When I sat down with Cesar Millan earlier this week, he had just finished a speaking event in town. I asked how it went. "In other places, you get the feeling you don't belong," he said, "so it can be challenging to deliver this message in places like Los Angeles or New York." That message? In almost every case, it is you, not your dog, that's the problem.
Millan, who spent the first pivotal years of his life on a farm in rural Mexico, initially gained prominence as a dog behaviorist with his television show "Dog Whisperer." It ran for nine seasons and remains in constant rotation on Nat Geo Wild, where his newest show, "Dog Nation," premieres March 3 and includes a segment shot in Chicago, where he and his son and co-host, Andre, help to open a dog park on the Southeast Side.
"I like the feeling here," Millan said of Chicago. "It's very earthy, very grounded."
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I asked what he meant. "You can speak to Chicagoans as if you know them, versus other places where you have to be careful with what you say — you have to massage everybody, you know what I mean? You can't get straight to the point. Here I can speak 'me.'"
Halfway through our conversation, the 3-year-old Pomeranian named Benson that had accompanied him on the trip jumped on the couch where I was sitting. I beckoned him over, and he gingerly stepped over my tote bag and then snuggled in tight against my thigh, where he remained for the duration of the interview, while I scratched his ears. Charm offensive complete.
Millan has a new book as well, called "Cesar Millan's Lessons From the Pack," and it is structured as a collection of stories about the dogs that have shaped his outlook on life. "The new book is about really understanding how dogs view the world," he said. But it is also an unexpectedly forthcoming memoir that offers a glimpse into areas of his personal life rarely seen on his television shows, including the dissolution of his marriage and how he climbed out of his depression in the aftermath.
Over the course of an hour, I spoke with Millan about why Americans are so mixed up when it comes to dogs, the value of immigrants and why it's OK to let your dog sleep in your bed.
The following is an edited transcript.
Q: It sounds like you're drawn to Chicago. Have you ever considered living somewhere other than Los Angeles?
A: I don't spend a lot of time in Los Angeles because I'm traveling for work, but I've learned about real estate — that if you buy a property in LA, it's an investment that will always grow. You learn those things that me, as an immigrant, would never even think of before. You learn that American-focus way. We learn a lot, as immigrants, about the focus in America.
But Americans have problems with dogs.
Q: Do you have theories? Why is this a particularly American problem?
A: Well, No. 1, America doesn't have problems, it creates problems. In Third World countries, there's no food, no water, no doctors. There isn't a leadership you can count on. And even though people disagree with a lot of American leadership, it's still way better than any other leadership in other countries. So the fact that you have the right to be heard, to protest (short laugh of amazement) — this is huge. You feel heard. You feel human. You feel you have rights. You have a lot of rights, a lot of really good rights.
Q: So how does that make people interact differently with their dogs?
A: The formula is: Exercise, discipline, affection. Or: Body, mind, heart. But my clients do: Affection, affection, affection. And by doing that, they're focusing on their needs only, and unconsciously they enter into a very selfish fulfillment in that relationship and only one side gets the benefit. So man's best friend becomes a very unstable friend — and this unstable friend, a lot of the time, is brought into a shelter because he doesn't behave the way you thought he should. But you don't realize that you made him that way. When he was a puppy, he had no issues.
Q: Why is that an American thing?
A: It's a modern thing. The modern world — so Europe, the U.K. Anybody that has some sort of money is going to have those problems. Third World countries, people don't have problems with dogs. No. 1, nobody has leashes on their dogs. You see dogs in the streets and people think, "Oh God!" but those dogs get to have a normal life, meaning they use their own way of learning about life and they're not dictated by walls or when the human is going to walk them. So, yes, they're skinny, but they don't have psychological problems.
American dogs are chunky, so I get to have a good show — from a business perspective, it's a perfect world! I can do a TV show forever.
You know, people come to the United States because of opportunities, and opportunities lead you to money — and to chasing money. That's one great thing about America — the fact that everybody wants more and more and more, it generates an energy. It's what helps the economy grow.
The only thing about America is, America needs to learn to calm down. I don't have to teach American people to be confident. But America doesn't know how to be calm, so that transfers to the dogs.
Q: Do you feel more Mexican or American? Or equal parts Mexican and American?
A: I think I'm a combination of two things. For me, Mexico is Mother — that's where I learned instincts and spirituality and tradition. And the United States for me is the place where I understood emotions. America gave me access to being able to cry. Because here, it's OK for a man to be in touch with his emotional side. In Mexico, that's almost forbidden. As a man, they make you suppress emotion. And in a relationship, that can come across as harsh. That's why dogs were so therapeutic for me because I was able to be emotional with them. I was able to be me.
Q: In the book you talk about how you have a relatively small "at home" pack right now. Why so few dogs?
A: My life changed. It went from 65 dogs when I started —
Q: Wait, 65? In your home?
A: Yes! I didn't have the Dog Psychology Center at that time. When I started my profession, I had an Astrovan and that was my mobile kennel. So half of the dogs would be in there, half would be in the apartment with me. I had to be creative; I was married with a kid at that point — with 65 dogs.
I used to charge $10 per dog, which is nothing, but I was illegal at that time so I couldn't raise the price. Half of the dogs were rescues, half were paying clients, so it was karma bank and U.S. bank. Those rescues all found homes. It was only later that I opened my first Dog Psychology Center in South Central LA, which is the 'hood.
Q: I loved that place (seen on episodes of "Dog Whisperer"). You made it look so peaceful and inviting. It was like a Zen garden for dogs.
A: Made from trash, by the way. Everything you saw, everything was made from trash. That's creativity, and that also has to do with coming from a Third World country — we recycle everything. We can't afford to throw things away.
Q: You really are the quintessential immigrant story. Does it feel uncomfortable right now, living in a world where immigrants aren't being celebrated?
A: Look, I talk about rules, boundaries and limitations, and 100 percent I understand that whenever you go to another part of the world, you have to go through immigration.
But what's happening right now, we also have to remember that immigrants are human and we're all looking for opportunity. We have an amazing creativity and this positive energy to offer. And we have this high level of gratitude — when you give a job to somebody that is so grateful, that touches your heart, not just your wallet. So being an immigrant comes with a lot of great things that are needed, because the world has become so cold, so distrusting.
So I understand why it's important to follow rules. But we also have to keep our minds open. I'm a perfect example of making a difference in a country. I'm an awesome taxpayer. (Laughs) I created a profession that didn't exist, so that's creativity.
Q: You talk in the book about crossing the Rio Grande illegally …
A: Uh-huh, yeah.
Q: If there was a wall, that probably wouldn't have happened.
A: Listen, you can build a wall from here to the sky. Necessity is the mother of invention. Somebody will find a way. It won't be as easy, but it's not impossible.
You know, when you grow up in the bottom of the pack, as I call it, your dreams are big and powerful. When you grow up in a place where you don't have to dream, where you don't have to pray so much, you become comfortable. So it's really important, that immigrant energy — when people come here, they come with that desire. Yes, they are illegal, but they are still emigrating from another place, and it brings a different vibe and a different energy. It's part of growth.
Q: Was it difficult for you to become a citizen because you did not come legally?
A: No, what was difficult for me was the marriage.
Q: Oh, right, your ex-wife is a U.S. citizen — that's how you got your citizenship.
A: That's right — but that's not why we got married! (In the book he talks about getting married after his ex-wife unexpectedly became pregnant with Andre.)
Q: OK, here's the most important question of the interview: Do you let your dogs sleep in the bed with you?
A: (Firmly) Yes. And I'm glad you asked me that question because that's a big misunderstanding. There's nothing wrong with inviting your dog onto the couch or your bed. You don't see it in Third World countries because you sleep on the floor or on hammocks, and dogs don't like hammocks. On the farms, they're not even allowed inside.
But about the bed, think about it this way: It's inviting versus invading. When a dog does it on his own, then he is going to choose where to sit, and if you try to move him, you get (makes a growling sound) — that's because he claimed it. So, you get in the bed first. Have the dog wait, and then invite him.
Q: How many dogs are in your bed?
A: All of them. It's Junior (Millan's blue pit bull and a regular fixture on his shows) — he sleeps down by the corner because (whispers) he farts — and three little dogs. The reason that's my pack right now is that people need to see a pit bull with little dogs. If you have all pit bulls, people think, "Oh, they're going to kill somebody." You know what I mean? It's an immediate different label. If I had six pit bulls, it doesn't give the same PR than if I have three little dogs and one pit bull and people see, "Oh my God, he's not killing them!"
I also want to talk about another thing: greeting your dog. You're coming from the outside world, you've been gone all day, so you need to practice no touch, no talk, no eye contact. Let the dog calm down, then you give affection. Most people do this, "Oh, puppy! Haha! Hello!" but you'll get chaos. Do you understand what I mean about the greeting?
Q: Yes! Didn't you notice I didn't even acknowledge Benson when I came in the room?
A: But you did acknowledge him, that's what people don't understand. You didn't do a human type of greeting, but that doesn't mean you're not acknowledging him! The fact that you let him smell you and feel your calm energy, that's allowing them to greet you the way they know how.
If people just understood those two things, the inviting versus invading, and calm versus excitement ...
Q: Why is Benson the dog that you brought with you on this trip?
A: Because he loves the cold! Look at all that fur! Junior is not a Chicago guy right now. It's too cold.
Q: How do you travel when you have your dogs with you? By car? Or did Benson go on the plane with you?
A: Even Junior goes on the plane. In his own seat. These are Hollywood dogs, we're legal here!
"Dog Nation" premieres 8 p.m. March 3 on Nat Geo Wild.
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