Dog Whisperer Cesar Millan Shares His Canine Wisdom

Cesar Millan (Credit: Getty Images)

He is known to the world as the dog whisperer, so Cesar Millan needs no introduction. He has written The New York Times Best Sellers and presented television shows on National Geographic such as Cesar 911 and Dog Whisperer with Cesar Millan. By calming aggressive or delinquent dogs and teaching their owners how to claim the status of the leader of the pack, Millan has become a household name around the globe. He went from immigrant underdog to guru to celebrities on all matters canine, and has quite a story to tell.

At the age of 21, Millan was smuggled out of Mexico across the border into the United States. He spoke no English and had no friends to help him, but his strong will, his street smarts and his entrepreneurial spirit kept his chin up. To begin with, he slept under overpasses, but he eventually found part-time work in a pet-grooming salon and later moved to Inglewood, once the home turf of rappers Dr Dre and Ice Cube, and began walking and training dogs. At first he did it for nothing, but then his friends persuaded him to charge US$10 a day. It was a rough district and many of the dogs were used for fighting or protection. Their behaviour challenged his expertise. But he became the neighbourhood hero, the guy who could patrol the streets with 30 gangsta dogs at his side.

“I started walking them off leash,” Millan says with excitement in his eyes, “and so people took notice of that. I walked 30 to 40 dogs, and I didn’t know it was illegal to walk dogs off leash in the land of the free. That’s how people got to know me. It was a low-income neighbourhood. People thought I was crazy, because I had Pit Bulls, Rottweilers, German Shepherds – powerful breeds.”​

Millan set up the Dog Psychology Centre, where dogs could stay and be trained, and not long after dogs from Beverly Hills began to arrive in limousines. Jada Pinkett Smith, who had four Rottweilers, was one of his first celebrity patrons. Nicolas Cage was another. In 2002 the Los Angeles Times ran a story on Millan with a photo of him and his pack of vicious-looking, thuggish Rottweilers and mutts. The piece said Millan was interested in having his own television show one day. The following week, a dozen television production houses visited the Dog Psychology Centre to discuss the prospect, under the watchful gaze of Millan’s canine protectors. A few producers were undeterred by the barking dogs that greeted them behind the fence. The rest is history.

Millan singlehandedly made himself into a brand with his teaching and his friendly, panting pupils and their antics – a brand stamped on television shows, books, a magazine for a while, an online shop selling accessories – and a charity that matches orphan children with abandoned dogs and campaigns to make spaying legal, and so stop the putting-down of 3 million to 4 million dogs every year. What could he do after all that?

(Credit: Shutterstock)

“I’m a father,” Millan says proudly. “I also want my kids to help and entertain people. We’re a television family, and we’re an educational family. So I do want to create a dog dynasty.” Millan has two sons, André and Calvin, by his marriage to Illusión Wilson. They are following in their father’s footsteps. Building a dynasty means expansion and Millan is set to bring his dog training skills to Asia with his new television show, Cesar’s Recruit: Asia, which National Geographic and Nat Geo People are set to begin airing next month.

“This is a very old dream of mine,” Millan says. “When I came to Asia, I felt the similarities of my culture. I’ve always admired Asian culture because energy is big here, as you can see in martial arts, tai chi and acupuncture and all that awesome stuff that I believe in so much. I felt that in order for me to accomplish my mission of going global, I needed to recruit people. So then I asked myself where I should start recruiting, and Asians understand energy very well. They understand tradition and respect. It’s all about the family. These are the fundamentals of what I do. So in the show, Cesar’s Recruit: Asia, it’s about finding the person who has what it takes. I then train the recruit in Los Angeles and I bring them to my 43-acre ranch, the Dog Psychology Center, where I have my laboratory. More than anything, I really want to teach the recruit to teach people. So finding a protégé is about finding a person who wants to do what I do, which is educating the world.”

Cesar Millan with Jada Pinkett Smith, one of his first celebrity clients

Millan stresses that it is insufficient for his apprentice to be merely a dog lover. His apprentice must love people even more than pets. “When I went to America, I saw an opportunity to train people, instead of dogs,” he says. “I saw that they didn’t even know how to walk a dog, how to put a leash on a dog, how to keep a dog calm,” he says. “There are a lot of people who want to do what I do, but it requires a very skilled person. I look for a person who loves humans, who is passionate about and open-minded [enough] to help humans, who has patience, who has creativity, someone who really believes that humans can change. I learned over the years not to only influence dogs, but also to understand the psychology of humans. I study people who influence people, such as Oprah, Anthony Robbins or Deepak Chopra. I got to work with all the great guys. I got to teach them all about dogs. So my heroes became my students.”

Instincts are important, Millan argues. “Everyone has instincts. You’re born with instincts, but depending on where you grew up, instincts go numb, because you’re not utilising them enough,” he says. “If you grow up on a farm, instincts are required. The city asks you to be intellectually smart. My clients might be Harvard graduates, but they don’t know how to handle a Chihuahua. I get to work with very wealthy and smart people, but when it comes to a dog, it doesn’t matter, what you call power or fame. So it’s very important for me to find someone who can access the four worlds, the instinctual, intellectual, spiritual and emotional worlds.”

Millan was born in Sinaloa in Mexico and grew up on his grandfather’s ranch there. He instinctively began to lead a pack of dogs, which earned him the nickname el perrero, which means “the dog boy”. He was 13 years old when he declared that he wanted to be the best dog trainer in the world. His grandfather saw that Millan had the gift.

“My grandfather is my legend,” says Millan. “’He used to say, ‘Never work against Mother Nature. You must earn her trust and respect, and she will give you a beautiful gift called loyalty.’ That’s what I heard when I was little, and because I followed that way of thinking, it became my mantra. So that’s what I do. I don’t work against Mother Nature. I earn her trust. I earn her respect, and she will give me a beautiful gift. When you’re poor, you want a gift. So it became a motivation. It was perfect child psychology to tell somebody that they will get a gift. A lot of kids get a puppy. I got loyalty. It was beyond the puppy. It was a philosophy. It was a lifestyle. And it turned into this: my kids have a television show, books, I speak at engagements and live shows for 14,000 people. It’s hard for me to say, but I’m the only guy on the planet right now who educates 14,000 people on dogs. I entertain and teach people at the same time, and I never went to school to become a public speaker.”

Junior the grey Pit Bull who is always at Millan’s side

Millan famously instructs dog owners not only to be calm and assertive, but also to be pack leaders. He says most owners smother Man’s best friend with too much love, which leads to unhappiness and may lead to ailments. “It’s like when we pollute the oceans,” he says. “You can also pollute a dog with energy or lack of fulfilment. You can make a dog unhappy. Actually, most of my clients make their dog unhappy by solely providing affection. You also need exercise and mental stimulation – and, of course, you need to reward yourself. But if you only reward yourself, you can become overweight. If you don’t exercise you can develop anxiety. If you don’t challenge yourself you can become sad, because you don’t have a sense of purpose. You have to fulfil body, mind and heart.”

A pack leader gives direction and protection, Millan says. “Most of the dog lovers only give protection, and not direction.”

“That’s when the dog takes over. When the dog takes over, he becomes dangerous. Not only does he become dangerous to humanity, but he can also become dangerous to himself. For example, if a dog wants to run across the street to chase a cat or a dog, he’s dangerous to himself. His instincts are leading the dog, and you should be able to overrule instincts for the benefit and the safety of your own dog. It’s very important to understand that the dog needs leadership from an aspect of direction and protection, and afterwards reward good behaviour.”

Millan teaches people how to speak dog

Over the years, Millan has worked with some highly dangerous dogs. He’s been bitten many times, but he has no fear of his four-legged friends. “Facing my fears is not about facing animals,” he says, “because I’m not afraid of nature. Nature doesn’t want to harm you consciously. Remember that aggression is not the problem. It’s the outcome of the problem. The dog wasn’t born aggressive. The dog turned aggressive. So if a dog bites and harms a human, it wasn’t because he was thinking about it. When people get bitten by a cobra, the people don’t blame the cobra. The danger is the ignorance of the people.”

Millan acts as an advocate for the mistreated and misunderstood, endeavouring to ensure that whatever he preaches opens people’s minds and teaches them to think in a new way, and to view the world and their pets from a different perspective. He doesn’t have a favourite breed, but he does favour whatever breed is unfairly discriminated against.

“If I would be in the 70s I would be helping the Dobermans,” he says. “If I would be in the 60s, I would be helping the German Shepherds. Every 10 years, humans take a breed and make it the wrong breed. Right now we’re in the Pit Bull era, where the whole world sees the Pit Bull as the most dangerous breed in the world. It’s almost like racism. The way you treat animals, you treat humans. And the way you treat humans, you treat animals. I just see an opportunity to change this stereotype, and that the ignorance gets erased from our minds, because that develops fear. For me, it’s about helping people understand that we don’t have problems with dogs or breeds. We have problems with the lack of education that is not available to us because our focus is more to become smart and make money than applying common sense.”

Millan performs live on stage in front of 14,000 people

A philosopher, a dreamer and alpha male all in one, Millan is charismatic and funny, yet a knight-in-shining-armour type figure who walks into chaotic and desperate situations and leaves with peace and calm fully restored, often in less than an hour. Of his fans and patrons, four-fifths are women that have avidly followed his television shows over the years.

“I was called by the president because one of the dogs was misbehaving,” Millan says. “So when I got to the White House there was a line and the Secret Service came and said, ‘Don’t let the dog whisperer wait.’ I bypassed all these people because, for the Secret Service, I was the dog guy. What happens in my world is that their wives watch my show and the wife is the pack leader. They know if they tell the wife that they made Cesar wait, they will have to spend the night in the doghouse.” The moral of the tale? “The guys have respect because I work with aggressive dogs,” Millan says. “The ladies have respect because I save the dog’s life. It’s a different perception.”

Millan is celebrated as a hero all over the world, but life hasn’t always been a romp in the park for the dog whisperer. In 2010, his sidekick Daddy – a Pit Bull that hardly left his side and helped him in his television shows – died of cancer at the age of 16. One month later, Millan’s wife of 16 years sued for divorce. The circumstances were too much for Millan and he attempted suicide. He picked himself up and worked through his depression and anger. Junior, a grey Pit Bull, has taken Daddy’s place and this year Millan and his girlfriend for the past six years, Jahira Dar, got engaged. “There are ups and downs in life, but what makes you wise is the downs, the fact that you can recover,” Millan says. “What makes you happy is to stay in the up position, but what makes you wise is when you fail, when you lose, when you don’t know how to solve a situation.”

Millan has learned much from his four-legged friends, making him not just a dog trainer, but also a sage, who seems to have worked out the meaning of life. “To me, a dog represents honesty,” he says. “They don’t know how to lie. A dog represents integrity. They want to do the right thing. They follow through. A dog represents loyalty. For me, that is the unconditional love that everyone seeks. They pretty much represent what every human looks for in another human being: the moral values, the fundamentals of a relationship. That amazing relationship has nothing to do with what you look like, but how you feel like – to be accepted exactly how you are. That’s what people always talk about. 

My dog accepts me unconditionally. Humans are very conditional. So most people I work with, they want their dog to become a human. That’s very conditional. The dog accepts you just the way you are, and the human wants to turn the dog into a baby. That’s one of the biggest mistakes people make.”

His dream is to ease aggression and anxiety between humans and dogs

Pet owners may jump to the conclusion that what Millan teaches can be applied to any pet, perhaps a cat. But Millan stresses that cats belong to a completely different species. “The animals are ruled by nature or God,” he says. “So there is already a programme. Cats are more single-oriented. Dogs, horses, pigs, sheep, goats and even elephants are more pod-oriented. So what is easier to be with, someone who wants to be with you, or someone who wants to go on a vacation from time to time? It’s easier for a cat to feel comfortable when you go away. Most dogs develop anxiety if he lives by himself and the human goes to work. The dog can become anxious far quicker than a cat. The cat will find it fascinating.”

Millan says dogs tend to mirror their owners: not just the owner’s walk and the owner’s look, but also the owner’s health – or illness. “Psychological illnesses and emotional illnesses are manifestations of the body,” he says. “Once illnesses appear in the body, it means that the energy has been there for a while, and so the dog has to manifest it. The negative energy has to go somewhere. The thing is, humans numb it with alcohol, drugs and partying. The dog will manifest what happens in the family. The worst one is the emotional illness, the sadness, depression, the failure. There is a lot of unhappiness. The dog mirrors what the human does. The dog not only learns to walk the same way. He also absorbs whatever sicknesses there are in the family.”

Millan has big plans for himself and the planet. “My idea for the world is to practise common sense and to teach the world that we don’t have problems with dogs,” he says. “Dogs don’t look at you from a religious point of view or from a cultural point of view, or taking your looks into consideration. What the dog knows about you is how you feel, and the only thing he wants is to make you happy. We already have someone who is so willing to make us happy. The only thing we have to do is figure out what makes them happy.”

The dog whisperer has a dream. “I want to erase aggression, fear and anxiety from human to dog,” he says. “And the greatness of a nation and the progress can be measured by how animals are treated. It means becoming one world with all humans, regardless of cultural background, language, political views, religious views. We all treat dogs the same way. It is possible. I can go to Russia and talk to a dog in Russian. It’s a universal language. That alone shows us that we can all speak dog.”

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