October 14, 2010

United States President Barack Obama just cannot catch a break.

Now Cesar Millan, the self-trained, self-named "Dog Whisperer", has announced on a veritable marathon of shows that Obama -- or, more accurately, his dog trainer Dawn Sylvia-Stasiewicz (because presumably we want Obama himself to be occupied with more world-shaking matters than dog training) -- is training the First Dog incorrectly. According to Millan, "if your dog doesn't learn to follow, you'll never have a disciplined pet." A properly obedient dog should always follow its master, never go in front, and definitely never, never pull. Only in this way can its owner establish who is the leader of its pack.

(Never mind that dogs don't actually have pack instincts. Fortunately for Millan, a dog doesn't need pack instincts to react in kind to interactions which consist solely of submission and dominance and leave no room for play or empathy. Every dog definitely understands bullying.)

In the larger scheme of things, such a statement should matter not at all. Opinion is opinion, and publicity is publicity.

Yet a rather curious correlation seems to be cropping up just a bit too often to be coincidental. Everyone -- literally everyone -- who faithfully follows Millan's teachings in my neck of the woods also admires Ayn Rand and espouses the Tea Party "non-party" line. Many of them hold The Fountainhead to be the best book they have ever read.

Out of sheer curiosity, I ran a Google search today using the term "dog whisperer" with "conservative" (37,000) and "liberal" (32,400). But combining it with "tea party" outdid them both (43,800). When I explicitly added quotation marks in the search, "conservative" came in highest (29,400), "liberal" second (24,300), and "tea party" just 9% behind that (22,300). Of course, now that Millan has raised the immigration skeleton within the past week, there might be other reasons for those results.

(My observations only. Your mileage may vary.)

My dog lags occasionally, pulls occasionally: but comes to me immediately whenever I snap my fingers and remains obediently at my side thereafter. I draw him back mostly whenever there are the kinds of distractions that could be harmful to him. He has an intense curiosity about everything. I can't see why I would want to stifle that.

I never taught him any of that, not as such. He has a very deep desire to please me: and I never taught him that either.

I did teach him about property lines. He is not allowed to go past them without a leash. If I am outside the boundary, he will go up to the edge and lie down there, watching the world, but mostly watching me. He will stay there, no matter what the distraction. More than once, people have asked me if I have a buried electronic fence.

Many days we interact entirely without a spoken word. (No, nor a clicker or similar thing either.) If I am working, he may go elsewhere in the house for food or a nap, or he may watch me intensely, or he may curl up into a ball at my feet (and, too often, nearly under the wheels of the chair). The moment the computer goes off, he comes running from wherever he is. While the computer is on, I am not to be disturbed: but when the computer goes off, that means it can be his time.

There is a difference between obedience and submission. Obedient dogs are happy dogs because they know what you want them to do, and they know it makes you happy when they do it. Are submissive dogs truly happy, or are they just afraid that they might mess up in some unforeseen way, get caught, and get scolded?

I dog-sat for one of those neighbours last winter. Two dogs, one easy-going, the other territorial to the point that I was not going to bring my own dog over a second time (and was relieved that we had made the initial experiment in the presence of both owners). Both dogs acknowledged the wife's presence. When she took them on off-leash walks, she led, while they took comet-orbits around her.

They orbited me too, when I did it initially her way. After all, it was what they were used to. The very next day, however, it snowed and kept on snowing. For the rest of that week, it was all I could do to keep up with the neighbours' driveway and mine. (I was not going to let them come back from their vacation to a metre of snow in their driveway!) Time was tight, so I did it a different way. For possibly the first time in those dogs' lives, their walks with me were entirely on-leash.

At first they pulled. How they pulled! But I ran both leashes around the small of my back and along my arms: and even those strong, muscular dogs could not pull me off my feet after that. Then we started discussing appropriate on-leash behaviour. I did not say much, I never do: but I can make my voice very sharp, when necessary.

But when they did it right, I praised them, and then after the walk I spent time with them. (Brought a reading part of my work with me to be able to do it.) I did not even treat them!

It was over a month after the neighbours came home before they and I found the time to get together again. (There is always much to do. The time flew.) I sat down with a cup of coffee in my hand: and both dogs immediately came over to me. The territorial one pressed as close as he could, nuzzling against my hand.

She blinked. "He never does that with me!"

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