Eugene Weekly : Coverstory : 8.28.08


The Dog Whisperer comes to Eugene 
By Camilla Mortensen

Cesar Millan (aka “the Dog Whisperer”) pulled into Luv-a-Bull Pit Bull Rescue, tucked away in the wooded hills of south Eugene, expecting to see a pit bull with a problem. What he found was a peaceful enclave littered with happy pits and pit-puppies. Doggies were draped over chairs, lounging on couches and playing in a sunny meadow. What could possibly be the problem at this idyllic Fido hideaway?

Cesar Millan meets one of Eugene’s lovely bullies. Photo by Todd Cooper 
Patrick Leiser and Liesl Wilhardt meet the Dog Whisperer. Photo by Kelly Beal

It wasn’t long before Millan met the reason for his visit. A dog so vicious that Lane County Animal Services wanted to euthanize him shortly after an officer brought him in. A dog so unstable that when his caretakers tried to film him to document his problems, he attacked the camera. A dog so unmanageable that after a year at the rescue, his anger and attempts to bite drove Luv-a-Bull Executive Director Liesl Wilhardt to seek outside help from Millan, the top dog of dog trainers. 

That dog was El Diablo, and he’s the most vicious Chihuahua to darken a doorstep in all of Lane County. The three-pound doggie-desperado was too much even for Wilhardt, a slim blonde Harvard-educated dog-rescue dynamo who thinks nothing of going for four-hour treks with a pack of pit bulls leashed at her side. After nine years of rescuing pits, the first dog Wilhardt couldn’t train and fully control was the sort of pup you’d expect to find tucked into Paris Hilton’s purse, not starving, feral and snarling in a Wal-Mart parking lot.

Not everyone agrees with the Dog Whisperer’s philosophy and methods, but something needed to be done with El Diablo, and Millan is often the last hope of desperate dog owners.

After LCAS captured him from behind the massive Eugene discount store and brought him into the kennel, it looked like he was going to be put down. The pint-sized pup attacked anyone who tried to touch him. Even no-kill shelters will euthanize a dog if it can’t be rehabilitated, and crowded LCAS has limited resources for any dog let alone a dog that bites. But Kylie Belachaikovsky, LCAS’s volunteer coordinator, felt that the little dog had a chance if he could just land in the right hands. 

Luckily for El Diablo he escaped the needle and wound up at Luv-a-Bull with Wilhardt and her coterie of pit bull (and Chihuahua) loving volunteers, including her partner, Patrick Leiser, a pro wrestler turned pet-friendly real estate broker.

Liesl Wilhardt started rescuing pits almost a decade ago, after realizing how few resources there were for the much-maligned breed. “I’ve been loving pits from the time I was really little,” she says. Luv-a-Bull rescues, retrains and rehomes human-friendly pit bulls and tries to undo some of the breed prejudice that the media have created around the dogs.

Millan too is a staunch defender of the dogs. He equates the prejudice people have against the pit bulls to the sort of racism humans have against one another. Millan might be a celebrity now — a dog trainer to stars from Will Smith to Oprah Winfrey, with a hit National Geographic show and two bestselling books on dog training — but he still remembers coming to the U.S. 20 years ago as an illegal immigrant from Mexico, who didn’t speak English. 

Millan says if we can learn to stop judging a dog’s behavior by its breed, maybe we can learn to stop judging people by their race.

“We already do it,” he says of the way people create prejudices about other races and ethnicities. “The Chinese and the whites and the Hispanics and the blacks; we do the separation thing, and then we start blaming them,” he says. “My goal beside rehabilitating dogs is to help people understand that concept.”

If we start to enact breed bans and judge dogs based on their breed, rather than as individuals, says Millan, “We’re just nurturing that concept.” He says if we can move past “racism” against dog breeds like pits, “then we can move into the human relationship.” 

 “We can’t blame the breed,” he says. “We have to see them as who they are; they’re powerful and we have to redirect that energy.” 

Dogs and owners, according to Millan, should be matched according to their energy. You don’t choose the right dog based on breed, you choose based on energy. “The dog is not going to think ‘Oh my God, this human just rescued me, he’s such a great human, I’m going to treat him as a pack leader.’” 

Continuing his metaphor between races and dog breeds, Millan says, “I’m going to speak as a Hispanic descendant. We have Hispanics who are low level, medium level, high level or very high level energy. There’s not a race or a breed that’s better for certain people; what is better for certain people is the energy that they’re taking home.” A low energy person needs a low energy dog. Only a very high energy person can be the “pack leader” for a high energy dog, according to Millan.

Luv-a-Bull’s hours of walks a day, love and rehabilitation seem to work on even the most energetic of Lane County’s pit bulls, but El Diablo, as it turns out, has a whole lot of energy for a Chihuahua. After working with the pint-sized terror, and an extensive interview with Wilhardt and Leiser, Millan decided to take El Diablo back with him to his Dog Psychology Center in Los Angeles. “My problem with Diablo is that I’m afraid of him,” admits Wilhardt. Diablo’s energy was throwing off Luv-a-Bull’s peaceful pack.

Millan was so impressed by the Luv-a-Bull’s balanced pitty-pack that he asked if one of his own pack dogs could be sent to Eugene to retire. A week or two after Millan’s whirlwind tour of Oregon, Rakim the elderly pit bull was delivered to Wilhardt’s door. Rakim was an escape artist in L.A., leaping off balconies and tearing through walls to get out of his owners’ apartment before coming to live with Millan. Now Rakim (renamed Morgan Freeman) for the first time in his life will wander Luv-a-Bull’s wooded trails in Eugene’s south hills with Wilhardt and Leiser.

As for Diablo, Millan says the terror of the Wal-Mart parking lot has learned to swim for exercise, is settling into his new home, and well on his way to rehabilitation. 

To find out the rest of El Diablo’s story, tune into the Dog Whisperer’s fifth season on the National Geographic Channel, or check out Luv-a-Bull at


2008 Pets Issue:

Tsst! The Dog Whisperer comes to Eugene 

Ferocious Felines CatBibs stop your kitty from killing

Ask the Dogcatcher! LCAS’s Kylie B. answers all your critter questions

The Scoop on Poop To compost, flush or trash?

Touchy-Feely Healing Eugene has alternative options for pet wellness

Petty Disaster The improbable stoner flick of the year features dogs on horseback 

Pet Participation If you can’t have one, help one

EW Pet Contest Winners Cute, Ugly and Best Dressed