Every few years, America finds and crowns a new King or Queen of Dogs. The ceremony usually comes with a book deal, some slow-news-day think pieces by a few columnists, an interview on NPR, maybe a major magazine article. I don’t know why this is, but I suspect it has something to do with the way dogs have, to a large degree, joined children as the object of adult obsession. The other day someone asked me how often dogs chase me when I’m out cycling. The question was startling, as I realized it had probably been more than 30 years, which was the last time people thought it was OK for dogs to roam around free in neighborhoods.
(When I was in junior high, and my bike was my main mode of transportation, I was chased by a raging ankle-nipper at least twice a week. I became skilled at the angled downward kick that discouraged most of the little buggers. More persistent chasers got a squirt in the face from my water bottle.)
It’s good to have a Ruler of Dogs. We had a lot to learn. Crating, for instance. No one ever crated dogs when I was young, preferring to whack them with rolled-up newspapers when we got home and saw the damage they’d done. If I could have those days back, the first thing I’d do would be: Buy a crate. Dogs got walked less then, and on shorter leashes. The inventor of the reel-type dog leash? Should get a Nobel prize.
I’ve been a camp follower of these folks, along with everyone else. Spriggy came into our lives when The Monks of New Skete were in their ascendancy. I later was entranced by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’ “The Hidden Life of Dogs,” although that was a hot love affair that cooled quickly — I came to think of her as a twit. Leaving your dogs free to roam? What kind of nut, etc.
Other contenders for the crown pop up now and again. Jon Katz used to scold the mainstream media for being thoroughly out of it; now he’s pretty much all about the dogs. There’s that Tuesdays With Marley book, which I refuse to buy on general principles; I can smell that disappointment coming a mile away.
The newest King of Dogs is Cesar Millan, aka the Dog Whisperer. I caught him on the Discovery Channel while channel-surfing one day a few weeks ago, and seemingly within days, he was in my face like, constantly. The New Yorker sent Malcolm Gladwell to analyze his body language. The New York Times ran a cute photo of him on one of his signature dog-whispering techniques — his four-hour daily tramp through the Santa Monica Mountains with the motley crew of canine hard cases he’s overseeing at any given moment.
But like parenting experts, sooner or later they all lose me. The Monks of New Skete advised that all dogs be taught the extended down-stay, and included photos of their pack of German shepherds lying quietly on the perimeter of the dining hall, waiting for dinner to be over. Thomas basically advocated for dogs to take over your house and sleep all over your bed. Millan and I started to fall out when he said dogs should always walk behind their owners, in true “pack leader” fashion. Also, when he said Oprah Winfrey was a perfect example of a pack leader.
All I can say is: These folks have never worked with my dog. The extended down-stay, for my terrier, would require bolting him to the floor. Alan’s allergist banished the dog from the bedroom, let alone the bed. Walk ahead of him at all times? Has Millan ever worked with a Jack Russell? I’d have to have the speed of Carl Lewis. And Oprah? Please.
Here’s what I want to know: What is it with dogs and pooping? The other day I sat down with a calculator and figured I’d observed, and cleaned up after, approximately 9,000 Spriggy poops. That’s a lot. And I’ve observed a few things. I know that if we walk down a street where one homeowner is standing outside, that’s the house he will choose to poop in front of. If a dog is behind a fence barking furiously at us, Spriggy will sometimes engage but nearly as often, studiously ignore him and then poop in that yard, too. I know dogs mark territory with urine, but what about defecation? What’s he trying to tell the guy outside, admiring his landscaping? “I defy you?” Or, “Here’s a memo on the local food supply. Sniff and learn.”
Also, if Cesar took my dog for a walk and expected to stay in front of him, he’d best bring his Nikes.