Vii issue 1 2009 Journal for Critical Animal Studies

Naturalizing Domestication and the Dominance Paradigm

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Naturalizing Domestication and the Dominance Paradigm

Tuan points out that “Domestication means domination: the two words have the same root sense of mastery over another being – of bringing into one’s house or domain” (1988: 99). Yet, it seems to me that we need to parse out the nuances of meaning between these words in order to cultivate a curiosity about our complicity in the exploitative measures of the pet industry and our responsibility to other species. This is not to propose that we can speak for dogs, for their wants or desires, although dog owners certainly have habits of doing so which can be productive in pet care.7 Rather, I suggest that we examine what we accept as “givens” in the enactment and representation of dog-human “relational moments.”
Relational moments, writes Haraway, the instances in which a dog and a human make contact, are the smallest units of analysis in terms of the human-dog companion species, its “inherited histories” and “necessary joint futures” (2003: 7). In The Dog Whisperer there is, for each dog, a web of relational moments with which she has to contend: she must interact with her owners, the camera crew, and, by extension, the viewers at home, all of which are arranged around her interaction with Cesar Millan.
Each episode is constructed as follows: the dog is filmed performing his problem behavior, a male human voice-over describes the situation briefly, the owners share their exasperation with the film crew, and Millan arrives. He meets the people and shares with them his basic philosophies: “a dog needs exercise, discipline and love: in that order,” and the human “has to be the Pack Leader.” These mantras are the answer to every dog’s problem, regardless of where the dog has come from or his or her current state of agitation. Although there are alternative theories about dog behavior and training, any discussion of these is omitted.8 Millan then meets the dog, the dog submits to him, and the owners celebrate, often voicing their amazement in referring to the “miracle” they have witnessed. The formula—problem dog meets Millan, dog submits, and owners are overjoyed—does not waver. Although the footage is clearly edited to construct the predictable story, each episode presents itself as natural and spontaneous.
Describing shark documentaries, Nigel Rothfels explains that “these films are highly constructed endeavours in which, among other things, camera angles and exposures are carefully worked out in advance; animals are enticed, coerced, or otherwise manipulated into becoming performers; and overall story lines are fashioned to meet specific, conventional narrative expectations” (2002: x). The Dog Whisperer employs the same techniques. We never see the film crew or the camera, but each segment is dramaturgically manipulated, in terms of its documentary style and melodramatic plots, to convey the otherness of the dog and the superiority of the human. The humans on The Dog Whisperer are filmed in stationary positions, looking straight on at the camera, talking directly to it and establishing a connection of sameness with the human audience at home. The dogs are filmed in styles similar to wildlife documentaries: we might see through their eyes in a distorted lens, but most often they are objects that react to, or even attack, the camera. There is one important difference, however, between Rothfels’ sharks and Millan’s dogs. Shark documentaries work on the viewer by tapping into human fear; The Dog Whisperer, in contrast, takes advantage of the dog’s fears.
The camera intentionally zooms in on and is placed in close physical proximity to dogs who are aggressive or fearful of strange objects, such as Nunu the Chihuahua, Coach the Boxer and Ruby the Vizsla (episodes 1,2,6).9 The dogs are provoked into snarling and bearing their teeth futilely; their fear is exploited for dramatic effect. Nonaggressive fears are taken advantage of for comedic effect. For example, in episode one, Kane the Great Dane is afraid of shiny floors. Through Kane’s eyes (supposedly), we see the floor: it wiggles and wobbles while “scary” music plays. The fear is made silly even though it stems from a real experience: the dog slipped and fell as a puppy and knocked himself out. With the Dominance/Pack Leader theory in mind, however, the fear of Kane is simply irrational and the human must show him so. The solution is to put a choke collar on him and force him to confront the floor by running and pulling him along behind. Technically, Kane could have been left alone; his home does not have shiny floors, and he walks fine on carpet, cement, tile, grass, stairs, sand and so on. But his owner wanted him to come to her pre-school classroom so the children could sing “Happy Birthday” to him. At the end of the episode, Kane, ears back, eyes rolling and tongue lolling as he pants heavily in distress, sits in a circle of shouting and clapping children while his smiling owner looks on.
Regardless of the method of training used and whether we agree with it or not, the representation of the dog is that of a clown or a goofball whose sole purpose is to entertain his human. Both aggressive and nonaggressive dogs “perform” as aliens, either wild beasts to be domesticated or inexplicable, irrational mysteries to be solved. In The Dog Whisperer, the goal is always a product (a dog that behaves according to its owners’ desires) and the method is rightful domination based on the human action of domestication.
Behaviorists have critiqued and questioned the application of dominance theory to dog behavior. Because it is based on a study of wolves in the wild, it does not take into account the genetic morphologies or behavioral adaptations that domestication engenders.10 Dogs and wolves share genes and physiognomy, but their social arrangements are necessarily slightly, yet vitally, different. Evolutionary biologists continue to debate the development of the dog. Although one possible narrative is that “man took the (free) wolf and made the (servant) dog and so made civilization possible,” it is equally likely that canines adapted themselves to share the resources of early hominids (Haraway, 2003: 28). The Dog Whisperer does not permit multiple narratives of the dog-human relationship; it is mired in a bourgeois ideology of man’s dominion over nature, in which dogs are the lowest class.11

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