Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Unequal Partnership, Canines, and

White Collar on USA.I admit it. It’s an addiction.

This past episode, though, was also food for thought as a dog person. I’ve had a canine partner – not just a pet, or a buddy, though she was both, but an actual working partner. The sort of dog who’d consider working with someone else, maybe, if she really liked and respected that person. The sort of dog where I’d have to really like and respect that other person to be comfortable handing over the leash for even a minute.

What does that have to do with a USA show where the Golden Retriever is used only as a family prop, and not even a bearer of listening devices? Well…

In this last episode, Neal the con artist and FBI consultant, out of jail on a sort of work release program, is handed over to a different agent instead of his usual Peter. Peter has caught him twice, and their relationship has its antagonistic moments, but neither much likes the idea. The new agent chooses not to make use of Neal’s talents, sending him to the car when he tries to make himself useful and not terribly happy when Neal manages to learn something regardless. Peter, for his part, is anxious over handing over his partner in a way most people wouldn’t be over a fellow adult human.

On the other hand, it’s exactly like the anxiety when a handler has to let someone else mess with his dog.

Peter and Neal aren’t equals. Peter can put Neal back in jail at any time, and generally reminds him of this once per episode. Neal wears a collar for all practical purposes, an ankle-bracelet tracker which he slips when personal interest and the plot require it (“I came back,” he points out when returning for it.) He works rather better for Peter, who takes an interest in what he has to say and respects that he can sniff out information not available to the average or even the extraordinary FBI employee, than for the new handler.

And “handler” it is. USA has created a show with a great deal of relevance to dog trainers without having a star who sheds, drools (in this case, the fandom does the drooling) or has a sudden lapse on the English language. A good intelligent dog has a lot in common with Neal: he’ll sniff out all sorts of interesting things, and if the leash is too loose and the motivations for hanging around are insufficient, he’ll be off to pursue his own agenda for a bit. If he likes you well enough, or fears the consequences of solitude enough, he’ll be back. He’ll settle in on your couch and cozy up to your spouse without meaning too dreadfully much by it. He’d prefer high-quality accommodations to basic kenneling, and given half a chance he’ll improve them himself if you don’t. (“Off the bed!” “Yeah, right. You want me to work all day after sleeping in that drafty box?” Count yourself lucky if your search dog doesn’t try to insist on Italian roast.) He prefers also to know what’s going on before offering his input, just to be sure you and he are on the same page, and he may give you a good heap of irrelevance if the mood strikes him. After all, what’s your training buddy getting lost again compared to the tantalizing aroma of dead deer?

And yet, if you manage things right and don’t screw up too often, and you can loosen your preconceived notions of your dog as servant or captive, you have an excellent partner. “The smart one is on that end of the leash,” I’d sometimes say, and mean it, and the smart one seemed to get that she was being complimented. Most of the time she respected me enough to take it as such. She also seemed at times to arch her eyebrows with a look that suggested, You don’t know the half of it.

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