Tube Talk: Animal magnetism

If you have a dog, you owe it to yourself and your pooch to watch at least a couple episodes of Dog Whisperer on the National Geographic Channel (Cablevision 60).

I’d heard about the show and once saw the host, Cesar Millan, helping Oprah work through some behavioral issues with one of her dogs. But until the National Geographic Channel had a week devoted to the program—airing several episodes every day of the week—I’d never really watched the show.

It happened that my sister’s dogsTruman, Finnegan, and Stella—were here on a doggie vacation that week with my own dog, Lily. We were glued to Dog Whisperer. Well, Stella and I were. She’s the only dog who’ll actually sit still and watch TV. The others slept or played. While Stella watched the doggies, I gathered tips on showing my temporary pack that I was their leader.

In one episode, Millan was asked to help a normally sweet-tempered Rottweiler stop trying to attack every dog he saw. Millan used basic psychological conditioning techniques to get the Rottie used to being around other dogs, and after a couple weeks at doggie boot camp, the Rottie returned home, bringing some of his new four-legged friends for a visit.

My sister’s dogs were fairly well behaved for me—for the most part. But going from one dog to four is certainly a challenge, especially at mealtime.

I watched Millan stand amid a pack of twenty or thirty dogs, casually tossing them big pieces of cooked chicken, and his dogs didn’t fight over the food. If I tried that, there would have been a blood bath. Sure, Finnegan and Stella will wag their tails at you if you pick up their bowls, but Truman and Lily want all the food for themselves. Even feeding them two at a time, I still had to watch that those two didn’t make a play for another dog’s food.

For anyone doubting that canine behavioral therapy actually works, Truman, a beagle-terrier mix, is living proof. He’s 16 now, but in his prime he was an unpredictable—and occasionally vicious—little dog. The first time he lashed out, my sister took Truman to a “doggie behavioral therapist” (not Millan) who diagnosed Truman with dominance issues. They taught her how to handle Truman so he’d respect her as the alpha dog: he was banned from furniture, he had to be the last one out the door, and he had to work for his food, even if it’s just having him sit and speak before setting down his bowl.

That’s an oversimplification of the process, but Dog Whisperer simplifies things too, by highlighting each dog’s issues and showing just a portion of its re-education. For Truman, the process took a lot of work. I’m not saying he’s perfect—but he’s a pretty good boy. Luckily he was trained to follow hand signals, so now that he’s almost completely deaf, he still knows what’s expected of him.

Dog Whisperer airs Mondays at 8 PM CT on the National Geographic Channel.

Paula Hendrickson is a regular contributor to Emmy magazine and Variety, and has been published in numerous national publications including American Bungalow, SatelliteORBIT and TVGuide.

From the Aug. 30-Sept. 5, 2006, issue

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