'Dog Whisperer' looks forward to new lease on life

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Cesar Millan gets a new lease on life

Cesar Milan of Mexico, self-taught professional dog trainer widely known for his television series “The Dog Whisperer” (AP photo)

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Very soon, Cesar Millan will have a new television show, a book, a tour, a documentary, and — if she says yes — a fiancee.

The year is ending on a high note for Millan as he ends his reign as TV’s “Dog Whisperer” and bounces back from a suicide attempt in May 2010 that left him unconscious and hospitalized.

In “Cesar Millan: The Real Story,” he talks publicly for the first time about the overdose that almost took his life. The documentary, which airs Nov. 25 on Nat Geo Wild, will also launch a global speaking tour.

“It’s rare when someone with his level of celebrity is willing to completely open up and share the struggle and hardship it took to find success and happiness,” said Geoff Daniels, executive vice president and general manager of Nat Geo Wild. “Cesar doesn’t hold anything back, and I’m certain our audience will feel even closer to him for it.”

The 43-year-old Mexican-born dog handler rose to fame in 2004, when his first TV series, “The Dog Whisperer with Cesar Millan,” became National Geographic’s top-rated show. Millan grew up in Culiacan, the largest city in the Mexican state of Sinaloa, and worked on his grandfather’s farm in the hopes of becoming the best dog trainer in the world.

At 21, alone and unable to speak English, he crossed the border and lived on the streets for two months before getting a job as a groomer and walker. Jada Pinkett (pre-Will Smith) hired him and got him an English tutor when she learned he wanted to be on TV.

As his popularity grew, his professional and personal lives appeared rosy: he became an author, made appearances in movies and on television, and his wife gave birth to two sons. In 2010 though, things took a tumble: his go-to pit bull, Daddy, died in February; a month later, he learned his wife of 16 years planned to divorce him; in May, he attempted suicide.

“I felt defeated, a big sense of guilt and failure. … I was at the lowest level I had ever been emotionally and psychologically,” he wrote in June on his website without mentioning his overdose.

He rejected antidepressants, choosing instead to get a grip through his pack dog wisdom and use exercise, discipline and affection to heal, he told The Associated Press. Another pit bull trained by Daddy has taken over Daddy’s duties, though Junior will never take his place.

“Daddy was my Tibet, my Himalaya, my Gouda, my Buddha, my source of calmness,” Millan said.

A new love in his life also helped, one whom Millan calls “the one.” Jahira Dar lives with Milan and his youngest son in Los Angeles, and Millan said he planned to propose soon.

“It’s a surprise,” he joked. “I am a traditional guy, so I like to do the whole parent thing. I know they are going to say yes, but I like the whole Cinderella story.”

Besides meeting Dar, constant work also helped him turn it around, said Millan, who described himself as a punctual workaholic who delegates chores and seldom cracks a smile. He runs a rehab complex, the Dog Psychology Center, at a ranch in Santa Clarita, a magazine and a philanthropic foundation, and sells his own line of dog products and instructional CDs and DVDs. His seventh book, “A Short Guide to a Happy Dog,” is due out Jan. 1, and Nat Geo Wild will premiere a new show, “Leader of the Pack,” on Jan. 5. “Dog Whisperer” ended its run on Sept. 15.

The new series, which was filmed in Spain, aims to increase pet rescue, rehabilitation and rehoming around the world. It will feature his training philosophy, a belief that every dog knows its place and follows rules set by the pack leader — in this case, a human such as an owner or a trainer.

His success hasn’t been without critics. Bonnie Beaver, a board-certified veterinary behaviorist in Texas, said he mishandles animals and that he is losing credibility because “in some situations, he is actually making a diagnosis.”

“He may not even recognize he is making a diagnosis,” she said, adding that when he says a dog has separation anxiety or dominance problems, “he’s putting a label on it and in reality that label is a diagnosis.”

In California, that is legal, but in Texas it is not, she said, because “making a diagnosis and setting up a course of treatment is restricted to certain professionals.”

Daniels dismissed the critics, saying that “few have ever spoken to him directly or taken the time to understand what he is all about — which is a man with a deep passion for helping animals and people.”

That passion for animals — especially dogs — is evident. Millan said he’s never met a dog he didn’t like, and chose a canine as his lone companion for a hypothetical stranding on a deserted island.

He also defended his love for pit bulls, saying: “It’s not the breed, it’s the human behind the dog.” Rehabbing dogs is easy, he said, but training people is not.

“A dog would never see me as a Mexican or immigrant or think things people say about me. Dogs don’t rationalize. They don’t hold anything against a person. They don’t see the outside of a human but the inside of a human,” he said.

But there are some times when he prefers people over animals. He was tactful when he said he had both a human and a canine best friend. And he was quick to say that he preferred the Super Bowl over the “Puppy Bowl,” the Animal Planet’s pet-friendly TV show that features puppies romping on a room-sized football field.

“I have a ‘Puppy Bowl’ every day,” he explained.

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