The man behind the whisper
While Cesar Millan’s methods have sometimes attracted controversy and differ in approach from those of our own Fab Five, one thing we can all agree on is that he has made the relationship between people and dogs a household discussion. Whether one condones or condemns his approach, his mass appeal is undeniable.
The first things you notice when you meet Cesar Millan are the multiple faces of his canine compadres staring from his SUV. The next thing you notice are his verging-on-illegal eyelashes. Yes, his eyelashes. Not something I detected while glued to my TV watching him “train people and rehabilitate dogs” on his Emmy-nominated series, National Geographic Channel’s Dog Whisperer. Almost uncomfortably perfect, the eyelashes evoke a fleeting thought that perhaps eyelash-fluttering-induced hypnosis is part of his magic. However, that theory is thrown out the window faster than a bag of dog poo in the garbage, when one witnesses the whispering firsthand. At the risk of sounding like a schoolgirl telling ghost stories around the campfire—one who swears this really happened—I assure you I observed the power of the “calm assertive pack leader” in action. I heard the famous “tsst!” with my own two ears.
Instantly friendly, this is a man who, if you met in line at Whole Foods, would offer to carry your groceries. And while I don’t have groceries with me when we meet, I do have my boyfriend with me. Originally there only to drop me off chauffeur-style, Chad soon finds himself talking with Cesar about topics ranging from Buddhism to natural resources. But this, I suspect, is the allure of Cesar. He can pull you in with a magnetism not reserved exclusively for dogs, but rather for the potential he sees in humanity. And after offering Chad the keys to his motorbike parked nearby, it’s clear his meteoric rise to the top has rendered him unaffected.
Cesar and I roam parts of his 43 acres in the rural outskirts of suburban Los Angeles that will house his new Dog Psychology Centre. He tells me about his new-found respect for women after being raised in a culture that doesn’t promote their value. We discuss lessons he’s learned from the likes of Dr Deepak Chopra, Dr Wayne Dyer, and his own wife, Ilusion. And although he is adored by A-list clients, he explains: “It’s not about the home in Bel Air. Humans live their lives based in stories. Dogs live their lives based in reality.”
It is this wisdom that has contributed to his becoming a household name, and his list of tangible accolades grows. He is the best-selling author of Cesar’s Way, Be the Pack Leader, and, most recently, A Member of the Family. He has been a guest on Oprah, portrayed as a character on the animated series South Park, parodied on Saturday Night Live, and is co-founder of the non-profit Cesar and Ilusion Millan Foundation.
With a resume like this, it’s no wonder there exists a cult-like curiosity about all things Dog Whisperer. So as we sit down, me with my retro tape recorder and he with his startling eyelashes, I am determined to find out who the man behind the whisper really is.
MD: Do you remember when you realized your relationship with dogs was special?
CM: I was 13 years old. In Mazatlan, on my way to a Judo competition. With my mom.
I declared: ‘Mom, I am going to be the best dog trainer in the world.’ That was what was available then. That profession. Which is great, but I didn’t know I could actually practice dog psychology. That day to me, in front of this big statue, was the moment I knew there was no turning back.
MD: Have you been back to that spot?
CM: All the time. I’m very symbolic. That spot is a big deal to me. As soon as I land, I eat shrimp tacos, I get my mom, and we go to that spot. Just to express my gratitude.
MD: You credit your grandfather as the person who most instilled in you a respect for animals. Why?
CM: To him, everything about an animal was beautiful. He adored them. He didn’t love animals in the way Americans love animals; he would get a kick out of that: To see a birthday party for a dog…. He was the epitome of honesty, integrity, loyalty. And that’s what he loved about animals.
MD: You’re very open about the fact you came to America by unorthodox means. You were 21 years old when you crossed the border in 1990 after weeks in Tijuana assessing the situation. What went through your mind when you were standing neck-deep in a river, waiting for your opportunity to cross?
CM: It’s unbelievable, but not one drop of fear came to me. I was not afraid whatsoever. Just the feeling of ‘this is what I need to do.’ I was in the water for more than four hours… I felt like somebody was taking care of me.
MD: Originally you were homeless in San Diego?
CM: For two months. But the way I looked at it was that I was a tourist. When people ask me what is it I like about America, to me, it’s the beautiful freeways. Plants in the middle of the road, well groomed. I’d never seen that. And so to me, I felt like a tourist, not an illegal guy running from anything. No place to live, no money. But I never begged; I worked. At 7/11 you could get two hotdogs for 99 cents. So it was enough. One of the things I always wanted to drink was soda. My mom did not allow us to drink soda. And here, you get refills! For $1.69, you can get all the soda you want!
MD: You come to America and this is the drinking problem you develop? Rebellion!
CM: Exactly! But I had never tried it before, out of respect for my mom.
MD: Here’s a quote by Anais Nin: ‘Each friend represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive. And it is only by this meeting that a new world is born.’ How did your friendship with Jada Pinkett Smith create a new world for you?
CM: Before I even knew Hollywood, I was watching a movie called A Low Down Dirty Shame. In one scene, there she was, in the fetal position, screaming. I told my wife: ‘I know that girl!’ It just felt real.
Later, I met Jada…and that was it. Boom! Every time I think about it, I get this emotion in my chest. My English wasn’t what it is now. I shared with Jada that I wanted to take what I knew to a higher level, and she sent an English teacher to me for a year. To me, she’s an angel. She opened up my ability to communicate. In Mexico, I was surrounded by people who believed in me. I would be playing marbles and they would say: ‘Oh! He’s going to win!’ And Jada did the same.
MD: She saw you playing with marbles and knew you were going to win.
CM: Metaphorically speaking, yes.
MD: What advice can you give people who want more for their lives?
CM: It’s available. It’s there. The only obstacle and the only person who can stop it is you.
MD: In Dog Whisperer Ultimate Episode Guide, the authors admit the show has attracted some controversy. They joke that the only thing two dog trainers can agree on is they both don’t like the methods of the other. Do you feel you’ve been misunderstood by critics?
CM: Yes, it is definitely a matter of being misunderstood. I am not there to train the dogs. To me, a dog that is trained doesn’t equal a dog that is balanced, and a dog that is balanced doesn’t equal a trained dog. But I’d rather have a balanced dog than a trained dog.
I’ve done more than a hundred shows, and every one of them is positive reinforcement. People are learning it’s not about the dog and that’s positive for society. I always say my way is not the only way. It’s just an option, not the only option.
MD: The life your sons lead is 180 degrees different from the life you led at their age. How are you able to impart values like ethics, hard work, and respect onto them?
CM: My boys work for what they have. Right now, they are feeding the homeless. They learn every day about being compassionate. I don’t care how wealthy they become as long as they work for what they have. Respect is a big deal to us, and gratitude. We all lived in the hood for a while in a garage in Inglewood. They totally get it.
MD: What is the one message you hope you leave behind?
CM: Connection. Between human beings and Mother Nature.
MD: How has fame changed your life?
CM: I see fame the way my dogs see fame. It’s not real. It’s a story. I am the same Mexican guy who jumped the border with a dream. Only with better clothes.