Sit! Stay! What I Learned from 'Dog Whisperer'
Tonight's cuppa: decaf cappuccino
I know I don't talk about it as often as "Dancing With the Stars" or "Deadliest Catch," but I am equally devoted to National Geographic Channel's "Dog Whisperer," in which Cesar Millan helps hapless owners reclaim the position of leadership in their own homes from out-of-control pooches.
Along the way, I have garnered some valuable life lessons from watching Cesar figure out the psychology of the dogs AND the people. Since I don't have a dog, I plan to use a few of these concepts on the two-legged members of my pack.
Of course, dogs and people are not the same, but we're both social mammals, and we do have some things in common -- which may explain why we get along so well.
On to the lessons...
Vulnerability may be attractive, but strength earns respect.
While we all love to cuddle helpless babies and puppies, and a damsel in distress often brings out the hero in a regular Joe, if you want your dog or your fellow humans to sit up and take you seriously, you better get your back up and your tough on. Nobody thinks twice about stepping on a doormat.
While a lack of "rules, boundaries and limitations," as Cesar would say, sounds like freedom, it plays out in chaos and paralysis.
Remember that scene in "Moscow on the Hudson" where the Russian played by Robin Williams first saw the coffee aisle in an American supermarket? The dizzying display of brands and blends caused sensory overload and collapse. Anyone who's ever confronted the coffee menu at Starbucks for the first time knows the feeling of being unable to choose because there are too many choices.
Limit options, set parameters, establish ground rules that everyone understands, and the result is relaxation, focus and the clearing of the clouds of confusion.
If the humans don't provide leadership, the dog tries to fill in. Depending on the dog's temperament, the result is either cowed humans or a freaked-out canine trying to take on a role for which he's not suited.
It's similar to a home where feckless or troubled adults have abrogated their responsibilities, leaving the children to parent the parents, or a workplace where a squeaky-wheel employee always gets his or her way with a weak-willed supervisor.
If you're the boss, be the boss. It's not a privilege -- it's a responsibility.
Aggression often springs from insecurity, not necessarily arrogance.
Secure dogs -- or people -- don't feel the need to puff themselves up and throw their weight around. They radiate calm and certainty, knowing exactly what they're about and why they're doing what they're doing.
But if that's lacking, it's all about having something to prove, and that means yapping, charging, bullying and all sorts of bad behavior.
So, sometimes, the bigger the fuss, the smaller the ... self-confidence.
A dog is a dog, but a Newfoundland is not a whippet.
Members of the same species are still individuals, with different personalities, physical characteristics, drives and desires, needs and wants. If you expect your Newfoundland to be able to run down a rabbit, or your whippet to execute a cold-water rescue, you're going to live a life of frustration and disappointment -- and probably kill the dog to boot.
Better to understand each individual on his or her own terms and go from there.
Lastly, never underestimate the value of good social skills.
Cesar's main dog, Daddy, knows the rules of proper canine interaction and sets a good example for other dogs who may not have had the benefit of proper socialization. Knowing how to greet others, how to understand body language and signals, how to communicate your intentions and comprehend the intentions of others provides the grease that keeps the social machine running smoothly.
The socially awkward dogs learn by trial and error, observing skilled dogs like Daddy, and -- in just the same way you get to Carnegie Hall -- practice, practice, practice.
So, what have you learned from your favorite show?