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How Similar Are Dogs and Humans? A Surprisingly Philosophical One-On-One with Cesar Millan

A talk with the Oprah of dogs

Malcolm Venable

Anyone who's heard of Cesar Millan knows he knows an awful lot about dogs.

Through his shows - and his books, live shows and products - Millan is very much the leading authority on dogs, or at least, the most visible. Through Dog Whisperer, once National Geographic Channel's top rated series, and most recently, Cesar 911 on Nat Geo Wild, Millan has done for dog psychology what Oprah did for talking about your feelings.

Now in its third season, Cesar 911 finds Millan is doing more of the same: diffusing doggie disasters -- some of which have turned violent. In its premiere episode last week, Millan calmed a pooch that was biting neighbors' dogs, and paid a visit to pal Jerry Seinfeld, whose dachshunds Jose and Foxy display some anti-social tendencies. Of course Millan solves their problems with aplomb, but, in a one-on-one interview with TVguide.com in Los Angeles, it became apparent that Millan is pretty insightful about people too.

"[Pit bulls are] one of the most controversial [dog breeds] in the world now," he says in a conference room of an LA high rise, where his silver pit bull Junior chilled leisurely on the floor. "Hispanics and pit bulls. People think [Junior] is bred automatically to be dangerous. My race, based on concepts created by people, believe we're all drug dealers. Those are labels given by one person or a few people that discriminate against a whole race. The behavior of one person should not be given to a whole race."

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It's a potent, if loaded, analogy given the current political climate. Millan is a man who crossed the border illegally. (He became a U.S. citizen in 2009). As he talks though, he goes on to drop more jewels that link the improper ways we tend to view and treat dogs as symptomatic of bigger issues and a misalignment with the way we treat each other.

"Energy is very important," he says of dealing with dogs. "In the human world, we give a lot of value to words. In the animal world, it's not your words -- it's the energy you give off when you're saying them. Singers understand that. When you watch The Voice, the ones that are nervous, you can see it. They're saying words but they're nervous , therefore they're not as powerful. It's the same in business or in the street," he says, relaying a truth we all know to be valid: show weakness and it's game over.

"Most people treat dogs like people," he says, and when we do, "his rights are not being respected. When rights are not respected, you can become confused depressed or angry. A dog can never learn right or wrong - he can only react to the situation and to what's allowed."

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But, don't we learn right or wrong through socialization?

Millan agrees, but, take kids from inner-city neighborhoods for example and, "They only learn what's right or wrong there. That doesn't mean they're uncivilized."

Dogs don't need food, water and shelter from us; they can get it themselves. In Third World countries, dogs leave to find those things, then come home. What brings them back? Affection. Companionship. He points to homeless people and the blind, whose dogs have a task and earn respect, as examples of relationships that function well for the animals. "Disabled people make dogs normal and normal people make dogs disabled. They don't challenge the dog mentally and they humanize them. Most dogs are naturally athletic. They're not born to be behind walls." Humans, however, overeat and don't move enough; typically. We're in a hurry to go sit down.

He heard that last line from Jerry Seinfeld at a show in Santa Barbara. The two met in a restaurant; Seinfeld, a fan of Millan's, sent tickets to his show. Backstage, Seinfeld said he needed help with his dogs and, when Millan was in New York, he visited the comic's home - unaware then that he was one of very few people who have been invited inside Seinfeld's home.

"Everybody who has a dog has a problem," he says. "[Someone] can be a Harvard graduate but they can't walk a Chihuahua. I train people who are powerful, movie stars. The dog doesn't know the title of the person. The dog knows the energy." In another episode this season, Millan helps calm a German Shepherd that became aggressive after witnessing his owner have a seizure and die, before being removed by paramedics and transferred to a friend of the family.

Of course, the idea that dogs are like us - in need of simple things like attention, time outdoors and unconditional love - is hardly new. But as the people he's helped no doubt know, being in the presence of Millan makes that very simple idea take on a clear, pure urgency.

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"The world loves dogs but behaves like cats," he says. Cats, at least, are programmed to be individualistic; humans are not. "Humans are programmed to be with a family. We lose ourselves, because our focus changed to material things. We think power, fame, money and degrees." Unlike us, he says, animals don't follow unstable leaders. "They're always ready go back to harmony and balance. We postpone harmony and balance."

Ideas like, 'Pit bulls are bad,' are divisive; Millan believes eradicating rid of fear and seeking agreement should be our goal. "That's why people don't often talk about religion or political views, because each of us has a perception about how things should be. But we can keep things together and healthy, if we agree. Dogs love everybody - it doesn't matter what color or religion you are.. Dogs don't see humans that way."

You get the feeling that, if he could, he'd want a dog as president.

Cesar 911 airs Fridays at 9/8c on Nat Geo WILD.