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What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures
What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures
Malcolm Gladwell
Back Bay Books, 2010
448 pp., $17.00

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Sarah Ruden


The Age Demanded an Image

On dogs and Malcolm Gladwell.

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But, I have to add, there's no word about public-policy measures to help keep all poor students in school; a routinely assigned mentor might have made sure that Langan's financial-need paperwork was submitted at the juncture where, as things did happen, the major trouble started. That line of thinking would be way off Gladwell's point, which is that Langan should be an academic researcher in the social sciences, a full member of the "genius" pantheon. When Langan voices contempt for the academy and contentment with his life as it turned out (he is married, lives on a horse ranch, and studies on his own), Gladwell doesn't seem to listen. Within the scope of science writing, there is no point.

Certainly in nonfiction rhetoric pathos shouldn't be about fantasy, about a temporal world that can be made perfect by and for special people. That's doubly the case in science writing, as hard evidence tends to point toward how good the world is already, demanding not the intervention of magical experts to "solve" its "problems," but unglamorous, no-brainer shared responsibility toward Creation and fellow creatures.

This brings me back to dogs. Gladwell's essay "What the Dog Saw" is about Cesar Millan, the "Dog Whisperer," and his skill in making dogs behave. To give Millan credit, he has a great deal of experience with the species and is more honest than his promoters. On video, he often says that a distressed owner is struggling with the wrong breed—a large, active dog in a small house, for example, or a working dog in a sedentary family.

But as the leader of a small industry, he does not of course say that the puppy mills pullulating in California, where he operates, and the American Kennel Club's refusal to enforce any health standards for purebred registration, and in general the treatment of pets as consumer goods rather than members of families, are his biggest sources of profit. Inbred, sick, unsocialized puppies, sometimes with congenital behavior problems like "Springer Rage" (I'm not kidding—maybe there's also "Poodle Pandemonium"), urgently produced and fecklessly bought during the few months that a breed is fashionable because of its appearance in a movie or a commercial, make for miserable, misery-spreading dogs. (Gladwell, in fact, mentions that one of Millan's cases he observed was a puppy-mill dog fraudulently sold as show-quality.)

In other words, dogs are not the issue. In fact, they were the first animal domesticated, and they adapted to get along with us better than we get along with each other. Instead of dog transformation, there are political, social, and philosophical challenges that people have to address together in order to lead better (in both senses) individual lives. It's the opposite of the need for expertise; if the traditions of democracy were merely valued again, as much of a solution as is possible would lie within reach.

Instead, the media induce the attitude—which, clinically, is sociopathy—that nothing exists out there but opportunities to exploit. My young neighbor stalks the dog-walking path with dog-training business cards and, when Bradley barks at him (as at everybody), lectures me about the dangers of "aggression" (though Bradley would die rather than bite). One of this entrepreneur's victims, a beautiful Border Collie rescued from an abusive home, suffers windpipe-closing yanks at his leash and loud, angry scolding when he crouches down and backwards, in the instinctively correct way (but never growls or bites), at the approach of a person or another dog. "He's not supposed to do that! He's had training, he needs more training!" recites his new owner when urged to see things from his point of view. Citizenship and work are turning into efforts to trick or bully each other into buying "solutions" for cause and effect—and then, naturally, "solutions" for previous "solutions."

Gladwell rhapsodizes over Millan's physical movements or "phrasing" around dogs, and purported experts concur. But Millan didn't develop his movements scientifically (he simply spent a lot of time with dogs), and they aren't essential for communicating with canines—if they were, it would leave us tapping our teeth over companion and service dogs for the disabled, some of whom cannot stand straight, with their shoulders back, because they cannot stand, or cannot execute fluid arm movements because they are paralyzed.

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