It Changed My Life

It Changed My Life: Cesar Millan back to being top dog after very low point

Success weighed Cesar Millan down, but he has bounced back with a new love and maxim

The world's most famous dog whisperer walks into a function room in Temasek Club, his burnished complexion setting off his pepper-and-salt hair and gleaming white teeth.

Short but sturdily built, Cesar Millan is snazzily dressed in a tight olive polo T-shirt, white jeans and metallic silver sneakers.

His swagger is tempered by a charming affability and openness, a quality common in folks who have scaled dizzy heights as well as hit rock bottom.

Born into a poor family in Mexico, the 47-year-old entered the United States illegally when he was 21 and went on to become a dog behaviourist extraordinaire, with his own globally syndicated TV series Dog Whisperer and several books.

But success brought more than just fame and wealth; it also weighed him down with pressures, both internal and external. It came to a head in 2010 when he felt so lost, betrayed and barren that he tried to kill himself by swallowing a cocktail of pills.

He woke up three days later in a hospital's psychiatric ward.

"If you recover, you become very clear about things. It doesn't happen to a lot of people but I was glad I could get back my passion, my focus and my leadership skills," says Millan who was in Singapore recently to shoot Cesar's Recruit: Asia, a new TV series which sees him traversing the continent in search of the best dog trainer.

Until he was five, Millan, the second of five children, lived on a village farm in Sinaloa in north-western Mexico. His father was a farmer turned photographer; his mother, a seamstress.

"When I was small, my family walked cattle for the wealthy landowners in the village. So my grandfather always had a pack of dogs.

"My grandfather, father and I would take the cattle to eat grass and drink water, and then lead them back to the pens."


After his divorce and suicide attempt, Cesar Millan swore to live by a new maxim: ownership, control and leadership. He has found a new love and developed other TV series including Dog Nation, which he co-hosts with his elder son Andre. He also worked with younger son Calvin on another series, Mutt & Stuff, for Nickelodeon. ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

From his grandfather, he inherited a unique way with dogs - one which led to him being nicknamed El Perrero or "the dog boy".

Books did not interest Millan but animals did. "I couldn't live without them, I had to be around them," says the amiable man who often brought strays home.

By the time he was 13, he knew he wanted to go to the US, learn to become a dog trainer and come back to open his own dog-training facility.

Why America and why dog training? "Because I grew up watching Lassie and Rin Tin Tin," he says, referring to two classic TV series starring dogs. "In my country then, you learnt to think that Americans knew everything," he says with a laugh.

After finishing high school, he spent a few years working at different jobs. "I was a vet's assistant, I worked as a supermarket packer, I sold ceviche and tortilla," he says.

Ceviche is a seafood dish, while tortilla is a flat bread usually served with a filling.

When he turned 21, Millan's father gave him his life savings of US$100. He tucked the money into his shoes and hightailed it to Tijuana where he tried to find, over two weeks, the best way to cross the border.

"It was dangerous. I was 21, had never been outside my state and there I was in another state about to do something illegal.

"Tijuana was controlled by drug cartels. If you were not careful, you could end up having your organs sold," he says.

One day, a coyote - or people smuggler - told him he could get him into the US for US$100.

"I'm Catholic and that, to me, was a sign," he says with a guffaw.

The journey was dangerous.

"We walked, crawled, went into water, hid in tunnels, ran against traffic on the freeway. It took us eight hours," he says.

Once in the US, the coyote paid US$20 to a taxi driver who drove Millan and dropped him off at a bus stop in San Diego.

That night and for the next two months, he slept on a piece of cardboard under a freeway, together with other illegals and homeless Americans.

No job was beneath him: He worked in kitchens, mowed lawns and washed cars.

"I needed to make at least US$1 to eat, which was not hard - US$1 could buy me two hot dogs and all the ketchup and mustard I wanted," he recalls.

One day, he entered a pet grooming salon and mouthed the only English sentence he knew to the two Caucasian women inside: "Do you have any application for work?"

 
 

Although he did not understand their replies, he soon made out they needed help grooming an aggressive cocker spaniel.

"I just took the dog, held its head high, picked up the clippers and started grooming it. When I finished, they paid me US$60.

"I gave them US$50 back, and said I didn't need that many hot dogs, but they said to take it and come back the next day," he says.

He proved to be so indispensable that the two women even gave him the keys to the premises when they knew he was homeless.

"I took my first proper shower there in a bathtub which I used to shower the dogs," he recalls with a grin.

Within a few weeks, he had saved US$1,000 - enough to buy himself new clothes, new shoes and a Greyhound bus ticket to Los Angeles.

"My destination was never San Diego; it was Disneyland and Hollywood," he says.

He slept on a park bench on his first night in Los Angeles. The next day, he thumbed through the Yellow Pages and called up kennels, looking for work.

A Hispanic dog trainer in Burbank gave him a job as a kennel boy. He was paid US$7 an hour, and was allowed to sleep on the premises.

After a while, he started letting the dogs out of their cages at night.

"It was against the rules but I felt really bad for the dogs. Where I was from, dogs were never kept in cages," he says.

It soon became obvious to pet owners that Millan handled their pets better than the trainer.

"They'd ask me to work with their dogs. When I asked for permission, I got fired," he says, shaking his head.

He started making cold calls and knocking on doors to offer dog-walking services.

Because he was still an illegal, he charged only US$10 a day.

Soon he became known as "the Mexican guy who could walk 30 dogs with no trouble".

As word of mouth grew, players from the NBA (National Basketball Association) and the NFL (National Football League) started seeking his services.

So did Hollywood celebrities such as Vin Diesel, Nicolas Cage and Salma Hayek, as well as Will Smith and his wife Jada Pinkett Smith, who later hired him an English teacher.

"They wanted to know who was this guy who could walk rottweilers, pit bulls, German shepherds, poodles and pomeranians without them fighting.

"I didn't just know how to train; I could also rehabilitate," says Millan, who by then already had an American-Mexican girlfriend, Ilusion.

Not long after, he found himself a facility - a warehouse in a parking lot - in Los Angeles' South Central neighbourhood, which he called The Dog Psychology Centre.

A Cuban allowed him free use of the premises. In return, Millan and his dogs provided security services.

Three years after he arrived in the US, he got his green card. Instead of US$10, he could start charging US$65 a day for each dog.

"I was supporting the family in Mexico. I got married and started paying bills and taxes," says Millan, now a US citizen.

A journalist from Los Angeles Times newspaper trailed him for three days, and wrote a feature on his winning ways with canines.

"She said, 'Hollywood loves you. You have people coming from England to see you. What would you like to do next?'

"I said, 'Well, I would like to have a TV show.' "

The day after the article was published, he had a line of TV producers banging down his door.

Millan knew exactly how he wanted Dog Whisperer to be. His key message is: Dogs are pack animals and need a calm assertive leader. To turn them into balanced animals, they need exercise, discipline and affection, in that order.

Dog Whisperer premiered in September 2004 on the National Geographic channel. Within a year, half-hour episodes became hour-long ones screened during prime time. It was syndicated to more than 80 countries, attracting audiences in the tens of millions.

But fame was disorienting.

"People were suddenly pandering to you, treating you in a way you've never been treated before," he says .

For a while, it got to his head but his dogs brought him back to earth.

"In the world of animals, fame and wealth and power do not exist. When your feet are not on the ground, your dogs won't listen to you. Their reactions told me I was in trouble," he says.

STAYING GROUNDED

In the world of animals, fame and wealth and power do not exist. When your feet are not on the ground, your dogs won't listen to you.

CESAR MILLAN, on how fame got to his head till his dogs brought him back to earth.

His career soared. But just when all seemed hunky-dory, things came crashing in 2010. His beloved sidekick Daddy - an American pit bull terrier - died. Ilusion filed for divorce. And although he naively believed that Dog Whisperer was his, he found out that the production company owned all the rights.

"It was shocking, but it happens to a lot of artists. We sign a lot of things but we don't know what we are signing... I felt I had no worth.

"When you feel like a failure, you just go into this spiral," he says.

He reasoned there must be a reason why he was still alive after his suicide attempt.

So he went back to work, and swore to live by a new maxim: ownership, control and leadership.

A new woman, Jahira Dar, came into his life. He developed other TV series including Cesar 911, Leader Of The Pack and Dog Nation, which he co-hosts with his elder son Andre, 22. He has also worked with younger son Calvin, 16, on another series, Mutt & Stuff, for Nickelodeon.

"And now six years later, I'm in Singapore," says Millan, who has authored nine books, the latest being Cesar Millan's Lessons From The Pack.

His life is going swimmingly but the man is not without his detractors. A New York Times columnist once called Millan "a charming, one-man wrecking ball" with a "one-size-fits-all, cookie-cutter approach to dog training".

Last year, animal lovers complained to the Los Angeles County Department of Animal Care and Control and petitioned Nat Geo to cancel Cesar 911 after a pig was bitten by a bulldog he trained on the show.

The channel defended its star, saying the short clip shared online did not include "the full context of the encounter" and that he created a safe environment to rehabilitate the bulldog's aggression.

After a full inquiry, LA County also found no evidence of animal cruelty on Millan's part.

Dogs, say Millan, will always play a central role in his life.

He writes in his latest book: "Dogs taught me how to go after my dreams, how to fall in and out of love, how to bear disappointment, how to weather loss, how to laugh with abandon, and how to move on and forgive."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 02, 2017, with the headline 'Back to being top dog after very low point'. Print Edition | Subscribe