From 2004 until 2012, almost every American saw at least an episode or two of The Dog Whisperer with Cesar Milan. For years, the man was the beloved animal behaviorist who took over cable TV ratings with his addictive reality show. The man who devoted his life and career to working with dogs and achieved an unbelievable amount of success worked tirelessly and sacrificed almost everything to make it in America.
In fact, he even crossed the border illegally. In 2013, a year after The Dog Whisperer got canceled, Millan opened up about the extreme low he found himself in, both financially and emotionally. By 2010, he had lost all of his money in bad investments, his wife had left him, and his beloved pit bull terrier, whom he called Daddy, died of cancer. Millan, having lost pretty much everything, simply wanted to stop living.
See how Cesar Millan went from rags to riches, back to rags, and is now in a good place…
How did Cesar Milan get famous? Whatever happened to him? And why is he such a controversial figure? You’re going to find out. But let me start by saying that Cesar Millan rehabilitates dogs and trains humans. He also counts some of Hollywood’s most famous pet owners as some of his fans.
Nearly 20 years after crossing the border from Mexico into the US with $100 in his pocket and the American dream of becoming the most famous dog trainer in the world. Cesar Millan became known for his uncanny abilities with aggressive dogs and misguided owners alike. Just ask Jada Pinkett Smith, his first celeb client and one of his closest friends…
“He has a gift,” Pinkett Smith said. “I’m amazed at what he’s been able to build, considering where he came from. He is, to me, the epitome of the American dream.” In a 2018 conversation with Jada on her Facebook program, Red Table Talk, 50-year-old Millan explained how he made his journey into the US.
He also told her why he has her to thank for a major part of his success. Millan met Pinkett Smith soon after he arrived in Los Angeles. In his broken English, he shared his desire to be on TV, working with animals. Millan worked hard, taking jobs as a limo driver to pay the bills. He never gave up on his dream. That’s when he met Pinkett Smith.
She noticed Millan’s amazing way with animals and decided to pay for him to take an intensive English course. Pinkett Smith said, “It was really his energy, and how I would see him physically handle the dogs… That made me trust him.” Millan speaks just as highly of his longtime friend.
“I know I can count on Jada. She’s not only one of the most generous people I’ve ever met, but she’s also one of the smartest… She’s been my mentor, my sister, and another one of my precious guardian angels.” Now, with his National Geographic Channel show, Cesar 911, Millan has managed to build an empire. But if you knew where he came from and what he went through, it’s the last thing you would expect…
When Cesar Millan was 21 years old, on December 24 (as he recalls), he went to his mother and said, “Mom, I’m leaving.” She said, “Where are you going? Tomorrow is Christmas.” He then said to his mother, “I’m going to America.” The determined young man got to the border and paid “a skinny guy, dirty as hell” the $100 his father gave him before he ventured out on his hopeful and dangerous trip across the border.
“Once you get to the border, what you see is people [who want] to take advantage of you. So that’s when you learn about the streets. But that’s another level of streets,” Millan told Pinkett Smith on her program. “They can sell you. They can kill you for organs. I mean, dead is more likely than jumping it [the border wall].”
When he made it into the U.S., Millan started working as a dog kennel cleaner, a dog groomer, and then moved on to being a dog walker in Inglewood, California. It’s no coincidence that Millan migrated towards dogs. He grew up with them. Before he ever made it to America, the Mexican-born Millan worked with animals throughout his childhood.
He was the second of five children, and until he was five, he lived on a farm in a village in north-western Mexico. His father was a farmer who later became a photographer, and his mother was a seamstress. Millan had such a knack for working with his furry friends that he earned the nickname El Perrero, “the dog herder.”
He was surrounded by dogs on the farm where his grandfather was a resident farmer. “When I was small, my family walked cattle for the wealthy landowners in the village. So my grandfather always had a pack of dogs.” Millan described how his grandfather, his father, and he would take the cattle to eat grass and drink water. They would then lead them back to the pens.
Millan explained how they were “the family that had more dogs than anybody else. I never saw a dog with a leash on.” He also said how he just couldn’t live without the dogs. He just had to be around them all the time.
By the time he was 13, he knew that he wanted to go to America to become a dog trainer. He planned to come back to Mexico, though, and open his own dog-training facility. So why America and why dog training? “Because I grew up watching Lassie and Rin Tin Tin… In my country, then, you learned to think that Americans knew everything,” he said with a laugh.
Millan also noted that his mother was a huge source of inspiration and helped him believe in himself. “I told my mom, ‘Mom, you think I can be the best dog trainer in the world?’ And she said, ‘You can do whatever you want.’”
Millan was teased about his love for dogs when he was a kid. Growing up in Mexico, he got bullied and was referred to as “dog boy” because he had an affinity for the canines. The now eternal optimist sees a silver lining in his past: “Maybe those people motivated me to get closer to dogs and move to America quicker… I’m grateful now, but, at that moment, it hurt.”
After finishing high school, he worked odd jobs – a vet’s assistant, supermarket packer, selling ceviche, and tortillas. When he turned 21, his father gave him his life savings, which was just $100. He took the cash, stuffed it into his shoes, and set off for Tijuana, where he spent two weeks finding the best way to cross the border.
Millan explained that drug cartels controlled Tijuana. “If you were not careful, you could end up having your organs sold.” The journey was dangerous. “We walked, crawled, went into the water, hid in tunnels, ran against traffic on the freeway. It took us eight hours.” Once in the US, the man in charge of getting Millan in paid $20 for a taxi to drive Millan to a bus stop in San Diego.
That night, and for the following two months, he (along with other illegals and homeless Americans) slept on a piece of cardboard under a freeway. There was no job that was beneath him. He worked in kitchens, mowed lawns, and washed cars.
“I needed to make at least $1 to eat, which was not hard. $1 could buy me two hot dogs and all the ketchup and mustard I wanted,” he recalled. Then one day, he walked into a pet grooming salon and said the only English sentence he knew to the two ladies inside: “Do you have any application for work?”
Although he couldn’t really understand their response, he soon figured out that they needed help grooming a particularly aggressive cocker spaniel. “I just took the dog, held it’s head high, picked up the clippers, and started grooming it. When I finished, they paid me $60.” But Millan gave them $50 back…
He said he didn’t need that many hot dogs! But still, they told him to take it and come back the next day. He indeed came back and eventually became their star employee. He proved to be so indispensable that the women even gave him the keys to the salon when they learned that he was homeless.
“I took my first proper shower there in a bathtub, which I used to shower the dogs,” he says with a grin. Within the first month or so, he managed to save $1,000 – a lot more than the $1 budget he was living on! He bought himself new clothes, shoes, and a Greyhound bus ticket to Los Angeles.
His destination was never San Diego. He wanted to get to Disneyland and Hollywood. When he first got to LA, he slept on a park bench the first night. The next day, he looked through the Yellow Pages and called kennels, looking for work. His first job there was for a Hispanic dog trainer in Burbank. Millan was paid $7 an hour and was even allowed to sleep in the place.
After a while working as the kennel boy, he started letting the dogs out of their cages at night. “It was against the rules,” he admitted. “But I felt really bad for the dogs. Where I was from, dogs were never kept in cages.”
People were starting to notice that Millan handled their pets better than the dogs’ trainers. “They’d ask me to work with their dogs. When I asked for permission, I got fired,” he recalled. That’s when he started making cold calls and knocking on doors, offering his services as a dog walker. Since he was still illegal in the country, he only charged $10 a day.
That’s when he became known as “the Mexican guy who could walk 30 dogs with no trouble.” Word of mouth grew, and he eventually got noticed by The Los Angeles Times newspaper. Even players from the NBA and the NFL started seeking his services. So did Vin Diesel, Nicolas Cage, Salma Hayek, and Will Smith and his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith. Pinkett Smith even introduced him to the mighty Oprah Winfrey.
As Millan explained: “They wanted to know who was this guy who could walk Rottweilers, pit bulls, German shepherds, poodles and Pomeranians without them fighting.” He didn’t just know how to train; he could also rehabilitate. Not long after, Millan found a warehouse in a parking lot in South Central LA, which he named The Dog Psychology Centre.
At that point, Millan found himself a girlfriend, too – an American-Mexican girlfriend named Illusion. A Cuban owner allowed him to use the premises for free. In return, Millan and his dogs would provide security services. By then, three years since he made it into the US, he got his green card. Now, he could start charging $65 a day for each dog.
After a journalist from the Los Angeles Times newspaper trailed him for a few days, he wrote a featured article on Cesar Millan’s winning ways with canines. The journalist told him: “Hollywood loves you. You have people coming from England to see you. What would you like to do next?” Millan replied: “Well, I would like to have a TV show.”
The man got what he wished for. In 2002, after being profiled in the Los Angeles Times, he was approached by National Geographic to develop a TV pilot for The Dog Whisperer. The series followed him as he rehabilitated dogs of all sizes and behaviors. As most of us know, the show was Millan’s big break, and it was what put Millan on the map.
Premiering on the National Geographic Channel in 2004, the reality show became the network’s No. 1 program in its first season and turned Cesar Millan into a household name. Who would have thought that a Mexican man who just strolled into the United States and walked dogs to pay the bills would become America’s favorite dog guy?
Before the show even began, Millan knew how he wanted it to go. His key message was: Dogs are pack animals, and they need a calm assertive leader. The way he sees it, to turn them into balanced animals, they need three things: exercise, discipline, and affection – in that order. Within a year, the 30-minute episodes became hour-long installments screened during prime time. The show was syndicated to more than 80 countries, bringing in audiences in the tens of millions.
Before we get to the personal struggles, Millan had to endure after the cancelation of his show. It’s worth mentioning some of the things that make him a controversial figure. For example, during a 2016 episode of Cesar 911, Millan used a pot-bellied pig in one of his training methods with an aggressive dog.
However, the dog broke free of Millan’s grasp and attacked the pig, biting its ear and drawing blood. After the resulting public outrage, the incident was investigated as a case of animal cruelty. The spotlight on him, attention was brought to what many of Cesar Millan’s critics have been saying all along – that his tactics caused animals an unnecessary amount of fear, anxiety, and harm.
The incident also had supporters of Millan defending him on social media. Even the owner of the rehabilitated dog posted a video in support of Millan. When asked for his reactions, Millan said that he thought the critics were misguided. “I do have a large group of fans and a small group of people who don’t agree with me. They are taking this the wrong way and blowing it way out of proportion.”
The network also defended its star, saying the short clip that got shared online didn’t include “the full context of the encounter.” According to National Geographic, Millan created a safe environment to repair the bulldog’s aggression. After a full inquiry, LA County found no evidence of animal cruelty on Millan’s part.
Some professional dog trainers find Millan’s training tactics outdated, flawed, and even “unscientific and inhumane.” Millan’s critics say that what he calls “calm submission” is really just a state of helplessness. A study in Applied Animal Behavior Science said Millan had been an influence in popularizing punitive techniques.
But to be fair, and according to superstar author Malcolm Gladwell, Millan’s critics were responding to a “highly edited” version of his training seen on TV, which exaggerates the frequency and intensity that Millan uses when he disciplines the dogs. Let’s be clear here: Cesar Millan, the most famous of dominance trainers, is NOT a bad guy. Most of what he stands for, like rescuing dogs, particularly often misunderstood Pit Bulls, is pretty noble.
Millan understands that dogs are not people and that they require different teaching and coping methods. But when he gets it wrong, and dogs are in fear, it can be heartbreaking, no doubt. Millan’s supporters have accused his critics of being jealous. Whether or not you agree with the critics, we can agree that Millan has put the importance of dog training on the radar. And that’s a good thing.
Millan’s life has really taken a 180 turn from his days before crossing the border. The man has seen both the heights of stardom and the depths of being at rock bottom. Fortunately, he’s back to a high point now. In 2019, he headlined his own show in Las Vegas called “Cesar Millan – My Story: Unleashed.” And it’s true – the man has a story to tell…
There came a very low point in Cesar Millan’s life after his wife divorced him, and he was feeling distant from his children. It was so low that he ultimately decided that he wanted to end his life. “I made a decision. I took a whole bunch of pills and tried to kill myself. My kids found me,” he explained.
“I remember the kids saying that I said, ‘Take me to the ranch. I want to die with Daddy.’“ For Millan, his success brought more than just fame and money; it also brought unbelievable pressure, both internal and external. It all came to a head in 2010 when he felt utterly lost, betrayed, and empty. That’s when he swallowed a cocktail of pills.
Three days later, he woke up in a hospital’s psychiatric ward. The man whose career had soared and was living a hunky-dory life, saw everything come crashing down in 2010. His beloved sidekick, pooch, Daddy, passed away. Then, his wife filed for divorce. And since things tend to happen in threes, Millan found out that The Dog Whisperer’s production company owned all the rights.
The man felt like he had nothing left. When asked how he didn’t know about the contract, he said: “It was shocking, but it happens to a lot of artists. We sign a lot of things, but we don’t know what we are signing… I felt I had no worth. When you feel like a failure, you just go into this spiral.”
After his failed suicide attempt, Millan reasoned that there must be a reason why he was still alive. So he went back to work. He also swore to himself to live by a new maxim: ownership, control, and leadership. He also found a new woman, Jahira Dar, and developed another TV series, including Dog Nation, which he co-hosts with his eldest son, Andre.
He also worked with his younger son, Calvin, on another series called Mutt & Stuff for Nickelodeon. The man loves his TV shows, because other than Cesar 911, he also had Leader of the Pack. Not to mention that he wrote nine books. All this despite the naysayers who called him “a charming, one-man wrecking ball” with a “one-size-fits-all, cookie-cutter approach to dog training.”
Millan says that dogs will always play a central role in his life. He wrote in his latest book: “Dogs taught me how to go after my dreams, how to fall in and out of love, how to bear disappointment, how to weather loss, how to laugh with abandon, and how to move on and forgive.” For Millan, dogs brought him back to earth.
In the world of animals, fame, money, and power just don’t exist. But speaking of those three things, Millan was lucky to gain everything back. Not only did he get back his lost income, and created new shows, he also had his one-man show at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. Oh, and not to mention his reported net worth is now $25 million.
The 50-year-old star suggests many of today’s millennials are getting dogs to fill a void, and technology is getting in the way. He has a philosophy when it comes to animals and humans. And the way he sees it, animals teach us to live our best lives. They eat, sleep, stretch, and play – all things we as humans need to do every day.
He says animals don’t follow drama – they don’t care about negativity. They don’t commit crimes the way humans do. And animals don’t follow instability. “We’re the only species that follow unstable leaders. We’re also the only species in the world to use medications to go to sleep,” Millan stated.
According to Millan, it’s a big mistake to think that we need to train dogs. What we need to do is train ourselves. Everybody knows that to run a business, you have to train yourself first. To run a marathon, we need to train ourselves. And when it comes to a dog, people commonly think, ‘I have to train the dog.’
Millan reminds us that one of the things animals feel immediately upon entering a new home is, ‘Do I feel safe? Is this house peaceful? Do I feel love?’ Millan revealed how he has presidents and even kings as clients, but the dogs don’t know that! It’s our energy and how we interact with the dogs that make all the difference.
Cesar Millan may be the ultimate pack leader, but who says he doesn’t make time for some pampering? The man is comfortable enough in his masculinity for some beauty treatments. “Cesar puts on facial masks more than I do,” his former wife of 15 years, Ilusion, said. “And you can’t talk to him while he’s in ‘mask meditation!’ ”
According to the Dog Whisperer himself, his father, Felipe, is “the original metrosexual – I’ve never seen him not looking good.” Millan, who has been spoofed on national TV, didn’t even mind either. The South Park guys called him and told him they were doing a show about him. Instead of being offended, he watched the show with his family and laughed so hard. The perk? His teenage sons adore him for it.
After the criticism Cesar Millan and The National Geographic Channel faced with the whole dog and pig incident, the network decided to add a warning label. They started inserting a warning on the screen that read: “Do not attempt these techniques yourself without consulting a professional.” A little ironic, considering it’s a show about how to train your dog. But, okay.
In 2010, an “Anti-Cesar Millan” Facebook group started and gained thousands of members. Also that year, the network PBS aired “The Dominance Myth,” which was an episode of the documentary series Through a Dog’s Eyes. Their statement: “Scientifically, dominance makes no sense.” Some disapprove and those who stand by him. And surely many are also confused by the mixed messages.
Love him or hate him, the man has been as polarizing as a presidential candidate. It means a few things, but one thing is clear: his work means something to many people. According to Pet Product News writer Steve LeGrice, “People either love him or hate him — there doesn’t seem to be a middle ground.
Brent Toellner of Best Friends Animal Society explained on his blog that the Cesar Millan controversy isn’t as black-and-white as it may seem. Blanket accusations claiming that Millan never uses positive reinforcement is just plain wrong. It’s also important to remember that it’s still a TV show. Let’s not forget that drama is intentionally intensified.