How to best train a dog is hotly debated in the behaviorist world. In the last decade, positive reenforcement training, in which the dog is rewarded for behaving appropriately with a treat, affection or a toy, has become increasingly popular. Positive does not mean permissive; discipline is still prioritized but it is conditioned without physical punishment. Inappropriate behavior, including reactivity to other animals, fear, aggression or simple bad manners, are not rewarded or punished; they are reshaped. That is, the undesired behavior is counter-conditioned. For example, my dog is scared of snowmen. I lead her towards a snowman and with every step she takes closer to the snowman, or for every moment she does not spin out of control or bark, I reward her with a treat. This can take weeks and requires patience. I do not know what caused her fear and I cannot know the extent of it, therefore, I am to remain respectful of her thresholds for information and tolerance for fear, reading her body language moment by moment while also monitoring my own. The slightest tension on her leash may alarm her. Proponents of positive reenforcement training argue that its effects are lasting and predictable, no matter who is holding the leash. The dog and human in this situation are working reciprocally, as a team, and history is just as important as progress.12 In negative reenforcement training, an undesired behavior is punished with fear, pain or surprise. If my dog is afraid of snowmen, I punish her for her fearful behaviors by using a choke collar, a leash pull, an ear pinch or a collar grab, or by forcing her to face her fear and tolerate it until I am satisfied she has overcome the phobia. In this instance, we are situated in a dominance paradigm where I insist she acquiesce to me on my time schedule—or else. The catch is, of course, that she may associate the pain with other stimuli. With snowmen this may not matter, but she might be very excited by children and in her exuberance jump all over them. I could reshape her with treats, reenforcing calm behaviors or leading her away from her beloved kids if she cannot behave; or I could pull or pinch her when she starts to react to the approaching children. It is possible, in the latter case, that she will associate pain with children, and become fearful or aggressive towards them: “child approaches, I get hurt, I have to make child go away.”13 Millan subscribes to negative reenforcement, the most effective for the Pack Leader/Dominance paradigm, and uses it successfully. I do not doubt that Millan believes he has the animals’ best interests in mind; he insists he is humane and he is affectionate and gentle towards them once they have learned to submit to him. Millan is also devoted to exercising the dogs in appropriate ways, yet, and this is key, only if the owner has the time to make the effort. On the television program, the dogs’ possible best interests are circumscribed by their owners’ desires, which are often more about the human than the dog. The nonhuman animals are lifted out of their histories, as if where they came from and what they have experienced has no bearing on the present moment in which they live. The human animals, consequently, are excused from taking responsibility for any part they may have had, directly or indirectly, in shaping the dog’s present.
Ruby, for example, a rare and pricey Hungarian Vizsla, was purchased from a breeder at two years old (episode 3). She is fearful, possessive of toys and food, and aggressive. While Millan instructs her owners about being dominant leaders, she cowers at her female owner’s feet; when the camera moves in for a closeup, she visibly shakes with anxiety. The owners, a white, clearly upper class family, are not only frustrated with Ruby, but disappointed. Their previous dog, of the same breed, had been gentle and affectionate, just as her breed “is supposed to be.” Millan’s solution is, again, to use negative reenforcement to force her to submit to objects she is afraid of, such as the camera, and to relinquish toys she usually growls over. Necessarily, the dog may be afraid of him as well, and he uses this to his advantage. Finally, the children of the family, because it is summer, want Ruby to go into the swimming pool. Millan pulls her into the pool by her choke collar to the cheers of the family; then the children, with the choke collar on the dog, leap into the pool, dragging Ruby with them. Finally, after her swim, Millan holds Ruby down and cuts her toenails, yet another fear of hers that she has miraculously conquered all in the space of one day, thanks to Millan.
Millan’s methods work, it appears, but again, the family’s possible complicity in establishing, or nurturing, their dog’s fears and lack of socialization is barely addressed. The symptom is treated but preventative education is not presented. Furthermore, Ruby has, in some ways, been tormented if not outright tortured. She has endured repeated exposure to all of her worst fears, amidst the strangers of the film crew and in the space of a few hours, in order to please her owners and the television audience at home. At the end of the episode, the children splash in the pool (Ruby still with her leash and choke collar on) and the grownups promise their commitment to being dominant pack leaders.
A “happy” ending; but what happens when Millan leaves? When someone else has the leash and he is not present? What new scars or trauma might Ruby now be saddled with? Not all animals can be fixed so quickly (presuming Ruby’s apparent and expedient change is permanent), and not all humans can afford Millan’s services. Furthermore, by leaving out any possibilities for viewing the dog-human relationship besides the dominance theory, The Dog Whisperer ideologically subscribes to an empirical narrative of human’s dominion over nature. The non-human animal always serves and changes while the human animal remains the beneficiary.
As in the pet industry, the dogs in The Dog Whisperer are surplus. In consumer culture, domestication has displaced them from their use value as guarders or herders and situated them in the far more nebulous “job” of “companionship.” At the same time, they are private property and expected to serve their human owners on the human’s terms. The dominance paradigm of the human and nonhuman animal is, again drawing on Eagleton, real enough; so is the subordinate Mexican, the US border to be protected and the American Dream. The Dog Whisperer perpetuates all four.