Saturday, December 25, 2010

Four-legged education

It was absolutely inevitable that I would get around to writing about dogs.  Not necessarily my dog, although that is more than tempting, but about dogs in general. What was never clear was how that was going to come about. The inspiration came last week when I happened upon an article that described how much there is to be learned about educating our children from, none other than, the Dog Whisperer. For those that don't know, this mythical television personality, created by Cesar Millan, is aired on the National Geographic Channel. Presently trying to educate both my dog and my children (not sure in which order) the concept of a joint plan of attack was very appealing. Compounding my interest in this subject was my husband's announcement, that very evening, that he was planning on introducing dogs into the programming at his chronic care centers. Next week he planned on taking Georgia for a test run. The synchronicity impelled me to hit the keyboard.

Let's start with the lovely image of Georgia in a white coat with a stethoscope around her neck. Now wouldn't that just be adorable!!! But really, the concept runs a lot deeper.  In fact, I think my husband might very well be on to something (if it's not a lawsuit in the unusual situation that one of these dogs loses it and attacks a patient).  The concept of exposing chronic care patients to a living, breathing example of fidelity and love—life through example—seems quite clever. Anyone that loves dogs knows that there is absolutely nothing better than the look of total devotion one receives from their four-legged friend not to mention the literal warmth received from petting and hugging their furry body. What better medicine for the soul than to introduce this affection into places where people end up as a result of extended illness or advanced age. If modeling clay workshops offer mental stimulation and a pleasant pastime just think of the emotional happiness quotient that could be achieved by a few minutes here and there with the house doggy!

An abundance of recent literature devoted to dogs' souls and humanity, including fictional favorites The Art of Racing in the Rain (Garth Stein) as well as non-fiction ones like Marley and Me (John Grogan) and Merle's Door (Ted Kerasote), clearly indicate what dog devotees have known for a long time: Dog's are really quite human and if only for a pair of thumbs and a differently designed palette, their place in this world might have been quite different! Furthermore, these trusting and loving animals share much with our own children as they too come into the world eager to be appreciated and seeking clear guidance. It may not be far-fetched, therefore, to consider the techniques by which we train them as appropriate for use on our own offspring.

I am the first to admit to not knowing everything about parenting and, even more significantly, to being open to just about ANY suggestion—even if that means turning to a dog trainer. And not surprisingly the article I happened upon, ("Becoming the Alpha Dog in your own home" New York Times, November 2009), states that the Whisperer's techniques are being adopted by a fairly large population of parents with young children—all eagerly embracing his well-known "holy trinity" of exercise, discipline and affection. As one wrote, "We had intended to apply his advice toward our dogs but realized a lot of ideas can be used on our kids!" Millan's theory hinges on the concept that pet owners need to project their trademark "calm-assertive energy" and accordingly, become the alpha dogs. By extension, it's our role as parents, as it is that of the master, to set the tone. Our children will follow suit. As one enthusiastic adherent of this method affirmed, "When we present nervous, angry or scared energy in front of our kids, they pick up on those emotions".

Certainly, one cannot debate the overall concept that children, like dogs, thirst for discipline and direction.  I admit that I have definitely used command words, such as sit and eat, to guide my children on occasion; cutting out those extraneous please and could yous really saves quite a bit of time. But, this alpha dog business is a lot trickier; although both my husband and I strive for that status it doesn't always work out. The self-confidence and self-possession I have instilled in my children leaves them somewhat unaffected by our swaggering attempts to rule the roost.

Nevertheless, I don't want to discount Millan's techniques. The utilization of disciplinary techniques developed for canines on our children might enable the creation of better behaved and more attentive youngsters. And there is absolutely no question that their accepting nature has much to recommend. I loved the recent article in the Times by a high school senior who adopted his dog's nonchalant response to the news that he had been rejected from Yale. "Skimming through the condolences and pep-talky advice that made up the body of the message, I cleared my throat and said, 'Oh, how about that.' My dog Truman yawned and made a noncommittal woofing sound. I made a sandwich. He ate some kibble. Then we both took naps. I think we took the news pretty well."

Perhaps the best lesson learned from man's best friend are the benefits gained through simple kindness, gentleness of tone and an overall accepting nature. If both parents and their children could integrate these qualities and approaches into their interpersonal relations we might see a kinder, gentler next generation. I'm actually considering moving aside and letting Georgia take over.


  1. Love this. Sweet! And funny that I've written the non-dog owning companion piece about being part of the puppy generation (all my friends got dogs & we adopted a baby...).

  2. dogs have a way into your heart and as we all know " all you need is love".