Rescuing Cesar Millan

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Photograph by James Minchin III

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 – 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 “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 – 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 – “like a burrito,” he says – 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 – 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 – rocky, dry scrub thick with rattlesnakes – 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’ – which, at its peak, drew 11 million viewers a week – 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.” 

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 Líder 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 – 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.”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.”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.)

At the core of of Millan’s approach – which combines lessons he learned from his grandfather with the language of inspirational new-age personalities like Deepak Chopra and Wayne Dyer – is a simple, radical message: The dogs aren’t the problem; the people are. Like wolves, Millan argues, dogs are pack animals, and pack animals need a “calm, assertive” leader. Too often, we bring our own neuroses to our relationships with dogs, and then we blame the dogs for the results. “I meet a lot of people who are Harvard graduates, but they can’t walk a Chihuahua,” he says. “A human thinks, ‘How can I train this dog to listen to me?’ instead of ‘How can I train myself to listen to the dog?'”

In other words, if you want your dog to learn to sit, stay, or heel, don’t call Cesar. “Those are tricks invented by human to control dog,” he says. “I want you to relate to dog, not control dog. If you learn to live by the principles, you will be able to say ‘good boy’ at the right time, just by giving him a smile or by your heartbeat – your relaxation is more than enough for the dog to know this is what makes you happy.” As he talks, his voice rises with excitement. “A dog can detect stage-one cancer; a dog can detect seizures before they happen,” he says. “Not even a child’s own mother knows that the kid is going to have a seizure! So for the happiness to come out of your mouth and for you to think that’s the only way the dog understands you – you are underestimating his ability to know you.”

When you first see Millan with dogs, you might think he doesn’t even like them very much. He rarely gives physical affection or addresses them by name, preferring a more primal communication that involves subtle body language and lots of eye contact. One afternoon on set in North Hollywood, Millan sits on his trailer (a beat-up camper, actually) eating salad from a Tupperware container, while nearby a regal but extremely nervous three-year-old Belgian Tervuren named Sahzi is tied to a bench, panting and shaking.

“Six and a half weeks ago, if you play the piano, this dog runs away,” Millan tells me. “And when another dog comes by, she bites the dog to keep them away because she’s weak, so she tries to protect herself that way. And if you put the owners in the equation, it gets worse. The owner is tense, scouting around for problems everywhere she goes, so the dog has no choice but to be scared – the owner is actually bringing fear into the dog.”

Millan plans to take the dog to the DPC for a week of rehabilitation and instructs crew coming in and out of the camper to “ignore the female.” Still, as Sahzi sits there shivering, it takes all my willpower not to kneel down and try to comfort her. Millan tells me this would be precisely the wrong thing to do. “Then you are nurturing the behavior. I’m not feeling bad about her; I’m taking a strong position,” he says. “That’s what she needs. If you move toward her, you will overwhelm her even more. The person who moves toward her is not reading the dog right.”

A  couple of hours later, once Sahzi seems calmer and less anxious, Millan ties her leash to Junior’s and takes the dogs for a stroll through the neighborhood. “It’s always good to connect an insecure dog to a secure dog,” he says. By now Sahzi is breathing normally, trotting along next to Junior with her tail wagging and ears back. “It’s like a tornado,” he says. “After it’s over, there is a lot of peace. That, to me, is always the case – a dog can be in that nervous state for only so long, so I wait for a more peaceful state. That’s one of the things that people who criticize what I do don’t understand. They say, ‘Oh, he’s holding the leash too tight,’ or ‘He’s not petting the dog or rewarding the dog.’ The reason is, that’s not what the dog wants! How do I know? The outcome, that’s how.”

Some animal behaviorists argue that Millan’s methods lack scientific grounding and are based on an overly simplistic view of wolf behavior. (One of his controversial techniques, for example, is to correct a dog by “biting” its neck in the way a wolf’s mother would, with his hand shaped into a mouth and his fingers acting as teeth.) Many trainers, especially those who practice positive, reward-based techniques, call his dominant, pack-leader approach outdated, even cruel. A 2006 New York Times op-ed described Millan as “a charming one–man wrecking ball directed at 40 years of progress in understanding and shaping dog behavior.”

Millan says his critics don’t work with the kind of “red zone” cases he takes on, and points out that many of the dogs he’s successfully rehabilitated were given up on by other trainers and would have been euthanized had he not intervened. “They totally disregard that it’s not about me training a dog. It’s more like honoring what a dog can do for us. You can use positive reinforcement – fine! Whatever technique you choose is up to you, but I’m telling you, positive reinforcement won’t work if you are not calm, if you do not bring the right energy. That’s what I’m teaching: balanced human, balanced dog.”

As the sun fades over Millan’s ranch, Paul and Kelly Mack, who’d appeared with their dog Diego in season seven, arrive for a follow-up session. Millan had worked with the Macks on Diego’s aggression issues, but recently the two-year-old, 110-pound Dogo Argentino attacked a bulldog, and Kelly had become afraid to walk him. Millan greets the couple with hugs in the parking area, and immediately things go wrong. Diego jumps out of the back of the Macks’ SUV, charges the gate, and starts growling at Junior on the other side. While the Macks frantically pull Diego away and Millan’s other dogs join in an aggravated cacophony, Millan strolls up to the fence, takes Diego’s leash, and guides him gently back to the car. Once Diego is calm, Millan starts again. “We must begin in this state of mind,” he says. “It’s up to you, not him, to make the decision about when he comes out of the car. And it’s best to do it when you’re calm, and he’s calm.”

Millan then leads Diego through the gate to meet Junior, giving small, almost unnoticeable corrections when Diego strains at the leash. At first, the dogs circle each other tensely, and the Macks appear anxious. “Don’t be nervous,” Millan says. “You will feed the negative energy. I’m setting him up with energy that will help him succeed.”

Within a few minutes, Diego and Junior are lying by each other’s sides, panting in the sunshine. “Ninety-nine percent of what we’ve done is be calm,” Millan says. “One percent is corrections. See, what happens is they were just looking for some order. Diego, when he jumped out of the car, he tried to take control. I reminded him: You’re not in control. Junior’s not in control. I’m in control. That’s it. It’s just a state of mind.”

The Macks are silent; they look more amazed than enlightened. Millan continues: “This guy’s a big strong dog, but he means no harm. His worst problem is tension and uncertainty. He needs leadership.”

Next, Millan leads Kelly in a series of exercises to show her how to introduce Diego to other dogs. At the entrance to the dog run, Diego spots one of Millan’s bulldogs, Mr. President. This makes Kelly nervous, because Diego has gone after bulldogs in the past. “Don’t reach your arms out, like you are a fence trying to hold him back,” Millan corrects her. “Make small gestures – become a fence of calmness. It’s not physical. It’s the energy you project while doing it.”

“When you do it, you make it look simple,” Kelly says, with a look of terror on her face.

“It is simple,” Millan responds, with a laugh. “But that doesn’t mean it’s easy.”

On a cool night in Miami last October, Millan is riding through South Beach with the windows down and a soft Atlantic breeze pouring in. He is dressed, as always, casually but impeccably, in a light blue linen shirt, pressed Ari jeans, and navy K-Swiss sneakers, with a large diamond stud in his left earlobe. At intersections along slow-moving Ocean Boulevard, people on the sidewalks recognize him through the open windows and shout – “I love you, Cesar!” “You changed my life!” Millan waves and grins, the same calm, centered smile he uses to reassure anxious dog owners on TV.

Wherever Millan goes, strangers stop him to tell him how he inspired them to rescue a three-legged rottweiler or a pack of abused pit bulls, or to ask advice about what to do if their dog runs around in circles all day (“Do you own a pair of rollerblades?” he asks. “Yes.” “Use them.”) or charges visitors at the front door (“He is telling you he owns the place – does he pay the mortgage, or do you?”). Some are looking for more than advice. “My dog is so bad,” purred a blonde in a sparkly minidress outside an L.A. Italian restaurant. “Can you help?”

Millan seems almost compulsively driven to help every dog he meets, and every human who asks for advice. Sumner and Emery say that after Dog Whisperer segments finished shooting, Millan would often stick around for hours to offer more guidance. And even now, if he’s passing through a neighborhood where he once worked with a dog, he sometimes stops by unannounced to check in. Visiting an overcrowded shelter in Miami to help match prospective families with a suitable dog, Millan fell for a tiny Chihuahua–Jack Russell mix. He’s already got five dogs at home and another 20 at the ranch, and said he would have adopted this one if he wasn’t scheduled to go on tour in Canada for the next month. “I know you can’t save every dog,” he says. “But you can totally try to save the dog that’s in front of you.”

The next night, over a dinner of oysters and mahi-mahi at Joe’s Stone Crab, I ask if listening to people’s problems all day weighs on him. “No way, man,” he says. “I love to solve the mystery of people’s lives with their dogs. It’s like, bring it on! The way I talk about it with my son Calvin, who is also a great dog whisperer – we call ourselves X-Men. We are here to help! I find euphoria in it.”

Millan’s divorce was finalized last June (he agreed to pay Ilusion $23,000 a month for life). In January he moved with his girlfriend, Jahira, a curvy 29-year-old Dominican beauty he met when she worked as a salesperson at Dolce & Gabbana, and Calvin, 13, to a new house with five bedrooms and a pool. “I even bought the furniture,” Millan says, happily. “I took it all!”

Millan says he now sees the divorce as a wake-up call, but he is still struggling with how to heal his relationship with his older son, Andre, now 18, who refuses to reconcile with his father. “It’s frustrating,” he says, “and it’s really sad. I know how to help a dog. Even if he wants to kill me, I know how to help. But the reality is, if a human doesn’t want to have anything to do with you, there is nothing you can do. I can’t force communication with my son because he’s not ready.”

Spending time with Millan, it’s clear there’s still a bit of the perrero in him – he relates easily to dogs but has a harder time with people when they don’t follow the same canine principles. Even with Calvin – whom he describes as “a lot like me: tough but sensitive, busy all the time, very instinctual-driven” – he admits he’s struggling to guide him through the transition to his teenage years. “He’s in a stage where he feels like his truth is the only thing we should focus on. He’s not pack-oriented right now; he’s trying to create a world that only he lives in. A dog would never do that shit. A dog would never say, ‘I can do this on my own.’?”

I remind Millan about an argument I witnessed between him and his younger brother Erick, CMI’s creative director, that started over a scarf Erick borrowed without asking, but devolved into a pretty nasty fight about money and family, mostly provoked by Cesar. Millan shrugs at the memory. “With a dog, I surrender, but not always with a human – I go into fight rather than surrender. I catch myself, but obviously that’s a bad habit.” He sighs, then smiles. “I have a good habit with the dog, bad habit with the human,” he says. “I’m a work in progress.”

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