Sunday, April 7, 2013

Leader of the pack

Cesar Millan

Taking control: Millan is rebuilding his business after severing ties with his old production company and embarking on a series of new ventures.

On a hazy, 38-degree morning three summers ago, during the most difficult time in his life, Cesar Millan drove his silver John Deere Gator high up on a ridge that looks out over his Dog Psychology Centre. On 17 hectares of scorched red-dirt hills and rocky ridges north of Los Angeles, the centre has no indoor plumbing, no airconditioning, and very little shade. He shut off the engine, wiped dust from his face and sighed. ''Tony Robbins has his island in Fiji,'' he said, with a smile that seemed hopeful but also a little sad. ''I have this.''

Millan paid $1.3 million for this land and called it his ''greatest investment, after dog food''.

He planned to turn the place into a sanctuary for abandoned dogs, as well as an academy where he'll teach the unconventional training methods he introduced on nine seasons of his hugely successful TV series Dog Whisperer. ''In reality,'' he says, ''it's not about training dogs. It's about training the human to learn from dogs.''

So far, not much progress had been made. The only permanent structures were a small office with a wooden desk and some plastic furniture, plus a few dog kennels and a murky above-ground pool. Millan had hoped to rescue


60 dogs that summer - ''Hard-core, aggressive dogs,'' he told me. ''Dogs on death row.'' But, he admitted, ''I'm not ready.''

Earlier that year, in a few awful months at the start of 2010, Millan's life turned upside down. In February, his sidekick Daddy - a giant, gentle red pit bull who frequently assisted Millan on the show and whom he called ''my mentor'' - died of cancer at age 16. A month later, while he was on tour in Europe, his wife of 16 years, Ilusion, informed him she was filing for divorce. As he was reeling from those blows, Millan discovered that while Dog Whisperer had made him one of the US's biggest TV stars, a series of bad business deals had left him with very little to show for it. ''I found out I didn't own anything - just T-shirts and touring,'' he told me recently. ''It was the biggest shock in the world.''

Millan remembers walking around in a daze, feeling betrayed and very alone. ''I am a pack animal,'' he says. ''Everything I did was to keep the pack together. All of a sudden I had no pack.'' He slept on his brother's couch, spent time in church, and lost so much weight he dropped four trouser sizes. Millan's sons, Andre, then 15, and Calvin, 11, blamed him for the separation and refused to speak to him. During the worst times, even his dogs kept their distance. ''Dogs don't follow an unstable leader,'' he says. ''I was very unstable.''

In May 2010, Millan hit bottom. ''It was a spiral,'' he says. ''All the will power I had, the desire to motivate myself, my kids, all I had achieved - none of that, nothing, mattered.''

One day, at his wife's house, he swallowed a bottle of her Xanax and some other pills and got into bed, hoping to end his life. ''I thought, 'If I do a combination, I can die quicker.' So I just took all the pills I could find; poof! I had so much rage and sadness, I went to the other side of me, which is, 'F--- it, I'm a failure.'''

Millan woke up in a psychiatric ward, where he remained under observation for 72 hours. ''Nothing happened!'' he says. ''I thought, 'Well, shit, that means I'm not supposed to die. I better get back to work'.''

I visited Millan at the ranch a few months after his suicide attempt. When I arrived he was lying on a bench in the shade, sweating through a purple polo shirt. ''I'm still managing the depression, the anger, the insecurity,'' he told me, ''but I am moving forward.''

A pair of hyperactive huskies belonging to his close friend Jada Pinkett Smith ran through the hills pulling a sled Millan had modified for the rocky terrain. Junior, a sleek, grey, three-year-old pit bull he was grooming to take Daddy's place, lay quietly under the bench, watching Millan's every move. ''I couldn't have done what I do without Daddy,'' he said, ''and now I can't do it without Junior. There's always a pit bull there supporting me.''

Millan is a short, stocky guy but he carries himself with a straight back, chest jutted out, a natural alpha. When he arrived in the US 22 years ago, he knew only a single English word - ''OK'' - and he still talks in a loose, colloquial Spanglish, rolling through sentences with mixed-up tenses. On Dog Whisperer, Millan uses the language deficit to his advantage, putting clients at ease with his always polite, effortlessly funny broken-English banter as he (often painfully) dissects their troubled relationships with their dogs. In person he's just as charming - open, inquisitive, with a quick mind and a slightly rough edge that makes him even more likeable.

For all his alpha-male poise, he also possesses humility, which he says comes with the job. ''In my field, working with animals, they detest egotistical people,'' he says. ''Dogs are wise. They don't buy BS … When you are egotistical, you're not grounded. So it's not even an option for me to become disconnected or lose my grounding.''

All that summer, Millan spent his days at the ranch, clearing brush, digging roads and planting trees. ''Some people turn to cigarettes and alcohol when they have problems,'' he said. ''I use hard work.'' When the sadness overwhelmed him, he would hike up the nearly vertical rim of the canyon.

One night, ''I was sitting under this tree … and I was crying. I noticed the dogs started coming over, and they surrounded me. There were, like, 11 dogs all around, and they started to lick my face. Normally I don't like to be licked. I'm afraid of germs. But this was different. I had the sense that these dogs were healing me. From that night, I began to get stronger.''

One of the first things Millan did was take control of his company, Cesar Millan Inc. During nine seasons of Dog Whisperer - which, at its peak, drew 11 million viewers a week - Millan had become not only the world's most famous dog trainer, but chief executive of a fast-growing business empire built on speaking tours (Millan sells out 5000- to 7000-seat arenas about 90 dates a year), corporate sponsorships, lucrative personal clients (he earns as much as $US80,000 ($76,500) for a consultation, which goes to his charity foundation), and a line of products that includes leashes, collars, beds, brushes, backpacks and organic dog food.

In a 2009 New York Times article, MPH Entertainment, the company that produced his show and other ventures, estimated the business would soon be worth $US100 million. Millan says CMI's aggressive expansion was driven by MPH and his wife, not him, and that he was exploited financially. ''I was the brand, but I had lost control of the vision. We were trying to sell freakin' water for dogs! It was about the money. And that's the least thing I am. Money doesn't drive me. What drives me is helping people and helping dogs.''

Millan cut ties with MPH, and he is planning to sue the company for unpaid royalties. He ended Dog Whisperer because MPH owned the show. ''I can't work with anyone who is not honest,'' he explains. ''I don't even mind the ownership; what I mind is that they broke the moral code. If we do a show that is about honesty and integrity and loyalty, how can we not honour it ourselves?''

Co-chair of MPH Entertainment Jim Milio says: ''Mr Millan received millions in fees and profits from Dog Whisperer. His misstatements are totally without merit.''

On a trip to Spain, arranged by his business manager to try to shake Millan from his torpor, Millan developed a Spanish-language show, El Lider de la Manada, in which he rescues troubled dogs from in shelters and matches them with suitable owners. ''We kill 3 million dogs in this country every year,'' he says, ''and 40 million around the world. So I thought, my next mission is to show people how we can stop killing dogs and start saving dogs.''

The English-language version of the show, Leader of the Pack, premiered in January on Nat Geo Wild. It's a more conventional reality show - like The Bachelor for people whose dream is not to find a spouse but to adopt a dog.

Millan grew up on a small cattle ranch in Ixpalino, a dusty village in Sinaloa, Mexico, and lived there until he was five with his grandparents, his parents, and his older sister [another sister and brother came later] in a shack with no electricity or running water. He idealises those early years. ''We had nothing, but it was perfect,'' he says. ''There was a pack of dogs on the farm, and for some reason they would just naturally follow me.''

Millan's grandfather Teodoro taught him many of the principles of dog behaviour he still employs today. ''When I started reading all the scientific books, I realised that most of those things my grandfather knew from experience, from trial and error. For example, he didn't know a dog's nose was 10,000 times more powerful than a human's nose. He just knew this is the way dogs experience the world - nose first.''

Ixpalino had no full-time school, so when Cesar was five, his parents moved to Mazatlan, on the coast.

The Millan family lived in a small apartment they shared with chickens, exotic birds and a pig [until the neighbours complained], plus the stray dogs Cesar brought home. His mother loved having dogs around, but didn't like them in the kitchen. ''She created an invisible line they couldn't cross,'' he says. The sound she used to control them - a quick, sharp ''tssst'' - has become Millan's trademark, a decisive scold that makes dogs instantly stop their bad behaviour.

As a poor farm kid who spent most of his time with a ragtag pack of canines, Millan became known as ''el perrero'', the dog boy. Predictably, he was not the most popular kid in Mazatlan. He dreamed of growing up to be a soccer star, a drug dealer or a soap-opera actor. ''That was the people everybody admired and respected, the people that were actually able to support their families,'' he says. That all changed when Millan was 13, and his family got its first TV. After dinner they would gather to watch reruns of Lassie and Rin Tin Tin. He was enchanted by the tricks those Hollywood dogs were able to do, and he had an epiphany. ''I told my mom, 'I'm going to be the best dog trainer in the world.'''

Years later, after a failed trip to Guadalajara to find work as a dog trainer, Millan decided to go to the US. Two days before Christmas, in 1990, he took off by bus for Tijuana, with $100 his father gave him in his pocket. ''Every day for two weeks, I tried to cross the border, and every time I got caught,'' he says. ''It scares the shit out of you in the beginning, but then you learn. I was starving. And when you get caught, you get a sandwich and a Coca-Cola. Then they throw you back out somewhere.''

He paid $100 to get passage across the border. It was a tortuous journey through flooded drainage ditches and filthy concrete tunnels, evading Border Patrol the whole way. When he emerged at a service station off the freeway in San Diego, he had no money, did not speak any English, and didn't have a single friend or relative to call. For two months he slept under freeway overpasses.

Eventually, Millan found part-time work at a pet-grooming salon and as a dishwasher at Sizzler. One night at an ice-skating rink, he met Ilusion, a pretty 17-year-old Mexican-American girl. In 1994, when she was pregnant with their first son, Andre, the couple moved north to the rough Inglewood section of Los Angeles. Cesar went door-to-door offering dog-walking and training services - free at first, until friends convinced him to charge $10 a day. The neighbourhood was gang turf, and many of the dogs he worked with had been used for protection and fighting. ''These were tough dogs, man! Dogs with one eye, three legs; dogs that had been lit on fire,'' he says. Millan became a neighbourhood hero, the guy who could rollerblade down the street with 10 or 12 gangster dogs at his side.

He took over a ramshackle former auto-repair shop and called it the Dog Psychology Centre. ''We started cleaning up the place - taking old pallets and covering them with green carpet, building beds. I had no money, so from trash I made obstacle courses. I would walk 40 or 50 dogs off-leash in the alley out back. We would patrol the area. Slowly, the crime went down; the graffiti stopped.''

Ilusion worried that the sketchy neighbourhood would scare off new clients, but as his reputation grew, Millan says, ''dogs started arriving from Beverly Hills, sometimes in limos''. One of his early clients was the actor Jada Pinkett, who had four Rottweilers she needed help with. ''Jada has huevos [balls],'' Millan says. ''There's the street side of her, but at the same time you see the evolved Jada. I'm the same way. I have both sides.''

In 2002, the Los Angeles Times ran a photo of Millan walking up Centinela Avenue with a pack of eight thuggish-looking Rottweilers and mutts strolling peacefully behind him. ''He talks like Freud, looks like Rudolph Valentino and acts like Merlin the Wizard,'' the piece reported. It also quoted Millan saying that one day he would like to have his own TV show.

Over the next week, Millan says, a dozen TV producers showed up at the Dog Psychology Centre. Many were frightened off by the pack of dogs barking at the fence. But two producers, Kay Sumner and Sheila Emery, both dog lovers who had been looking to launch an animal show, were enthralled.

''It's an adventure going down there,'' Emery recalls. ''Not a great neighbourhood, and we had to go through this gauntlet of dogs. What we didn't know at the time was that he was watching how the dogs reacted to us, and I guess we passed the test.''

Millan says dogs are better judges of character than humans are, and he often brought Daddy along to size up prospective business partners.

The first season was extremely low budget: Millan earned $2500 an episode. ''If you look at those early episodes, the pants were so long on him, and he wore donated boots that were two sizes too big,'' Emery says.

Even if his pants didn't fit and he was still wrestling with English, Millan is a natural on TV - charismatic, funny, self-possessed. And almost invariably, he would walk into a situation of desperation and chaos and leave with peace and calm restored, usually in less than an hour.

''People who watched would say there's no way he could do the things he did,'' Sumner says. ''They thought it must be clever editing. There's nothing fake about the show at all. What you see is what you get.'' (Sometimes, it should be noted, Millan's solutions were only temporary. Several of the worst-case dogs were later given up by the families, and over the years Millan himself has adopted many dogs that clients could not rehabilitate themselves.)

At the core of his approach is a simple, radical message: the dogs aren't the problem, the people are. Like wolves, Millan argues, dogs are pack animals, and pack animals need a ''calm, assertive'' leader. Too often, we bring our own neuroses to our relationships with dogs and then we blame the dogs for the results. ''I want you to relate to [the] dog, not control [the] dog,'' he says.

''If you learn to live by the principles, you will be able to say 'good boy' at the right time, just by giving him a smile or by your heartbeat - your relaxation is more than enough for the dog to know this is what makes you happy.''

As he talks, his voice rises with excitement. ''A dog can detect stage-one cancer; a dog can detect seizures before they happen. Not even a child's own mother knows that the kid is going to have a seizure! So for the happiness to come out of your mouth and for you to think that's the only way the dog understands you - you are underestimating his ability to know you.''

When you first see Millan with dogs, you might think he doesn't even like them very much. He rarely gives physical affection or addresses them by name, preferring a more primal communication that involves subtle body language and lots of eye contact.

Some animal behaviourists argue that Millan's methods lack scientific grounding and are based on an overly simplistic view of wolf behaviour. (One of his controversial techniques, for example, is to correct a dog by ''biting'' its neck in the way a wolf's mother would, with his hand shaped into a mouth and his fingers acting as teeth.)

Many trainers, especially those who practise positive, reward-based techniques, call his dominant, pack-leader approach outdated, even cruel. A 2006 New York Times opinion piece described Millan as ''a charming one-man wrecking ball directed at 40 years of progress in understanding and shaping dog behaviour''.

Millan says his critics don't work with the kind of ''red zone'' cases he takes on, and points out that many of the dogs he has successfully rehabilitated were given up on by other trainers and would have been euthanised had he not intervened.

On a cool night in Miami, October 2012, Millan is riding through South Beach with the windows down. He is dressed, as always, casually but impeccably, with a large diamond stud in his left earlobe. At intersections along slow-moving Ocean Boulevard, people on the sidewalks recognise him and shout: ''I love you, Cesar!'' ''You changed my life!'' Millan waves and grins, the same calm, centred smile he uses to reassure anxious dog owners on TV.

Wherever he goes, strangers stop him to tell him how he inspired them to rescue a three-legged Rottweiler or a pack of abused pit bulls, or to ask advice about what to do if their dog runs around in circles all day or charges visitors at the front door.

Millan seems almost compulsively driven to help every dog he meets, and every human who asks for advice. Sumner and Emery say that after Dog Whisperer segments finished shooting, Millan would often stick around for hours to offer more guidance. And even now, if he's passing through a neighbourhood where he once worked with a dog, he sometimes stops by unannounced to check in.

The next night, I ask if listening to people's problems all day weighs on him. ''No way, man,'' he says. ''I love to solve the mystery of people's lives with their dogs. It's like, bring it on! The way I talk about it with my son Calvin, who is also a great dog whisperer - we call ourselves X-Men. We are here to help!''

Millan's divorce was finalised last June (he agreed to pay Ilusion $23,000 a month for life). In January he moved with his girlfriend, Jahira, a 29-year-old Dominican beauty he met when she worked as a saleswoman at Dolce & Gabbana, and Calvin, 13, to a new house with five bedrooms and a pool.

Millan says he now sees the divorce as a wake-up call, but he is still struggling with how to heal his relationship with his older son, Andre, now 18, who refuses to reconcile with his father. ''It's frustrating,'' he says, ''and it's really sad. I know how to help a dog. Even if he wants to kill me, I know how to help. But the reality is, if a human doesn't want to have anything to do with you, there is nothing you can do. I can't force communication with my son because he's not ready.''

Spending time with Millan, it's clear he relates easily to dogs but has a harder time with people. Even with Calvin he admits he is struggling to guide him through the transition to his teenage years. ''He's in a stage where he feels like his truth is the only thing we should focus on. He's not pack-oriented right now; he's trying to create a world that only he lives in. A dog would never do that shit. A dog would never say, 'I can do this on my own.'''

I remind Millan about an argument I witnessed between him and his younger brother Erick, CMI's creative director, that started over a scarf Erick borrowed without asking, but devolved into a pretty nasty fight about money and family, mostly provoked by Cesar. Millan shrugs at the memory.

''With a dog, I surrender, but not always with a human - I go into fight rather than surrender. I catch myself, but obviously that's a bad habit.''

He sighs, then smiles. ''I have a good habit with the dog, bad habit with the human,'' he says. ''I'm a work in progress.''

Men's Journal

Lifeline 13 11 14 Mensline 1300 789 978
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