Will the Dog Whisperer's techniques cure my sociopathic beagle?

Humiliating myself for fun and profit.
Sept. 12 2006 12:34 PM

The Dog That Didn't Bark

Can I cure my sociopathic beagle with the Dog Whisperer's techniques?

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Illustration by Rob Donnelly. Click image to expand.

"This is not just pissing. This is dissing." That's what my husband concluded when I called him over to examine my discovery that the pattern on the Oriental rug in the living room was dissolving. One sniff revealed the solvent was dog pee, and lifting up the saturated corner showed concentric rings of dried urine. I had long believed our 6-year-old beagle, Sasha, was housebroken, but it turned out she was slyly indulging in this forbidden hobby right under our less-than-keen noses.

Emily Yoffe Emily Yoffe

Emily Yoffe is a regular Slate contributor. She writes the Dear Prudence column. 

I knew my husband was right that Sasha wasn't doing this out of physical need—I let her out about 10 times a day. It was because she had no respect for us. Where did we go wrong? She had come to us as a pathetically skittish stray from a rescue group. To compensate for her bad, but unknown, past, I tried to give her endless affection. This was getting harder to do as I started thinking of her as a bladder that barked.

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And carpet-bombing was only one of our problems. Among them:

To prepare her dinner (yes, prepare) I sliced up a tube of sausage-like dog food imported from New Zealand. During this process she barked at me with such ferocity that I felt like Mel Gibson's arresting officer.

Each time any of us went to the front door, she tried to bolt onto the street—she had survived once being hit by a car and apparently wanted to try it again.

I was no longer taking her for walks, she was taking me for yanks. She wrenched my shoulder out of its socket in her relentless dash to sniff pee-mails left by other dogs.

A recent development was that during these walks, if another dog came along, she lunged and foamed at it while I assured the dog's owner, "She's really friendly!"

If I called her name, she ran in the opposite direction.

When I complained about Sasha to dog-owning friends, they encouraged me to watch the Dog Whisperer, the hit show on the National Geographic Channel. On it, Cesar Millan, a self-taught "dog psychologist," took the hardest cases—dogs so bad they were on their way to death row—and reformed them, sometimes in minutes. Millan, who also has a best-selling book, Cesar's Way, has become so famous that he's been favorably profiled in the  New Yorker  and scathingly attacked in a New York Times op-ed. I decided to make Millan the subject of my latest Human Guinea Pig—the column in which I try unusual, sometimes self-defeating, projects. And nothing seemed more self-defeating than trying to turn around Sasha. But following the precepts of Millan's videos and book, I would see if this new dog god could make her into a decent pet.

It wasn't as if we hadn't tried. Our first trainer was from the all-positive-reinforcement school. There were no reprimands, only rewards. Each time Sasha did something I wanted her to—sit, come, lay down, I was to give her a treat. Sasha was apparently supposed to intuit that because she didn't get a piece of liver when she peed on the rug, that rug-peeing was bad. This required a subtlety of mind Sasha lacked. I also didn't understand why it was all right to say "no" to a human child who was doing something naughty but considered abuse to say it to a dog.

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