Cesar Millan was a young man with a dream when he crossed the border from Mexico into the United States. He knew even then that his mission in life was to work with dogs, but he had no idea that his dream would become the huge success that it has with TV shows, books, pet products and personal appearances worldwide.
Millan began humbly. His first job in the U.S. was at a pet grooming store. But, he kept to his goal, and it wasn't long until he began training dogs with what he considers the three keys: Trust, respect, and loyalty.
He impressed the right people with his abilities and landed his first TV show -- Dog Whisperer with Cesar Millan -- which went worldwide, and was soon followed by the release of his first book Cesar's Way. Several shows and books later, Millan continues his work with difficult dogs, taking on the more serious cases in Nat Geo Wild's Cesar 911!, and working with the next generation -- his sons Calvin, 16, and Andre, 21 -- to keep the legacy that began on his grandfathers farm in Sinaloa, Mexico going.
In honor of National Hispanic Heritage Month, which kicks off on Sept. 15, Bio caught up with the internationally recognized dog trainer to talk about his journey from Mexico to the U.S., and his path to becoming the go-to guy for dogs in trouble.
Can you take us back to where it began?
It all started when I was 13. I wanted to be the best dog trainer in the world. I grew up thinking Americans knew everything. In every single movie you watch, Americans save the world. Plus, I grew up watching Lassie and Rin Tin Tin. And so, at the age of 21, when a Mexican mom is allowed to let you go, I went and told my mom, "Mom, I'm going to America because I'm going to develop this knowledge about training dogs."
I crossed the border with my dream of being the best dog trainer in the world. The dream was the only difference between me and the rest of the guys and the girls. It took me two weeks to cross the border. It took me two years to learn English. It took me about three years to actually have a TV show. But the point was that I was focused and that I knew what I wanted. It was my passion and it still is.
You became a U.S. citizen in 2000. Now that you can vote, are you involved in politics, especially with what's going on at the border, or do you stay out of that?
I think more and more I'm moving in that direction. Definitely, I want to make sure that we are a plus. Hispanics are born with the mentality of being of service to people, tourism and all of those things. And so, the older I get, the more I realize that I can actually make a little impact there. And more and more, congressmen and women are coming to me, especially the Hispanics, and saying, "Can you join this march?" Now that my kids are set, I think I can definitely spend some time, because in the political world, there's definitely no money in it.
Is there a specific candidate that you're rooting for?
Right now? No, not yet. I'm still figuring it out.
How did you develop your method of training dogs?
I don't really train dogs, because if you think about training a dog, it's like telling a dog to do something for you. To me, I feel like whatever you want the dog to do, he already knows. You just have to make sure you gain his trust. That's why I actually developed the understanding that people, especially the people who love dogs, don't know how to gain the trust of a dog.
Let me give an example. Dogs in third-world countries are skinny, but they don't have psychological problems. Dogs in America are chunky and they get to have a TV show. So, why is it that the dogs that have everything -- a home, a bed, a birthday party, a banking account, leashes -- but their human does not trust them? That's when I said, "You know what? I'm not going to train dogs, I'm going to train people, so they actually learn what the language of a dog is."
How did you figure that out?
Growing up in Mexico, my grandfather would say, "Never work against Mother Nature. Always gain their trust, always gain their respect, and they're going to give you a beautiful gift called loyalty." So, I learned three things: Trust, respect, and loyalty. Those three words are important in any relationship, but he said, "You must gain it. You must earn it." He never said they were going to give it to me because I'm the owner.
On Cesar 911, the dogs are about to lose their homes because their behavior is so bad. Do you prefer dealing with these more difficult cases?
I do, because it proves the point that the dog becomes the environment that he lives in. So, if you put a dog in an environment that's chaotic, what do you think the dog is going to learn? That's the only thing that's available to them.
I don't think that people want to have an aggressive dog. They want to have a well-behaved dog. But they don't realize that what they're doing is leading the dog to become unstable. I go to people's home and say, "Listen, I'm going to embrace your chaos, therefore, I'm going to help you rehabilitate your dog."
Your son Calvin has a show on Nickelodeon, Mutt & Stuff, where all the dogs do tricks.
Well, that's a different kind of show. That's a show where dogs are not out of balance. That's a show where dogs are not unstable. That's a show that actually teaches kids prevention, and how to have a dog that is balanced, where you can actually teach it tricks. So, the message behind Calvin's show is, "Listen, we could do a lot better if we think prevention." My show is about intervention. My show is about people that make every mistake in the book.
Is Calvin following in your footsteps? Does he have that special relationship with animals that you have?
My two boys…Andre, who is now also doing a show called What's Up Dawg!, they both have it. They both have this capability, because they grew up with the pack. My kids learned how to walk holding the necks of dogs.
People have this really strong connection with their dogs. Why do you think the human dog bond is so strong?
Because we all have the necessity to belong, to be loved, to love someone, to have quiet time but yet not feel alone. And a dog fulfills all those necessities. The instinctual necessity, the intellectual necessity, the emotional necessity, the spiritual necessity, they fulfill them all. Sometimes humans can't help other humans to fulfill those spaces. I tell you, I trust more dogs than I trust humans.
Dog lovers want to know if there's anything that your dog Junior does that's quirky or funny that you could share?
Everything about Junior is quirky and funny. Nothing about him is normal. He makes sounds when he's bored out of his mind. We can be on The View, we can be with Oprah, we can be whatever, and he starts making sounds like, "Oh, okay, I'm done." It's the funniest thing on the planet. And, obviously, I know how he feels. I raised him.
He always wants to play. Junior doesn't have a fighting bone in his body. He would chew a ball for 300 years if you let him.
He also loves to dive. Not only swim but Junior actually dives. He knows how to hold his breath. I throw a heavy toy in the pool, like 6-feet high and 6-feet deep, and Junior will go around the pool, look at the thing and then dive. But the way he does it … how he pushes himself so he has weight, is hilarious. He looks like a penguin.
Any new projects coming up?
Right now the project is to make sure Calvin and Andre stay focused. Calvin is doing really good at Nickelodeon right now, and Andre, we're launching him and he will, hopefully, get a network deal. So, that way I can just chill. I already raised them and now I'm going to see them grow.
I hope they have the hunger and the same passion that I have, and the same discipline. And they really are there for the pets. They're really there to help people with their dogs. Because that's what really draws me: How can I help somebody with their day or with their dog? I really enjoy it.