Disciples of Cesar Millan, aka The Dog Whisperer, will be familiar with his doctrine that the only way to truly bond with a dog is on The Walk. Not in the park, not in your backyard, not cuddled up together in your bed at night, but right by your side, ranging together as a pack of dogs naturally does. Cesar posits that dogs respect leadership, and the best way to show leadership is to be out in front, literally leading the way. If no one assumes command, most dogs feel it is up to them, so they will step in and take control. They don’t necessarily want the job. In fact, puppies, unlike yuppies, don’t really care about being top dog. They don’t sulk because they’ve been passed over for a promotion or because they’ve been relegated to the mail room; they just want to know their place in the hierarchy. Once they’ve been assigned, they’re good to go. But if there’s no obvious guide dog, they think, “Somebody’s gotta do it, guess it’s up to me.”
But a mutt’s idea of pack leader is to meander here and there, sniff on this, pee on that, poop over there — indifferent to whether or not you’re following. This aimless wandering can be deadly, since most dogs don’t look both ways before they cross the street, and they don’t think ahead before bounding up to a 200-pound snarling mastiff named Killer. That’s where the human comes in, since he/she understands this stuff and can (theoretically) keep the pack together safely. Nothing screams “Out of Control!” louder than the sight of a dog dragging a human along behind him at the end of his leash like a reluctant water-skier.
Before they left, Bonnie and Ben took us out on the back deck and pointed through the woods that surround their house. “That’s the trail you take for Scratchy’s walk. Don’t worry, he knows the way.” Uh-oh.
Sure enough, on our first morning, after several minutes dipsy-doodling around a hyped-up Scratchy trying to get him into a “calm, submissive state” (Cesar’s mantra) so we could buckle him into his harness, the second the door was opened, he bolted. We lost sight of him as he crested the hill and disappeared into the thickets. We pictured Cesar’s disappointed face. The Mexican maestro insists that you, and only you as the pack leader, should be the first one out the door. Then, once you step outside, you turn to your dog who is (again, theoretically) sitting in a Zen-like state of calm, obediently awaiting instructions, and invite him out with you. And he is always leashed. Right.
As we scampered after Scratchy like good pack followers, our hollers to him echoed through the forest. No response. We finally spotted him trotting across the concrete dam that created a large pond at the back of the property. We gasped, thinking “one wrong step…”. But he was as sure-footed as a mountain goat, and had covered the distance in under a minute while we gingerly put one foot in front of the other like we were walking a high wire. We caught up with him on the other side of the pond, half way down a leaf-littered path that ended at a road. In the nick of time, we snared him by the harness and hooked him to his leash. Now we’ll show him who’s boss.
As he pulled and strained the rest of the way, our attempts at taking our rightful place up front failed miserably thanks to his gagging and retching at any little pressure against his chest (among all his ailments is a collapsing trachea, which means we have to be super-sensitive to even a gentle tug on his leash). Then, at the corner, he went ballistic on an old dog who was quietly whiling away the morning outside his front fence. To his credit, the mature mutt simply lifted his head, gazed coolly at Scratchy, appeared to think, “What is your problem, punk?”, then lowered his head back to his paws.
Meanwhile, we gently but firmly guided Scratchy away to the other side of the street — and face to face with a snarling, slathering German shepherd cross and his Deutsch freund, a Rottweiler. Did this stop Scratchy in his tracks? Oh no. Scratchy, like so many small dogs, is afflicted with that mysterious curse known as the Napoleon complex. He may be 12 inches tall and weighing in at 15 pounds, but in his mind he’s a pitt bull on steroids. A dude with a ‘tude, and ready for a feud. Thankfully, the barking bruisers were restrained behind a fence. We quickly got by only to be accosted by yet another dog, this one much smaller than Scratchy. Proving the hypothesis that the smaller the dog the bigger the complex, this mangy cur raced up to us, yapping like a fiend in full Napoleonic mode. Quelle grossiers. We shushed him away and finally got to our driveway and the walk was done. Phew.
In the days, weeks and months to come, we did manage to exercise a modicum of control over the pig-headed pooch, enough so that we could take him farther around the neighbourhood and through a more extensive forest system nearby with only the occasional altercation. But he still morphed from sweet, obedient, subservient indoor dog to tough guy outdoor dick who literally strutted through the streets looking for trouble. He’s clearly never been socialized and, since it’s much more of a challenge to teach an old dog new tricks (why else is it a cliche?), we would work with what we had. The little feller had always gotten by on his looks (“Aw, don’t make him sit, look how cute he is!”) when in reality he was a hot-headed refusenik, rebuffing the slightest suggestion that he abide by “Cesar’s way” of “rules, boundaries and limitations”. Ruff.