Jerry Lakandula, 43, from Dasmariñas, Philippines, has been a bit of an online sensation. Videos of him walking his dozen dogs in an incredibly orderly fashion garnered millions of views across social media. Not even a persistent stray dog can break the calm of his “pack” when he walks it down the street. That’s why people call him “The Pack Leader.”
Yet beneath his fit, composed exterior lies big suffering—suffering that once almost made him take his life.
Lakandula grew up with his grandmother. She would pick up stray dogs and care for them so Lakandula always had dogs around. But he wasn’t particularly interested in training them.
He was more into training people, becoming fitness instructor for the Philippines’ “richest of the rich.” One time he even gave a fitness lesson to former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair, he said. (Tony Blair’s office has neither confirmed nor denied the story.)
“Working hard, making money—making lots of money—changing your car every three years, buying signature clothing, updated telephone, iPhone and gadgets and stuff—I thought those were real happiness,” he said.
But, for some reason, he was having increasingly serious health problems. Insomnia, tremors, one time he almost had a stroke. At the age of 39, doctors finally put the puzzle together. He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
The news hit him hard. He isolated himself and succumbed to depression. “I was a very rude and very angry person after I learned I had Parkinson’s disease,” he said.
He wouldn’t even leave his room, just listening to music or watching TV. Unwilling to deal with people, he got a few dogs to keep him company. Finally, three years ago, he started thinking of suicide.
It was at this time that he caught an episode of “Dog Whisperer with Cesar Milan,” a TV show featuring dog behavior expert Cesar Millan rehabilitating dogs with severe behavioral issues.
Milan believes dogs respond to a person’s energy and he teaches people to be both calm and assertive to gain authority with a dog. That caught Lakandula’s attention. One of his dogs wasn’t particularly well behaved and he wanted to try if Milan’s approach would help. He started to study Milan’s method.
It worked, he said. But not only on his dogs—the approach made Lakandula reflect on himself.
“If you feel unbalanced, like scared, angry, overly excited, anxious, you’re feeding that negative energy to your dogs and they don’t understand that,” he said.
He had to calm down and discipline his emotions. That was no small feat. Parkinson’s disease not only causes one to gradually lose control over one’s body, it causes one to lose control over one’s emotions too.
That’s where his dogs helped him as he could use them as a barometer of his inner state.
“When I’m with dog I live in the moment. I don’t think of the future, I don’t think of the past, and I act instinctively,” he said.
Over time he got used to being in such a state and makes sure to achieve it every time before he walks his “pack,” now counting over dozen dogs of all sizes.
That is the magic behind the viral videos of “The Pack Leader.”
It works both ways—he keeps the dogs calm and they help to keep him calm too, he said. “[I] found it so fulfilling.”
Despite his disease, Lakandula said he doesn’t worry about the future. “[It’s] just slowing me down. But it doesn’t stop me from going,” he said.
He has two daughters, one has already graduated from college, and the other is just finishing.
His only goal is to build a sanctuary for stray dogs in Phillippines and make it “the first dog-friendly country in Asia,” as he put it. He works on the goal one dog at a time, rehabilitating pups with behavioral issues, only getting reimbursed in dog food. “They’re the one who should be paid, not me,” he said.
He hopes to realize his goal before the disease reaches its final, paralyzing stage.