When Vinny Ragone heard the Dog Whisperer was going to be at a Baltimore pet store, and he could see him for free, he told his mother (who had never heard of Cesar Millan), "I've got to be there."
The eight-year-old Towson boy with wire-rimmed glasses nearly cried when, after waiting in line for hours, he finally saw in person the guy he's seen so many times on TV — the guy he hopes can get his puppy Molly to stop biting.
"I think [Millan] impresses him a lot," said Vinny's mother, Mona Ragone. "He's in control, and that's how [Vinny] wants to be with his dog."
Hundreds of animal lovers, similarly impressed with the trainer's seemingly magic ability to make dogs mind, crowded the Pet Valu store on Fort Avenue on Saturday morning. Millan stopped there, allowing folks to see him for free, before a performance later in the day at the Lyric Opera House.
Not unlike Martha Stewart's or Oprah's, Millan's multimedia reach extends from his hit television show, which has aired eight seasons, to books, DVDs, a magazine called "Cesar's Way," a touring show and pet products.
Millan has a bit of a loose Baltimore connection — it was native Jada Pinkett Smith who first hired him to train her dogs, and her imprimatur then opened the door to more celebrity clients, and eventually the canine empire he now runs.
His self-taught methods have been a touch controversial in recent years, mainly to those in the animal world who'd rather see a more tender, reward-based technique to train dogs than Millan's "people lead the pack" philosophy, which is often accompanied by the trainer's famous "tsssk" and poke to the side of a misbehaving pooch.
But the culture clash seemed to have done little to deter his faithful followers.
Despite temperatures hovering in the 30s, they lined up outside the South Baltimore pet store, hours before Millan's planned 11 a.m. arrival, shivering and holding their dogs' leashes in gloved hands.
The first in line got there at 5:45 a.m., driving down from Monkton. Brittany Falkowitz, a 25-year-old law student, clutched her cellphone; she had a photo she wanted to show Millan of her dog, Sheba, who had died three years ago. In the excitement of the moment, though, she forgot to show him the picture. Millan is, after all, on Falkowitz's list of the Top 5 people she'd hoped to meet in her lifetime.
Millan rolled slowly up to the shopping plaza in a black Lincoln Town Car, hazards blinking. He entered through the store's back door, hustling in with Lola, his fluffy Pomeranian mix, tucked into the folds of his down jacket. Holly, a Labrador he's training for his show, was also along for the ride.
Wearing decoratively distressed jeans, a black suede jacket over a black T-shirt and a diamond stud in one ear, Millan bounded into the store, greeting the few fans already inside, and running to the window to wave at the many more outside and yell, "Thank you!"
He settled in at an autograph table with a backdrop of shelves stocked with his dog treats, his dog toys, his bright-colored bowls.
People who wanted to meet Millan came with books, DVDs, photos and clothing for him to sign. More than a few were wearing shirts and hats with his "Pack Leader" slogan. And nearly everyone brought a dog or two.
He happily posed for pictures with pup after pup, allowing the smaller ones to hop right onto his table. His favorite photo stance involved throwing his left arm around the back of the dog owner and then holding one of the dog's paws in his other hand — big grin.
If a fan wanted to hug him — even hard and tight — he was fine with it. If a dog wanted to lay a sloppy wet kiss on his cheek, also cool.
When 12-year-old Mikayla Cepeda's dog Sammy whined a bit during the photo, he and the girl's mom Yesenia Banks, simultaneously gave the Odenton pup a playful "tsssk" and laughed.
Chelsea Kohlerman's pit bull, Tucker, who was wearing a hoodie, was one of those that licked Millan on the face. Though Tucker is generally a good boy, Kohlerman has used Millan's tips to calm her other more rambunctious dog, Jasper — when he's trying to steal Tucker's bone, when he won't wait patiently for his dinner and when, no matter what, he just won't obey.
She said Millan "shows you that it's the owner, not the dog."