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"Greatest American Dog" exposes the freakiest American dog people, while the "Dog Whisperer" trains them to calm the hell down.

Published July 20, 2008 11:00AM (EDT)

Human beings are hard to love. They say insensitive things. They get in the way. They wear dumb shoes. They talk too loudly. They repeat themselves. They roll their eyes and hog the remote. They drive like assholes. They fail to see how much unnecessary space they take up. They fail to shower you with the affection and admiration you deserve.

Dogs, on the other hand, are impossible not to love. They're cute. They have lots of energy. They greet you with spontaneous outbursts of genuine feeling. They know how to relax. They look funny when you dress them in stupid outfits. They'll gleefully rip the nards off the UPS man if you deem it necessary. Even when they're depressed, they cheer up instantly when they hear the word "squirrel."

Humans slouch and make excuses while dogs will happily follow you anywhere. Humans snicker and harrumph, while dogs wag and pant and lick your elbows. Humans worry and kvetch while dogs mindlessly chase flies. Humans stare at their computers and make boring phone calls while dogs listen closely to every word you say, particularly when you're eating a ham sandwich.

Dogs are such good companions that they make humans look like sluggish, neurotic, self-involved, ungainly sad sacks by comparison.

Dog people are people, too
It's no wonder we Americans are so taken with dogs, particularly during these trying times. They feed our needy egos while (perversely) reinforcing our inferiority complexes as we plummet from global supremacy to lives of mediocrity and struggle.

Plus, unlike, say, the French, we Americans try to emulate dogs' loving, enthusiastic natures -- how else to explain Mario Lopez? -- but we usually come up short. We can't lick our family's feet quite so enthusiastically. We're not as fiercely suspicious of DHL representatives. It makes us feel self-conscious to have our bellies rubbed. We can't draw elaborate conclusions about the personalities of strangers just by sniffing their butts.

These shortcomings lie at the heart of "Greatest American Dog" (8 p.m. EDT Thursdays on CBS), a reality show that's ostensibly aimed at finding the most talented, lovable doggie in America, but is mostly focused on highlighting the bad habits and dysfunctional tics of dog owners along the way. "Freakiest Dog People in America" or "Scariest Dog-Obsessed Lunatics" might be a more appropriate title -- but then a nation full of scary dog-obsessed lunatics might feel insulted. Better to locate the most disturbingly codependent dog owners and force them all to live together under the auspices of celebrating the soul and spirit of our favorite pet.

Thus do we meet Brandy, a fashion designer, and her miniature schnauzer, Beacon. "Beacon has to wear something that matches me every single day because ... I feel like if she's not wearing clothes, she's naked." Hmm, I see. Do go on, Brandy, and please pay no attention to the frantic notes I'm scrawling onto this little pad.

Yes, it's common wisdom among the mental health professionals that matching outfits, whether worn by twins, mother-daughter pairs or retired couples, bespeak a certain flavor of troubling need, the sort of deep, pathological void that can only be filled with a pair of jauntily placed fedoras. Sadly, though, Brandy may be the last human on earth who's unaware of the blaring-siren, frantic-red-flag aspect of her situation. Instead, she lays out Beacon's little tutus and scarves and knit sweaters and booties for the camera without the slightest smirk or giggle or glimmer of irony.

And after we meet the relatively sane, self-proclaimed "beach guy" Ron and his English bulldog Tillman (nickname: Pot Roast!), who skateboards with the casual elegance of a bored teenager, after we meet dog trainer J.D., who has nine eager-to-please doggies, including his leaping Frisbee trickster, Galaxy, we're treated to nothing but dog-loving nutcases, from Joy and her "professional dog actress" Bella Starlet ("Bella, to me, especially when the sun hits her hair, is kind of the Pamela Anderson of dogs") to David, who's introduced with his Jack Russell as a "once-lonely New York doctor and his soul mate, Elvis." And even though it should be considered honorable and valiant to create a reality version of Christopher Guest's "Best in Show," in which the odd, controlling quirks of dog people are on comical display, the real-life edition is too disturbing to be all that enjoyable.

But then, putting a bunch of dog people together in a house is sort of like inviting two mimes to the same sidewalk fair -- there will be blood. Within minutes of meeting the other guests, Brandy tells the camera, with outright scorn, "I cannot tolerate other people touching my dog." Mmm, that's very interesting, Brandy. Now please swallow all of the pretty pills in this little cup.

Hardcore dog people are not always people people. You don't own a dog that can jump through hoops and balance on your back unless you prefer the company of dogs to human beings. That said, as a person who took the time to teach her dog to say "Ri Rove Roo," I'm slightly put off by the obvious dog-freak-rubbernecking of this show. They find a few talented dogs and then lard the rest of the lineup with total head cases and lunatics, each accompanied by a dog with hardly any discernible talents. Then they invite in a panel of judges made up of scoldy, professional dog lovers who condescend to the dog owners about the right and wrong ways to behave around a dog -- something that no two dog trainers can agree on to begin with.

But the main problem here is that the show's producers aren't sure what the dogs and the people should really do together, so they have them put on dorky little skits that even dog people can't appreciate, or they make them participate in obedience challenges like "jump over this" or "sit here very quickly," which many dog lovers would regard with the disdain reserved for toddlers who blurt out random phrases in French. "Oh, yes, that's going to come in very handy when Stella goes abroad to study ... in 16 or 17 years."

I want to see some dogs with more esoteric tricks up their sleeves: Balance this ruler on your nose. Say your prayers. Sing along with your favorite Tom Waits album. But jump up here and sit, right now? That's sort of spiritually restrictive fare, isn't it? Can't we just give the $250,000 prize to the dog who rides a skateboard? Pot Roast is clearly the Greatest American Dog, and something tells me he's not going to be jumping through little hoops week after week. It's beneath him, really.

If they're going to put these dogs through the ringer, why not test their practical, real-world skills? I'd suggest such challenges as "Try not to snatch the unattended filet mignon off this table" or "Navigate this roomful of toddlers without biting anyone's face off" or "Tolerate the yapping of this nearby Jack Russell without disemboweling it on a whim." Jumping and running and staying are all well and good, but none of that adds up to squat if you can't beat the urge to rip your play date from limb to limb.

In fact, why don't the producers get a bunch of remote-control squirrels, covered in squirrel scent, and set them loose as the dog's owners try to control their animals? Pretty much any challenge involving dogs and squirrels would be a showstopper.

Careless whisperers
Just ask Cesar Millan. The now-legendary Dog Whisperer has always recognized the inherent comedic value of bad dogs trying desperately to beat back their own worst impulses under highly challenging simulated real-life scenarios. Whether he's leading a dog around a narrow alley as skateboards and bicycles fly past or placing his tender ankles in the path of a known ankle-biter, Cesar Millan is the Greatest American Dog Hero. (Just ask my dog Potus, who was in awe of his immortal wisdom when she met him a few years ago.)

"Dog Whisperer" (8 p.m. Fridays on National Geographic) features a few particularly excellent episodes in the next few weeks, focusing on some of Cesar's most challenging (and therefore most entertaining) cases yet. In one of my favorite episodes (airs 8 p.m. Friday, Aug. 1) Cesar encounters a troubled Rottweiler named Apollo who's about to be euthanized because he's too fearful and aggressive for anyone to adopt. After assuring Apollo's only friend, a teenager who volunteers for a rescue shelter, that he's going to come up with an "estrategy" for saving Apollo, he decides to admit the dog to his Dog Psychology Center in South Central L.A.

After a few days at the center, Cesar decides to see if he can convince Apollo that some human beings are too confident and trustworthy to bite. I love his approach with scary dogs, which is basically, "Don't be afraid of this doggie, or he'll rip your throat out!"

Cesar: (speaking to the camera, pointing at the fenced area where Apollo is crouching in the corner) The human who goes in there has to be very calm and assertive, because he will come after you. All right. (Signals cameraman to follow him -- poor guy.)

Cesar: Hear the bark, hear the bark, OK? Be with me. Boom, boom boom boom! That bark doesn't have any aggression in it. He's just telling you, "I'm not sure about your approach, guys!"

Cesar goes closer, looking very calm. Apollo avoids eye contact, but stops barking. Cesar waits, then puts a rope around Apollo's neck, and ties the other end to a pit bull puppy. This way, the puppy can show Apollo how to trust humans. Instead of eating the puppy alive and then turning on Cesar, Apollo relaxes and then starts to play with the other dogs. Success!

Another great episode (airs 8 p.m. Friday, July 25) involves a professional "Animal Communicator." For a price, Susan Hill will come to your home and tell you what your dog is thinking -- you know, stuff like, "You're getting fat, you know" and "Let's go to the pet store and pick out a nice, slow bunny rabbit."

After we learn all about Susan's magic ways with animals ("quite often the animals are misunderstood"), we meet her two Doberman Pinschers, who are insanely violent and require muzzles just to walk down the street. Susan explains that her female Doberman, Jody, is "anxious" because she's had really bad experiences in the past that she'd really rather not discuss. Instead of doing a dramatic spit-take right in Susan's face, Cesar politely offers to take Jody on a walk. On the walk, Cesar quickly observes that Jody doesn't seem remotely anxious.

Susan: Jody says you know just what to do.

Cesar: Thank you, girl! Can you send that message to my wife?

After walking both of Susan's Dobermans together, though, Cesar notices that Susan's male Doberman, Zeus, is very anxious. Cesar decides that Zeus is the one triggering Jody's bad behavior, but refrains from asking why the dogs never mentioned this to Susan in one of their many long conversations with her.

I love it when Cesar tells stubborn, defensive dog people that they've got it all wrong. But then, it's hard not to want to see dog-crazy humans shaken by their lapels every now and then -- although not by other dog-crazy humans, like the judges on "Greatest American Dog," who are anxious to berate those dog owners who dare to use the wrong tone in addressing their doggies. Pragmatists like Cesar Millan are here to calmly and assertively explain to us that dogs are more relaxed when they don't think their owners are helpless lumps of insecurity and neediness.

Which of course means that most of us probably shouldn't own dogs. Yet the things that make us crappy owners are also the reasons we own dogs in the first place. Our obsessive love of dogs is a side effect of our isolation and neediness, not the cause. Dog people are weirdos? Most people are weirdos. At least the dog people have a cute little buddy with them to distract us from what freaks they are. Plus, sometimes it takes a lunatic to see the obvious -- that we're the inferior species in this picture, even if we don't sniff each other's butts and eat stuff off the pavement. Compared to dogs, we're insensitive, apathetic and downright ugly. Thank God dogs love us anyway!

By Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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