Best known as the "Dog Whisperer," Cesar Millan is a world-renowned dog trainer who came to the United States from Mexico as an illegal immigrant and became a celebrity training dogs for the rich and famous. He is the author of several best-selling books, including "Cesar's Way," "Be the Pack Leader" and "How to Raise the Perfect Dog." He also founded the Dog Psychology Center in California. The Millan Foundation rescues and supports abused and abandoned dogs. His show, "The Dog Whisperer With Cesar Millan," took the brand to the next level. While his professional life was off-the-leash successful, his personal life was in the doghouse in 2010. His wife filed for divorce, and his beloved dog Daddy died. But he found his way back, and the 44-year-old stars in a new show on the NatGeo channel, "Cesar 911." It premieres Friday at 9 p.m.
What do you think makes the relationship between dog and humans so special?
I think this is where the human can actually be himself. Most people want to look good. You don't want people to know your weaknesses, so you are not really free. A dog actually provides a really awesome platform for you to be you. He will accept you as who you are. It really goes into the soul of the human, the emotion of a human, not the physical body of the human.
How have your training techniques evolved since you first started?
I think the only thing that has changed about me is how much I focus on the human and prepare the human. In "Cesar 911," that is what people are going to see. In "The Dog Whisperer," you see an aggressive dog and a guy comes in and he rehabilitates the dog and then he goes. Now you are going to see how, you, the human being trigger everything in your dog -- the good, the bad and the ugly. I want us to take responsibility for what we are doing wrong.
Dogs aren't born unstable. We make them unstable. If a dog lives with a human who is afraid, the dog has no choice but to be afraid and to overprotect the human. Most people see the dog's aggression or fear, but they never take the time to find out where he learned to be afraid. So parents who are afraid of dogs can only teach kids to be afraid of dogs.
Why do you think pet owners have started to treat their dogs more like real companions with clothes, pampering and sometimes lack of discipline?
We live in a very selfish society. We are going to keep fulfilling ourselves by utilizing the dog as a source of fulfillment. You see now people are not getting pregnant until they are 30 or 35, which is uncommon in the history of humans. Humans have decided to prioritize their careers and financial status, but [they] still have an empty space. So the dog came in and somebody obviously said, "Let's dress the dog up!" The human starts fulfilling his own little story, his own little dream. That's when the Louis Vuitton bags [carrying cases for small dogs] came into the picture and this extravagant approach toward the dog. I am not saying it is wrong. I am saying this happened, not because the dog asked for it.
Recently, Pittsburgh suffered the loss of a police dog named Rocco. He was killed in the line of duty, and the grieving and outpouring of sympathy was extraordinary.
Well, this always happens in the service dog world. They grieve them because he is a soldier or member of the service community. The community shows its appreciation.
It seems grieving for a pet has become more acceptable.
We do and we don't. Obviously, we kill millions of them -- 4 to 5 million [each year]. Of course, the one that serves the community we are going to have more empathy for or the one that represents something closer to us. But the ideal would be to actually honor all of them and do less killing. Most of the dogs don't have a problem. It is just over-population. But nobody is worried about those. I am saying we have to be fair to all of them.
I was reading about your life. You went from being an illegal immigrant to a celebrity. Was it hard to not let the fame and money go to your head?
You know, when animals live with money or celebrities, they don't know they live with that. As you know, my clients are celebrities and very wealthy people, but the dogs don't know. When you let things go to your head, that means you are different. You are something better than somebody else. If you do that in front of a dog, he is going to imitate that and become anti-social.
This is when your roots are so important, where you come from is so important. Being humble and growing up poor helped me stay grounded. I did have motivation and inspiration to take my family to a different economic platform but not because I was going to be better than somebody else. You know what I mean? I think it has to do a lot with moral values and where you were raised and who raised you. I've got great parents. I still listen to what my mom says, to what my dad says. They still can influence the way I behave.
You have experienced some dark days, but you pulled yourself out. Was it faith and family that helped?
It was a combination of many things. The pack had a lot to do with it. My pack, when I came here to the ranch, they saw a human like they never saw before in their life, and they all started licking and nudging, reviving me. Sometimes you don't want things to happen, but it has to happen for a certain reason. Sometimes you don't get the dog you want but the dog you need. You don't get the situations you want, but the situations you need. It really brought focus back.
Now I am going back to leading my life the way I wanted to. One of my dreams was to have many different species on my ranch. Now we have a llama, we have a horse, we have a tortoise, we have chickens, we have chameleons, we have guinea pigs. We are giving workshops. I did not stay true to my core beliefs. So, you know, some things needed to happen.
Do you find certain breeds of dogs easier to train?
Because I'm not looking to train a dog, I am just looking to allow the dog to have the stability he should have regardless of breed. Some rules, bounds and limitations are applied to all dogs. Everybody, regardless of the breed they have, they want a social dog. My focus is on the balance and the well-being of the dog, for him to maintain a natural state of mind.
You say the No. 1 thing a dog needs is exercise.
Exercise and mental challenge. Mental challenge is rules, bounds and limitations. If you don't have rules, bounds and limitations, you do not know what is expected of you. Many people misinterpret discipline for punishment. Discipline actually helps to prevent you from making mistakes.
So if my kids follow what I say, they will be in good shape because I already went through it. I know what I'm talking about. I am going to set some rules, bounds and limitations. I am not punishing them. I am telling them to build a discipline so they know what to do and how to prevent unwanted things. If a dog does not have rules, bounds and limitations he is going to get into trouble. If he has rules, he will know how to be in society.
So much of your work could be applied to people.
Well, it's the same philosophy. Exercise the body. It creates trust. Discipline creates respect. You reward a mind that is willing to take direction and that is when you give [the dog] affection. Most people give affection to an excited mind. They give affection to the dog when he feels insecure or fearful. So with a dog, you are nurturing that state of mind. Most affection is used at the wrong time at the wrong state of mind. That is why, for me, it is more important to train the human so he utilizes his love in a positive way because most of my clients nurture instability.
Is it awkward telling them they are not good at what they are doing or have you become comfortable in that role?
I think it is up to the coach. Most people don't make you aware you are doing things wrong. I make you aware. That is the key to being a good coach or a good teacher. A lot of teachers make kids [feel] wrong; therefore, the kid doesn't want to learn anymore. If you make him aware and invite him to surrender, you can inspire and motivate him.
That's the goal in life, isn't it? To enlighten people so they can choose a different path. Otherwise, many people live without the knowledge. Lack of knowledge can lead you to become afraid. So what really controls the world is ignorance and fear. That is why people feel we need to ban certain breeds. When you have ignorance and there is fear, the only thing you can think of is get rid of them, kill them. You are not getting rid of the problem. You get rid of the problem by making people aware of what they are doing wrong with their dogs. When you love dogs, you love them all. You don't selectively love some, otherwise you are more prejudiced than anything else [laughs].
Watch for Linda Fuoco's discussion of Cesar Millan's training methods in her Pet Tales on Saturday.
Patricia Sheridan: email@example.com or 412-263-2613. Follow her on Twitter at www.Twitter.com/pasheridan.