“What mighty contests,” wrote 18th-century satirist Alexander Pope, “rise from trivial things.” The poet had sex in mind, although something similar could be said about Americans and their pets. If you think people get worked up about politics, say something “controversial” about dogs or cats. Then prepare for action.
Since many dog-lovers imagine their pets as humans in fur coats, realistic observations can evoke outrage. Consider the hubbub over my favorite TV program, “The Dog Whisperer.” Cesar Millan is a Mexican immigrant whose uncanny way with problem dogs has made him a star on the National Geographic channel. Every week, Cesar visits some of the most feckless Southern California suburbanites in captivity and liberates them from the tyranny of everything from 120-pound Rottweilers to killer Chihuahuas.
It’s always instructive, often funny. Cesar’s gift is what the military calls “command presence.” A compact man who moves like a professional athlete, he gains instant respect from all but the most incorrigible animals simply by entering the room. Fortunately, all dogs “read” human body language better than many humans grasp theirs. People who have no clue what dogs are communicating never cease to amaze. I recently got screamed at by a woman terrified at the bumbling approach of a basset hound intent upon a belly rub. That’s like being afraid of a geranium.
It’s common to see pet owners — mostly women, in my experience — convert dogs into fear-biters by inadvertently teaching them to cower from everybody they meet. Alas, making similar observations has landed Cesar in trouble. A recent New York Times column by Mark Derr, a self-described dog historian, criticized “The Dog Whisperer” for sexism, and worse “a simplistic conception of the dog’s ‘natural’ pack, controlled by a dominant alpha animal (usually male).”
Derr calls Cesar “a charming, one-man wrecking ball directed at 40 years of progress in understanding and shaping dog behavior and in developing nonpunitive, reward-based training programs, which have led to seeing each dog as an individual, to understand what motivates it.”
Once it was the Whole Child; now it’s the Whole Dog.
Color my neck red, but I doubt that after eons of human-dog symbiosis, we’re seeing exciting breakthroughs in canine psychology. At best, animal behaviorists may be rediscovering things guys like Cesar have always known.
I recently read another Times article explaining that academic psychologists now question the long-orthodox view that dogs feel no emotions. I called my veterinarian pal Randy Bob.
“Doctor,” I asked, “does it strike you as newsworthy that a dog has emotions?”
“Doctor,” he answered, “a bleeping dog is emotions with a nose.”
Exactly. But they’re not intellectuals or even children, and you can’t reason with them. Cesar doesn’t brutalize dogs. I’ve never seen him hit, hurt or shout at one. But he does let them know who’s boss, even if it takes physical interaction. He introduces particularly aggressive specimens to his “pack” of 40-odd large dogs. Even the most belligerent realize they can’t fight everybody, and calm down fast.
Maybe it’s simplistic, as Derr charges, to think that most dogs are dominance-obsessed, but it does have the virtue of being true. Supposedly, studies of wild wolf packs show that “dominance contests with other wolves are rare.” That’s because canids are more realistic than people.
My wife once rescued a rambunctious 85-pound male golden retriever from the highway. Almost immediately, Big Red attempted a coup by charging the mellow but very powerful German shepherd-Great Dane mix that handled security at our place. Taken by surprise, Corliss was knocked to the ground. A brief scuffle ensued, during which the retriever found himself lifted clean off his feet by the scruff of his neck.
You could see him changing his mind in midair: “OK, I can be No. 2. Two’s good. Less pressure.” Corliss and Big Red lived to a companionable old age together without renegotiating the issue.
Here’s “The Dog Whisperer” in a nutshell: Somebody’s going to be in charge, you or your dog. If it’s the dog, you’ve both got problems. (It helps Cesar’s ratings that Los Angeles is chock full of attractive women who don’t get it.) He doesn’t teach dogs to navigate obstacle courses or compose sonatas. He instructs their owners how to prevent them from attacking children, eating furniture and charging city buses.
Another solution would be basset hounds for all. Bassets show little interest in dominance. They’re one of two breeds (along with beagles) never involved in a fatal human attack. They’re also stubbornly untrainable. I defy Cesar to prove otherwise.
After reading that actress Candice Bergen treats her basset to “foaming mousse” baths and “tree oil aromatherapy” at a Beverly Hills spa, I took mine walking in the country. They bathed in the river. For aromatherapy, they selected dead fish and fresh horse manure. Sweet, harmless, loving, but definitely not human.
• EDITOR’S NOTE: Gene Lyons is on vacation, returning next week. The following column is an updated version of a column from February 2006.