We’ve become big fans of Cesar Milan, the Dog Whisperer. The Dish Network should be a fan too, because my wife upgraded our subscription to America’s Top 180 just so we could get the National Geographic Channel, home of Milan’s weekly program.
It was worth buying sixty more channels to be able to watch the Dog Whisperer, though. I’ve warmed up to him more slowly than my wife, but now on Friday evenings I’m right there with her on the television room couch.
Laurel’s interest in the Dog Whisperer was strong right from the start because she’s become a dog walker at the Salem Humane Society. She has to deal with difficult dogs every week. I just have to deal with our own mellow family pet, the aptly named “Serena.”
Even so, Milan has helped me become aware of how little I understand about dogs and how much I’ve been doing wrong in my daily interactions with Serena. Last night’s episode hit home for me when Milan gave a woman some advice about how to handle her overly protective and aggressive dachshund, Chocolate.
After he asked about what they’ve been trying, the woman’s daughter said, “She nags a lot.” Milan laughed and told them:
Yeah, but with dogs that doesn’t count. It’s just “blah, blah, blah, blah.”….In the dog world that really doesn’t count. Have you seen how Cinnamon [her other dachshund] disciplines Chocolate? [Milan makes a biting movement with his mouth]
…So a dog, when he controls another dog, he bites. And then he stays, and looks at him, or her, until the dog surrenders to what he wants. The dominant one never says, “Go to your room, now! You’re not getting a bone today.” That doesn’t exist in the dog world. Because we apply those concepts, we can accomplish what we want.
I talk a lot to Serena. “So, what do you think? Is it time to go for a walk? I wonder if there’s any dog in this house who wants to go for a walk. Hope I can find one. Do you think you might be that dog? Huh, do you?” And so on.
Actually, I often sound a lot more ridiculous than this. Both of us engage in “babytalk” with Serena. You wouldn’t believe what I say to her when I go downstairs to Serena’s dog room and wake her up in the morning. (Well, if you have a dog or cat, you probably will believe it, because most people do the same thing.)
Even before I started watching the Dog Whisperer I’d noticed that Serena is a lot more interested in what I’m doing around dog walk time than in what I’m saying. When I move toward the front door, or look like I’m about to change my clothes, she shifts into her excited “Let’s go, let’s go!” mode.
The cues she is responding to are almost entirely non-verbal. At the most, Serena seems to understand what “walk” means. But even that could be my imagination. So, in line with Cesar Milan’s oft-repeated tenet that dogs live in a dog world, not our human world, I’m trying to communicate with Serena more through body language and less through verbal language.
For example, Laurel (who knows a lot more about dog behavior than I do) has been telling me that I should always go out the door before Serena does to show my dominance. Usually I do, but when she’s especially enthusiastic about checking out the squirrel family after a long indoor stint I’ve been letting her squeeze by me.
No more. Taking my first faltering steps toward Dog Whisperer apprenticeship, I’ve begun to put my leg in front of Serena when she tries to push through the door first. I take a look outside, utter my “Run squirrels, run!” yell if any are in sight, and only then allow Serena to follow me.
Milan often says that it is a big mistake to treat dogs like people. They don’t want sympathy. They don’t want to be coddled. They don’t want kind words. What dogs want is to know their place in the canine/human “pack.” Dogs crave the security of a pack structure. If you don’t serve as the dominant pack leader, they’ll try to take the position because someone has to fill that role.
It reminds me of when Laurel and I took swing dancing lessons. We spent a good share of the time arguing.
Her: You’re supposed to be leading!
Me: What do you mean? I am.
Her: It doesn’t feel like it.
Me: Well, maybe it’s because I don’t really know what I’m doing. If you want to lead, go ahead.
Her: You’re the man. You’re supposed to be leading!
Me: I am.
It’s questionable how much swing dancing we learned, but we sure got good at going around in circles.