Cesar Millan ran across the rain-soaked border into California under cover of darkness 17 years ago, having given his trust and his last $100 to a "coyote" (an immigrant smuggler) who crouched in the brush with him for 13 hours until the coast was clear. He was 18 years old, spoke no English and knew no one in America. Now he has his own TV series.
When Millan made a silent vow to become the best dog trainer in the world, he didn't exactly have in mind starring in a half-hour reality-cum-advice show that reaches into more than 50 million American homes. At the time, he was just a high-spirited 13-year-old living with his extended family on a ranch near Culiacan, Mexico, with a natural ability to command packs of dogs. He knew he was different, if only because he enjoyed being with animals more than people. His friends had no goals as clearly defined as Millan's: to go to Hollywood and become a trainer for Rin Tin Tin and Lassie.
That was before Millan fell in love with an American girl who had faith in marriage counseling, before Oprah Winfrey, Dr. Phil, Deepak Chopra and Anthony Robbins became his role models, before he figured out how psychotherapy could be applied to canine management problems, and before he saw how gaga Americans can get over the 62 million to 68 million dogs that share their homes.
Now, "Dog Whisperer With Cesar Millan," which debuted in mid-September, airs on the National Geographic Channel three times a day, five days a week. Each episode features two cases: pooch parents at wit's end confessing to Millan that their child-substitutes are nervous, obsessive, possessive, hyper, hostile or violent.
"She thinks she's people," a woman says of her terrier, providing what she thinks is a cute excuse for monstrous behavior.
"No, she doesn't," Cesar replies.
The dog whisperer understands the problem, all the problems that develop when people anthropomorphize their pets. Speaking slightly accented English without hesitation, he explains that dogs don't think like humans: They're ruled by instinct, not intellect.
Millan is sympathetic to the beleaguered people who seek his counsel, but he also understands the plight of pets that need to get a dog's life, who are never taken on a decent walk yet bear heavy burdens as surrogates for absent families and nonexistent friends and lovers. The subtext of "Dog Whisperer" is that when it comes to our animals, we're all women and men who love too much.
"A dog that receives only affection, affection, affection and doesn't get exercise, rules, boundaries and limitations is unbalanced," Millan says. "And an unbalanced dog is not a happy dog."
Sitting in the dressed-up suburban living room of two well-meaning empty-nesters, facing a portrait of the couple hugging the Dalmatian that rules their home, he listens to their words while sniffing for clues to character.
"I'm evaluating whether the owner's energy is nervous, fearful, anxious or frustrated, because this is the energy the dog lives with," he explains. "Dogs don't know if you have a position in the human world. You can be Halle Berry or the president of the United States. It doesn't matter to them. They just know the energy you share and the activities you do with them."
At first, Millan is more interested in observing the couple than their problem child because he doesn't train dogs. He rehabilitates animals and trains their owners, teaching the two-legged creatures how to be top dog. Much of what he knows about dogs he learned from observing how they behave in packs.
"We're the only species that follows a spiritual leader," he says. "Dogs don't follow lovable leaders. They follow dominant and calm, assertive leaders. If you put Gandhi and Fidel Castro in front of a pack of dogs, they'll follow Castro because of his energy. There is no knowledge behind instinct. Dogs don't rationalize."
Whether he's in front of a camera or not, Millan has the bearing of a leader. His gaze is direct, his posture commanding. He's a superb mimic and can snarl, scratch, pant and yip with the best (or worst) of them as he assumes the demeanor of an excited or fearful dog. He is also easy to imitate. Once people understand that dogs bully wimps and obey leaders they respect, they adopt Millan's relaxed manner and tension-free walk.
The transformations are usually dramatic; when he takes over, bad habits disappear, neuroses vanish. "A lot of times it seems like a miracle," he says. "It isn't a miracle. It's just that the dog lives in the moment and along comes someone with the energy and strategy required to make things happen."
His brand of tough love is simple. He avoids condescension or blame while gently, unequivocally informing people that they've been selfish and insensitive to their dog's needs. If Millan were less patient, less skilled, he might just blurt out, "Your dog barks like a maniac every time the doorbell rings. Did you ever think of saying, 'No! Cut it out!' "
His methods are neither new nor revolutionary. Generations of American dogs have been trained following the advice of the monks of New Skete, a small religious order in Upstate New York that raises German shepherds. In their thick volume, "How to Be Your Dog's Best Friend: The Classic Training Manual for Dog Owners," the monks recommend that a human alpha leader be a disciplinarian. Millan has streamlined his similar message so effectively for TV that the concepts are easy to grasp. "In every show, there is a light-bulb moment," says co-executive producer Jim Milio of MPH Entertainment. "People will say, 'Oh, my God! I'm treating my dog like my kid.' "
But while Millan's macho manner has always scored with Rottweilers, dominance didn't go over as well at home. After the first of their two sons was born, his wife, Illusion, suggested they see a marriage counselor.
"He needed to learn that he couldn't just be the leader in our relationship," she says. "In this country, we share leadership in a marriage."
It was a turning point for Millan, both personally and professionally. He read "Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus," and had his own light-bulb moment. "When I was introduced to the concept that women need to be fulfilled differently from men, I thought about the difference between the way people and dogs think," he says. It was then that he realized dog psychology was his calling.
"Some people think their dogs are like an appliance," he says. "They think I'll fix it, then send it back and their owners just have to say one word and the dog will do what it's supposed to do. It doesn't work like that. Relationships don't work like that, and many people didn't like that."
Janika Symon, a dog rescuer and Universal Studios story analyst who met Millan six years ago -- when his reputation had already spread among Los Angeles animal shelters and rescue groups -- says the dog whisperer used to be more abrupt with clients than he is on his show. "Cesar's approach to dogs and their relationships with people is very challenging," she says. "It requires effort and intention. You have to do it and do it and do it. You can't fall into your old patterns and be an effective pack leader."
In many cases, seeing a happy, serene dog motivates people to follow Millan's prescription. That can include going for vigorous, regular walks, strapping a backpack on an underemployed working dog, putting a high-energy hunter on a treadmill.
If "Dog Whisperer" is as big a hit as its supporters expect, Millan can go on to write books, endorse products, lead seminars. He still dreams of meeting Oprah, and he longs to work with her dogs. He thinks they're really spoiled.