11/22/2012 10:20 am ET Updated Jan 22, 2013

A Time to Give Thanks

The holidays are a great time to reflect back on all the wonderful gifts we have been given in our lives. I have the most precious gift of family and friends. Every dog in our life is also a great gift. And every dog in my pack is a blessing to me.

Christmas is also a very special time of year for me. I left my home in Mexico on December 23, 1990 to come to the United States. When I told my mother it was time to go, she just looked at me and said, "but Cesar it's Christmas time." I didn't have papers and I only had $100 that my Dad gave me as a going away gift. In hindsight, this money was the greatest gift of all because it allowed me to pay a coyote to help me cross the border. I had tried crossing on my own but failed three times. My Dad's gift was his way of saying "I believe in you and I believe you can make it." It was all the money he had!

I had a gift too. My gift wasn't a physical thing like a toy or car or money. My gift was a dream of what I wanted to do and a clear belief in my purpose to become the best dog trainer in the world. I eventually made it to Los Angeles, California and found a job washing limos in South Central, but on the streets all around me I saw dogs who had been abused and abandoned by their owners. There was a lot of gang violence at that time in South Central and people were buying large dogs for protection. However, once they got these large dogs, they couldn't control them.

I wanted to help. I didn't have much money, but I did have a gift for understanding and training dogs. So, I started rescuing the abandoned dogs one at a time and training them. It didn't take long before I was walking a pack of 60 dogs! Finally, the owner of the limo service that I worked for came to me one day and said, "you have a real gift for training dogs. I am going to fire you so that you can pursue this gift because otherwise, you will never leave here!" Wow, I thought to myself, that's the first time a gift caused me to get fired. But he was right.

Once I had my pack, I needed to figure out a way to feed them. I believe that sometimes when you have nothing or very little, you have more because you have to trust in faith to make things happen for you. Over the years of hardship, I had developed a gift for making something from nothing. I was able to work out agreements with the shop owners in South Central to keep the dogs in their shops as guard dogs during the night in exchange for money to feed the dogs. This was an amazing thing because it took the dogs off the street and gave them a purpose and the store owners got protection of their shops.

Most people see their dogs as "students" and the human as the "teacher." But to me the dogs are the real teachers. They're totally unselfish and put the welfare of their pack -- both canine and human -- ahead of their own well-being. Dogs can teach us how to be more humane. Dogs can teach us how to live in harmony with family and community. And dogs can definitely teach us about love and service.

This holiday season, the first question we should ask ourselves is, "how can I help?" It's not "What's in it for me?" and it's not about the rewards and recognition we might receive for doing good. We should help because we can. I always look to dogs for inspiration and I realize that dogs are grateful to you, in poverty and in abundance. A dog won't love you if you're rich and he won't love you less if you're poor. The other thing about a dog is that if he could make a wish, it wouldn't be for himself, it would be for his family.

Giving the greatest gift of all. My father gave to me and I am giving to my sons Andre and Calvin. Once you start giving, you begin to see the world very differently. You see needs being met, you see families reunited and you see dreams realized.

I have travelled to over 10 countries this year. I know first hand how depressed people are about the economy. In Spain, I met with people who have undergone great hardship and sacrifice to fix their economy. Throughout Europe there is great uncertainty about what will happen to the European Union and their currency. In my home country of Mexico there is fear about immigration and jobs. This is the time when we need to raise our eyes beyond our own concerns and say, "how can I help?"

The desire to help others was one of the reasons why I created the Cesar Millan Foundation. This is a nonprofit organization dedicated to animal rescue and rehabilitation and educating humans about animals. The foundation has done many wonderful things to save dogs around the world, as well as, educate over one million elementary school children about humane treatment of animals and the need to adopt abandoned dogs. Since I did not have a college education, I wanted to give the gift of education to some of the poorest schools in America. The school curriculum that I developed in conjunction with Yale University, School of the 21st Century is made available to needy schools for free. My youngest son Calvin is working with a T.V. production company to create a television show around the principles of this curriculum which is called mutt-i-grees. For more information you can go to or visit

When I was growing up poor in Mexico. I didn't get a lot of physical gifts but I did get love and support, and I learned how to create something from nothing. For me, Christmas meant Los Posados, the nine days before Christmas ending on Christmas Eve, when people enjoy the comfort of friends and family. As a father to two boys, I have tried to pass along this learning and tradition along to them... to teach them that physical gifts come and go but the greatest gift of all is giving.

Read more at and join me behind-the-scenes on Sunday, November 25th at 9 pm ET/PT on Nat Geo WILD, as I tell my story for the first time in my biopic, Cesar Millan: The Real Story.