Other day I was walking down the street past a weedy guy and his obstreperous five-year-old who was clamoring to go in the opposite direction, and I heard the guy say to the kid, “Tsst!” The kid promptly heeled, and I knew that:
1) the weedy guy had probably seen the South Park episode in which Cartman’s mom hires Cesar Millan, the Dog Whisperer, to get Cartman out of “the red zone” where he generally operates, and
2) the weedy guy was yet another convert to the true faith, which is called “Cesar’s Way.”
The Dog Whisperer has been on TV five years or so now, and Cesar’s Way is pretty familiar. “Exercise, discipline, affection, in that order” is what you provide your dog. Your job is to be the pack leader, projecting “calm, assertive energy.” Sounds simple when you put it that way, but the challenge is so enormous that if you could actually follow Cesar’s Way you would transform yourself into a Zen master or something.
Which is generally the theme of the show, the transformation of the human from hopeless mess into a bipedal creature of some semblance of dignity. “I rehabilitate dogs, I train people,” says Cesar, meaning that people are the problem and dogs generally need to recover from dealing with our batshit-craziness. He never says it explicitly, but he makes it clear: we are not worthy of our dogs. But we must become worthy, act worthy, project worthiness. If we are anxious we must be calm, if we are nutso we must be sane. Though we are dithering incompetents we must act with the godlike assurance of a samurai swordsman.
How the hell?
Cesar demonstrates how. He’s a short guy with a face like a chipmunk, but just watch him deal with a dog that, say, can’t walk on a leash without spinning around to rend its handler. He squares himself up to his full height, draws in a few lungsful of calming air, assumes an expression of lordliness, and strides forward like His Serene Highness Prince Impressive, with the formerly hysterical dog trotting along placidly at his side.
He gets such fast results sometimes it’s like watching an incredible Houdini stunt. Ever see the episode with the out-of-control Great Dane who comes charging at Cesar? Cesar points and says “Tsst!” from twenty feet away and the Dane stops like he’s hit an electric fence and stands goggling. And two minutes later, the Dane’s so civilized you could take him to the opera.
Far more challenging are the interactions with people. Cesar assumes an expression of impassive watchfulness when sitting down with such loons as the Pink Lady, who lives in a tatty apartment that looks like a Pepto-Bismol bomb was let off in her home, covering her clothes, furnishings, and lapdog in a nauseating shade of pink. It’s no surprise that the poor dyed-dog is attacking the Pink Lady’s scrawny ankles—who wouldn’t?—but Cesar patiently goes about setting things right with the full knowledge that the woman’s a fruitcake and yet the dog has to learn to put up with her somehow. Cesar might want to save the world “one dog at a time” but he can’t adopt them all. He’s already got thirty or so.
It’s further proof of Cesar Millan’s general awesomeness that slew of detractors have come squirming out of the woodwork trying to get his show canceled. It’s in keeping with the Mother Teresa-Christopher Hitchens Law of the Universe, or maybe call it the Abraham Lincoln-John Wilkes Booth Principle: if by rare chance a human being rises above his species’ typically abysmal behavior level and aspires to greatness, he or she will be afflicted with at least one total jackass determined on his or her annihilation.
In this case the main jackass is Nicholas Dodman, director of the Animal Behavior Clinic at Tufts University. His shtick is positive training methods, which he thinks Cesar Millan doesn’t practice. This is because Cesar pokes dogs in the neck with his fingers to snap them out of extreme behavior, and in “red zone” cases when dogs go ballistic, he puts them down on their sides to return them to a “calm, submissive” state. The S & M implications of this seem to rattle some people.
As far as I can tell, the Dodmanites claim that Millan is relying on old, flawed, bad science, which held that dogs are pack animals descended from wolves, and basic wolf psychology involves keeping order through hierarchical systems of dominance. The new rap is that dogs are so far from wolves by now that the old wolf family connection doesn’t count, and even if it did, it turns out wolves aren’t dealing in dominance either or jostling for the alpha spot, like the old scientists said, so everything you ever heard or read about wolves is wrong.
They now claim dogs are more scavengers than predators, and not really all that invested in pack behavior, so Cesar Millan’s basic premises are all duds.
Dodman’s theory of dog-management is hording goods and services, “making sure that the dog understands that all good things in life come only and obviously from you.” So the dog just naturally ties himself in knots trying to please his keeper in order to keep the square meals and squeaky toys coming, and all is sweetness and light.
Hmm. Well, I don’t know how many dogs you know, but the ones I know have lots and lots of interesting individual traits that make such bromides problematic. Sure, if you’re holding his dish full of food, you can probably make your dog sit, easy enough. But suppose your dog has a nemesis, the Airedale that lives across the street, say, and goes into a barking frenzy whenever you walk by it? You don’t have the dog dish then, and treats will be useless to distract the your dog from the epitome of evil, the Airedale across the street.
Or suppose your dog has developed a strange phobia and, starting one random day, is utterly terrified of those blimps that float overhead advertising things, and wants to run home whenever she sees them? Like mine does. Especially the white blimp, with only a phone number in black printed on it. We call it “the White Blimp of Death” in honor of my dog’s horrified reaction to it.
In the grip of existential terror, my dog cares nothing for food, toys, or any other bribes past or present. It’s these kinds of “Now what?” scenarios that are Cesar’s specialty. Remember that great episode when Cesar helped an increasingly fear-paralyzed dog by using the handle-end of the leash to elevate the dog’s tale as they walked? Tail between the legs signals fear, tail high signals confidence, so what if you use the body position to tell the brain how to react instead of vice versa?
As for dogs and pack behavior, well, hell, I ain’t no animal behavior specialist, but it sure seems to me that pack behavior rules. Just go to the dog park, or observe a household with multiple dogs negotiate the presence of a new member. Cesar showcased just such a household, a home dedicated to pit bull rescue that had recently included a Chihuahua. Instead of becoming lunch, the Chihuahua got so dominant it ran the whole place, including the terrorized pit bulls. This is not size or strength, “this is psychology,” said Cesar, as the tiny alpha dog strutted through its domain.
The one charge you could make against Cesar is that he’s too good, that it’s impossible for anyone to replicate what he does beyond the rock-bottom basics of Cesar’s Way, and even that would be a triumph. He tries to teach people to read minute changes in dog behavior in order to respond before aggression escalates (“now you have two seconds to intervene—oh, see there, you waited too long”), but it’s plainly innate genius and/or decades of training to get anywhere near his level. He’s earned the right to say grandly at the beginning of each show, “I YAM the dog whisperer!”
For more ordinary, imitable, and sloppy levels of dog-assistance you can watch Dogtown instead. There everybody’s nice and dedicated and helpful, but there’s no eerie dog-communicating display that got Cesar the nickname “el Perrero” (dog man) in Mexico. But it’s cheering. Takes them months to help a dog, usually, and the show charts their progress, but all the time you know there’s no risk to the dog: the worst that can happen is that the dog lives the rest of its life at Dogtown, which is part of an 800-acre animal sanctuary called Best Friends in southern Utah.
Whereas Cesar often seems to be working without a net—many cases of dogs owned by hapless individuals who regard Cesar as the their last hope before they start thinking of dog pounds and euthanasia. Dogtown trainer John Garcia, who looks like he sings tenor in a boy band, never has to worry about that. It’s a much more melodramatic and sentimental show. (“If Missy the Pomeranian can’t learn to overcome her shyness around people, she may never find her forever home!”) But then, it can afford to be. Barring death from disease, etc., these dogs are saved and surrounded by reasonable, good-hearted, well-trained people.
Cesar’s show is rougher, carrying a whiff of the mean streets even into Hollywood mansions. Maybe it’s Cesar’s own background—poor, rural Mexican kid, came over the border illegally, was working as Jada Pinkett’s limo driver when she got impressed by his dog-training skills and decided to act as patron. Maybe it’s Cesar’s tough-mindedness, his determination to make do with what’s there, his gritty concrete compound for his dog pack, the “Dog Psychology Center” in L.A., featuring chain link fences and cheap plastic swimming pools so the dogs can cool off. Maybe it’s his visits in people’s homes where their economic status, educational level, health issues, and mental states are on full display and run the gamut of the addled American experience.
His show is Doggy Noir in a lot of good ways. Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, but who’s trying to help dogs and has to deal with people to do it.
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