Cesar Millan, Dog Whisperer
Credit: Photograph by James Minchin III
After a failed trip to Guadalajara to find work as a dog trainer, Millan decided to go to the U.S. 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."

One day during a torrential rainstorm, Millan spotted a hole in the fence being patrolled by a coyote who offered to take him across for $100, the exact amount his father had given him. It was a tortuous journey through flooded drainage ditches and filthy concrete tunnels, evading Border Patrol the whole way. When he emerged at a Shell 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. "I didn't even know there were shelters. I had no idea," he says.

Eventually, Millan found part-time work at a pet-grooming salon where he was sometimes allowed to sleep at night, and as a dishwasher at the Sizzler. "I did a good job," he says, "so they moved me up to the salad bar." 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 - for free at first, until friends convinced him to charge $10 a day. The neighborhood 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 neighborhood hero, the guy who could rollerblade down the street with 10 or 12 gangster dogs at his side. "By law, you can walk only three dogs on a leash," he says. "But in that neighborhood, it was like I was doing them a favor. They liked having me around."

Millan took over a ramshackle former auto-repair shop that was being used to store donated clothes and that was often set on fire by squatting crackheads. He called it the Dog Psychology Center. "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. We became a healthy addition to the community."

Ilusion worried that the sketchy neighborhood 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 actress Jada Pinkett, who had four rottweilers she needed help with. "Jada has huevos," 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 L.A. 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'd like to have his own TV show.

Over the next week, Millan says, a dozen TV producers showed up at the Dog Psychology Center. Many were frightened off by the pack of vicious-looking 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," recalls Emery. "Not a great neighborhood, 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. At the initial meeting with the National Geographic Channel, he says Daddy reacted badly to one of the executives in the room. "Not that he growled at her; he just gave her his back - avoidance. So we had to remove that person. Daddy was brutally honest. He does not apologize for shit. I love that about dogs.

"One thing you can do really good as a human is disguise the truth - we're natural-born actors," he goes on. "Dogs tell the truth; people tell a story. The beauty of a dog is he's having a relationship with the real you. It's about the energy. So let's say a person is fearful. To a dog, fear is instability, fear is negativity, fear is weakness. The dog will not try to get along with it. He will go into fight, flight, or avoidance. If a dog does that to you, there is something wrong about you, energy-wise."

The first season was extremely low-budget: Millan earned $2,500 per episode, catering was Quiznos, and wardrobe came from Costco. Often, Millan filmed two segments a day. "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," says Emery. "He'd have to change clothes in the bushes."

"He was afraid they'd think he was a gardener," adds Sumner.

Even if his pants didn't fit and he was still wrestling with his English skills, Millan is a natural on TV - charismatic, funny, self-possessed. He's so totally in control you can feel people's relief the moment he shows up at their door. 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.)