Humble beginnings: Long before he was the Dog Whisperer, he was called El Perrero — the dog boy — when growing up in rural Mexico because he was often seen on his grandfather’s ranch, trailed by a pack of dogs. He was perhaps closer to them than kids his age. “I was not popular,” he recalled.
At 13, he declared that his life ambition would be to become the world’s greatest dog trainer, following his grandfather’s teachings to never go against nature. “Dogs have guided me all my life,” he said recently at his Santa Clarita ranch. “In every dog, I see my grandfather.”
Chasing his dream: At 21, he traveled to the border near San Diego and paid a smuggler $100 of his father’s life savings to get him across. Once in San Diego, Millan wandered the city looking for work so he could make enough money to travel to Los Angeles, his ultimate destination. Homeless, he said that he, at times, asked strangers for money to buy gas station hot dogs, his food staple. “I could buy two for 99 cents,” he said with a laugh, “and it had your protein, carbs and vegetables.”
First job: Looking for work, he walked into a dog grooming shop after learning his first sentence in English, “Do you have application to work?” The “interview” consisted of his getting a cocker spaniel known to bite to stay well-behaved for its grooming. An hour later, he emerged unscathed, the dog handsomely groomed. He was paid $60 and was floored. “It was a lot money!” he recalls thinking. “I just thought, ‘I can buy a lot of hot dogs!'”
The business owners realized Millan was homeless so, along with a job, they gave him a key to the shop, where he could stay overnight.
Big break: Millan eventually ended up in Los Angeles, where he washed cars in Carson and saved enough money to start a mobile dog training business out of an old Chevrolet Astro van his boss gave him. He quickly gained a reputation for rehabilitating “red zone” cases, dogs with severe aggression issues. In 1994, he met Jada Pinkett, then a burgeoning sitcom actress (now Jada Pinkett Smith, after her marriage to Will Smith). Millan helped the pint-size actress become leader to a pack of four Rottweilers. Impressed by his abilities, she referred him to other celebrities needing help with their dogs, but she also took him under her wing.
Learning English: Millan’s dream was to be on television, but Pinkett frankly told him that he first needed to learn English. So she paid for a tutor to teach Millan for an entire year. He was ready when television producers approached him in 2002, after an article about his Dog Psychology Center in South L.A. appeared in The Times.
Latin flavor: Last year, Millan followed through on a personal goal, taping a new television series in Spain called “El lider de la manada” (“The Pack Leader”). It’s the first show he owns.
“I promised my mom I was going to do a show in Spanish,” he said. On the new series, he rehabilitates shelter dogs deemed not adoptable and interviews three sets of prospective Spaniards looking to adopt. At the end of the episode, Millan chooses the dog’s new owner. “It has a different passion,” he said. “It brings the Latino out of me and the humor that exists in Spanish culture.”
The new venture also reflects what he has learned about the entertainment business. “The key to being independent is owning your own show,” he said. “Hollywood is known for taking advantage of talent.”
A philosophical man: Millan, a stout and confident man, tends to become philosophical when he speaks of the treatment of animals around the world. He said his next goal is “to educate humans.” Through his foundation, he is working to implement a curriculum in Costa Rican primary schools that emphasizes the importance of showing empathy to animals. Invoking Mohandas K. Gandhi, he relays the late Indian pacifist’s thoughts: “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”