02/04/2013 03:18 pm ET Updated Apr 06, 2013

The Life Whisperer

I started watching The Dog Whisperer about a year after my sudden divorce. Much to my surprise, I learned even more about myself from Cesar Millan than I did about my dog. He always says in his show that he "rehabilitates dogs," but he "trains people." In my case, he helped to rehabilitate me after a particularly difficult time in my life. Here are the life lessons I learned from the Dog Whisperer:

1) Energy Transfer
Whenever Cesar meets with a new case, he watches the owner(s) interact with the dogs. He pays more attention to the behavior of the owner than that of the dog. His claim is that anxiety or a lack of confidence in the owner transfers to the dog. In our lives apart from dogs, we also transfer energy. If you find that you experience stress interacting with someone, check your own energy. What are you responsible for transferring?

2) Don't Grip the Leash Too Tightly
This is an extension of the lesson above. When you watch the owners walk their troubled dogs, they grip the leash too tightly and pull with all their might if their dogs lunges at another dog. This is transferring the anxiety to dog, but even more importantly, it is giving power to the anxiety. In order to control the dog, the owner has to learn to let go of the illusion of control and has to begin to trust their dog. In our lives, we also tend to grip too tightly -- to relationships, to ideas, to beliefs. Try loosening your grip and learning to trust instead of always trying to control.

3) Prepare for Greetings
Cesar always prepares the dogs carefully before allowing them to enter a dog park or greet other dogs. He makes sure that they are calm and submissive so that they are well-received by the rest of the pack. It is worthwhile to check your own mental state before greeting someone. I know I can come in from a stressful day and take it out on my fiancé instead of pausing and waiting until my own mind was calm. And, no, I'm not recommending that you start greeting people by sniffing their butts!

4) Work With Nature
According to Cesar, dogs process the world through their noses first, followed by their ears and eyes. Obviously, we tend to use those senses in reverse, and we all too often expect that from out pets. Cesar advocated working with the nature of the animal so that you get the results you are looking for with the least amount of resistance. Look around you. Not everyone perceives the world the way you do. Do you expect them to conform to you, or do you allow them to use their nature?

5) Be Aware of the Precursors
On the show, Cesar will often correct a dog when I cannot see any misbehavior. Until the sequence is played in slow motion, that is. Then, you can see a slight tuck of the tail or a tip of the ear, a slight precursor to the attack that is about to occur. Cesar is so successful because he recognizes and responds to these early warning signs. I know in my own life, I am often too busy to notice those little signs, much less respond so quickly to them.

6) Move Forward
When dealing with anxious or aggressive dogs, especially ones that he is trying to form a pack with, Cesar frequently begins by taking them for a walk or a rollerblade ride. (I think he has a death wish here!) His reasoning is that when the dogs are moving forward, it is impossible for them to focus on anything else. Now, I do think our brains are more monkey-minded than our canine friends, but we can still benefit from forward movement to calm ourselves. So, when you are angry, sad, or anxious, try going for a walk. Or a rollerblade ride, if you're more daring than I!

7) Calm and Assertive
Cesar always works to get the dogs in a calm and submissive state. The counterpoint to that in the owners is a calm and assertive state. He is very kinesthetic and models what this looks like: shoulders back, head relaxed, arms relaxed. It projects confidence and a calm mind. When I feel stressed, I find myself emulating the body language of Cesar to trick my mind into responding. Sometimes it is easier to teach the body and let the mind follow.

8) Trust Your Senses
Cesar relies heavily on intuition; he does not spend too much time in the "thinky place." He trusts his instincts and, when he needs extra information, he trusts the instincts of his pack as they give him feedback on a new dog. We all too often discount intuition and try to over-analyze everything. Sometimes, it is better to trust your gut or the gut of a friend if yours is out of order.

9) Allow Them to Approach
Cesar knows that trust cannot be forced. When he is working with a fearful dog, he allows that dog to approach him rather than invading the dog's space. When the dog is allowed to make the initial movement, he/she will begin to trust. Humans aren't much different. My husband's affair destroyed my trust, but I was able to learn to trust again but it had to be on my own terms and when I was ready.

10) Differentiate Noise From Threat
Sometimes Cesar encounters a dog that is snarling and growling, looking as if it is ready to snap, yet he ignores the behaviors, dismissing it as "just noise" and not a serious threat. Our brains like to snarl and growl, too. It is important to recognize when this is simply noise and safe to ignore and when it is an alarm sounding at the approach of a serious threat.

11) See the Possible
About once a month, I see an episode with a dog that I think is hopeless. Cesar doesn't give up. Some cases take longer and take more effort, but they can all improve. He brings the worst cases to his ranch, where they are surrounded by a healthy and stable pack. This is a good lesson in our own lives when troubles seem insurmountable. Improvement is always possible. Learn from Cesar -- if you need more help, surround yourself with those who are healthy and balanced. Their energy will transfer. And, if that doesn't work, maybe try chasing a tennis ball.

12) Redirect With Play
Need I say more?

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