In the Spring of 2002 my husband and I were standing in the lobby of the SPCA in Pasadena, CA when a woman walked in with the tiniest, furriest puppy on her shoulder. We were in the midst of trying to fill out an application that would indicate whether or not we were fit enough to adopt a dog, and when we saw him, this little tan mutt with perfectly triangular ears, we abandoned the application and walked out the door with the five-pound heap of fluff tucked under an arm.
Chuck, The Former Congressman Henry Buck Chucklesworth, entered our lives quietly, deceptively, disarmingly, and for the first hour of our acquaintance he slept on my lap in a ball the size of a fist. Soon, though, he was terrorizing our lives like a flesh-eating disease, ripping apart underwear and disassembling electronic equipment with his teeth. He often bit my ankles until he drew blood and then would run through our apartment with the speed of an expensive Italian car, except with none of the style. He was a delinquent, an unforgiving tyrant, a really bad dog.
Within a month I was seeing a counselor to deal with the stress of owning such an unmanageable pet. Her advice to me was: BUY A GUN AND SHOOT IT. Simple. But I didn’t want to give up so easily, not on this animal who hadn’t been given a chance to know better, a beast who would always nap with his wet snout pressed to my collarbone. We had been trying to discipline him, but none of our techniques worked, none of the yelling or the biting him back got through to him. I used to sit with my arm wrapped around his head until he fell asleep just to get a few moments of peace during the day, and when I thought it was safe to relax he would spring awake and bite my face. We soon hired a professional trainer to come into our home and show us how to wrangle the demon, to demonstrate how to stop the bad behavior without losing a finger or seven in the process.
That trainer ended up being the best investment we ever made in the quality of our lives. He trained us more than he trained the dog, taught us that we had to lead with confidence and consistency because that is precisely what a relationship with a dog demands. Within only a couple weeks we had taught Chuck all the basics: how to sit and to stay, how to put away his dirty clothes. We stopped the biting, the NASCAR races around the furniture, the nightly caterwauling in his crate. That trainer gave us our lives back and also unearthed one hell of a great dog.
An important part of our training regimen with Chuck was walking through the neighborhood several times a day, and on these small journeys we sometimes ran into neighbors who were also living nightmares with their own misbehaving pets. We all swapped tips and success stories, and I spread the word about our trainer and the miracles he had performed in our home. Many times we heard mythological tales about a trainer named Cesar who often ran through the nearby hills with his pack of dogs, all off leash, and how he could silence a raging pit bull with nothing but a cold stare. Our trainer had heard of Cesar as well, had met him once or twice, but he would always dismiss him as a Hollywood figure, someone who is made out to be bigger and more magical than he actually is in the flesh.
A few weeks ago we crawled out from under a heavy rock and heard that Cesar had his own show, “The Dog Whisperer,” on the National Geographic Channel. We hoped he was the same legendary Cesar we had heard about while living in Los Angeles and happily recognized the lean figure in the opening credits, the visionary leader running up a dusty hill with a pack of dogs in formation behind him. That first episode showed Cesar in his finest form, curing a petulant Lhasa Apso of violent barking by simply standing in front of it. He then calmed an aggressive Chihuahua just by rolling it over and poking it with his fingers. His techniques seemed so simple, so reasonable, and he kept reiterating that anyone in the right frame of mind could replicate his maneuvers. Within three days I had watched 10 episodes because I couldn’t get enough, because I felt myself changing.
Maybe I have been looking for something like this in my life, and I could certainly achieve the same peaceful feeling in a yoga class or a church pew, but I have experienced something of a spiritual awakening by discovering this show. Cesar is so much more than just a dog trainer. In every episode he enters people’s homes and literally heals their animals with nothing more than his bare, gentle hands. I have watched him cure an aggressive Rottweiler with a brisk walk around the block, a Satanic Jindo with a patient nudge. He cures dogs that lunge, dogs that bark obsessively, dogs that want to eat the mailman, all with a little assertive energy, and in doing so he is healing a nation of people who have no idea what to do with their dogs, people who have no idea that they have within themselves such strength.
We decided to try some of Cesar’s basic techniques with Chuck, not because Chuck has any major problems with aggression or fear, but because he has lived for four years with a leader who occasionally displays an imbalanced energy, and that is perhaps one of the most damaging things we could do to him. He doesn’t want the responsibility of being the leader because it is for dogs too stressful of a job. It is in their nature to follow, and when they feel that their leader is weak or anxious they will inevitably develop problems. At the height of my postpartum depression I often yelled violently and threw things in frustration — keys, bottles of water, burning candles — and Chuck was always nearby to see me breaking down. He saw his leader being weak, and because of this he often feels like it is his responsibility, his burden to watch out for everybody else. That stress changed him and explains why he frequently escapes to the basement to listen to Bauhaus.
So we started walking Chuck the right way, always leading in front of him, never letting him stop to sniff unless we direct him to do so. We never let him leave the house in front of us or hop onto the couch unless we indicate that he should. Most importantly, I have been concentrating on getting myself to a place where I project a calm energy, where I can always speak to him in a neutral tone. Sometimes I have to fake it, and my personality is fundamentally screwy, but taking that extra moment to gain perspective, taking that deep, sobering breath, that has changed everything. All the problems that he has developed from living with a neurotic family are slowly starting to heal. I know Chuck isn’t holding a grudge against me and the anxious energy I subjected him to for so many months — he’s a dog, and dogs aren’t biologically capable of resentment — but I feel that by becoming the leader Chuck needs I’m somehow making it possible to forgive myself. I feel like I am rehabilitating both of us.
When I see how my leadership has changed my relationship with Chuck I can’t help but think that this energy is going to infect the other relationships in my life, especially the one I have with my daughter. She needs me to be vigilant, to be the pack leader, the Alpha Mom, and that doesn’t mean that I lord over her with the merciless ferocity of a wolf. Nor does it mean that I perform Motherhood to perfection. It means that she can look to me for direction, for guidance, for protection with full confidence that because she can’t do that for herself I will, that I will make sure of it. And strangely, I now feel more empowered in that role because my dog, my little fanged savage believes in me again.