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Cesar Millan's Long Walk To Becoming The 'Dog Whisperer'

Mar 30, 2014

As part of a series called "My Big Break," All Things Considered is collecting stories of triumph, big and small. These are the moments when everything seems to click, and people leap forward into their careers.

Long before Cesar Millan became the "Dog Whisperer," with TV shows and a best-selling series of books, he had to learn how to ask for a job in English.

The first phrase Millan learned, soon after he arrived poor and desperate in the United States, was: "Do you have application for work?"

Millan, whose show Cesar 911 is currently airing on the Nat Geo Wild channel, grew up on a farm in the Mexican state of Sinaloa.

"We were the family that had more dogs than anybody else," Millan says of his childhood. "I never saw a dog with a leash on."

He found inspiration watching Lassie and The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin on TV.

"When I was 13 years old," he recalls, "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.' "

Eight years later, Millan borrowed money from his parents and spent it all illegally crossing the border into the United States. (Millan became a U.S. citizen in 2009.)

Initially, he landed in San Diego with no money, no friends, and almost no understanding of English.

"I was homeless in the streets of San Diego," he says, "and my home was under a freeway."

For food, he says, he survived on hot dogs from local convenience stores.

"They will sell you two hot dogs for 99 cents," he remembers. "That means you only have to make $1 to survive in America."

At the same time, Millan made use of that first sentence in English, asking for job applications. He found intermittent employment at a grooming salon in San Diego, where he impressed the owners with his calm, assertive handling of more aggressive dogs.

When Millan moved to Inglewood, Calif., and began walking dogs in the neighborhood, he set himself apart by foregoing the leash.

"I didn't know it was illegal to walk dogs off leash in the land of the free," he says, "especially [in a place] where dogs have birthday parties."

But his unusual style boosted his reputation.

"People started calling me 'the Mexican guy who can walk a pack of dogs,' " he says. "I didn't have business cards, so my business card was the referral."

Over time, Millan built up his dog-walking business, and eventually founded what he called the Dog Psychology Center in South Central Los Angeles, where he focused on rehabilitating dogs with behavioral problems.

As his reputation grew, Millan got more attention from the media, including a lengthy — and crucial — profile in the Los Angeles Times.

"The newspaper came on a Sunday, and by Monday, [there] was a line of [television] producers outside," he says. "That's how Dog Whisperer was born."

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Now for our series My Big Break, about triumphs big and small. Our next guest had a long and arduous journey on the way to success and his career as The Dog Whisperer.

CESAR MILLAN: My name is Cesar Millan, and I train people and rehabilitate dogs. I was born and raised in a farm in Mexico, in Sinaloa. "Lassie" and "Rin Tin Tin" were the show in my era.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LASSIE")

JON PROVOST: (As Timmy) Lassie!

MILLAN: And I was fascinated about that, fascinated how Timmy would tell, you know, Lassie, go get Uncle whatever, and go to the fire department and tell them that I need help. And I said, well, one day when I grow up, I'm going to go to America. I'm going to go to Disneyland or Hollywood, because that's where Lassie and Rin Tin Tin live.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MILLAN: I knew I loved the idea of working with animals, something about it. And when I was 13 years old, 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. So I waited till eight years later, 21; and that's when I went back to my mother and said, I'm leaving. Where are you going? I'm going to America.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MILLAN: So I went to Tijuana and pretty much, it took me two weeks to cross the border. And I came here illegally. After that, I was homeless in the streets of San Diego, and my home was under a freeway.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MILLAN: One day, I went to a grooming salon - because I'm a groomer myself. By then, I learned a sentence. Do you have application for work? That was my first sentence in English.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MILLAN: One day, I enter into this grooming salon and two Caucasian ladies were there, older ladies. And I said, do you have application for work? And they started talking to me. I was in shock. And oh, my God, I wasn't prepared for all of this. The good thing was that a cocker spaniel was in the back. And this cocker spaniel was very aggressive towards them. They gave me clippers, and I went and grabbed the dog and start grooming him. And they were in shock because the dog didn't try to bite me, because I'm not afraid, you know? So I just come in calmly - I understand how you feel - gained the trust. That day, I make $60.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MILLAN: I move to Inglewood, Calif., and then I start going around the neighborhood, and I start walking dogs. And I start walking dogs off leash. I didn't know it was illegal to walk dogs in America off leash in the land of the free - right? - especially where dogs have birthday parties. You know, dogs get married here, you know what I mean?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MILLAN: And that's how people started calling me the Mexican guy who can walk a pack of dogs. I didn't have business cards, so my business card was the referral. You know, I started getting all these people, all because I was walking dogs off leash.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MILLAN: The LA Times followed me for three days. The last question she asked me was, so you got a great thing going on. What would you like to do next? And without hesitation, I said, I would like to have a TV show. The newspaper came on a Sunday. By Monday was a line of producers outside, asking what was this show - will be about. And that's how "Dog Whisperer" was born.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: That was Cesar Millan. He became a U.S. citizen in 2009. You can see his new series on the Nat Geo Wild Channel. It's called "Cesar 911." We want to hear about your big break. Send us an email at mybigbreak@npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.