It says something about American culture that one of the most popular TV shows on cable this year has been the National Geographic Channel’s “The Dog Whisperer,” a series about a roller-blading Mexican immigrant named Cesar Millan who teaches wealthly Los Angelenos how to correct behavior problems in their dogs. Millan himself lives with about fifty dogs, and he is their pack leader. He can tame a dog without saying a word; he does it with mere body language.
I confess to being a Dog Whisperer addict. I Tivo the show every week to get my tips on how to create the environment that will render my dogs “calm submissive” –the ideal dog-mood to which all dog owners should aspire, according to Cesar Millan. However, as the teachings of this guru reveal, Americans do not assume the pack leader role, forcing it back on the dog. Then they wonder why the dog is insecure and barks, bites, chews things around the house, or hides from other people. This, says Millan, is the fault of the owner, not the dog.
I am not a novice dog owner. There has been a dog or two in my life, especially when the kids were young, a time in which I chose to have three high-maintenance, low-intelligence Afghan hounds who required so much exercise that my husband used to run them by putting their leashes on, getting in his truck, and driving slowly through the neighborhood while the dogs ran alongside. Luckily, we didn’t live in a planned community. We would have been expelled.
Now that I think about it, the fact that John exercised the Afghans in this fashion, and kept them outside the house as well, probably meant he was seen by them as their pack leader. He certainly didn’t pamper them as they lounged in our front yard of decomposed granite in the heat of the summer.
But that was in the ’70’s, before all the “Me” decades that followed, changing life for both people and their pets. My current dogs would no more sleep outside in the summer than fly to the moon: the golden sleeps in bed with me, and the chow (our pack leader) on a blue suede sofa that has never seen a human butt.
A few years ago, Jon Katz wrote a book called “The New Work of Dogs.” In it, he said that while dogs are historically bred for things like hunting, retrieving, herding, and guarding, they are now virtually precluded from those activities in urban and suburban environments. Instead, they are asked to provide emotional support to their owners, as the humans go through beginnings and ends of relationships, aging, deaths of spouses and friends, and other upheavals.
This, Katz said, and Cesar Millan agrees, is hard work for the dog. And on top of it, the average dog owner doesn’t know half as much about his dog as the dog knows about him. The wonderful feeling we get from “dog love” happens because the dog makes a study of us and devotes his life to trying to please. We don’t really do that for the dog. We may buy tons of toys, feed a raw, healthy diet, or put booties on the dog in winter, but we never ask it this is what the dog wants. It’s what we want, or what we think is right. According to Cesar, what the dog wants is stable environment, in which it can be calm.
So every once in a while, a dog acts out. And then the owner freaks out.
But not all dogs need the Cesar Millan treatment. Some will never outgun you for pack leader. My friend Dan rescued a two-year-old golden retriever recently. Blu had obviously been abused in its previous home, because when I first met him, he ran away when I tried to pet him. In fact, he wouldn’t come near anyone.
But he seemed to love other dogs, and I have a big yard, so I told Dan to bring Blu over any time. Sure enough, he formed a friendship with my retriever, after my chow (the alpha dog and the leader of my family pack) decided it was okay to have Blu in the backyard.
Blu and my dog played together for weeks, but I was never able to get Blu to come near me. Finally, I took some advice that was not from Cesar Millan. My daughter (who also has two goldens, one a rescue) told me to get down on the floor to the dog’s level and talk to him.
I did it. I trapped him in a room without the other dogs, got down on the floor, and holding him by the collar, I spoke into his ear in a calm, loving voice. “You’re beautiful,” I told him. “You are safe here. Everybody here loves dogs. You are home.” First he tried to look away, but finally we connected.
It only took one more floor-session before Blu was literally eating out of my hand. I am not the Dog Whisperer, and I’m probably not Blu’s pack leader, but it doesn’t matter. I have made him happy.