Cesar Millan: How to Be the Leader of Your Pack

This isn’t my first time visiting Cesar Millan at his 40-acre ranch just a stone’s throw from Hollywood, and yet every time I meet up with him I feel like I learn something new and profound. On this particular visit, I was surprised to hear more about pack dynamics and how applicable they might be to everyday life, even for humans in our personal or professional relationships. Millan describes three pack positions:

  • Front of the pack, where the alphas lead
  • Middle of the pack, where dogs that have upbeat but chill energy exist
  • Back of the pack, where the more calm and submissive dogs hang out

Millan believes that no matter where you are in the pack, each position is equally important to the other and that humans can gain valuable insights from pack dynamics that can apply to improving our personal lives and careers.

Millan’s backstory is somewhat of a Cinderella story–an example of the American dream come to fruition, and it’s inspiring. It is also a story filled with adversity, betrayals, and tragedy as he learned many life and business lessons the hard way. Millan came from humble beginnings growing up in Culiacán, Mexico, and he spent much of his childhood working on his grandfather’s farm in nearby Ixpalino. Millan’s grandfather, Teodoro, had many dogs on the property and had a natural way of dealing with them and communicating with them. Millan has described his grandfather as a “natural pack leader,” and has said that even though his grandfather was unaware that a dog’s nose is 10,000 times as powerful as the human nose, that Teodoro seemed to just know that a dog experienced the world “nose first.” He just had natural-born instincts about how dogs worked.

“He never had training, but he was very instinctual, and I think he saw that same gift in me,” Millan says. It seemed that as Teodoro recognized the same natural abilities he had with dogs in Cesar, he decided it would be wise to give his young grandson some tutoring, and so he began to train him in his methods.  

Growing up in Mexico, Millan’s interest in dogs continued to increase as he was exposed to American television shows like Lassie and Rin Tin Tin. Millan has been quoted as having told his mother, “I’m going to be the best dog trainer in the world.” Whether this was a premonition or just a boyhood dream, Millan got his wish and ultimately became America’s favorite dog trainer. Today he is arguably the most renowned trainer in the world and widely known by his moniker, the Dog Whisperer. 

Millan crossed the border illegally at the age of 21, living off $2 a day surviving on convenience-store hot dogs and free refillable soda drinks. His ambition and work ethic soon landed him a job making minimum wage in Southern California as a dog groomer. 

In spite of the fact that he spoke no English, Millan garnered a reputation as having a calming effect on his clients’ dogs, even those that historically had behavioral issues and were misunderstood and mislabeled aggressive breeds. This job eventually led Millan to getting an introduction to actress Jada Pinkett Smith to assist her and her dogs with training. Smith became one of Millan’s earliest champions, and she even provided him with an English tutor for a year, when he expressed interest in being on TV to help more people take better care of their dogs. 

Millan says that he was discovered after he became somewhat of a neighborhood fixture in certain areas of Los Angeles. He was known for walking large groups of intimidating-looking dogs like pit bulls, Rottweilers, and mastiffs–oftentimes off leash. This eventually piqued the interest of the Los Angeles Times, whichfeatured him in 2002 and ultimately led to his becoming a household name. He was approached by an entertainment company that wanted to create a reality series about him and his unique style of dog training. 

The Dog Whisperer With Cesar Millan aired on September 13, 2004 and ran for 12 seasons, garnering Millan numerous accolades and even a daytime Emmy for best reality program. During the course of the show’s run, Millan helped to rehabilitate hundreds of dogs with behavioral problems, training humans how to better care for and understand them. He imparted wisdom upon confused or misinformed owners who didn’t realize that their own behavior or energies had been contributing to their dogs’ issues.

Although Millan’s work with dogs and people alike has been transformative for millions of people around the world, he has also had his share of critics. Some groups accuse him of being too harsh with animals at times. Some dog trainers complain that his methods are “outdated, unscientific, and inhumane.” Millan has a signature touch or poke that he does on the neck or hind area of a dog with his finger or the toe of his shoe. It’s a technique he may use when a dog becomes too fixated on something and won’t snap out of his particular state of mind to take direction from humans. It’s not that different from how a mother dog might correct her pup when he misbehaves. It might look or even sound harsh with a bark or snap, but that is the language of dogs. They understand and respond to the pack leader. 

I’ve witnessed Millan’s so-called controversial technique in action, and it’s perfectly harmless. One example was the case of a woman trying to take her dog on a normal walk. The problem was that whenever another dog appeared with its owner, her dog became overly aggressive. The excited dog, still attached to the leash, nearly yanked the woman off her feet. Millan then took the dog out himself and caused a controlled interaction with his trained dog. Again, the dog went berserk, but this time Millan made the correction with his signature “tshhhh” sound and an assertive poke to the dog’s hind quarter to get him out of that aggressive state. He then taught the woman to do the same thing with a similar confidence and assertive stance (like a mother dog correcting her pup), and the dog started to respond immediately. 

It’s true that Millan has no formal training. He has studied dogs since he was a child, and honed his skills over the past 40 years in the field working with all kinds of dogs and people. As a result, Millan is at a level where he feels completely in sync with how dogs think and behave. He has extra compassion and has dedicated his life to saving thousands of discarded or abused animals that are mislabeled irredeemable or lost causes. On a prior visit, Millan showed me a newly rescued pit bull in his care that was apparently trained to guard and attack unwanted visitors at a drug house raided by the LAPD. He said, “It turns out you can teach an old dog new tricks. Dogs and other animals in the animal kingdom are not complicated. They act on instincts, and so their behavior is easy to understand and somewhat predictable. Humans on the other hand are more complicated. They can be greedy, two-faced, untrustworthy, unreliable, and unpredictable.” As a dog owner, I agree there are no bad dogs, but I have met a few bad people. This isn’t a knock, but I get the feeling that Millan prefers the company of dogs over humans most of the time. Or maybe at least he wishes the world would live a little more in peace and harmony like the animal kingdom.

Millan is known for his calm yet assertive style of dog training. His ultimate goal is to get a troubled animal into a state of “calm surrender.” In his view, the human is the alpha of the pack, and it’s their job to provide protection and direction for their animal. Millan believes that some dogs are natural leaders, while others are natural followers, and the key is to help a dog settle into a peaceful submissive state in relation to their owner, while utilizing the dog’s natural energies. He explains that a dog that is naturally a “back of the pack” dog might experience anxiety when it is forced to lead, and that could result in what looks like bad behavior. 

In Millan’s experience, there is always an underlying issue with problematic dog behavior, and the key to resolving it is understanding where the dog naturally wants to fall in pack position and assisting them in settling there. He describes himself as someone who rehabilitates dogs and trains people. When he is not teaching, training, or filming for TV, Millan spends his days on his ranch with his dogs and his family and being an entrepreneur. He just launched his newest creation, the Halo Collar, an electronic fence system that he believes tunes into a dog’s natural instincts while keeping them safe and within close proximity to their owner. 

Millan talks to me about being a father and how his experience understanding pack dynamics has affected the way he has parented his children, who are now grown.

“I’m a father,” Millan says. “I have a 25-year-old and a 21-year-old, and one of the things I’ve learned from a pack of dogs is the understanding of how important the position of the packs are, and what [they] mean. What does it mean to be at the back of the pack? It means those practice calm surrender more often. That’s why they’re so tuned to earth, and to anything that happens miles away.”

Millan believes that people, just like dogs, can move around in pack position, and that this freedom of movement can actually be an asset for parents when communicating with their loved ones and especially their children.

 “When you, human, go into the back of the pack mentality that means you’re in a calm surrender state,” he says. “You are at your highest sensitivities. So, if you want to listen to your kids, go into the back of the pack. If you want to make your family laugh, go into the middle of the pack. If you want to give protection and direction, go in the front of the pack. So, you [as the] human can play the three positions.”

Millan feels that there is strength in each of the positions of the pack, and that the front of the pack dog (or human) can learn from the back of the pack dog (or human) and vice versa. This idea of being flexible and shifting positions of power and control in an effort to grow and evolve is a concept so profound, and it’s almost unbelievable that it comes from Millan’s years of being around other people’s pets, but it tracks. 

Hearing him express human nature in this way gives me pause, and I can see why Millan has had so much success with his clients. By understanding animals and nature, he has enabled himself to see humanity and understand all of its facets and complications. He’s learned so much about man by studying our best friend. Millan believes that all dogs want is trust, respect, and love, and it seems clear after talking with him that that is all we humans want as well.

For more of my chat with Cesar Millan, watch our full-length episode of Behind the Brand here: 

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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