The Gospel, According to a Dog Whisperer

Because I’ve been thinking about getting a puppy, and because I’m an unreserved fan of Cesar Millan, I’ve been reading his latest book, How to Raise the Perfect Dog.  I know, not a very catchy title, but it’s not a book one reads for literary merit.  It’s clear, concise, and practical, and it’s filled with truth, as all of Cesar’s books, to my mind, are.

According to Cesar, the reason that so many Americans find themselves with seemingly insurmountable dog problems and, therefore, why so many dogs end up in shelters and/or euthanized here is because we lack a fundamental understanding of how to fulfill our dogs.  We tend to project our own complex psyche onto our canine friends, thinking of them as furry humans who experience the world and emotions in the same way we do.  This does not respect the animal, Cesar says:

One of my cardinal rules in life is that we must respect animals as the beings they are, rather than as the near-human companions we might wish them to be.  To me, having a true bond with an animal means celebrating and honoring its animal nature first, before we start to co-opt it into being our friend, soul mate, or child. (3)

I’ve adopted Cesar’s rule as one of my own; I don’t want my dogs or horses or any other animals to be my empire, beings that I attempt to assimilate into my humanness.  Instead, I want to treat my animals with love and respect for the beings that they are and relish their dogness and horseness and animalness.  It’s a more harmonious way to live in the world, and, I think, more biblical.

This cardinal rule of Cesar’s that requires him to respect dogs for their dogness has led him to his theories about dog handling, one of which (a frequently-repeated mantra) is that dogs need rules, boundaries, and limitations.  Dogs absolutely crave a life that is structured, he says, because it is hard-wired into their being to follow the rules of the pack.  That means that we should discipline our dogs not just because it makes them behave better, but because it fulfills a deep, instinctual need that they have for structure in their lives.  Cesar writes,

Unfortunately, some of the most popular puppy-training books on the market . . . [claim] that you “owe” your new puppy her “freedom.”  Freedom, in my experience, means something quite different to a puppy than it does to us, or even to and older dog. . . . If freedom equals peace of mind, then, as it turns out, structure actually makes up the foundation of a dog’s freedom. (107)

As I read this, I smiled because most of us have “freedom” totally wrong anyway.  We think that freedom means being able to go wherever we want, whenever we want and do whatever we want.  But, when I see people who have embraced that lifestyle, I don’t see people who are free; I see people who are burdened, sometimes even imprisoned by depression, addiction, greed, undirected desire.  And I am reminded of some of the things that the Bible has to say about freedom.

Psalms 119:45 says, “I will walk about in freedom, for I have sought out your precepts.”  The Psalmist here relates “freedom” with following God’s Law.  For him, and this is a common theme in Psalms, there is great joy in living by the rules that the Lord gave to His people.  It seems contradictory to say that rules equal freedom, but that’s because people have been deceived about the meaning of freedom.

The New Testament focuses more on what freedom means.  Paul, whose central message is that Christ has freed us all from sin and the Law of the Old Testament through grace, recognizes that “freedom” has it’s limits.  In 1 Corinthians 6:12, he writes, “‘Everything is permissible for me’–but not everything is beneficial. ‘Everything is permissible for me’–but I will not be mastered by anything.”  He’s saying that freedom is not simply being able to do whatever one wants, particularly in saying that he will not be mastered by anything.  He recognizes the addictive tendencies of humanity and the danger and self-oppression that lies in refusing to set rules, boundaries, and limitations for oneself.

Again in Galations 5:13, Paul discusses freedom: “You, my brothers, were called to be free.  But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love.”  Here, Paul encourages his audience to embrace freedom by turning away from sin and serving and loving each other instead.  In other words, he tells us to use our freedom to stick to a moral code (rules, boundaries, limitations).  Just a few paragraphs before this, Paul urges his friends to remember, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.  Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened by a yoke of slavery” (5:1).  Paul’s main objective in this book is to reassert to the Galatians that they are saved by grace alone through faith alone, not by sticking to the Law of the Old Testament.  So he tells them that they are free from the Law, but then clarifies that their freedom does not mean giving over to every desire and thought.  Freedom, he seems to say, is found within certain boundaries.

So, when I read Cesar’s ideas of what freedom means for a young dog and consider that his theories are about tapping into dogs’ instinctive, natural way of being, I can’t help but feel that he has really tapped into something much, much deeper.  It’s not just dogs that need structure in the form of rules, boundaries, and limitations; humans do, too.  And that is part of why the Law was created in the first place.  But sin and righteousness existed before God gave the Law to Moses–generations of people lived without the Law before God chose Abraham to be the father of the Hebrews, and generations of Hebrews lived before God gave the Law to them at Mt. Sinai.  Yet, there was structure, boundaries that the righteous respected.  God taught them the rules by speaking to them, and He teaches us the rules now though the indwelling of the Holy Spirit; Paul encourages, “So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature” (Galations 5:16).  In other words, the Spirit of God living in us helps us to do what is right and avoid doing what is wrong.

Our job as dog handlers, Cesar says over and over, is to act as our dogs’ pack leader.  They need a leader to provide structure for them, to give them rules, boundaries, and limitations, and it is the pack leader’s job to correct the dog when it does not abide by those rules.  This satisfies an instinctual psychological need in dogs.  Maybe the reason that Cesar’s theories appeal to me so greatly is because of the striking similarities between what my dog needs and what I need.  Cesar says that dogs can be our greatest teachers.  He believes that dogs can teach us about ourselves and help us to be better humans.  I know that “God’s invisible qualities–his eternal power and divine nature–have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made” (Romans 1:20), and that, as part of that creation, dogs can reveal to us Truth about the Divine Nature, like helping us to understand more clearly what it means to have freedom in Christ.

And I think that, maybe, if David had lived closely with dogs rather than sheep, his Psalm 23 might have began, “The Lord is my pack leader, I shall not be unbalanced.  He gives me rules, boundaries, and limitations, He restores my soul . . .”

1283 words

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