How Dogs Taught Cesar Millan About Life

Evelyn Hockstein / National Geographic Channels

The afternoon before the premiere of season two of his hit show Cesar 911, Cesar Millan stopped by the Men's Journal offices to talk about how to improve your relationship with your dog, why he switched to a mostly vegetarian diet, and the new season, which he says features some of the most intense and rewarding cases of his career so far.

Millan is on quite a roll these days, with the show, non-stop touring, and a thriving training clinic at his dog psychology centers in California and Florida, where he personally teaches courses on everything from improving a dog's behavior through socializing to search-and-rescue. The project might be closest to his heart, as well as the one he has the loftiest ambitions for: 'I would love for the world to have a dog psychology center everywhere,' he says, pointing out that after you learn to drive a car, you have to take your test to get a drivers license. 'In the dog world, there is no test,' he points out. While he admits it wouldn't be easy, Millan says it would be ideal if people had to learn how to have a dog before they were actually allowed to own one. 

But most importantly, Millan is focused on his own pack at home. His younger son, Calvin, who just turned 16, is about to launch his own new live-action show for preschool-aged kids, Mutt & Stuff, on Nickelodeon. And while the dogs keep him busy, family is the project Millan is most focused on: 'Once you have kids, that's what's next, forever.' 

After watching you work long enough, it seems like you’ve pivoted from training the dogs to training the owners on Cesar 911. Do you think it's fair to say that's the case?
Yes. Dogs don't rationalize. You can't ever ask a dog to give you insight on why he does what he does. Your job is to observe and assess and then come out with conclusions. That's why Jane Goodall studies chimpanzees. Even though that's the cousin of the human, it's still a non-rational species. So once we understand that, the responsibility comes onto us, because we have to learn to control the reaction of their brain. It's our responsibility to control the reaction of the dog. So every time we bring people into our home, it's our responsibility to control the reaction of the dog. But most people love the excited reaction.

Right. Because the dogs seem happy.
They think that excitement is happiness. Most people, when they meet a dog for the first time, begin with an excited introduction. But people who are around horses don't do that. People who are around horses go into it calm because a horse is not human to them. That's why. People make dogs humans, and that's a big mistake. The moment you think a dog is human you are thinking that he thinks, that he rationalizes, and that he knows what he's doing. That's why when a person comes home and the dog destroys something and then the human goes, 'Did you do that?' You know what I mean? That's because, when you behave that way, the dog actually associates the trash can with that word. And then they do it the next day. And then you go back and do it again. You see a lot of YouTube videos where the dog feels ashamed. He's confused. It's just interpretation: The dog feels guilty.

That's become a big thing, with dog shaming. Where they have the dogs wearing the signs. People think that's hilarious.
Do you think the dog knows he's wearing a sign?

No. Absolutely not.
Exactly. But we all want to be in communication. We all want to have a relationship with someone. And when we fall in love with someone, it only makes sense to have a communication and understand each other. But the unfortunate part about that is the dog is never going to understand from our perspective. They're never going to run marathons; they're never going to write in a magazine. That's another level. Now the sensitivity of a dog…. For example, if a human is about to have a seizure, machines and humans and doctors will never be able to detect before the dog gets it — that's instincts.

So you have the intellectual or emotional intelligence, and then you have the instinctual intelligence. That's what animals do. They have a program. So your job is to tap into the program. It's like decoding. Like a computer. You decode and then you tap into that program. They call it hacking. So you have to hack into that program because the of the terms of this new era of people. Right? More computer savvy versus my era. When I started, computers were not even there. Now it's a whole era of computer. Everything is fast. It doesn't mean you're connected to an animal.

But people like to think they are. Is that where the problem stems from? 
Yes. Because you have to make believe you know what you're doing.

What is the relationship between an owner and their dog? Is it 50/50 — is it the dog and the owner almost in a partnership, or is it that the owner has to be 100 percent in control?
It's teamwork right? Leader and follower. The first leader they meet is the mother. And then all the puppies follow what the mother says. It's never the puppy telling the mother. It's only when that puppy comes with humans that that puppy tells the human what to do. So now the puppy's position changed, which causes a huge instability and confusion in the puppy. So now the human is saying, 'I behave this way, I can only take a follower position. You take the leader position.' So he does his job and you do your job. My customers are followers. They are in a follower position. Even though I work with people in power, when they come home, the dog controls them. The dog runs them.

What about when people literally treat dogs like children, or a member of the family?
Most people, when they're professionals and the focus is the job and the career, they're going to put aside the biological clock. So the human — the modern human — says, 'I don't want to do this right now because I'm not ready, so I'm going to bring something that allows this personal need.' The dog is not looking for the human to become his parent. The dog is looking for the human to have a relationship, a partnership, but it's best for the human to guide the dog and to stay that way. But the human has a different plan for the dog. Because the human is there to satisfy an emotional need.

There are different worlds: the intellectual world, emotional world, spiritual world. So the people — they come out with the spiritual world, 'my dog is my soul mate, but he wants to kill my husband.' These are the emotional people. They say, 'My dog is my baby, but he doesn't like other dogs.' The reason is, because once he goes into a dominant state, he doesn't allow all the dogs to come near that human. He's out to protect him. Now the intellectual human says, 'Cesar, my dog is very smart, but he never comes when I call him.' So what’s missing is the instinctual, meaning common sense. My clients are smart, very emotional, and to a point they believe their dog is their soul mate, almost more than their husband. Why? Because they feel that the dog gives them more attention and loves them unconditionally. And then, from that point on, that is a soul mate. That is the interpretation of a soul mate. So it comes down to how you interpret the relationship.

Why do you think people get so attached to dogs? Some people say they'd rather be around dogs than people.
Because what you're looking for is an honest relationship. And a relationship with integrity and loyalty. Humans, are not in it for that. They're there for themselves. So it becomes more selfish. In a dog, you can't persuade him with money and he doesn’t have a price for honesty, integrity, loyalty. A dog will never lie to you.

Do you think it's the same for other animals, like cats?
No. A cat is not interested in swimming with you or climbing or walking in the street. They're not interested in that. So they're very limited in the kinds of companionship they can do for humans. You can't bring a cat to a hospital. You will never find a bomb cat, but you will find bomb dogs. You won't find drug cats, but there are drug-sniffing dogs. So the dog is more serviceable to the human, [the dog] saves more lives. Not only the companionship, but in those extra jobs that the human needs for his nose.

You taught yourself how to train dogs. How did you develop your philosophies and techniques?
It's a different perspective. I think it's growing up in a place where you don't have the Home Depots and the RadioShacks, so you become very creative. Not only do you become very creative when you have nothing, but you also learn to master, to live without money. America teaches people to live with money and to earn from money, but then when America doesn't have anything, America panics, because they give value to the money and to the material things. So I come to a country that has endless possibilities, and I say, 'Wow, I know that I don't have any papers, so I'm not going to go after positions of people that have papers, meaning dog trainers. I’m going to create a necessity. A job.' But how? I see that people need a different kind of perspective. When I came here, everybody wanted to train a dog. Oh, you want to train a dog, and the best dog you train is a German Shepard. And I said, 'No. Any dog can be trained as long as he has the right direction.' And then I said that I'm not going to train dogs, I'm going to train people and rehabilitate dogs. So this is the thing that immigrants have to work with. We can't go against the guys that have papers. We have to create our own: I created my own job. I created my own profession.

And then because [growing up] on a farm, you learn to observe. Let's say you go to study animals. What you do most of the time is you stay quiet and you watch. So it's very much like what Jane Goodall does: She just stays quiet and watches. So on a farm, that's what you do. You spend more time looking at things. So I come to America and say I have to learn English and then find out who is the best at teaching people whatever concept. That's when I found out about the Tony Robinsons of the world, the Wayne Dyers or the world, the Oprahs of the world. 

You observed how they did it.
Yeah. Because I wanted to know, because you do research. You look for the pack leaders. They're already doing that without the dog. So I see how Tony does it, I see how Oprah does it, how Wayne Dyer does it. I see how they talk, how they bring people in, how they deliver information. Then you have to create your own style, otherwise you look like them and you want to be like them. That diffuses you. That completely eliminates your true power. So I did it through observation.

You lost your dog, Daddy, a few years ago. You were already going through a lot during that time that led to a suicide attempt in 2010. For somebody who works with dogs, and to have a dog that you were so close with pass away, what did that teach you about loss? Did it put you in a different place as a dog-owner? Did it make you feel more spiritual about your own dogs?
To me, spiritual and instinctual is the same. Energy is not tangible, you have to feel it. God and spirituality is something that you have to believe in. In the spiritual world, you follow God or the universe. In the instinctual world, it's basically, the dogs follow you. So in the spiritual world, you become submissive and in the instinctual world you become assertive. That's the only way the animal will follow you. It comes down to a feeling. It is what it is. And the intellectual world is a little bit more complicated. An emotional world is just a blank pass.

Do you think it's fine for somebody to grieve over a dog the way they might when a human passes away? 
Well you said it: Some people would rather be with dogs then with people. Because they have this honest, pure, genuine relationship. They're really there for you. There's a lot of freedom there. You don't have to look good; it just is. And so that freedom that dogs bring to humans, we want to aim for that with our significant others and children. Always we want to aim for that. But I guarantee you that most people, they don't have that freedom.

What inspires you to keep working with dogs?
I think the world is driven by ignorance and fear, and I think the knowledge that I have can erase some of that. I think that I can eradicate aggression from dogs to humans, if humans are willing to follow different points of view. Dogs are not born aggressive. They're not born fearful. We make them that way. So therefore we have the power to create stability if we follow a different formula, a different philosophy. So I think it's possible, I know for a fact I can teach people to have a balance, that's one thing I honestly feel what we can achieve is to have no tension or frustration or fears or worries with a dog. So when you are with a dog, all your worries go away. Then you can go back to the humans and worry as much as you want. So at least you take like an emotional vacation. A psychological vacation. So the dog represents that to you. People love the dog, but then when they go for a walk, they get tense. So they don't have this freedom. And so that's what drives me, and I honestly believe the world can change their ignorance and fear. Because the more we stay in that world, the easier it is to manipulate humans. It's easier. It's easier to tell an ignorant or fearful human that pit bulls are mean or pit bulls are evil.  You're just going to activate their ignorance and fear. 

It's a shame because pit bulls are very sweet dogs.
That's what I’m saying. We have to take responsibility. It's easy to blame a dog. You can't call yourself a dog-lover and say, 'not this one.' A country can't say, 'We love dogs, but we have to ban this one.' It's racism. It's the same. You can't call yourself a dog lover when you say some breeds shouldn't live. 

When you meet people that aren't clients, what is the most common question they ask you about their dogs? 
Well, most of the time they say, 'Come to my house.' That's the classic one. But it really varies from anxiety to anxiety: 'My dog is afraid of thunder.' Or, 'My dog doesn't like dogs.' So you've got your excitement, you've got your anxiety, and then you've got your aggression, and aggression…. I say it's the outcome of a problem. It's like a symptom. You can't stop aggression if you can't see what the source is. You have to look at it from a prevention view and not an intervention view: If you want to live a good life, then prevention is key. 

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