My wife Dawn and I took our dog Ginny to classes. We took her to playgroups. We gave her love and affection and discipline and water, plenty of water, because a dog was supposed to have fresh water at all times. And for all our efforts, our German shepherd was behaving worse every day, her latest victim the UPS guy, who now dropped off his packages at the foot of the driveway after the last encounter, which had involved teeth, pants, and unwanted ripping of fabric. Let’s just say it was a good thing he was wearing brown.

Word got around, and a friend recommended an instructor who used eggs. Every time Fido misbehaved, you smashed an egg on its head, to simulate blood flowing over those puppy-dog eyes.

This didn’t seem like a very good idea.

We were desperate, so we did what all desperados do: go on the Internet. It wasn’t long until we’d clicked our way onto the goateed face of Cesar Millan, the Dog Whisperer. If I were Oprah, I would’ve had Cesar come on over, but the last time I checked the mirror, I wasn’t Oprah. So we did the next best thing.

Her website wasn’t as fancy as Cesar’s, but Mary was The Dog Whisperer of Virginia. She lived in Richmond, which meant we’d have to pay for her mileage to New Jersey, but it was better than the other two whisperers, who were in Atlanta and Berkeley.

Dawn took the lead in interviewing Mary, and after several emails and a phone call, she’d determined her to be the one, like the way Morpheus thought Neo was the one. For her visit, Mary would charge $400 plus $100 for travel. It seemed like a ludicrous amount since the last six-week class we attended was only $70, but the Atlanta woman charged $600.

Because she only trained during weekdays, we took the day off for Mary’s visit. Ginny was pacing back and forth in the living room expectantly. She knew something was up; she always did.

The phone rang, and Dawn picked it up. It was Mary on her cell, and she wanted to make sure our dog wouldn’t be there to greet her.

“She doesn’t want Ginny to fail,” Dawn told me. “And she would, if she saw Mary walk through our door.”

I knew this woman would be a cut-rate Cesar, but still, I was disappointed. I’d imagined her gliding into our house brimming with confidence, converting our aggressive pup instantly into Lassie by the sheer force of her dog-whispering will. I led Ginny upstairs and locked her in her kennel.

Mary turned out to be a fit-looking woman in her mid-to-late thirties with a tight blond ponytail, the sort of person who spent a lot of time outdoors. She didn’t whisper, but she was a low talker. A few times I had to ask her to repeat what she’d said, and instead of raising her voice, she leaned closer to me.

For the next half hour, we told her about Ginny’s routine – her walks and her feedings, where she slept and played. Mary nodded here and there, and made suggestions I’d heard before in our other classes, like how we were supposed to take away the food dish after Ginny stopped eating, even if she hadn’t finished.

“I’ve given this a lot of thought,” Mary said. “Let’s leave Ginny upstairs.”

It’s times like this when I wish I were a ruder person, one who’d say, “What the hell did you just say?” I would even settle for a “Whaaaaaa?” but I’m a polite to a fault, and so is Dawn.

We waited for Mary’s next decree, which turned out to be a question about the availability of a DVD player. From her briefcase, she extracted a silver disc from a sleeve labeled The Dog Listener, which looked a whole lot like the one I’d seen on Amazon.

On TV, a British woman told us about the three Fs of behavior, Freeze, Flight, or Fight. It was obvious which of those Dawn and I had chosen for this particular situation, but I still held out hope. This couldn’t be what it seemed. I was sure at any moment, Mary would pause the video and give us an insight into something, anything.

She did pause once, but it was to go to the bathroom. The only other sounds she emitted during the two hours of screening were two tiny coughs and a throat clearing.

After we wrote out a $500 check and Mary left us, Dawn and I opted for the other F. It was one of those fights that you think will go on forever, that the blame will bounce back and forth like a neverending game of ping pong. Ginny lay down with a sigh and looked on, her glum eyes switching nervously between our angry faces.

But here’s the thing. Even though Mary never saw our dog, she’d done her job. Because we’d spent so much money on her, for the first time, we actually heeded the advice given to us by a dog professional. We took up the food dish exactly like Mary said, and within two days, Ginny ate when we told her to, which had never happened before. And as the weeks went on, she became a sweeter, more loving dog, no question.

“I told you,” Dawn said. “She was the one.”

Good Puppy

Not-So-Good Dog

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SUNG J. WOO is a writer living in New Jersey. Some of his short stories and essays have appeared in McSweeney's, KoreAm Journal, and The New York Times. His debut novel, Everything Asian (April 2009), has been praised by the Christian Science Monitor and received a starred review from Kirkus.

One response to “Careless Whisper”

  1. Sung J. Woo says:

    Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
    2008-10-19 19:23:54

    Aww… Ginny’s as pretty and as sweet as can be! I guess you just had to believe in her.
    No more fighting. That’s bad for all three of you.
    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Sung J. Woo |Edit This
    2008-10-20 04:59:04

    Thanks, Irene. We consider Ginny as the Naomi Campbell of dogs — looks good on the outside, but don’t give her a BlackBerry, ’cause she just may chuck it at your head.

    She’s just a very guarded dog, but I guess that’s what you get with the breed. Despite all her issues, we love her just as she is. Probably because we have no choice!
    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
    2008-10-20 05:12:42

    When you had your dog whisperer lady over, did she give you any hints about other things? I have two Goldens, a three year old who is perfect and a 7 month old who eats TV tuners, cell phones, oriental rugs, wooden chair legs and a minimum of a dozen lizards a day. We’ve taken to leashing her with us all the time in the house, which is working, but not really teaching her anything. If she’s loose, she wanders off and eats something expensive while we’re not paying attention. Since we’ve never caught her doing anything bad, we can’t correct her. Did the expensive woman tell you how to stop something like that?
    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Sung J. Woo |Edit This
    2008-10-20 05:31:46

    Have you thought about setting traps? If the dog doesn’t like noise (and most do not), you can set up the table with a string of penny-filled empty soda cans. Attach the cans to something your dog likes (the remote, for example), and when she goes for it, she’ll get the surprise of her life. Supposedly doing this will scare the dog from surfing the counter.

    The dog whisperer lady really didn’t help us much. She basically referenced the Dog Listener book by Jan Fennell. If you read her book, you’ll get everything we “learned” from Mary.
    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Kimberly M. Wetherell |Edit This
    2008-10-20 08:05:03

    Heh heh.

    I’ve heard that Cesar Milan says he doesn’t train dogs, he trains people. Sounds like Mary is the same ‘breed’! 🙂

    LOVE the penny-in-the-can idea! That’s brilliant!
    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Sung J. Woo |Edit This
    2008-10-20 08:53:36

    I do wonder if we’re all too obsessed with training these animals. I mean they’re called “animals” for a reason, right? There was an article in the NYT Magazine a little while ago that discussed the disturbing increase of prescribing behavioral medication (i.e., Paxil, Prozac, and such) to dogs and cats for their issues.
    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Kimberly M. Wetherell |Edit This
    2008-10-20 10:29:40

    Oh yes. I’m quite familiar with those. My dog was allergic to everything! That not only required special single-meat source food, but 18 months’ worth of allergy immunotherapy shots to help her deal with her environmental allergies.

    And when you took her out of her primary environment, you had to have a little canine epi-kit to help her through different spores, molds, fungus and grasses.

    I used to think all of that was just hogwash (or dogwash) but when you looked into her runny, puffy bloodshot eyes and the huge patches of fur she had scratched off, you knew it was real.

    Puppy Prozac to change natural dog behaviour is a bit much, just like when you drug your kids to behave rather than training them properly, (Ritalin! So much easier than Parenting!) but some of the other ‘obsessive’ animal stuff is warranted, I ’spose.
    (Comments wont nest below this level)
    Reply here

    Comment by Dana |Edit This
    2008-10-21 06:42:19

    I have a friend who has had a lot of luck integrating herself into the life of a guy with a female basset hound who wasn’t at all enamored of her interference, with ‘nothing in life is free’ training. (For the dog, not her.) My dog isn’t aggressive, but she isn’t very well behaved either. I may have to try it. The penny in the can thing really does work btw – however I also think it has triggered in my dog a phobia to any loud noises. I don’t recall her severe sensitivity to thunderstorms until after we started using ‘the can’ to curb some of her unacceptable behavior.
    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Wendy Lee |Edit This
    2008-11-13 07:41:31

    There definitely is a mischievous look in her eye!

    I like how the technique is mostly about training people rather than the animal…I wonder if someday there will be a “people whisperer” who will teach people to wash their dishes, pick up their dirty socks, etc.

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