On a hazy, hundred-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 Center β 43 acres of scorched red-dirt hills and rocky ridges north of Los Angeles, with no indoor plumbing, no air-conditioning, 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, which is just over the hill from Magic Mountain, and called it "my 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 said, "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 β "hardcore, 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 calls "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 America's biggest TV stars, a series of bad business deals had left him with very little in the bank to show for it. "I found out I didn't own anything β 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 said. "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 pants sizes. Occasionally, he returned home to visit his family in suburban Santa Clarita, a few miles from the ranch. "We were trying to do the whole thing white people do where they come back and visit," he says now, with a bitter laugh. "But it didn't work for me." Millan's two sons, Andre, then 15, and Calvin, 11, blamed him for the separation and refused to speak to him. "They were brainwashed.?.?.?.?They believed their life was better without me," he says. During the worst times, even his dogs kept their distance. "Dogs don't follow an unstable leader," he says. "I was very unstable."
That May, in 2010, Millan hit bottom. "It was a spiral," he says. "All the willpower 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," he continues. "I went to the other side of me, which is 'fuck it, I'm a failure.'" Millan woke up in the hospital 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, with a bottle of Maalox resting on his chest. "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, gray 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 β "like a burrito," he says β but he carries himself with a straight back, chest jutted out, a natural alpha. When he arrived in the United States 22 years ago, he knew only a single English word - "OK" - and he still talks in a loose, colloquial SoCal Spanglish, rolling through sentences with mixed-up tenses, calling his dog Blizzard a "Jello Lab," pronouncing buffet with a hard t and sushi as "su-chi." 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 β open, inquisitive, with a quick mind and a slightly rough edge that makes him even more likable. For all his alpha-male poise, Millan 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 β rocky, dry scrub thick with rattlesnakes β in heat that reached 115 degrees. If he didn't feel better when he got back down, he'd do it again.
One night, "I was sitting under this tree, right here," he said, pulling up in the Gator next to a giant Buddha statue, "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. (CMI). During nine seasons of 'Dog Whisperer' β which, at its peak, drew 11 million viewers a week β Millan had become not only the world's most famous dog trainer, but also the CEO of a fast-growing business empire built on speaking tours (Millan sells out 5,000- to 7,000-seat arenas about 90 dates a year), corporate sponsorships (everything from Best Western hotels to Canadian Tire to Petco), lucrative personal clients (he earns as much as $80,000 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 business ventures, estimated CMI would soon be a $100 million business.
Millan says that CMI's aggressive expansion was driven by MPH and his wife, not him, and that he was exploited financially. "I learned that it's a fine line between trust and dumb," he says. "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 honor 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."Β
On a trip to Spain arranged by his business manager to try and shake Millan from his torpor, Millan developed a new Spanish-language show, El LΓder de la Manada, in which he rescues troubled dogs who have languished in shelters, and matches them with suitable owners. "We kill three 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,' debuted in January on National Geographic Wild. It's a more conventional reality show β like 'The Bachelor' for people whose dream is not to find a spouse but to adopt a dog. If Dog Whisperer aimed to teach people how to live peacefully with their pets, 'Leader of the Pack' is about "rescue, rehabilitate, re-home," Millan says. "The dogs don't want to die! That's why it's so relevant. It changed my mind on wanting to kill myself. Because for me, going back to help the dogs, I help myself." He continues, "Some guys like to ride 20-foot waves. My wave is a dog at the bottom of his life that wants to kill me! I find calmness in that space. And I realized, in all I've gone through, the dog is a teacher. He's here to help me."