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.

Our next trainer, Todd, had a more blunt approach to dog management. He believed unhousebroken dogs should be in their crate until they earned roaming privileges. He administered brief, but firm, corrections. He taught me how to make Sasha heel on walks. He got Sasha about halfway to being a good dog, when, terribly, Todd committed suicide. After his death, I couldn't face starting with someone else, so I let Sasha drift into our current mess.

To "Cesarize" Sasha, I first started watching past episodes of the show. They were addictively entertaining, as any makeover show is. Millan is small and muscular, with deep set eyes of coal. He uses these dark embers to expressive effect whenever clients start nattering excuses about the emotional needs of their out-of-control dogs. He does not see himself as a traditional dog trainer—teaching your pooch how to obey spoken commands or do tricks. His mission is to make human and dog head-cases into compatible living companions. (His motto: "I rehabilitate dogs. I train people.") And there are head cases galore. Take the woman willing to let her fiance walk out of her life because she refused to restrain her man-hating pit bull. Or the couple unable to enjoy conjugal relations because their Labrador insisted on sleeping between them and became hostile when moved.    

Millan was on to people like us. One woman, whose rescued sheltie barked incessantly, said she didn't want to discipline her dog because she was trying to make up for its unhappy puppyhood. Millan explained to her, "Dogs don't care what happened in the past. They don't know you feel sorry for them. They just know you're weak."

Millan's method is to teach strength. To get your dog to behave, you first have to change your own behavior. You have to become the "calm-assertive" pack leader. Once you adopt this posture, thousands of years of canine DNA will signal Fido he's no longer top dog, and he will respond with an attitude of what Millan calls "calm-submission." Millan demonstrates this on every show. He stands in front of a misbehaving dog and says something that sounds like "sssstttt!" As you watch, pit bulls almost instantly turn into teddy bears, and the owners exclaim, "It's a miracle!"

Of course, my first goal was to get Sasha to stop peeing in the house. Disconcertingly, I could find no reference for "housebreaking" or "soiling" in the index of Millan's book. Instead, I figured I could use the "sssstttt" method to end her barking when I prepared her dinner. That night, as I cut up her meat, she ran into the kitchen and barked and jumped as usual. I turned to her, said, "Sssstttt," and she fell silent for a moment. Then I started cutting and she began barking again. I stopped and calmly faced her. She quieted down. Back and forth we went until she was quiet long enough for me to finish and drop the food in her bowl. The next night, all I had to do was turn and look at her when she started barking and she stopped. By the end of the week, she was silent during meal preparation, and since then has sat and waited politely.

Next, I was inspired by an episode of the Dog Whisperer in which Millan helped people with a dog that constantly ran out the front door. Again the fix was simple. Millan stood in front of the door, opened it, and when the dog came running he put up an index finger and said, "Sssstttt." The dog stopped as if hit by a taser. This will never work for Sasha, I thought. The next morning I opened the front door wide and Sasha came running. But instead of tackling her and grabbing her collar as I usually would, this time I stood in front of the open door, held up my index finger and said, "Sssstttt." She sat.

I shut the door and called my husband and daughter. I repeated the process, and as Sasha sat, looking at me as if awaiting instruction, my husband exclaimed, "It's a miracle!"

Now it was time to reform Sasha's walking habits. To Millan, the essence of the human-dog relationship is the walk. On the walk, he explains, the owner is re-enacting the ancient dog ritual of following its leader as the pack roams the countryside. This requires the human to keep the dog in its hierarchical place by having it walk behind or next to you—never in front.

I was dreading this. On our usual walks, I wrapped the leash around my hand and held it taut as Sasha pulled past me. I now understood I was transmitting my anxiety through the leash to Sasha like a nerve to a synapse. According to Cesar, I had to hold the leash loose and relaxed, sending the signal to her that I was serenely in control. What followed was days of lurching as she pulled away, I reeled her back, then gave her a "sssstttt" as I placed her behind me. Gradually, she started to understand. About two weeks into it, I took my daughter to the school playground and let Sasha come along. Normally, letting go of Sasha's leash meant saying goodbye to Sasha. But as we stood in the partially enclosed playground, I decided to give Sasha some freedom. I dropped the leash, and instead of running off, she kept close as she sniffed the periphery of the playground. When it was time to go, I called her name and she did something unprecedented. She looked up at me, held my gaze, then walked slowly toward me. Yes, a miracle.

I had successfully established myself as Sasha's pack leader, Millan would say. He paints a picture of Edenic packs of dogs on marathon, migratory journeys for food, guided by a leader of perfect strength and grace. But studies I looked at say such beliefs make the common mistake of confusing the lives of dogs and wolves. While wolves form highly evolved packs for raising young, and for the complicated task of hunting, dogs in the wild don't. Dogs aren't hunters, they're scavengers. Biologist Raymond Coppinger studied the behavior of dogs that wandered a village in Pemba, an island off Tanzania. In Dogs, he writes that they didn't hunt and wasted little motion looking for food. Instead, leaderless, they hung around the town dumps "waiting for something dead to show up." A study of feral dogs in Italy published in The Domestic Dog found that because dogs lack the complicated social structure of wolves, "the term 'group' seems more appropriate than pack." So, Sasha was not responding to my newfound status as alpha dog. As a domesticated animal bred to respond to humans, she was responding to my newfound status as a person tired of being bossed around by a beagle. I was responding to the fact that however wrong Millan may have gotten the science, I could now take Sasha on pleasant walks, leash held loose, while she sociably checked out the aromas of her compatriots.

One night, about a month into the retraining, Sasha jumped on the bed while my husband and I were reading, presenting herself to be patted. My husband said that she seemed like a different dog. The transformation was as dramatic as a Goth teenager getting rid of the black eyeliner and piercings and deciding to try out for cheerleading. Even my 10-year-old daughter was noticing. We had gotten Sasha as a result of her lobbying, but Sasha had been so neurotic and unresponsive that my daughter once called her "the biggest mistake of my life." But now they were playing, and my daughter could take her for walks. "She's not paranoid anymore," my daughter observed. "She's like a real pet."

Although I watched many episodes of the Dog Whisperer, I never saw one that dealt with my major Sasha problem—peeing on the carpet. But that's OK. It's been three months since our experiment began. Since then, the carpet has been dry.