Cesar Millan keeps transforming dogs, people and himself

The Cesar Millan story keeps unfolding in intriguing ways. Now a new "Cesar 911" season starts Friday and reruns often; here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

Cesar Millan's TV
shows are about resurrection and revival, about dogs and people
changing lives.

Then again, he's an
expert on that. He changed his life by walking across the border ...
and by taming the toughest dogs in South Central Los Angeles. He
almost ended his own life; and in December, some Web sites reported
that he'd died of a heart attack.

“I was in Tampa,
Fla., at the time,” Millan recalled. “The neighbors told my
mother (they'd heard) her son had died.”

To her credit, she
was hesitent to believe it, he said. “She said, 'Wouldn't someone
have told me?'”

Eventually, it was
found to be a hoax ... or a botched (and misunderstood) fictional
piece. Either way, Millan found himself retreating. “I spend more
time than ever with dogs .... Dogs stop and smell the roses. They
wouldn't do anything as cruel as a hoax.”

On camera with dogs,
Millan seems endlessly at peace. Five years ago, however, he was
overwhelmed by events – his wife filed for divorce, his favorite
pit bull died and he learned of financial trouble; he took an
overdose of pills ... but was discovered in time.

“I decided it was
not my time yet,” Millan said. “When I got out of the hospital, I
was going to do it my way, with my people.”

So now he dominates
the NatGeo Wild cable network with his new show (“Cesar 911”),
his old show, his Las Vegas special and more. It's the latest
transformation for Millan – who's had many.

He spent his
pre-school years on what he calls his grandfather's farm. “It's not
like you think of a farm in America,” he said. “It's more of a
village,” with different responsibilities for each family. “What
we did was to herd the cattle for the wealthy people.”

He learned a little
about dogs and a lot about people. “What I learned was to be quiet
and observe.”

When he reached
school age, however, “we moved to the city .... That was
challenging for me. Until then, I was always outside; I always had my

Eventually, he knew
what he wanted to do (work with dogs) and where: “In every movie
you see in Mexico, Americans are the heroes.”

So he became an
illegal alien at 21 (later getting his citizenship) and worked jobs –
from dog-grooming to chauffeuring – while learning English. He
found support from people ranging from actress Jada Pinkett Smith to
tough guys in the barrio. “Here was this Mexican guy, walking a
pack of German shepherds and rottweilers .... That's when one guy
called me 'the dog whisperer.'”

That became the name
of his show that started in 2004. It would run for nine seasons,
drawing three Emmy nominations for best reality series; it would also
be the key piece the National Geographic Channel used to launch its
second channel, NatGeo Wild.

There, Millan has
followed with “Leader of the Pack” and now “Cesar 911.” He's
shown that dogs can change their lives – and he can, too. At 45, he
lives with Jahira Dar, 30, a Dominican native whom he calls his
almost-fiance and with his teen son Calvin, who, he says, is getting
a Nickelodeon show. And he continues to train dogs,

“Dogs from Beverly
Hills are rehabbing in South Central L.A.,” Millan said. “Who
would have imagined that was possible?”

-- “Cesar 911,”
9 p.m. ET Fridays, NatGeo Wild, rerunning at midnight; new season
starts Feb. 27.

-- Season-opener
reruns at 10 p.m. March 3 and at 2, 8 and 11 p.m. March 6,
surrounding the second episode.

-- More Milan
reruns: “Dog Whisperer,” 7 a.m. and 4 p.m. weekdays; “Love My
Pit Bull,” 1 p.m. Feb. 27; Las Vegas special, 2 p.m. Feb. 27, 2:30
p.m. March 4; also, episodes from the first “911” season, 7, 8
p.m. and 11 p.m. Feb. 27