Training a Dog, Training a Country
My dog Ella is one of the best-behaved animals anyone’s ever met. She walks beside me without a leash. She can be trusted to wait alone outside unenlightened establishments that don’t welcome four-legged creatures inside their portals. And she responds to conversational spoken English better than most children. Much to my delight, I’m frequently asked if I’m a professional dog trainer.
I’m not. But I know the trick to training dogs.
My daddy, from whom I learned the art, believes that dogs, like humans, crave affection and praise above all else. (They also like food.) Rather than employ negative reinforcement techniques like electric shock collars, newspaper spankings, and hysterical screaming, my dad advocates nurturing canines with sweetness. Instead of conditioning the dog to fear your hand, teach him to love it.
My Ella has never been hit. Yet, when I need to discipline her, she trembles in fear when my tone of voice switches from warm and reassuring to deep and menacing. I need only knit my face into a mask of fury to make her cower — because she’s been conditioned to expect a mien of gentleness and comfort. Many fellow dog owners in my neighborhood can’t understand how I can leave her in the front yard without tying her up; they expect she’d run away, like most peripatetic canines. What they don’t know is that Ella has been property trained (by beating the ground around my house, not her, with a whip-like stick) and that she associates Home with safety, comestibles, and all the head-scratches and tummy rubs a puppy could ever want.
As I watch her snuggled in her bolster bed in the corner of my office, it occurs to me that there may be some correlation between how humans treat their dogs and how they treat each other. Throughout history, might has made right. Those with power wield it over the weak. Which is what humans do with dogs; we are their dictators. The big difference is when Ella behaves objectionably I don’t drop a cluster bomb on her water bowl. (Or even a grenade.) I just momentarily withhold the affection and praise she wants. What would happen, I wonder, if the United States, the Great Trainer of the rest of the world, guided the behavior of other countries with beneficence instead of violence? What if the great pack of followers looked to the lead dog as a fount of kindness and munificence instead of a vengeful and potentially destructive tyrant?
Now, I realize that just as the positive reinforcement training technique doesn’t work with all dogs, it won’t work with all nations and cultures. When a dog is mentally ill or irreparably damaged, the best solution is often euthanasia. Likewise, a fundamentally broken and dysfunctional country – like, say, North Korea or Syria – cannot be weaned on love. They must be shown the Phenobarbital vial.
But the rest, the nations who are neither our enemies nor our friends, the ones we simply co-exist with, are great candidates for “dog training.” In the 11 years that I’ve known Ella, I’ve been overwhelmed at the amount of love she’s given to me in return for my kindness. Perhaps if America spent less time raising a fist to strike and more time extending a hand to caress, we might be surprised, too.