Cesar Millan, Dog Whisperer
Credit: Photograph by James Minchin III
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 brick-and-clay shack, with no electricity or running water. He idealizes 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. It seemed like they knew things humans didn't know, and I was fascinated."

Millan's grandfather, Teodoro, taught him many of the principles of dog behavior he still employs today. "When I started reading all the scientific books, I realized 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. He never had training, but he was very instinctual, a natural pack leader, and I think he saw that same gift in me."

Ixpalino had no full-time school, so when Cesar was five, his parents moved to Mazatlán, on the coast. He was a high-energy kid with a short attention span; he loved dancing and being on stage, but had a hard time with academic classes. "I had never experienced that kind of structure. It was more like a military thing," he says. "So I pretty much rejected school and went back to what I loved: being with animals."

The Millan family lived in a small, two-story apartment they shared with chickens, exotic birds, and a pig (until the neighbors 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 almost magically makes dogs instantly stop their bad behavior and listen to him. "That all comes from my mom," he says. "When she said 'tssst,' the dogs can't even look at the kitchen! It's gentle but firm. She only had to do it once. She did it with us kids, too!" he says with a laugh. "That's it. No argument. There's no 'two, two and a half, two and three quarters,' like in America. Time-outs? No way!"

As a poor farm kid who spent most of his time with a ragtag pack of canines, Millan became known as el perrero, or the dog boy. Predictably, he was not the most popular kid in Mazatlán. "It was not very glamorous to be surrounded by dogs back then," he says. "I was pretty much an outsider." He says that water pressure in Mazatlán was so bad he had to take his dogs to the beach to bathe them. "For a dog to smell like dirt and then go in the ocean, he comes out and dries himself and smells even more. So that was my scent, my perfume."

Millan 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.'"

After school he worked cleaning dog kennels in a vet's office, where he was known for his ability to calm even the most agitated and aggressive patients. When Millan was 15, his father, who'd worked delivering newspapers and as a TV cameraman, got a better job as an aide to the wife of the governor of Sinaloa. The family moved to a bigger house, and Millan finally got his own room – and his first bed, with his initials carved into the headboard. "I felt like Tony Montana," he says, adding, "It was also a moment where I thought, I'm going to have a brand called Cesar Millan."

The next year, his father gave him his old car, a 1960s Datsun wagon. His social life suddenly improved. "I always worked, so I'd buy the beers," says Millan. "I thought I was finally accepted by the group. I never thought the only reason the other kids called me was because I had money and I'd give them a ride. Later on it hit me."