The Nat Geo Wild television channel airs a show called “The Dog Whisperer.” The host and dog behaviorist Cesar Millan goes to the homes of dog owners who are dealing with challenging habits and obedience issues. Cesar says at the beginning of every episode, “I rehabilitate dogs; I train people.” The idea is that although the owners think they are being clear in showing their dogs how to behave, they are all in some way sending out mixed messages, struggling with inconsistency, and ultimately confusing and frustrating their animals.
Cesar has worked with hundreds of dogs, calming them, reassuring them, disciplining them, training them, so that they can be effective and pleasant pets and companions. The writer Malcolm Gladwell wrote an article on Cesar in The New Yorker called “What the Dog Saw,” describing what makes Cesar so effective. He writes,
Movement experts … use something called Laban Movement Analysis to make sense of movement, describing, for instance, how people shift their weight, or how fluid and symmetrical they are when they move, or what kind of effort it involves. Is it direct or indirect – that is, what kind of attention does the movement convey? Is it quick or slow? Is it light or strong – that is, what is its intention? Is it bound or free – that is, how much precision is involved? If you want to emphasize a point, you might bring your hand down across your body in a single, smooth motion. But how you make that motion greatly affects how your point will be interpreted by your audience. Ideally, your hand would come down in an explosive, bound movement – that is, with accelerating force, ending abruptly and precisely – and your head and shoulders would be in harmony…Combinations of posture and gesture are called phrasing, and the great communicators are those who match their phrasing with their communicative intentions – who understand, for instance, that emphasis requires them to be bound and explosive. … Cesar [has] beautiful phrasing.
Later in his article Gladwell interviews the head of the graduate dance program at the University of Maryland, Karen Bradley, who has seen Cesar’s show. She says of him, “When we meet someone like this, what do we do? We give them their own TV series. Seriously. We reward them. We are drawn to them, because we can trust that we can get the message. It’s not going to be hidden. It contributes to a feeling of authenticity.”
In the conclusion of Gladwell’s article, the writer describes an episode dealing with a particularly aggressive Chihuahua. The owner, Lori, feels bad for the dog because of its history of abuse and neglect and many health problems. She doesn’t like disciplining the dog because of this mindset, and instead usually just tries to console it after it shows aggression. Consequently it attacks anyone who comes close to Lynda, even her son when he tries to sit next to her on the couch. Cesar becomes frustrated when Lori looks horrified when he stands up to the dog and gives it a firm poke with his elbow. He tells her that the dog owns her, and that things cannot get better if she doesn’t allow normal discipline. But she doesn’t seem to understand the connection between her well-meaning affection and the dog’s bad behavior. Gladwell writes, “[Cesar] stopped. He had had enough of talking. There was too much talking anyhow. People saying ‘I love you’ with a touch that didn’t mean ‘I love you.’ People saying, ‘There, there’ with gestures that did not soothe. People saying, ‘I’m your mother’ while reaching out to a Chihuahua instead of their own flesh and blood…”
Cesar has a talent for, and has trained himself, into the ability to have everything about him (words, body language, tone, etc.) match the message he is wishing to express. Not only does he do this in a way that makes sense to humans, but he has honed the skill of making sense to dogs as well. Much of this happens unconsciously, so that when I saw Cesar’s show before reading the article, I could sense a calmness about him, a sureness, but I wouldn’t have been able to describe exactly what made him so. Because these aspects are less direct and often under our conscious radar, it’s easy to take such things for granted, or to attribute it all to the luck of his personality. But also in Gladwell’s article, it becomes clear that Cesar has had to struggle and improve his interactions with people, he had to work to understand people, in order for his show to be so successful.
Spiritually, it is so easy to say the right thing but show the wrong message. Or vice versa. And I think it is a constant and daily struggle to get those two in line with one another. Our religious knowledge only can go so far as our ability to share and implement that knowledge through our relationships with others. Our example matters, even right down to whether we display calmness and peace, or nervousness and anxiety. I don’t think this means that we won’t sometimes come into conflict with others. But I do think it means that ideally there is a unity of purpose in the way we live our lives, from the big decisions we make all the way to our body language. It’s easy to overlook the incongruence of small, often thoughtless, actions and behaviors and our overall desire of being. When we can be successfully and wholly unified with our ultimate purpose, we present ourselves not only as more godly, but also more authentic, and others will be drawn to that authenticity.
Eventually, the goal is to have our whole selves reflect and express that we are children of God. It takes a lot of digging, a lot of plumbing the depths of our natural selves in order to enact a complete transformation, where everything is truly in subjection to Him. But we know it’s possible. For He says, “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature” (2 Corinthians 5:17).