Three years ago my girlfriend and I went out and got a puppy, a Miniature Dachshund named Heidi. I was new to being a dog owner, and one of the things that I’ve learned through this experience is that if my abilities to raise a dog are any indication of what my actual parenting skills might be, then I should never have children.
Over the course of the last three years I’ve essentially created the canine equivalent of a bratty teen that’s utterly embarrassed and ashamed to be seen with me. Whenever another male walks into our apartment, the dog will gravitate to him and sit on his lap, refusing to come to me when I call. The creation of this disloyal and disobedient little monster is entirely my fault, of course. Over-protective and obscenely indulgent, I’m a needy wreck who enables whatever canine desire happens to pop into her limited brain. If she does so much as look at a fly, I will instinctively praise her as a GOOD DOG, and so naturally enough, she sees herself as the leader of the pack.
Of course, it’s both humiliating and emasculating to find myself lower in the pack hierarchy than a Miniature Dachshund named Heidi, but there you have it, and as a result, I often find myself hating our stupid dog.
Actually, that’s not true, I love our little dog.
It’s Cesar Millan I hate.
“The Dog Whisperer,” now it’s 6th season of cultural domination, features Millan— a kind of Mexican Dog God—going into homes in California where he “rehabilitates dogs and trains humans.”
In spite of the unalloyed machismo that informs his professional demeanor, I’ve always found there to be something fussy, almost delicate about him — he looks anal, like a figure skating instructor. With his perfectly configured hair, skin and teeth, he carries with him the appearance of a man who visits a spa at least four times a week, and even from three thousand miles away, you can still catch a whiff of his cologne. Vanity radiates from the man.
But the most striking thing about him is his physical composure. His posture is impeccable, and there’s an economy to his movement that’s really quite striking. He exudes a physical focus and balance that’s practically preternatural, and therein, may reside the secret to his success.
At any rate, on his show, which is equal parts illumination and humiliation for his middle-class audience, he takes our devilish and temperamental animals and transforms them into the peaceful and beloved pets we always thought we deserved.
On a recent episode, we visited a wealthy California neighborhood. The large houses, contained by white picket fences, all had pools in the backyard and well maintained women in yoga pants and pearls taking pure breeds for walks. It was in this environment where we met Cotton, a beautiful Husky, who was causing all sorts of misery for his family.
Sitting in their expansive living room, Caesar listened as the husband and wife explained their canine woes. As the man spoke, the wife, the real owner of the dog, kept interrupting him, making excuses for the dog as if for the child of her previous marriage. She described what she thought motivated the dog to it’s behavior, revealing far more about how she viewed herself, than the dog did, I’m sure, all the while allowing a hard edge of bitterness to creep into her voice that suggests all was not well in paradise. Caesar attempted to maintain a mask of objectivity, but beneath it you could see just the faintest twitch of amusement.
In short order, he headed off to the garage to confront the penned beast. As mystical, vaguely American-Indian music plays, Caesar leaned over the cage, at one with nature. In short and edited order, Caesar had triumphed and was taking the once impossible dog for a happy walk around the block. Creepily, as if a diabolical consummation had just taken place, Caesar said of Cotton, ” he belongs to me.”
He next visited a couple of college-aged women and their two dogs, finding out that the masters had been treating their pets like little children, instead of, well, dogs. Practically rolling his eyes, he demeaned the girls for their “weak energy” and for fulfilling their own needs rather than the dogs. Stepping into the “leadership void” he righted the sinking ship in no time, and when one of the girls, happy, remarked that she wanted to tell her pet that it was a “good dog,” Caesar told her no, and that we should have been saying “good girl” to her, and then he patted her on the head, treating her like, well, a dog.
It’s entertaining enough, I guess. I mean, we all like to see cute dogs on TV, and it’s a kick to look into the homes the privileged and see how their warped lives have fucked-up their relationships with their pets, but still, there seems something cruel, even misanthropic running beneath it all.
There’s no question the Millan has a keen and unique understanding of dogs, and that he’s able to achieve a harmony with them that’s almost spooky. Jesus, I wish that I had his knack, but the truth is that the only way I can achieve a “calm and assertive state” (whatever that actually is) is by knocking back a couple of scotches, and after six seasons, Millan seems bored, even contemptuous of people, and each episode is a monotonous repetition of the preceding one. It no longer feels like he’s trying to help the people who are having trouble with their pets, but is merely relishing the opportunity to point out their weaknesses.
There’s no doubt that many of us in North America pamper our pets. Infantilizing and ascribing human characteristics to them, we use them as surrogates, seeking from them the love, relevance and approval that we should really be receiving and cultivating in relationships with other people. In our culture of excess, we imagine that spoiling and fussing over our pets is cute, that we’ve rescued them and ushered them into some sort of doggie paradise. It’s a self-serving conceit, and we’re probably just gratifying ourselves and fulfilling our needs rather than the animals, and it’s this all-too-human impulse that Caesar Millan hovers imperiously above, choosing to have more sympathy for the animals he can dominate, than the people he never seems to quite understand.
Michael Murray is a freelance writer. For the last three and a half years he’s written a weekly column for the Ottawa Citizen about watching television. He presently lives in Toronto. You can find more of his musings on his blog, or check out his Facebook page.