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sarah hampson: the interview

Cesar Millan: ‘If we can learn to have a good relationship with dogs, then we can learn to practise that with humans.'

"I want you to experience me from a cell point-of-view," says Cesar Millan, holding his arms out and rubbing his forearm up and down to indicate his molecules.

What I feel is that he's a terrier without a leash. A compact man, fit and muscular, he has salt-and-pepper hair, intense brown eyes and a mien that suggests a wagging tail. Nothing is holding back his enthusiasm.

The famous dog behaviourist is running headlong with his popularity, happily greeting his critics, some of whom have called his training techniques abusive. Mr. Millan's approach is to help owners establish their role as "calm-assertive" pack leaders, whom dogs will easily follow. But that "alpha" leadership can necessitate using a choke chain and other restraining techniques if a dog is overly aggressive. "You do something great on the planet and somebody's going to say, 'He's not so great because I'm not him right now.' " Mr. Millan shrugs and produces a small laugh. "But you know, you just have to love people. You love people unconditionally. That's the beautiful thing to learn from a dog."

No bark, no bite. He wants to invite his critics into his territory so different techniques, such as positive reinforcement, can be shared. "I think the dog people should get together and agree to disagree." He smiles broadly. Everything about him is learned from well-behaved dogs, he suggests. "A dog is not an intellectual species or a rational intelligence," he says. "He's an instinctual intelligence. So I always say I'm a big student of dogs … I'm an instinctual human being."

That instinct has brought his considerable success since he crossed the U.S. border illegally from Mexico with no money 20 years ago at the age of 21. Starting out by walking, grooming and training dogs - and driving limousines to make extra money - he became friends with Jada Pinkett Smith, who helped him by paying for an English tutor for a year. Later, he founded the Dog Psychology Center in Los Angeles and went on to help many celebrities with their dogs, including Oprah Winfrey, Nicolas Cage, Vin Diesel and Scarlett Johansson.

His TV show, Dog Whisperer, now airs in 105 countries and made its sixth-season debut on National Geographic Channel on Sunday. He writes books. His fifth, Cesar's Rules, will hit bookstores soon. He is working with Yale University to develop a curriculum for school children that focuses on compassion, emotional intelligence and social skills "so kids will grow up and become pack leaders in the animal world as well as the human world." At the end of October, he brings his show, Cesar Millan Live, to Canada for the first time, after successful tours across the United States, Australia and England.

He may be showing people how to handle their dogs, but his interest is not so much what humans can teach canines, but the reverse. He believes that dogs are guides to emotional balance, love, effective prayer and good parenting. Oh, and a better economy as well as global harmony.

His devotion to his message about the wisdom of dogs contributed to his estrangement from his wife of 16 years, Ilusion, the mother of his two boys, aged 16 and 11. He announced their decision to divorce at the start of the summer.

"You put a lot of effort in the outside world and you want to help other people. That could be one of the reasons. I'm not going to say that's the reason [for the divorce] But that's the sacrifice. I hope my kids understand one day, the effort I put into changing the lifestyle of human beings with dogs was for world peace."

World peace through dogs?

"Well, world transformation begins with self-transformation," he says in his trademark calm-assertive manner. "The way I'm doing it is through dogs. You know, if we can learn to have a good relationship with dogs, then we can learn to practise that with humans. …

"I want to have a show called Human Whisperer," he continues.

His marriage breakup has taught him how to face uncertainty, he says, which will help him understand the emotional pain of others. "I'm learning to embrace suffering. I don't believe in divorce. It's nothing I asked for. She decided."

Mr. Millan has the unchecked enthusiasm of a goofy dog that leaps into a lake and dog paddles around without hesitation. "What I teach with dogs can be applied to Wall Street, absolutely," he asserts at one point. "What we're experiencing now is what the ego of a human being can do. He focuses on himself but not the pack. The symptoms were all there. It was like an aggressive dog. When a greedy human being controls how the money is going to roll, how the money is going to lead or how the money is going to follow, not a good outcome is going to come of that."

Everything can be viewed through a four-legged lens. Mr. Millan assesses the value of U.S. President Barack Obama through the first dog, Bo. "That picture of him with Bo in the hallway of the White House? He was dragged by the dog," he says, shaking his head slightly. "I was rooting for him to make a fantastic impression. The dog next to you, in control … Obama is in the position where he needs to rehabilitate the country, rehabilitate politicians," he says somewhat mournfully. "He needs balance."

Mr. Millan's understanding of dogs even helps him raise his boys. "They're very physical … and [males]like to earn things, so exercise, discipline and affection play perfectly, and teaching them about rules, boundaries and limitations is part of making a good human being."

On his 43-acre ranch, called American Dream, in Santa Clarita, Calif., he often prays with a pack of 30 or more dogs that he keeps in a kennel. Dogs help him channel God. "If you're surrounded by dogs who are calm-submissive and you pray, you can connect them to it."

And what does he ask God for? "I want to be the most influential human on the planet, not just with people, with my kids, with myself."

He stops. He's being given the signal by his publicist that it's time to go. Mr. Millan shakes a paw. He stands quietly. And then he asks his minder if he has time to go for a pee.

Cesar Millan Live will visit nine Canadian cities starting Oct. 26. For tour and ticket information, visit cesarmillanlive.ca