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Bad dogs: Why 'Marley & Me' needs Cesar Millan

January 5, 2009 |  4:19 pm

Marley_snow_kahua6nc_300 It's amazing how the modern media can help you improve your life. For example, you can watch TV shows such as "The Dog Whisperer" or "It's Me or the Dog" and learn all kinds of useful pointers on dealing with your misbehaving canine. And then you can trek to the No. 1 movie in America, "Marley & Me," and forget everything you've been taught.

No, I have not come to bury "Marley & Me" for its corny sentimentality and Christmas-card triteness -- many others have already beaten me to that. My beef is that the film based on John Grogan's bestselling book represents a toxic hazard to dog owners as well as anyone who ever comes near a dog -- basically everyone, in other words.

In case you've somehow missed the multimedia phenomenon that is "Marley & Me," its main message is that dogs are essentially furry kids -- lovable members of the family, even (or is that especially?) at their most undisciplined and incorrigible. In the movie, the couple played by Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston sit by with a kind of bemused helplessness as, down through the years, the yellow Lab they lovingly describe as the "world's worst dog" chews up multiple sofas, terrorizes a pet-sitter, swallows a necklace, eliminates where he pleases, goes berserk during thunderstorms and, maybe most memorably, knocks down a predictably autocratic dog-obedience trainer (played by a weathered-looking Kathleen Turner). Marley supposedly makes up for all this with his beseeching eyes, and also (I refuse to call this a spoiler because anyone over the age of eight knows what happens before even buying a ticket) by dying a heartbreaking death.   

As anyone who watches dog behavior expert Cesar Millan on National Geographic's "Dog Whisperer" knows, this passive attitude to dog ownership is widespread. And it's a chief reason why the world is full of dogs who bark all night, attack small children and mail carriers, and hump house guests' legs (and also, yes, spawn litigation that helps drive up insurance costs for the rest of us). Sorry, "Marley & Me," but there are no bad dogs, only bad owners. (Interestingly, Grogan himself sought Millan's help last year with his new dog, Gracie.)

Wilson and Aniston's characters would actually make great candidates for "Dog Whisperer" were they not so strangely untroubled by their dog's reign of terror. The typical Millan customer is an owner at the end of his or her wits; sometimes this person's life is in tatters due to a wayward dog. Tears are surprisingly common during the initial interview. Millan, a trim, compact Mexican native who speaks English with a heavy accent, uses different tactics depending on the case, but his basic strategy remains constant: Train the owners to assert control over dogs with calm, assertive energy. "First exercise, then discipline, then affection," he advises.

Now Millan's "rehabilitation" techniques are themselves not without criticism. (The American Humane Assn., for example, in 2006 attacked "Dog Whisperer" for training that was "inhumane, outdated and improper.") But Millan's focus on the need to train the owner -- rather than simply the dog -- falls well within the mainstream of opinion among dog experts. People being naturally lazy, most owners bend Millan's mantra into an imperative more to their liking: much affection, minimal exercise, zero discipline. And that's more or less the strategy on display in "Marley & Me." A lot more people are going to see the movie than will ever watch "Dog Whisperer." Did I mention it's the No. 1 movie in America?   

I say all this not as a dog hater, but rather as a longtime dog lover and former owner who once subscribed to the sit-on-your-hands approach dramatized in "Marley & Me." A decade ago, before the birth of our daughter, my wife and I adopted from an animal shelter a retriever/pit bull mix, whom we named Sheba. She proved a high-spirited, loyal and -- to me, at least -- often companionable dog. But Sheba had some alarming habits that I could not overcome, including a determination to chew to the nub anything softer than steel, an absolute refusal to walk straight ahead on a lead and a truly unfortunate tendency to growl menacingly at many adults she did not recognize. I knew I was in trouble when she snapped at an experienced kennel worker, who blanched and quickly retreated to safety. Somehow, all this stuff didn't seem as adorable in real life as "Marley & Me" might make it seem.

As I watch "Dog Whisperer" now, I realize how its techniques could have helped me back then. But it's a little late. As terrific as Sheba proved to be with our young daughter, the dog's bad habits accumulated a mountain of ill will that ultimately led me, in the midst of a chaotic cross-country move, to give the dog away, albeit with nearly unbearable reluctance. The entire process of letting go was ugly and emotionally draining and still makes me shudder to think of it.

No, "Marley & Me" doesn't have the market cornered on sad dog stories.

-- Scott Collins

(Photo courtesy Barry Wetcher / Twentieth Century Fox / AP)

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