10/26/2009 at 01:00 AM EDT
At Home with the Dog Whisperer
He has faced down aggressive poodles, neurotic pit bulls and overprotective owners, but one thing that really raises the hackles of America's most famous dog behaviorist: "They peed on my flowers!" cries Cesar Millan after realizing his own pack have had their way with a strip of blooms at his home outside L.A. "I have 43 acres for them to pee anywhere they want," he says, referring to his newly relocated Dog Psychology Center nearby. "I have just three feet of flowers where I want absolute respect. That's a pet peeve."
It's about the only bone he has to pick these days. Nearly 20 years after Millan, 40, snuck over the border from Mexico with $100 in his pocket, he presides over a $90 million business empire that includes his National Geographic Channel series Dog Whisperer with Cesar Millan (now in its sixth season), a nonprofit foundation, a pet product line and a new magazine (Cesar's Way
). And his fourth book, How to Raise the Perfect Dog
, hits stores this month. "I'm living the American dream," says Millan, who shares his two-story home with wife Ilusion, 34, their sons Andre, 15, and Calvin, 10, and a rotating roster of dogs and rabbits. Still, "I'm the same guy who jumped the border," he insists. "I just have different clothes"—along with an addiction to pricey facial products, his wife reveals with a laugh.
Raised in Culiacan, Mexico, Millan's natural connection to animals drew teasing from bullies who called him Dog Boy. Watching American movies, he dreamed of putting his skills to use in Hollywood. "I wanted to meet the people who trained Lassie and Rin Tin Tin," he says. In 1990, Millan paid $100 for a covert overnight journey from Tijuana to California. "You run, you hide, you go underwater," he says of the dangerous trip. But after settling in L.A. and working various odd jobs, he started breaking into dog training, soon catching the attention of actress Jada Pinkett Smith. "I knew he had a gift," says Pinkett Smith, who hired a teacher for Millan to learn English.
As word of his dog-charming talent spread, Millan landed his own series in 2004 and now counts Salma Hayek
and Ashley Simpson-Wentz among his celebrity clients. His success has afforded him luxuries, including designer labels (Salvatore Ferragamo) and a recent getaway to Fiji. But even relaxing in a tropical paradise, Millan—who became a U.S. citizen in March—can't stay away from his canine calling. "When my wife was doing her massage, guess what I did?" he says, laughing. "I went and looked at how the dogs in Fiji behave."
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