Yours Truly does not watch much television, but he does read and this curious article on a seeming epidemic of neurotic TV dogs has just crossed his desk. I’m not sure if dogs are actually neurotic but the writer of this New York Times piece, who suggests a sinister canine-anarchy campaign of international dimensions, seems to be:
There’s a Canine Conspiracy! Television Reveals It!
What in blazes is wrong with this country’s dogs? Such a collection of neurotic, insecure, bitchy, bullying creatures hasn’t been seen since whenever the latest episode of “Real Housewives” was broadcast.
I do not own a dog and never have, but I do own a television, and from the evidence it emits, the whole danged species needs to go on a lengthy timeout. On the National Geographic Channel, Cesar Milan is now in his seventh season of grappling with ill-behaved mutts on his “Dog Whisperer.” On Saturday on Animal Planet, Victoria Stilwell returns for a third season of unprovoked barking and biting on “It’s Me or the Dog.” Even the Hallmark Channel got into the act this week; on Monday it rolled out a fresh incarnation of “Petkeeping With Marc Morrone,” which isn’t limited to problem dogs but certainly had plenty of them in the premiere.
Watch enough of these shows and you come to suspect that they are treating the symptoms of an epidemic, not the causes. For instance, a superficial analysis might suggest that Ginger, the Chihuahua in Saturday’s “Me or the Dog,” is unbearable because her owner, an Upper East Side caricature (and “Real Housewives of New York” alum) named Jill Zarin, has lost the ability to distinguish normal human-dog interactions from abnormal. (The episode becomes unwatchable about the fourth time Ginger is allowed to stick her doggie tongue up Ms. Zarin’s nostrils.) But Ginger isn’t yapping, biting and inappropriately licking just because she happened to be paired with a permissive human. This kind of misbehavior takes generations of breeding to perfect.
The same is true of Phoebe, a recent “Dog Whisperer” poodle who attacked anything male on two legs; Sydney, a Jack Russell terrier whose hostility toward another dog puts her on Ms. Stilwell’s “Top 10 Difficult Dogs” list; Shayna Punim, a German shepherd in the “Petkeeping” premiere who can’t take a simple car trip without incident.
It’s tempting to write these cases off to reality television’s penchant for focusing on the absolute worst of a species, be it humans or animals, but apparently there is dog trouble all over the land, and multiple kinds of it. Start typing “dog behavior problems” into Google, and it helpfully offers you these suggestions:
¶dog behavior problems dominance
¶dog behavior problems anxiety
¶dog behavior problems biting
¶dog behavior problems chewing
¶dog behavior problems barking
¶dog behavior problems aggression
¶dog behavior problems urinating
¶dog behavior problems marking
¶dog behavior problems licking
In contrast, start typing “dog behavior good” into your search box, and Google is baffled. “Dog behavior good bad,” it says, sounding like a desperate guess. No “dog behavior good rescuing Timmy from a well” here; apparently, since the invention of Google sometime in the last century, no one in the entire world has had occasion to inquire about good behavior by dogs. Because there hasn’t been any.
All our dog experts seem to be tied up trying to fix this mess one televised dog at a time, an impractical approach, given that according to a news release I just received promoting — no kidding — a weight-loss contest for pets, there are 77.5 million dogs in the United States. So it’s left to a nonexpert like myself to try to figure out the root causes of this orgy of misbehavior. It seems to me that it can all be traced to three familiar bugaboos:
1. THE MEDIA Specifically, television. Dogs, stuck in the house all day, probably watch more of it than kids do. That was fine in the early days of the medium because the role models they would see were, basically, Lassie and Rin Tin Tin, the two finest dogs in history.
Lassie never barked unless a tree had fallen on some family member eight miles away and certainly never required the kind of dog therapy loose in the land today. And it’s a good thing that TV’s Rin Tin Tin — a German shepherd, like the aforementioned Shayna — wasn’t around to see Mr. Morrone’s prescription for Shayna’s travel problems in “Petkeeping”: he suggested an “anxiety wrap,” a tight-fitting garment that supposedly has a soothing effect.
“An anxiety wrap?” Mr. Tin might say. “For riding in a car? Are you arfing kidding me? You want anxiety, try rescuing Rusty from 50 armed Apaches. I did that three times a day, and nobody ever wrapped me.”
Anyway, by the late ’60s those paragons were going or gone, and there were new dogs in town. The neurotic Scooby-Doo arrived in 1969; yes, the title beast would eventually help save the day, but what the dogs in the viewing audience noticed was that he could also, say, eat his master’s triple-decker sandwich and not be punished.
Then came the slobbery “Beethoven” movies, which turn up on TV a lot because they’re family-friendly, and the even more slobbery “Turner & Hooch,” which turns up on TV a lot because it has lengthy scenes with Tom Hanks wearing nothing but black underpants. And now there’s Brian, the more-human-than-the-humans dog on “Family Guy.” It’s no wonder your postmodern mutt, after spending hours watching this kind of stuff, thinks there are no rules.
2. LIBERAL DEMOCRATS The “barking chain” scene in the 1961 film “101 Dalmatians” taught dogs how to spread news far and wide, and one of their first chances to do so was provided on April 27, 1964, by the nation’s No. 1 liberal Democrat, Lyndon B. Johnson. Johnson pulled his beagles, Him and Her, up on their hind legs by yanking their ears; a photograph of the president demonstrating the stunt with Him appeared far and wide. Him yipped, and dog lovers howled. (“White House Gets Protests on Dogs,” read a headline. “Telephone Callers Deplore Pulling Beagles’ Ears.”)
We can safely postulate that word of the ear pulling reached every dog in America within a few days and that retaliatory planning began almost immediately. Mid-’60s dogs were smart enough to realize that a direct attack on a nuclear power like the United States could not succeed; instead they chose a guerrilla campaign of accelerating misbehavior, calculated to produce within a few generations — i.e., now — dog anarchy.
3. OVERREGULATION Let’s state the unpleasant but obvious: the balance of power between dogs and humans shifted when we started ordering ourselves to clean up after the beasts. In New York that took place on Aug. 1, 1978; that’s when the city’s Canine Waste Law went into effect. One man interviewed that day called it “the stupidest thing in the history of the city,” but now it’s considered standard operating procedure — by both us and our dogs. Is it any surprise that dogs don’t obey us when they view us as their personal hygienists?
So that’s my guess as to what has given rise to the kinds of behavior now rampant on dog-whisperer TV: the confluence of bad role models, an image of subservience and a long-held grudge. Possible solutions: play “Lassie” DVDs in a continuous loop, limit dog ownership to landowners with at least 10 acres and have President Obama issue one of those apologies for historical grievances that have become popular in recent years. It’s either that or get used to dog tongues in your nostrils and dog behaviorists every time you turn on the TV.