Road Apples
Aug. 4, 2008

People whisperer

By Tim Sanders

You’ve probably seen the "Dog Whisperer" show on the National Geographic Channel. If not, it doesn’t actually involve a whole lot of whispering, but it does involve dogs. It also involves Cesar Millan, who goes around the country helping people deal with the complex sociological and psychological issues facing their dogs. His training technique is quite simple. He knows that dogs are, and have always been, pack animals. He also knows that to make a dog obey you, you must first communicate to the dog that you are the pack leader. Being the leader of a pack of dogs, according to Cesar, has nothing to do with size, but with attitude.
And sometimes, if you’re dealing with pit bulls, it also involves a two-by-four. So when Cesar first encounters a family with a problematic Pomeranian who chews up house slippers and attacks Grandma every time she visits because she smells of Ben-Gay and tuna, he immediately establishes himself as the pack leader by dropping to all fours, raising his hackles and growling. Then he takes little Precious for a walk. The routine seldom varies. If he runs into a hyperactive Doberman who chases mail carriers for sport, or a seriously neurotic basset hound who believes his own tail has been stalking him for eight years, it’s still all about communicating leadership and walking. Walk, walk, walk. Long walks. An exhausted dog is always easier to deal with.

We have a dog–a dachshund named Maggie. I’ve mentioned her before. There was a time, two centuries ago, when vast herds of dachshunds roamed the Midwest. In 1804 Lewis and Clark looked out across the Great Plains and saw nearly 10,000 head of dachshunds blanketing the prairie, grazing on amber waves of kibble. In December of 1805 the expedition suffered severe ankle injuries and nearly lost two of its shorter members in a frightening dachshund stampede in southern Nebraska. Since dachshunds made excellent hats, their numbers diminished rapidly. Now, of course, those dachshund herds are depleted, and dachshunds are no longer raised for their pelts. Thankfully, the "dachshund boggin" has gone out of style.

But I digress. The point is that we’ve followed Cesar Millan’s advice and learned to communicate with our dog. When we purchased little Maggie six years ago, we immediately followed Millan’s advice and established pack leadership so there’d be no question about it later on. From that September day in 2002, right up to this very moment, there has never been even the slightest shadow of a doubt as to who was the leader of our pack. It’s always been Maggie. That knowledge has accomplished what Millan suggested it would, and facilitated communication between man and beast. Here are some of the commands we’ve mastered since then:

SIT - When Maggie needs Marilyn or me to pick her up and sit in the recliner with her, she’ll communicate this need by giving one of us a soulful gaze and scratching on the chair. It is very effective, and I’m sure she would recommend it to other dogs.

FETCH - This is a more complicated command, and varies depending on just what it is she wants us to fetch. If her tennis ball has rolled into the spare bedroom and she doesn’t want to go in after it because of the Darth Vader vacuum cleaner monster in the closet, she’ll scratch on the wall until one of us fetches it. If one of her toys gets stuck under the recliner, on the other hand, she will sneeze at us until we retrieve it. Short, simple commands work best with us.

HEEL - She gets us to trot behind her down the hallway toward the kitchen by whining until we follow. If she wants a biscuit, she’ll stand stoically in front of the cupboard and stare at it until you can actually smell a hole starting to burn its way through the wood. If she wants dinner, she’ll stand in front of her empty bowl and stare at you until you can smell a hole starting to burn its way into your skull.

FASTER. FASTER. FASTER! - This command is communicated after the subordinate pack member has filled her bowl at the kitchen counter and is on his way to place it on the floor. She informs him he needs to move with more alacrity by frantically spinning around in circles while moving toward the ultimate destination near her water bowl.

SPEAK - There are times in a dachshund’s life when she feels the need for much more interactive verbal communication. Perhaps something in her DNA recalls those bygone days when her dachshund forefathers roamed the plains, howling plaintively when they discovered their kibble fields had been decimated by roving bands of wild Chihuahuas. Or perhaps she has a mite up her tail. Whatever the case, a howl is of no use unless there’s somebody to howl back. Maggie prefers to howl with Marilyn, whose voice is higher-pitched and apparently has more of a canine timbre than mine. Sometimes the two of them will communicate that way for several minutes. It is very entertaining. They usually stop when the neighbors call to complain.

ROLL OVER - If you were a fly on our bedroom wall at midnight, Marilyn would descend on you with her trusty flyswatter and send you to a better world. But if you managed to keep quiet and avoid her attack, you’d see me sleeping like a baby with a clear conscience on my side of the bed, with Marilyn on her side, reading and fidgeting and sighing, and Maggie in the middle. At some point, when she wanted me to roll over so that a) she’d be more comfortable, or b) I’d stop my alleged snoring, you’d see her stiffen those stubby little legs and push me until I woke up and complied. By which I mean Maggie’s stubby little legs, not Marilyn’s. It hasn’t taken me long to learn that particular command, and now it is a familiar part of my repertoire.

There are other commands that Marilyn and I are working on, but we haven’t mastered them yet, at least not to Maggie’s satisfaction. I, for example, am working on my bathroom technique. When I go into the bathroom Maggie often insists on accompanying me. She wants to protect me from those suspicious looking plastic cups in the dispenser beside the sink. She mistrusts those little cups, and likes to have one placed on the floor so that she can render it harmless by chewing it into tiny pieces while I am attending to my business. For quite some time I would forget just what it was that her cocked head and that hard bathroom stare indicated, and even after I’d caught on I would often balk at the notion because I knew I’d have to clean up all of those little plastic pieces. But Maggie’s been a stubborn taskmaster, and I’m learning.

When I’m a good Daddy she always rewards me with a tail wag and sometimes she even licks my hand. I’m a sucker for that kind of stuff. Then I go fetch each of us a Milk Bone. With a little peanut butter they’re very tasty. Much better than those salty old Beggn’ Strips.