Cesar Millan has come a long way from the days of being referred to as “el perrero” or the dirty dog boy.
The dog guru, born in Culiacán, Sinaloa, Mexico, earned the less-than-complimentary name from other children who couldn’t help but notice dogs following the then-13-year-old around.
Speaking to Indulge from his home in Los Angeles, CA, television’s “dog whisperer” is preparing for his summer 2012 tour covering cities in both Europe and Singapore – a far cry from nearly 30 years ago, when he was living on the streets of L.A., alone and unable to speak any English.
Eventually, the young Millan went with what he knew best, regardless of language barriers. He landed a job grooming and walking dogs, often walking up to 30 dogs at a time…. off-leash.
After developing a reputation for having the ability to work with even the most aggressive dogs, Millan was sought out by Jada Pinkett (now Jada Pinkett Smith) in 1994.
The television sitcom actress quickly became one of Millan’s biggest supporters, paying for his English tutor for a year after he revealed his dream was to be on television.
“There’s that saying that luck is when preparation meets opportunity. I think I’ve been very lucky in my life. I had spent my whole life working and learning from dogs, and when I met Jada and she helped me learn English and advised me in my career, I was ready to make the most of this chance that I’d been given,” Millan said.
In 2004, the pilot for Dog Whisperer with Cesar Millan aired on National Geographic, featuring Millan working with problem dogs and owners.
Using methods based on the interaction in wolf packs, Millan helped owners establish themselves as “pack-leaders.”
During its first season, Dog Whisperer with Cesar Millan became National Geographic’s number-one show.
However, with all the positive attention came negative backlash.
In 2006, critics began to speak out against Millan for his use of physical confrontation with aggressive dogs and the use of choke chains, saying positive reinforcement should be used instead.
Millan’s response has been steady over the years, to simply point out his success rate.
“I just ignore them. I think the reason I’ve been successful, is people have used my methods and they’ve worked and they’ve told other people. I don’t think people would keep buying my books and watching my show if there wasn’t something to it. I know some people have spread rumours that I physically abuse dogs, which I think is disgusting,” he said. “I do believe that sometimes you have to physically correct a dog, but that’s because dogs respond with all their senses, including touch. But that’s much different than causing a dog pain or abusing a dog. Anyone who knows me knows that’s something I’m not capable of.
“That’s the price of being famous. People are going to say mean things about you. You have to have a thick skin. But I’m so grateful for the opportunities I’ve been given, I can live with a few critics.”
And the root of many of his critics’ qualms may be the biggest problem some pet owners face: treating their dog like it’s human.
Often people project their own feelings onto the dog or treat them like children, Millan said.
“Many times, people come up to me and say their dog is just like one of their children. I don’t know whether it’s the dog or the child, but in this scenario, someone’s needs aren’t getting met. I’ve raised children and dogs, and they’re not the same,” he said.
Despite the setbacks, Millan continues on his quest to rehabilitate dogs and assist owners.
He established the Dog Psychology Center located in Santa Clarita, The Millan Foundation, which provides funding and rehabilitation support globally, created cesarsway.com, which provides support and tips for dog owners, and is a vocal advocate for pit bulls.
For years, Millan’s pit bull, Daddy, was his best friend, main dog and an integral part of the show, often guiding dogs undergoing rehabilitation with his calm and assertive presence.
Sadly, Daddy passed two years ago at the age of 16 – a devastating blow for Millan.
“I think the most difficult thing about having a dog is you know going in, they’re not going to be with you forever. I think you have to focus on the quality of life, not the number of years. I’ve met people who don’t want to get a dog because they don’t think they can handle having to lose him. But you know, think about all the grandparents and older people in our lives and how they’ve enriched our lives, even if they were only present for a short time,” he said. “I was very fortunate that Daddy had such a long and healthy life and I got to share it with him. And before he left us, he brought Junior into the pack, and his spirit lives on. Of course, I miss Daddy every day, but to have had the gift of so much time with him, I really can’t be bitter.”
While Millan admits everyone grieves differently, one thing he does recommend is focusing on the gift of time shared with the furry family member, rather than focusing on the pain of the loss.
And while it may be a difficult decision, Millan also suggests getting another dog.
“I knew when Daddy’s time was coming, and I wanted to bring Junior into the pack while he was still alive to ease the transition. Being with Junior helped both of us deal with the grief after Daddy passed,” he said.
“Sometimes people think it’s disloyal to the dog that passed to replace him, but you’re not really replacing him, you’re just expanding your pack. I think we all have unlimited love to give, and there are so many dogs out there that need love and will love you back, so I can’t think of a better way to honour your lost friend. I know Daddy is happy Junior and I have each other.”
Now, Junior is the one who helps Millan dispel myths about pit bulls and helps rehabilitate dogs.
Millan explains no matter the level of skill or instinct, no human can communicate with a dog better than a dog.
“Junior models behaviour for other dogs and brings his calm, submissive energy to the room. It’s harder for other dogs to go nuts when Junior’s in the room being calm and not escalating their energy,” he said.
“With humans, I think he’s a wonderful ambassador for pit bulls. When people meet Junior, they can see that pit bulls aren’t the aggressive, angry dogs you see in the media.”
With the help of his pack, Millan has been fighting to get rid of Breed Specific Legislation, which often targets pit bulls.
While he admits pit bulls are powerful creatures, Millan maintains any aggressive behaviour lies with the humans who train them.
“Daddy and Junior are the two most peaceful dogs I’ve ever known, or humans, for that matter. In a test that evaluated temperaments of different dogs, pit bulls scored better than golden retrievers, cocker spaniels and collies. So, it’s really about perception,” Millan said.”It’s why I’ve always had a pit bull as my main dog – to help counteract the prejudices in the media.”
“I think the media has made pit bulls into the monster of the day. When I was a kid, it was all about how vicious Dobermans were. The bottom line is the most dangerous breed is the human.”
Millan cites the shift in the way pit bulls have been portrayed, from being used in advertising campaigns for Buster Brown and RCA, and in movies like Little Rascals, to being presented as “tough guys” in music videos and news stories about dog-fighting.
“People have started to view them as a symbol of fierceness,” Millan said.
“It’s really the dog equivalent of racial profiling. Dogs of every breed do good and bad things.”
With Junior at his side, Millan continues to fight the misconceptions about pit bulls and plans to use his inherent skills to help treat problem dogs of all breeds.
There will be more Dog Whisperer in the future, as well as a new show called Leader of the Pack, where Cesar will help rehabilitate rescue dogs while families compete to make the best home for them.
He’s also fully-immersed himself into new media, constantly updating and improving his website and getting active in social media.
“We recently passed two million subscribers on Facebook and 400,000 followers on Twitter, and I’ve really been blown away by the reaction of the online community. My fans are really amazing.
“I’m also travelling all over the world for my live tours and to meet people and help them with their dogs. So a lot of plans! My goal is still to rehabilitate dogs and train people and hopefully make the world a better place, one dog at a time.”