Friday, June 26, 2009
The Dogs of Europe
To understand America, pay attention to dogs. Popular dog guru Cesar Milan diagnoses family troubles through the eyes of the dog. He visits a family complaining of an ill-behaved dog confident that he’ll find the source of the problem in the people, who are unwilling or unable to assert their authority over their dog and create for the dog a sense of belonging to the pack. He teaches people to be assertive. When Milan came to the U.S. from Mexico and took a job as a dog groomer, he was shocked to encounter so many neurotic and unstable dogs. But dogs, he realized, are always the same everywhere; the problem can’t be the fault of the dog. This simple insight launched his career as a dog trainer who helps dogs by providing therapy to dog owners.
My travels this summer to London, Paris, and Athens helped me to see the U.S. a little more clearly through the eyes of dogs. Like us, Londoners play with their dogs in the parks, lie about with them, and follow them on leashes. They baby their dogs. Consequently, their dogs are approachable, wagging their tails, hoping to be coddled. They seem more obedient than American dogs, but the owners probably don’t need them as deeply as we need our dogs – for emotional support. In a home with no other sports fans, our late dog Arjuna was my make-believe sports buddy. It goes without saying that you don’t discipline your sports buddy the way you should discipline a dog. My wife and I both tried our best to turn our dog into a little person, and we created an obstinate little dog, pushy and needy, but bursting with personality.
In Paris I’ve seen how clever a well-trained dog can be. Parisians don’t walk their dogs. The dog trots onto the street alone. Its owner then exits and proceeds down the sidewalk unconcerned, apparently ignoring the dog – but a quick whistle keeps the dog moving along. The operation is a technique for avoiding cleaning up after the dog. When it comes to fouling the sidewalk, the dog is made to take its own risks. The physical distance between dog and owner, the lack of eye-contact, creates deniability for the owner. If an officer suddenly nabs the offending dog, the owner can walk free.
In Paris, a dog is an extension of a person’s ego, a servant trained to focus exclusively on its master and to make sacrifices for him. The dog is private property. Even when a dog is on a leash in Paris, a stranger has no hope of being allowed to pet it. Asking to pet a Parisian’s dog would be like asking to stroke his jacket or to sit on his car.
More independent than French dogs, Greek dogs are unapproachable in their own right. Not exactly unfriendly, the dogs of Athens are simply too self-possessed to be bothered. I once saw a dog on the street calmly eating a bowl of pasta. It was the same dog we had seen earlier in the day carrying a basket of groceries home from the market. To a Greek, any worthy dog must be able to act as a partner. Probably this is a very old-fashioned attitude. Dogs work. Dogs help out. Dogs also get time off in the evening to wander about the city, passing through the tavernas to look for fallen scraps of bread. Begging is beneath their dignity. In Athens, a stray dog can walk right onto the Acropolis without being harassed. People assume that dogs know what they’re doing.
I was happy to return to the U.S., partly for the dogs. I admire Greek dogs, but I find it disturbing that they don’t need us. Their cold competence is inhuman. I prefer a dog that needs to be loved, and I’m ready to accept a margin of bad behavior and uselessness for the sake of emotional warmth and a sense of fun. In America, the dog is the one without the cell phone, the one with nothing to do but play or sleep. The dog has learned, above all, how to get us to forget work and enjoy a little innocent clowning. Cesar Milan would say that we aren’t allowing them to be dogs. But we get so little pleasure elsewhere that we need our dogs to be a little human, and we’re happy to meet them halfway and to indulge in a little dogginess of our own.