Jan/Feb 2008  •   Salon

In Dog We Trust

by Tom Dooley

Photo by Steve Wing

Photo by Steve Wing

The Dog Whisperer, Cesar Milan's reality show on the National Geographic, drives home the message that owning a dog is a big responsibility, and fulfilling said responsibility means becoming a "pack leader." Pack leaders, according to Cesar, are "calm-assertive," and they demand "calm-submissive" behavior from the members of their pack.  Cesar asserts dominance over dogs by having clear behavioral expectations and enforcing them consistently. He understands and uses the cues that, to dogs, signal he is in charge: simple cues, such as who goes through doorways first. If the dog goes first, he is taking the human for a walk, rather than the other way around. Cesar insists on discipline, exercise, and affection, in that order, and he takes care not to confuse the lines between the three in the dog's mind.

In show after show, dogs are revealed to be aggressive, nervous, and neurotic, not because they have inherent mental or emotional flaws, but because their owners have been ineffective pack leaders.  As Cesar says, his job is to "rehabilitate dogs" and "train people."  The root problem is the people, who have no idea what their dogs need from them, and who fail to recognize their dogs' misbehaviors and their own acceptance of those misbehaviors as a simple game of dominance they, the humans, are losing.  It's an ironic fact of life: dogs need to be dominated by their masters in order to be "happy," and left unchecked they will instead do the dominating, thereby making themselves unhappy.

It's another irony, and an unfortunate one insofar as so many of us are just as unaware as the people on The Dog Whisperer, that human psychology isn't too different from dog psychology, particularly when it comes to raising children, teaching students, leading a team, running an office, ruling a country... any situation where one or more human beings must, out of necessity, bow to the authority of one or more other human beings.  

If a dog is in the wild, running with a real pack, necessity dictates the pack has a leader, or it will be unable to function and its members will perish. Knowing this, each dog tests to see if it can dominate the other members of the pack. If it can, it becomes the leader. If it can't, it submits, knowing whoever is in charge has met the challenges of the rest of the pack and, being the strongest, presents the best chance for the pack's survival. 

This logic works in the wild, but if a dog successfully dominates his human master, he is still largely powerless in the world of humans. He is now dependent upon an inferior for his survival. Who can blame him if this makes him nervous?

A child is in the same position. He may win the domination contest with his parents, but he is still dependent upon those parents, both for obvious things like food, shelter, clothing, and transportation, but also in terms of character-building and emotional well-being. Parents who think spoiling their children demonstrates love and affection are missing the boat entirely—they're denying their children the very structure and leadership children are so desperately seeking through their acting out.

The same is true for students. Students cannot get what they really need, in this case knowledge, if the teacher is not in control of the classroom.  Ineffective teachers are ineffective because they fail to be pack leaders in their classrooms. The students become the leaders, which in context makes them the teachers, but since they don't have subject matter knowledge or the inclination to teach it, learning doesn't occur.

A deep-seated psychological need to either dominate or be dominated explains a lot about the human condition. It explains why dictators and monarchs have been not only tolerated throughout history but in many cases beloved. It explains religion—particularly more "modern," monotheistic religions. As mankind has become more civilized, more removed from the wild, "pack" environment, our roles as leaders and followers have become murkier. On the one hand, we may feel like we are not in control of our own lives, but on the other hand, we may feel like no one else is really in control of us, either. Being not much different from a rottweiler in this respect, we feel lost, afraid, aggressive, and self-destructive.

What a relief for those who find a "higher power," who can give themselves over to the ultimate pack leader in the sky. 

It's not meant as a joke. For many people overcoming chemical dependencies, abusive relationships, tragedies, anxiety, and depression, faith in and submission to a higher power can mean the difference between life and death. Such situations render irrelevant the question of which, if any, higher power exists or is the "one, true" god. The fact that people believe in these gods, and some are as a result able to live happier, longer, more productive lives, justifies and proves God's "existence" more than any artifact ever could.