If you're reading this, there's a good chance that you regularly indulge in at least one guilty-pleasure reality show, especially over the summer when there's really nothing else on TV. My mom loves The Girls Next Door reruns. My dad digs Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives. A friend of mine and her dad watch So You Think You Can Dance together. But if someone asks you what your favorite reality show is, you probably respond with a sheepish grin. You might even blush. You're embarrassed. It's okay, I'm not judging you. I can't, really, because I love Dog Whisperer.
Actually, you know what? I'm not embarrassed. Dog Whisperer, despite South Park's impression of it, is actually a really great show, and an easy-to-jump-into summer program at that. It's also very easy to make fun of, because Cesar Millan is a tiny man with silver hair, and he makes a funny "Tsst!" noise. But he's kind of a genius—and that's what makes the show so fascinating.
Dog Whisperer is, above all things, educational. Every time I watch it, I learn something new and useful about dogs, and often about humans, too. As Millan works on each canine case, he acts as a teacher to the dog, its owners, and the viewers at home. Thus far, I've learned how to recognize problematic behavior patterns in dogs, establish authority over a dog, and walk a dog properly. I've also seen just how much a pet owner's behavior can affect their animal's behavior. Pardon the pun, but pet owners are a rare breed. They're often in complete denial when it comes to their pets. If someone's dog barks a lot, "She's got a lot to say." If the dog won't stay off the couch, "We've tried everything, but it doesn't work." For this reason, Millan ends up training just as many humans as he does dogs—and he works his magic on both species.
For me, the other appeal of Dog Whisperer comes from the fact that it shares a couple important traits with my other favorite reality show, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. Both shows share the self-improvement/makeover premise, which is generally fun to watch, but the unique thing about Millan and the Queer Eye guys is their incredibly benevolent demeanor. Unlike What Not To Wear's Stacy and Clinton or even American Idol's Simon Cowell, Millan and the Fab Five are professionals but not elitists. They crack jokes once in awhile, but they never belittle or embarrass their shows' participants. Because, though it may seem obvious that you shouldn't wear black shoes with navy blue socks or let your dog sleep in your bed, some people just need a little extra instruction, and that's okay. The charismatic Queer Eye guys and Millan are simply there to help.
At the end of the hour, it's easy to think that you'll be able to march outside and expect a pack of dogs to line up behind you like you're a Pied Piper with treats in your pocket. Au contraire, friends. Most of the techniques demonstrated on the show are meant to be practiced by a professional, especially when dealing with traumatized or abused animals. But that doesn't mean you can't pick up a couple tips here and there, or a few warm fuzzies from the phenomenal success stories. Believe me, there are plenty of warm fuzzies to go around.
Dog Whisperer airs Fridays at 9 p.m. on National Geographic.