Leader of the Pack

colson2Every week, millions of Americans seek advice on how to deal with a troubled loved one. The man they turn to for help doesn’t hesitate to blame them for much of their loved one’s problems. He tells them that they have been lax in their discipline and haven’t spent enough time with the miscreant.Not only do people accept the criticism, they come back for more: They buy books, attend workshops and fit their loved one with the “Illusion” collar. Did you think I was talking about my friend James Dobson? I’m talking about Cesar Millan, the “Dog Whisperer.” On his National Geographic show, Millan helps dogs with, to put it mildly, behavioral problems. One memorable bulldog, when he wasn’t chewing everything, including the limbs and fingers of guests, tried to keep his owner from using his own golf cart. Nearly every dog on the show is just an incident away from that proverbial drive to “a farm in the country.” Yet, by the end of the show, the dogs are model citizens. While the owners often describe the results as “miraculous,” for Millan, it’s a matter of remembering who the “pack leader” is. As Millan reminds his viewers and readers, dogs are pack animals: Genetically, they are domesticated wolves. All wolf packs have a leader who determines what is and isn’t acceptable behavior within the pack. The rest of the pack submits to its direction. The fact that you feed your dog from a bag instead of a caribou carcass doesn’t change the fact that, as Millan says, “a dog wants to be told what to do every day.” They look to their owners to “calmly” and “assertively” guide them. The other thing they want from their owners is attention. If they don’t get it, they will let their owners know they’re unhappy in all sorts of destructive and unpleasant ways. Millan insists that if you’re not ready to spend time, especially in the form of long walks, with your dog, don’t bother getting one. Giving them the run of the house and calling them “mommy’s little baby” isn’t a substitute for discipline and spending time with them. Which finally brings me to my friend Jim Dobson: What Millan says about our dogs is, in many important ways, also true about children. As Dobson has told his listeners and readers for many years, our children want discipline, in the form of limits. The fact that they test the limits doesn’t mean they don’t want them, and it certainly doesn’t mean that they don’t need them. Likewise, they want our time, and if they don’t get it, they, too, will act out in destructive ways. That’s as far I care to take the analogy. Still, it says something about our culture that people understand the need for discipline and guidance when it comes to their dogs but are afraid of “repressing” their kids. They see the connection between their absence and the dog’s acting out, but they deny that divorce hurts our kids. If only their kids bit the guests’ fingers—maybe then they’d understand.  
For Further Reading and Information
Deborah Solomon, “Leader of the Pack: Questions for Cesar Millan,” New York Times, 7 May 2006. Malcolm Gladwell, “What The Dog Saw: Cesar Millan and the Movements of Mastery,”, 22 May 2006. Jeffrey Gantz, “Leader of the Pack: Cesar Millan and the Dog Whisperer,” The Phoenix, 6 August 2007. Emily Goodson, “Overzealous Dog Lovers Need a Healthy Dose of Perspective,” Tribune & Georgian, 27 July 2007. Diane Brady and Christopher Palmeri, “The Pet Economy,” Business Week, 6 August 2007.


Chuck Colson



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