Cesar Millan might not claim legal rights to the phrase “The Dog Whisperer” — it’s actually owned by Nat Geo Channel, which aired the popular show from 2004-’12. But listening to the 43-year-old Mexico native and U.S. citizen speak can have a mystical effect on a conflicted dog owner. I prepared for Folio Weekly’s recent phone interview with Millan by amassing questions that pertained to my canine companion: Why does she jump? Why is she so needy? Why so skittish around new people? By the end of our conversation, Cesar’s level-headed, Zen-like confidence made me feel I subconsciously knew the answers to those questions — without even asking them.
Beyond those impressive powers of persuasion, Millan’s rags-to-riches-story would astound even Horatio Alger. Born in Mexico’s Sinaloa region, Millan grew up working with dogs on his grandfather’s farm, earning the nickname El Perrero, or “dog boy.” At 13, he told his mother he would one day be the best dog trainer in the world. But after entering the U.S. illegally at age 21, Millan had to work a succession of low-paying jobs before saving enough money to start his Dog Psychology Center in Los Angeles. By 2002, though, Millan had achieved enough celebrity to pitch his own TV show, the success of which eventually led to countless best-selling books and worldwide media appearances espousing his gentle yet forceful “pack leader” philosophy.
The highs haven’t come without some lows for Millan, however, who has two children and became a permanent U.S. resident in 2000 and a full-fledged citizen in 2009. Divorce, depression and even a suicide attempt have cut him down and built him back, proving that he’s a true inspiration for dogs and humans.
Folio Weekly: Give us an idea of what your upcoming performance at the Times-Union Center will look like, Cesar, especially compared to your TV show.
Cesar Millan: “The Dog Whisperer” is about assessing a situation that has gone bad and changing and rehabilitating dogs. But what the show doesn’t allow me to provide is the educational aspect. Onstage, I can teach people the principles that I follow and the five techniques for leadership. Everybody thinks I have a gift, but the gift is that I follow a certain formula.
F.W.: How did you learn that formula?
C.M.: In the animal world, you’re energy: intention created by emotion. Dogs don’t know me as Cesar Millan; they know me as a guy who comes with a certain energy. A lot of people say, “Oh, I gotta take the dog for a walk.” The intention is not really to take the dog for a walk — it’s to get it over with. That makes the dog feel guilty or bored. But just by wording it differently — “I’m taking the dog for a walk” — you create a different energy.
F.W.: Beyond that, what’s the main mistake owners make with their dogs?
C.M.: A lot of people love dogs, but they don’t know dogs. And they humanize dogs. You can love a dog the way you love a human. But if you communicate with him the way you communicate with a human, the dog can never succeed in achieving balance and harmony.
F.W.: How does your new TV show, “Leader of the Pack,” differ from “The Dog Whisperer”?
C.M.: “The Dog Whisperer” was a show about saving relationships, and “Leader of the Pack” is a show that’s going to help me save lives. In America, we kill four to five million dogs every year; around the world, it’s 600 million. So I have an obligation to go on a global mission. The world doesn’t agree on everything — especially on politics or religion. But one thing we can all agree on is how much we love dogs. So let’s do what’s best for dogs.
F.W.: When you were a young man growing up in Mexico, did you ever dream of the success you’ve achieved?
C.M.: I always wanted to be a dog trainer. But I came to America to learn from Americans; I didn’t think I was going to teach Americans about dogs, because I thought Americans knew what to do! I grew up on “Lassie” and “Rin Tin Tin,” you know?
F.W.: In 2010, you lost your oldest dog, were divorced from your wife and attempted to commit suicide. What did you learn from your dogs during that period?
C.M.: Animals live in the moment and have no idea why their pack leader is going through such a deep depression. So they actually joined in. That’s the beauty of the dog as man’s best friend. Friendship is when you’re in the same struggle — not trying to change the person but being with the person. Sometimes the way out is the way in, so I needed to hit rock bottom to really recover my sense of purpose. You get comfortable when you’re on top, but life has some funny ways of humbling you. And now, from a father’s perspective, I can coach my kids. Some parents coach their kids in baseball or soccer, but I can honestly coach my kids about life.
F.W.: Is there anything you haven’t accomplished that you’d still like to do?
C.M.: Oh my gosh! We have to continue moving into the whole globe: Mexico, Canada, China, Brazil … I still have the mentality of an immigrant. When you come to America, the only thing you see is opportunity. And now I see opportunities in the world. America taught me how to take advantage of those opportunities in a good way and do business with people who share my core values: honesty, integrity and loyalty.