced MPH and moved along the way.

We wound up at first in a building we all dubbed The Bouncy Castle, which was found by Cesar’s younger brother Erick Millan. It was… weird, but exactly what we needed. (Side note: Erick is a ridiculously talented designer and all-around nice guy who eventually moved back to Mexico to establish his own design firm.)

After we moved, and since a Man Called Bob convinced Cesar to trust him, Cesar was suddenly a lot more accessible to us, and I think it was the first time he actually realized that he had a team that was bigger than the DPC and the marketing hacks at Nat Geo.

This was also the building I was working in when I took a chance and Cesar suddenly realized, “Shit. This dude writes?”

It all happened because I suggested a bit of entertainment for the holiday party to a Man Called Bob, got him to approve a budget, and then I rewrote the lyrics to two Christmas carols to be Dog Whisperer themed, brought in six actors to sing them, and Cesar flipped his shit in joy.

That was about five years after I’d started working for him, but it was a major career change. I went from operations manager to content creator, editor, and unofficial Voice of Cesar overnight.

We eventually moved out of the Bouncy Castle and wound up in a place closer to Burbank Airport that we dubbed The Shoebox, but it was a move up for a few big reasons. One was that we brought our warehouse operations in-house, so no longer had to rely on a third-party fulfillment center, which saved my successor a ton.

We also had studio space and editing suite within that warehouse in which we could do quick videos — either product demos or more elaborate greenscreen stuff, and we had an in-house video/editing team as well, which started to crank out online content independent of NatGeo.

Finally, the nicest part of it being a two-story building was that all the corporate people — execs, legal, Foundation, and creative (meaning Cesar’s brilliant brother Erick) wound up on the second floor. Meanwhile, the newly created Digital Team in charge of all things online got to share the rather much larger than we needed ground floor.

Side note: From day one to this point and beyond, the office was always dog-friendly, and I brought both of mine nearly every day. In fact, I took advantage of this to finally break my dog Shadow out of her fear-aggression toward other dogs, and I think that Sheeba just became so blasé about the idea of “let’s go to work with daddy” that she wound up being comfortable anywhere.

Don’t take that as a total endorsement of Cesar, though, because that was mostly me, although I did have to know his philosophy and methods backwards and forwards in order to write about them, sometimes as myself, but more often as him — and that was as weird to me as it sounds.

So from late 2012 to 2017, I became “The Voice of Cesar,” writing his weekly column/fan message, co-ghostwriting one of his books, and creating a ton of non-bylined dog advice articles, implying they were his.

There was no attempt at fraud here, though. Just a show biz reality. Very few celebrities, unless they were already known as writers in the first place, write their own material, whether it be their books, blogs, social media posts, etc.

The vast majority of them are created by the web marketing teams for a few really good reasons. One is to protect the celebrities from themselves, making sure that they don’t commit any major faux pas. Another is to keep the voice consistent and, ideally, properly spelled, and grammatical. Finally, there’s the simple fact that the celebrity is probably far too busy in front of the camera or doing live interviews and the like to have any time to sit down and write.

All of this applied in Cesar’s case with one other factor, of course. English was not his first language and he didn’t even start learning it until he came to America when he was an adult. He can speak it perfectly well, but actually writing the words is a challenge for him, particularly when it comes to spelling.

I can vouch for this, though — in Spanish, he’s super-literate.

But… when it came to being part of the necessary deception, what did I care? He paid me good money to do that, even after the company cut bait and fled to its final, smaller HQ, which happens to also be the place in which Lidia alleges that Junior bit her.

We still had a warehouse in the back and a small video production department, although the editing suite was now a not-so-sound-proofed office sharing space with the digital team.

Oddly enough, although it was a one-story building, it was basically split into three zones, so we had the same division. Executives in the front, digital team in the middle, and warehouse and shipping in the back. I was in the middle, with a direct line of sight view through the door to the front office and front doors if the door in the adjoining wall were open, which it usually was. Important in a moment.

Meanwhile, the DPC was still doing whatever it was it did miles away. And I was a true believer in Cesar right up until the end, but for a few years now, I’ve been not so sure.

As for the Queen Latifah thing, I vaguely remember some mention of one of her dogs being killed, but we never heard anything besides the “dog ran in front of a car” story ourselves, so I’m not touching that one. The only people who know the truth were working at the DPC at the time.

The one thing I can state as a fact is this. I was there, in the office, on at least one instance when Junior bit Lidia. I didn’t see the actual bite, but, as noted, my cubicle was in direct line of sight of her mother, Lisa’s, office, so I had a very good view of Lisa and Lidia coming out, Lisa exclaiming that Junior had just bit her daughter, and Lidia limping, although I couldn’t see the actual injury because she had that leg turned away from me.

A Man Called Bob jumped into action and saw to it that Lidia got rushed off to the ER. I honestly don’t remember how Cesar reacted because, by that point, those of us on the Digital Team, i.e. in the back half of the office, were too busy discussing the incident ourselves.

But what I can state absolutely, without committing libel, is that Cesar’s dog Junior did, in fact, bite the back of Lidia’s leg — calf or thigh, I’m not sure. But since she was the daughter of CW’s Of Counsel at the time, it was all kinds of awkward.

Did Junior bite her more than once, either that day or on subsequent days? Not to my knowledge, Was he generally vicious?

Well, again, all I can discuss is what I know, and since I knew Junior for most of his life, having met him as a squishy little pup, he was never vicious toward me, or either of my dogs. Then again, I think that he always liked me, so the worst “mauling” I ever got from him was when he decided to come over, lean onto me hard, and then lick my face.

Ooh… how vicious!

Honestly, though, Cesar’s response to the lawsuit is weak. His lawyers basically said that Lidia should have assumed the risk, knowing that Junior was unleashed around the office. One big problem: The “bring your dog to work” policy came with a caveat. If your dog was ever vicious and bit another dog or human, then they were banned.

I cannot deny that I saw the aftermath of the bite, but that’s all that I can say. I didn’t see the actual extent of the injury. I just know that Lidia was taken to the ER immediately. I also don’t remember exactly when in 2017 this happened, although I know it was near the end of my tenure.

For whatever reason, Cesar’s Way decided to disband the digital team and go with an outside contractor for online marketing. I was laid off the Friday after Labor Day in 2017, although I was retained to keep writing Cesar’s weekly columns for a nice monthly salary through the end of March 2018, and did receive a ridiculous severance package, including reimbursement for my unused sick time, which was all of it.

The only sick time I did use was because of that weekend in August 2016 I’d wound up in the hospital, so that was a different year. But that experience, getting laid off, and the ton of money I walked away with led directly to the creation of this website.

In other words, yes, Cesar treated me and the rest of us well once he realized he had employees but, on the other hand, we were also trained to look the other way a lot — or at least gaslight ourselves whenever some scandal threatened.

I mean, as the team maintaining his online image, we were the ones who had to jump in to protect things, and we only ever got the story that came down to us from the executive suite. In protecting the boss, we were really protecting our jobs.

Tell me that you’d do differently — although most of what we had to deal with didn’t involve people being bitten or dogs being killed. Rather, it was gross misrepresentation by Cesar-haters (who are legion) of his techniques.

Are his abilities as a dog shaman perhaps inflated a bit? Probably. (He tried to do his thing with my dog Sheeba, and she basically gave him stink eye and ignored him.) Does he rampantly abuse dogs just for fun? That’s a hard no.

But… I was an insider for a long, long time with Cesar, and I can say that he’s no saint. No one is. I don’t have any of the dirty laundry and honestly don’t know whether it really exists. All I know is that Lidia is not lying, at least about her injury.

So, to Lidia… godspeed.

Momentous Monday: Ending canine prejudice

I originally wrote this piece in February of 2020 but found out a couple of days ago that Cesar Millan’s current pit bull and right hand dog, Junior, passed away on July 21, 2021, at the age of fifteen. I knew Junior well, since I met him as a puppy and I first saw him when Cesar brought him into the office, walked to a spot where everyone could see him, then held the tiny pup up above his head by the scruff of his neck, like the presentation of Simba in The Lion King

For more than a decade after that, I interacted with Junior often, and he seemed to grow to really like me over the years. He was a gentle giant, and put the lie to the idea of pit bulls being vicious. So I’m rerunning this article in his honor.

There’s a reason that I call this site The Word Whisperer. That’s because prior to starting it, I worked for a decade for the Dog Whisperer, and for a good part of that I was Senior Editor and Head Writer on his website, as well as keeper of the corporate voice and (sssh, don’t tell!) the ghostwriter for all of his online articles and a lot of his media interviews.

So, in other words, I was deeply into all things dog, and one of the subjects that he was passionate about and which I crusaded for was the plight of the pit bull. As in by the early 2000s, they had become one of the most maligned and misunderstood breeds in the country.

They were banned everywhere, simply based on perception, and especially the misconception that “pit bull” is a breed of dog. It’s not. It’s a type of dog, comprising at least four distinct breeds.

But for those of us who are pit bull fans because, face it, they are sweet dogs, there was a recent victory as the city of Denver voted to overturn their pit bull ban originally imposed in 1989. No mean feat, considering that the anti-pit bull crowd turned out to argue against it but, trust me, I’ve had experience with them, and they are an emotional bunch who won’t let facts get in the way.

What they like to ignore is that any dog can be dangerous and that unknown breeds of dogs involved in incidents are often reported as pit bulls, especially if they’re over a certain size. They also ignore the fact that dogs can sense when a human is anxious or uneasy around them, and this can actually lead to attacks. So… the people who fear pit bulls act fearful around all dogs, and bad things are going to happen.

This was a question I dealt with in one of my more popular articles on Cesar’s site, which I’m now going to plagiarize and paraphrase from, because I can. (Bastards scrubbed all of the bylines recently, but that’s a long story I’m not going to go into until TMZ is writing me a big-ass check.)

The question I asked: How did pit bulls get such a bad rap?

Would it surprise you to learn that pit bulls used to be America’s darlings? Before the mid-80s, stories of pit bull attacks are practically non-existent. As noted, there is also confusion over exactly which breed of dog is a pit bull — American pit bull terrier, Staffordshire terrier and, at times, the bulldog. This confusion seems to have dogged the breed from the beginning, as there is some disagreement over the origin of pit bulls.

In one theory, pit bulls began during antiquity as the so-called molossus, a now-extinct breed that was used by the Greeks as shepherds and guard dogs. In times of war, they marched off to battle with their humans. Eventually, so the theory goes, the Molossus made it to early Britain, where it became known as the mastiff. In the first century CE, Rome discovered the breed after defeating the Britons, and the dogs spread all over the empire. For the next four hundred years, they were used as war dogs, and intermixed with various local breeds all over the European continent, becoming the forerunners of the modern pit bull.

A competing theory places the origin of the pit bull in England at the time of the Norman Conquest in 1066, when butchers would use large, Mastiff-type dogs as “bullenbeissers,” which translates as “bull biter.” Trained to latch onto a bull’s nose and not let go until the animal was subdued, these dogs were the only way that humans could regain control when a bull became agitated. Unfortunately, this practical if dubious use eventually led to the “sport” of bull-baiting, where dogs were put in a pit with an intentionally riled-up bull and spectators placed bets on which dog would hold on the longest, or bring the bull down. You’ve probably guessed it by now, but this is also the origin of the terms “pit bull dog” and “bulldog.”

Still not a specific breed, the bullenbeissers were bred with terriers, combining their intelligence with the strength of the mastiffs. As bull-baiting came to be banned in the 19th century, dog fighting became popular as an underground and quasi-illegal activity in the UK. British immigrants to the U.S. at that time brought dog fighting, as well as their dogs, to the New World. However, as the breed spread to Americans and Americans spread across the continent, pit bulls began to be put to their original use, as general purpose herding and working dogs. Because of their fighting history, though, the American Kennel Club would not recognize the breed until 1936, although they defined it as a Staffordshire terrier, distinct from the American pit bull terrier.

Far from being considered a killing machine on legs, pit bulls seem to be an American favorite in the early half of the century — indeed, during World War I, the country itself is personified as a pit bull on army recruitment posters, and several pit bulls go on to become famous in the American military. Referring to an athlete as a pit bull is a very common sports metaphor through the 1930s, and it is meant as the highest compliment. There is also a famous racehorse in the late 1930s named Pit Bull, as well as a number of pit bull stars of early motion pictures. Frequently, pit bulls are associated with children, as in the Our Gang comedies, as well as with Buster Brown, both in short films and as the corporate mascot for a shoe company. The famous RCA Victor image of a dog and a gramophone also featured a pit bull terrier.

All of that pit bull love went away by the mid-80s, and by New Year’s Day 1986, over thirty communities are considering breed specific legislation and bans on pit bulls. What changed?

For one thing, despite being illegal in all fifty states, dog fighting made a comeback in the 80s, and the pit bull is the dog of choice. It is also the preferred guard dog for drug dealers and gangs, with a hugely publicized attack in 1987 in which a pit bull guarding a marijuana crop in California mauls and kills a two-and-a-half year-old boy.

By the summer of that year, every single proposed ban has become law, but not necessarily with the support of animal professionals. Kent Salazar, head of Albuquerque’s animal control division, commented at the time of their proposed ban on pit bulls that he didn’t think a ban on pit bulls was necessary, saying, “We have all the means to protect people with clauses about vicious dogs.” He also noted that, a few years previously, Doberman pinschers were the target of such bans. His words went unheeded, and Tijeras, New Mexico, just outside of Albuquerque, passes the toughest pit bull ban of the time, allowing animal control officers to seize and destroy them on sight without compensation to the owner.

The various pit bull breed bans are decried by animal control officials as “the most concentrated legal assault on a pit bull they can recall,” as well as “canine racism.” The Houston Chronicle quotes unnamed officials as placing the blame for the problem squarely on humans. “(M)any of the pit bull attacks are due to a skyrocketing number of poorly bred and badly trained dogs raised by backyard breeders, who are trying to cash in on the pit bull’s growing reputation as a cheap, but deadly effective guard dog, particularly in urban areas.”

Nearly thirty-five years after the beginning of this anti-pit bull hysteria, the tide seems to be turning a little bit, but every step forward is followed by a step back. Even as Florida is attempting to overturn all breed-specific legislation, Fond du Lac, Wisconsin is considering imposing a new ban. Yet it only takes a brief look at the history of pit bulls to realize that the dogs are not the problem; the humans who misuse them are. For over a hundred years, holding the owners personally responsible was enough to prevent attacks, and the breed was perceived as very child-friendly. With outreach and education, it may be possible to restore that image and rehabilitate the pit bull’s reputation, restoring an iconic American dog to its rightful place among mankind’s best friends.

Maybe Denver will be a first step back toward the direction of sanity and a reminder: It’s never the dog’s fault. It’s always the human’s.

Photo: The author being viciously mauled by the Dog Whisperer’s pit bull Junior. © 2017 Jon Bastian.