01/24/2013 10:16 am ET Updated Mar 26, 2013

It Isn't Always About the Dog

Recently, I was at the Barnes & Noble at The Grove in Los Angeles to sign my new book, Cesar Millan's Short Guide to a Happy Dog. If you've ever been to The Grove, you know that it feels like walking into Disneyland or a fantasy version of a European village. I suppose this is intentional, to make people calm and happy while they shop. That's why it made something that happened that evening all the more memorable.

While I was taking questions from the people who had come to see me, a sudden, very powerful and very real moment intruded. One of the women in the audience broke down and started sobbing. I wasn't sure what was happening as one of my human pack consoled her. Then, the woman finally said, "I just realized the problem isn't my dog. It's me."

You've probably heard me say many times that I rehabilitate dogs and I train people, but it is amazing sometimes how long it takes for this simple truth to click with people. If you aren't providing calm, assertive leadership then your dog will not follow you. I relearned this first hand when I was going through depression, and my pack abandoned me because I was not leading them.

One of the big reasons people wind up having problems with their dogs is that they started out with an incompatible dog. But in order to find the right match, you have to look at yourself and your pack first.

The first thing to ask: Is your family ready for a dog? If you have children, are they old enough to understand that a dog is not a toy? Will someone be home all the time, or is everyone off at work or school the whole day? Are all the adult members of the family in agreement about getting a dog? Is anyone allergic?

Once you've answered these questions, it's time to examine your living space. Can you have dogs where you live, and are there any breed restrictions? Are you in a small apartment or a big house with a yard? Are there any rooms that would be off limits? If so, do you know how you would enforce the rules?

Next, and most important, you need to look at your household's energy level. Is your family very active or are you all couch potatoes? Early risers or night owls? Finally, are there any emotional issues going on? Any family tension can upset a calm assertive balance, and a dog will pick up on such things. If the emotional energy is not right, then now is not the time to bring a new dog into the situation.

Finally, you need to examine your finances and determine whether you can afford a dog. Remember, you're making a long-term commitment than can last ten or fifteen years, or longer. And you have to remember not only the regular, day-to-day expenses (such as food, toys, treats, grooming, and supplies), but the long term and unexpected costs -- veterinary care, possible emergencies and, eventually, end of life issues.

Once you've considered all of these things, then it's time to start looking for the dog that is compatible with you and your pack. Far too often, people have this idea that they'll fall in love with the first dog they see at the shelter (and vice versa), then bring that dog home and everything will be wonderful and perfect.

That is the Disneyland version, and there's a reason that people only visit Disneyland or The Grove. They're nice places, but you can't live there. Any relationship with a dog needs to be grounded in reality. That's the "Honesty" part in "Honesty, Integrity, Loyalty." Before you start looking for a dog -- or when you start looking at the causes of your dog's problems -- you have to look at yourself first.

Read more at and check out my brand new series "Cesar Millan's Leader of the Pack" on Saturdays at 10 pm E/ 7 pm P on Nat Geo WILD!