I worry about dogs on TV. I’m not talking about the dogs on reality shows like "Dog Whisperer," "Dog Town," or even "Animal Cops," but rather the ones featured in dramas or comedies. There is always that line at the end of the credits that says “no animals were harmed" in the making of the program. Sure, the animal actors are probably fine, but what about all those animals acquired by folks on a whim because of dogs seen on TV?
I am particularly sensitive about this because I live with a rescued Jack Russell Terrier. This is the breed that was made popular on "Frasier," PBS’s "Wishbone," and the 2000 movie "A Dog Named Skip." JRTs tend to be very intelligent dogs and no doubt make good little canine actors. The problem is that people see these dogs on TV and assume that they would be perfect pets. They can be great pets, but usually not for sedentary old men or small children. So your TVs lied to you on this one.
Which brings me to the reason I am currently worried about dogs on TV.
Are you watching ABC’s new drama "Nashville"? It’s a fast-moving weekly soap opera starring Connie Britton, Hayden Panettiere, and Charles Esten. It’s a big hit at my house. They recently added a dog to the cast. Juliette (the rich and impetuous rising star played by Panettiere) just gave Deacon (her guitarist and sometime love interest played by Esten) a yellow lab puppy for his birthday. She thought he should have a dog since he loves the movie "Old Yeller" so much.
Is it clear to everyone that this is a terrible idea? Juliette has lots of terrible ideas. She is not a model of how anyone should behave. But she is an attractive human specimen, and it’s possible that some people may emulate her. Which makes me worry and feel the need to write.
Please don’t give puppies as gifts -- especially surprise gifts! The fact that someone loves to passively watch a movie about a dog from time to time does not necessarily mean that they will also love to actively care for a living being every day for the next fifteen years! Giving an animal as a gift is almost always a bad idea. On the show the puppy is cute, but Deacon doesn’t want him and doesn’t know what to do with him. He doesn’t even name him until the dog’s attractive (female) veterinarian urges him to do so.
But let’s make this a learning opportunity. Don’t do what Deacon does.
Here are the top three mistakes that Deacon makes with his new dog:
1) Don’t play for your dog, play with your dog. Deacon is a guitarist so he thinks that his new dog will enjoy hearing him play all the songs he knows. Such music might comfort a human child, but is alien to a canine pup. Deacon needs to put down his guitar and pick up a rope toy! Directing a young dog to an appropriate outlet for his chewing impulse is important. And playing with a dog teaches him that you are fun and someone good to be around. Get down on the floor and play for ten minutes a few times every day. Provide other appropriate chew toys for quieter moments. And by all means remove all shoes, belts, and guitar straps from the reach of your young pup!
2) Don’t just sit there talking about how much energy your dog has. Deacon sits on his porch while the puppy stands on the lawn restrained by a retractable leash. Deacon needs to interact with him, move with him, encourage his dog to follow or “chase” him. It’s true that puppies (like kids) have energy to burn. Help them burn it off in appropriate ways by going on a walk or playing in an open field. Ten minutes of rowdy outdoor play will likely lead to a nap later on, plus it builds your bond with the animal.
3) Stop complaining about the chaos of living with a puppy; instead establish a routine for him. Deacon observes that his puppy has already peed everywhere in his house. He needs to realize that housebreaking a dog requires vigilance and patience. Ideally take your puppy outside every two hours and praise him to the sky whenever he does his business outside. Be ridiculous about it! Act like it’s the best thing that has ever happened! It won’t take long for your pup to get the idea. If you can’t let your pup outside every two hours, consider using a puppy pads in a designated pee zone in your kitchen or look into crate training. But understand that puppies don’t have the bladder control of adults. Don’t ask them to do the impossible and then punish them later for it. (In general training with praise and rewards for good behavior is far more effective with dogs than punishments for bad behavior.)
I hope that "Nashville" will feature Deacon’s relationship with his dog for many episodes to come. And I hope that Deacon’s veterinarian girlfriend teaches him these (and other) good practices for sharing a home with a canine friend. But I’m not betting on it. More likely the dog will disappear after just a couple of episodes. And thus this TV show -- like so many others before it -- will teach people the wrong lesson, namely that dogs are possessions that we can give and return according to our whims.