Watching Cesar Millan’s The Very Best of Dog Whisperer on Netflix I was struck in an episode (episode 6) with a situation very similar to our own - a Beagle puppy that doesn’t respect the house rules. Though the puppy was older and more out of control than our Scout (4.5 months old), I could easily see (and shudder!) many similarities in behavior. As Cheri and I reflected on what we can take away and apply to our situation, I was struck by a series of ideas that have much wider consequences for my life and family beyond whether or not a dog does what we want. What is at stake is nothing less than the further establishment of the Kingdom of God on this planet.
Allow me to tease this out, and please feel free to jump in and dialogue with me!
First, I have to remember that Scout watches the way our “pack” works. If it is operating correctly, then she knows her place and is happily involved in puppy business (eating, playing, sleeping, etc.) and not troubled with whether or not she has to lead. If she is unsure about her place in the pack, she becomes insecure, restless and troublesome. Often a change in discipline (either in kind or consistency) brings her quickly back within the boundaries of sanity. This made me reflect on the relationships in our home, the culture or “aroma” of authority and submission that exists for her to observe. What are we communicating? All our pretense is lost on the dog. She sees us as we really are. We cannot expect her to obey our authority if we don’t respect and submit to one another (in a “chain-of-command” way, children to parents, wife to husband, all to Jesus).
The issue of integrity comes up here. If our family unit has integrity, then Scout will pick up on that and realize her place. She will feel safe and cared for, recognizing that we are all pack leaders above her. If, however, there is dissension and unrest among us I have noticed that Scout picks up on that too, beginning to feel insecure and pushing boundaries to test us. I need to remember that the next time I decide to get angry or frustrated in the home.
Secondly, Scout can be a little bundle of chaos, forcefully exposing what we are trusting in (I have alluded to this in previous posts on Scout – see here and here). In a sense, she is a “life lab” of how we handle difficult situations - with prayer and trust, or through greater attempts at control resulting in increased anger and/or frustration? Control is an illusion, only participation is possible. As apprentices to Jesus (thanks to Dallas Willard for many of the categories I’m throwing about here), we are called to bring order to chaos in our spheres of influence. To winsomely bring order to Scout’s life takes more skill and Spirit-strength than our family currently has. We need Jesus. He is the true dog whisperer (sorry, Cesar) - truly the master of all fields of knowledge including this one (Col 2:3).
Thirdly, Cesar talks a lot about what kind of “energy” we bring to our dogs. “Negative” energy erodes any training efforts, communicating confusion to the dog about their place. What Cesar means by this is the need to know our role and assert it in a calm, firm way that is consistent. This is summarized in the maxim: “I am the boss; you are the dog and I am the human, your master.” This makes me think of how apprentices of Jesus should be the best in the world at this! We have access to all the resources of God and his Kingdom in our inner world; we are free in Christ and his kingdom to be centered and joyfully firm. We do not need affirmation from the dog or from their compliance; we have all we need from Christ. Whether or not the dog obeys us, our standing with God in Christ remains firm. This is the ultimate foundation for a calm and assertive presence in the home.
Further, Cesar’s new-age “naturalism” really only works in dog training if he assumes some truths (=steals capital) from the Christian worldview. Only in the Christian worldview (and more broadly, perhaps, a theistic worldview) is there a Creator/creature distinction necessary to train dogs. Cesar has no intellectual warrant to state that he is “lord” over dogs, but the only way to train them is to assume that we are higher creatures with some role of dominion over them. In the Kingdom of God (=reality), humans are made in the image of God, acting as his rulers over this planet and all the life therein. This gives Christians much greater means and resources to train dogs well, at least in theory.
The curse put on creation by God in Genesis 3 means that puppy training will be hard. What is required is a with-God life of participation, trust and surrender. In fact, the very idea of training is at the heart of both our relationship to Scout and our relationship to Jesus, but obviously in different ways. As we train Scout to be a happy and functioning member of our family, Jesus invites us into a much more complex, happy and holy training as his disciples. Training Scout is a very narrow and shallow glimpse of the training we are invited into by God. Nevertheless, it is a glimpse, and can help us learn to train with Jesus.
I’m convinced more than ever that God sent Scout into our home to more fully establish the Kingdom of God here as a little outpost and beachhead of his rule. I need to learn to see her as an invitation from Jesus to be his apprentice, to do things with his strength, to see things with his vision, and to make choices with his intention and desires in my heart.