I’ve been a lifelong “cat person” but I did have a dog, once. She was a Pekingese named Kim, and we got her when I was around six years old. I teased her one day and she bit me. She soon went to live with my cousins on a farm in West Virginia.
That single incident instilled in me a terror of dogs that lasted for decades, although it had faded to a simple fear by my twenties. I remember nervously running the gauntlet of barking dogs on my way home from school every day. That was in the days before there were leash laws, so dogs could actually chase after me. Looking back on it, I feel sad for the little girl who had to face that fear every day of her life.
We must have had at least seven or eight cats during my childhood after that, and I came to love them — because they were safe and easy. Well, all of them except that crazy one that always wrapped itself around my bare legs and bit me…. So when I started my adult life, there was no question about which pets I would have – dogs were out and cats were in. But there was more to my preference for felines than a fear of being bitten. I think there’s some truth to the stereotype that “cat people” have different personalities than “dog people.” Cats are indoor animals, not nearly as social as dogs; and I’m much less socially-inclined than the dog owners I’ve known.
As pack animals, dogs seem to be the perfect pet choice for extroverted humans. While the canines are “gettin’ their dog on” at the dog park, their humans get to socialize with other extroverted humans. Everyone goes home fulfilled; it’s a match made in heaven.
Except when it’s not.
I’ve recently become fascinated with Cesar Millan’s show, The Dog Whisperer. If you haven’t seen it, Cesar “fixes” problem dogs. But the secret about him is that he’s really a “Dog Owner Whisperer” too, because most of the time it’s the humans who need fixing just as much as, or more than, the dogs.
Today I watched an episode in which a girl’s dog would get so excited at the sight of another dog that she’d bite her owner repeatedly on the legs. She’d tried everything she could think of, including consulting with an expert dog trainer. Her dog was scheduled to be euthanized in a week. But she’d sought out Cesar as a last resort, taking her dog all the way from Boston to his ranch in California.
As he always does, Cesar listened closely to her description of the problem. Then he carefully introduced the dog to his pack, watching and correcting her behavior as she learned how to relate calmly to them. That part is almost always a piece of cake because his amazing pack of dogs does most of the work.
Then he started the more difficult job of training the human owner. He stressed being “calm and assertive” and taught the owner the meaning of the various dog behaviors so she could respond appropriately to each before any trouble had a chance to get out of hand. As is usually the case, it became clear that the dog was only a problem when it reacted to the stress or other negative stimuli from the owner.
Only a few minutes into the episode, as Cesar and the owner watched the dog playing with his pack, he said, “This is what you rescued, a happy-go-lucky girl. She’s doing great — the life of the party.” And he was right. That dog was like a different animal, just like that. (Of course there was probably some elapsed time they didn’t show us, but it was still the same day.) I often get a lump in my throat when I see the amazing difference in those dogs after Cesar spends time with them. It’s clear that the dogs are relieved to be able to just be themselves comfortably, finally. A happy dog is such a thing of beauty.
Cesar said, “There’s a lot of souls that have been put down because some humans don’t understand them.” Isn’t that so sad? If I were in charge of the world, I’d make sure every pet owner was properly trained by someone like Cesar before they were allowed to take an animal home. Yes, I said the pet owner should be trained by Cesar. That man is a genius when it comes to dogs, but I also think he could have a second career as a human psychologist if he wanted to. He has a way of seeing what’s really going on when we interact with our pets and each other, and his calm way of talking and just being in this world makes me admire him so much. We could use some more humans like him.
A couple years ago, after watching this show for the first time, I was surprised to find myself having thoughts like, “Oh, I could probably handle a dog like that.” And, “If I were going to get a dog, which breed would be best for me?” I still adore my cats, but sometimes I have daydreams of how a dog might be a bridge between my introverted self and the rest of the world, forcing me out in public more and allowing me to interact more comfortably with people. I know it’s unrealistic to expect that a dog could change my whole personality, but maybe it could help smooth out my rough edges a bit. Not that I don’t like myself, but I often wonder if life would be easier as a dog person. Don’t tell my cats I said that.