Leader of the Pack: The Charisma of The Dog Whisperer
Dogs tend to have a relationship with television in my household. The first time Woodrow, our first Jack Russell Terrier, impressed us was with his critical perceptions of television–as a puppy he would bark when commercials came on or when he heard the voice of ABC 20/20 host John Stossel. So, he had “taste”–annoying commercial sounds and volumes and whining, conservative tabloid news reporters, drew commentary from him, and as media scholars, we approved! Many years later, when I was madly trying to finish the first draft of my book manuscript in preparation for submitting my tenure file, Woodrow would stand behind my computer chair and whine continuously if I was still working after 8:00 pm. He didn't do this during the day when I was working at home, only at those hours when I would ordinarily be sacked out on the sofa, watching television with the rest of the pack. He was not only a reader of television's secondary textuality, then, but also its place in the everyday life of the household and its schedules, its flows in relation to other flows, such as dinner, leisure time on the sofa, and bedtime.
Cesar Millan, “dog psychologist” and star of the National Geographic Channel's The Dog Whisperer, would probably not have read this latter behavior as evidence of one television fan appealing to another on the basis of a shared pleasure in gathering around the electronic hearth. He would probably say that Woodrow was trying to dominate me. Millan frequently makes such a diagnosis to his southern California clients who call upon him to help them control biting, fearful, aggressive, obsessive, or stubborn dogs. The National Geographic Channel, like the much older magazine of that name, has high production values for its programs about nature and history. Although it promotes and markets some of these programs with techniques compatible with the kinds of sensationalism that often accompany tabloid talk, how-to, or self-help programming that appears on many other television channels, the National Geographic Channel is not typically associated with self-help, reality programming. The Dog Whisperer, however, is as much a self-help program as it is a how-to, nature or animal psychology program normally expected of this channel.
The program's episodes are structured as case studies of dog behavior that Milan will show owners how to control or eliminate. Yet, each episode warns in a written text that appears before the credit sequence, “do not attempt these techniques without consulting a professional.” Obviously, this is partly a legal disclaimer that will protect Millan and the show's producers if any person or any dog is hurt when owners try to incorporate Millan's advice. But, it also signifies its self-help generic status as opposed to its how-to generic status. And it is a very specific kind of self-help program. It is not teaching or attempting to represent “techniques” so much as revealing “essences.” This is the territory of New Age/pseudo-spiritual self-help about finding some essence within that can be expressed to the betterment of/for the self (and here, of/for the dog and its human pack). Even if one hasn't read Millan's book, Cesar's Way, and found his acknowledgements to Deepak Chopra, Oprah Winfrey, Wayne Dyer, Anthony Robbins, and Dr. Phil, the program's self-help emphasis is evident in many ways. For the rest of this essay, I explore two registers in which The Dog Whisperer's particular self-help generic status is most intriguingly, and troublingly, expressed: the development of Millan's star persona and the gendered relationships in the case studies.
Cesar Millan is really a television star on the rise. Not only has the National Geographic Channel renewed his program, but he has a book with celebrity endorsement (Jada Pinkett Smith, a former client, writes the foreward) and is the subject of recent New York Times Magazine and New Yorker articles. And, while for some reason these magazine sources don't explicitly state it (they seem to be missing out on an excellent opportunity to discuss an important debate of the moment), Millan admits in his book that he entered the U.S. illegally in 1991. With one-hundred dollars in his pocket and little knowledge of English, Millan worked as a dog groomer in San Diego, and as clients recognized his ability to work with difficult dogs, he built a dog behavioral consultation business that eventually allowed and motivated him to make legal reparations and applications to become a U.S. citizen. This narrative of his rise to success as an outsider breaking in serves as one valuable discursive origination of his philosophy of “calm-assertiveness,” and his oft-stated (dis)belief that Americans treat dogs–to the detriment of their pets and pack–like children. Like most successful media star promotion, the presentations of the on- and off-screen personas mutually reinforce one another. For example the New Yorker article, using expert testimony from dance therapists, focuses on Millan's ability to convey a non-threatening confidence and power through body language. In the accompanying photo, Millan stands, looking directly at the camera, legs slightly apart, one arm raised high above his head, surrounded by dogs caught in motion, running or jumping. He appears as the calm center of a dynamic vortex of canine activity. The opening credits of The Dog Whisperer put this image and theme in literal motion. The montage has Millan constantly move amidst packs of dogs–almost godlike as he runs out of the sea in one shot, rollerblades with a group of dogs in another shot, etc. While the program is structured to give camera time to owners describing their dog's “problems,” Millan is given both solo time in front of the camera and time with the owners to state what is wrong with the owner's behavior with their dogs, and at these points he sometimes refers to his childhood on a Mexican farm where he first learned about animals, and how Americans wanting dogs to fulfill them is the source of their behavioral problems.
The discourse of “fulfillment,” of course, is central to some kinds of self-help discourse, as it weds Americans' belief in their right to pursue happiness with popular psychological discourse that elevates self-esteem and unconditional love as necessary components of psychological well-being. While many critics have identified to what extent self-help discourses have been directed at women, the discourses of “fulfillment” are not necessarily or always gendered. However, one of the consistent representational patterns of The Dog Whisperer is that female dog owners have to recognize to what degree they expect their dogs to fulfill their needs, and how this neediness causes problems for the dogs, for them, and for their family and/or husband. One woman dreamed of dogs one night and the next day convinced her reluctant husband to take her to the pound. Another woman does not want her dogs to be “mad” at her so she doesn't discipline them, and more than a few have rescued abused or abandoned dogs and now want to protect them from the outside world. One of the rescuers is so afraid of seeing and working with any conflict her dog has with other dogs that she cries almost continuously through Millan's attempts to socialize the dog with others. This same woman has broken off her engagement because her boyfriend decided he couldn't live with such an aggressive dog. Much to Millan's credit, he doesn't try to provide counseling to the couple, though he confides in his solo time with the camera that it is clear that the woman has prioritized her “protection” of her dog over her boyfriend, so no wonder they broke up. The episode is structured, through a photo-montage of the couple together and written text which asks “can this marriage be saved?,” around the hermeneutic of heterosexual romance as much as canine rehabilitation.
Millan's solution to all dog behavior problems is for the owners to provide in order of importance, extensive exercise for their dogs, structured discipline, and finally affection. Most of the women are exposed as providing only the latter. As for structured discipline–the component that might require the “techniques” most clients are looking for, Millan defines this as the owner feeling and conveying “calm assertiveness” rather than punishment. He tries to convince owners of the importance of this by explaining that dogs, apparently before they are screwed up by needy humans, are naturally in “balance,” which is a state of “calm assertiveness” that is similar to what he, the dog whisperer, communicates in his interaction with dogs. This discourse is central to both Millan's stardom and the way the program taps into New Age/pseudo-spiritual self-help discourse in relation to gender. While his tough talk about the destructiveness of owners' desires for fulfillment fits into the kind of neoliberal “taking responsibility” discourse that some critics have suggested permeates much reality television, Millan's belief that there is some energy balance, some essence of calmness that both dogs and humans can express inter- and intra-species, is compatible with discourses the posit a socio-cultural corruption of nature that we've gotten out of touch with in ourselves. Central to Millan's star persona is the almost magical way that he personifies the balance of “calm assertiveness.” In a word, he is charismatic, and this is what owners have to emulate. The program never resolves how much the charisma is “natural” to certain people like Millan, and what aspect of it can be learned–a tension, in fact, that permeates much media star discourse. In some episodes, this tension is especially pertinent to his attempts to help women discipline their dogs through calm-assertiveness. In one case study, in which an abandoned dog adopted by a young woman has to overcome fear of men, Millan explains that men have a different bodily gravity, a confidence in space that the shy dog fears. Neither the episode nor Millan's advice is structured to suggest the female owner has a fear of men, but she giggles with embarrassment and even backs up as Millan demonstrates a man's control over space. In at least two episodes (in addition to the “can this marriage be saved?” episode), female owners reflect to the camera or to Millan that maybe their conveyance of “calm assertiveness” can help them find a boyfriend who is not wishing to be rescued. These remarks and incidents are included in the episodes, but the question of gendered power and why women may desire a dog over a man, or might fear a man (why are men allowed confidence over space?) or rescue a man, is, as in many reality or self-help shows, never
Another component of Millan's star persona is the narrative of his youthful marriage to wife Illusion (real name) and how it almost broke up because of his “macho” beliefs. He attributes John Gray's self-help program and his wife's commitment for the salvation of his marriage. His book has a special chapter on the use of gendered pronouns and how cultures can be judged on how they value women. If women are consistently shown as needy and sometimes as victimized in the program, Millan also regularly points out to female clients that the qualities of assertiveness that they have developed in their jobs or as mothers can be drawn on in their relation to their dogs. The only time I've seen Millan completely in awe of a client is in an episode in which he visits a woman who rescues and rehabilitates 150 lb. mastiffs.
These issues about The Dog Whisperer could receive more attention and the topic of dogs, gender, and media representation is likely to become more central to academic discourse. Changing relations between people and domestic animals is becoming apparent by the huge market for pet care, community and state legislation, and theories about dog intelligence and feelings. Donna Haraway, whose earlier work has had an impact on feminist theories of human-machine interaction, has now turned her attention to human-“companion species” co-evolution. Next, will there be some attention to dogs in relation to television? As I finish this essay on my laptop with my second Jack Russell at my side, an episode of The Dog Whisperer is on about a dog who is violently aggressive while watching–you guessed it–The Dog Whisperer.
3. Cesar’s Way
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