In person, Cesar Millan, host of National Geographic Wild's "The Dog Whisperer," appears smallish but solid, like a bulldog. Millan, who grew up poor in Mexico and hired a "coyote" to illegally transport him to America at age 21, stopped in Austin to have coffee at Bouldin Creek Coffeehouse. He was on his way to Fort Hood to screen an episode of the show he shot on the post last year. He'll also be marking the 150th episode of the show with a Valentine's Day special airing Saturday. We chatted while I drank coffee and he lapped up a few Arnold Palmers. Here's an edited version of our conversation.

American-Statesman: What kind of childhood did you have?

Cesar Millan: I grew up on a farm. From a financial viewpoint we were poor, but very rich in that aspect of family, spirituality and not working against nature. There are two things you need to know growing up on a farm: Earth, you have to know how to work with her because you live from her, and then the animals. A chicken that feels nervous won't give you eggs. You must earn animals' trust and respect, and they'll give you a gift called loyalty.

How did you decide to work with dogs for a living?

When I was 13, I started watching "Lassie" and "Rin Tin Tin." And that's how I made the decision to come to America, because I wanted to learn how Timmy told Lassie, "Go get help," and Lassie runs miles and miles and comes back and talks to the fireman.

When did you come to America?

When I was 21, I told my mom, "I am leaving. I am going to America." She saw the determination in my eyes. My dad gave me his savings — $100. It took me two weeks to cross the border. I lived on the streets of San Diego for two months. Eventually I got a job as a groomer and saved some money. In L.A., I got a job as a dog walker, and people started identifying me as "the Mexican guy who can walk a pack of dogs." We're talking about 30, 40 dogs, off leash which, in L.A., they had never seen. The (Los Angeles) Times came and took a picture ... from that point on, people began looking for me.

Do you still work with individual clients?

I do, and they make a donation to the Millan Foundation. We rescue, rehabilitate and place. I did a curriculum with Yale University that the foundation sponsored, for preschool and kindergarten kids. The program is free, and so far 1,200 American schools are getting it. Kids learn how to approach a dog, when to show empathy and compassion, and they can practice that with each other as human fellows.

Why are you headed to Fort Hood?

Every time I have an opportunity to help people who love this country just like me I jump into it. I thought, "Wow, why would they have a problem on an Army base, which is all about exercising discipline and understanding position within the pack?" But they don't practice the same thing with the dogs.

One of the dogs developed a thing with people in uniforms. So I wore a uniform. The other dog, every time the helicopter passes by he barks . .

Not only is your spouse off fighting a war, but you've got these dog problems.

How long does it take you to work with clients?

When you have to build self-esteem it takes a lot longer because you can't work on the issue until that's done. Aggression is much easier, because a dog is coming at you. Your job is just to redirect that into something more constructive.

Like the upcoming Valentine's Day special where the woman's dogs wouldn't let her boyfriend sit by her.

Or kiss her. When they wanted to have intimate relations, they had to call the dog walker. That's expensive!

droe@statesman.com; 912-5923