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Photograph by Mark Thiessen
Leader of the pack: Cesar Millan and pit bulls Sam, top, and Spike. "I train people. I rehabilitate dogs," Millan says.
Interview by Cathy Newman
Cesar Millan doesn't walk a dog. He leads a dog. He commands—with board-straight posture, a prime-time smile, and the confidence of a gladiator who knows he's the biggest (despite his short, compact frame), most dominant dude in the coliseum. Do not call Cesar a dog trainer. He is a dog rehabilitator. Propelled by his successful Dog Whisperer show on the National Geographic Channel, he has leaped from dog trainer to dog rehabilitator to brand (Cesar Millan, Inc.) faster than a speeding greyhound. He is the dog guru for the Age of Indulgent Owners. Delinquent dogs—Nunu, the Chihuahua from hell; Brady, the Labrador who belly flops on family members in the pool—don't have behavior problems. They have issues. Born in Culiacán, Mexico, and smuggled across the border 16 years ago by a "coyote," Cesar now runs the Dog Psychology Center out of a chain-link-fenced two acres (one hectare) in a mangy neighborhood in south-central Los Angeles. The 30 or so dogs in his pack (used to rehabilitate dangerous dogs) are pit bulls, Rottweilers, German shepherds—whatever comes in. Clients include Oprah Winfrey ("I was telling her, this woman who . . . ranks as the most powerful celebrity . . . that she was not being a leader to her 20-pound [nine kilograms] cocker spaniel") and fat-cat billionaires, one of whom whisked his two dogs (incompatibility issues) in separate trips by private jet across the country for consultation. These days Cesar sees few private clients. Instead, he travels around the country holding seminars. Inspired by Lassie and Rin Tin Tin, Cesar had a dream—to make it not in Shreveport, Omaha, or New York, but in Hollywood. He has.
Can you teach an old dog new tricks? I do that all the time. Any dog can be rehabilitated. They can be 10, 11, 12, 13—as long as the mind is young.
What is the biggest mistake we make with dogs? We humanize dogs. We hold conversations with them as if they were people. We use dogs for our own emotional yearnings. A dog doesn't know it lives in Beverly Hills or how much we spend on it. In Mexico, Petco would never make the same amount of money. I use a 35-cent leash—a piece of cord. It's all about us. Animals need to work for food and water. The ones who get food and water just because they are cute—those are my clients.
What about the idea of a dog as accessory, like a handbag or pair of sunglasses? Accessories and decoration are part of our history. They tell people who you are—like a bone in the nose or tattoo or paint on your face or wearing feathers because it makes you look better. There is nothing wrong with making a dog an accessory. We can't take that away. But we can take away from the dog that he is a dog.
Why do people gravitate to particular breeds? It's about what they want from another human but can't get, so they get it from a dog.
So you'd get a pit bull, because . . . ? Because it represents power, strength, masculinity—like driving a Ferrari. Or a Hummer.
And a small fluffy poodle? Because it's feminine. Decorative.
So, we wear ourselves at the end of our leads? I walk into a home and don't have to hear much. I see the dog, and I know who you are. It is a mirror.
It sounds like your approach to correcting dog problems is about correcting owner problems and training them to lead their dogs, not the other way around. If you don't tell a dog what to do, it will tell you what to do. My clients are powerful, they have Harvard degrees, they run Fox Studios, Oxygen, Disney, they run the world, but they can't control a dog. You don't ask a dog if it would like to go for a walk. You put on the leash and go. A dog is first an animal, then a dog, then a breed, and then its name.
How does someone like Oprah, who presumably knows how to be a pack leader, fall apart when it comes to owning a dog? Because the goal changes. It's not, What can I do for Sophie [her cocker spaniel]? as much as, What can Sophie do for me? Sophie fills the empty space. It is the wrong way to begin a relationship. Unconditional love isn't enough to control a dog. Dogs don't follow an emotional leader. They follow the dominant leader. We are the only species that follows an unstable leader.
What about Presidents and their dogs? When you see the President of the United States coming out of Air Force One, you always see the dog in front. When you see the President going inside the White House, you see the dog going inside first. Bill Clinton couldn't control his Labrador. Nancy Reagan had to exile her Bouvier to the Reagans' California ranch. You can't let a powerful breed take the lead. If you did that with a pit bull, there would be no Presidents to meet with.
You work with phobic dogs, like the Great Dane that wouldn't walk on shiny floors. Do you have any phobias? My biggest fear is flying. But I do it.
Is there any creature you can't rehabilitate? My father. My dad is in a red-zone state of mind. I want him to tell my mother, "I appreciate you. Thank you. I love you." But he can't, not in the machismo culture of Mexico.
Can't you just take your father for a walk and work out the issues? No. He'd just run away.
How did your parents feel about your choice of profession? They wanted me to become a professional. A doctor, lawyer, architect.
How does your father feel now that you've made it? He still can't understand why Americans pay me for walking their dogs.
And your mother? She would love me if I cleaned toilets. And, by the way, I did that, too, when I first came here.
Did any of your siblings fulfill their wishes? My brother is studying to become an architect, and I am helping to pay for his education. Or the dogs are.
What are the lessons we learn from dogs? To live in the moment. Also, honesty, loyalty, integrity. Dogs will never stab you in the back or lie to you.
So who is the better behaved animal—humans or dogs? Oh, the dog.
Do dogs think and feel? They feel—they are instinctual. They don't think, otherwise they would sue us. "Your honor, I haven't been walked for five years."
Does your approach work with other animals? It works with anything that is pack-oriented—goats, horses, pigs.
Do you understand cats? No.
Where do you want to take your message next? We send our culture around the world, and the way we treat dogs is happening in Japan. It's a good thing I like sushi. After Japan, I can go to England.
Given a choice, which would you rather have in your pack, Lassie or Rin Tin Tin? Rin Tin Tin. A German shepherd is more like who I am—competitive, territorial, and dominant.