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Going to the Dogs

Pavlov’s America

by RALPH NADER

CBS’s new reality show is called “Greatest American Dog,” with pet expert-zoologist Jarod Miller as the host. Twelve “dog-and-human teams are vying for the grand prize of $250,000. These teams are in intense training “by running, jumping, fetching and just looking adorable,” reports the Washington Post.

The show’s executive producer, R.J. Cutler requires the teams to all live together during the weekly competition at a “canine academy” where they will be carefully observed acting and interacting.

There is 5 year old Andrew, a Maltese, whose owner Laurie is a dog day-care owner in Stafford, Virginia. Then there is 1 year old Beacon, a miniature Schnauzer owned by a Los Angeles fashion designer. Beacon will have to get along with Kenji, also a 1 year old, a giant Schnauzer owned by Elan, described as an aspiring dog-salon owner in Portland, Oregon. Other dogs include a Pomeranian, an English bulldog, a Border Collie, a Boxer and a Boston Terrier named Ezzie whose owner, Michael, is an aspiring comic in Los Angeles.

“Although the dogs are beautiful, this is not a beauty contest,” Cutler cautions, adding that “the dog-owner relationship is the central part of the show.”

Non-dog owners, especially cat-lovers, may be snickering at the fastidious details and the presumed smarts of dogs. But behind this contest are standards for judging these dogs, beyond aerial tricks and obedience commands. The Post writes that “Each episode tests a specific quality, such as loyalty, courage or intelligence, and is developed to show how humans and animals cooperate.”

Ah, would that the television networks create reality shows highlighting the courage and intelligence of humans working to improve our society at all levels.

What about “Greatest Community Organizer” or “Greatest Consumer” which would include astute non-consumption or “Greatest Taxpayer” in terms of demanding and receiving efficient government services, or “Smartest Voter.” Or, what about “Greatest Mother, Father, Mother-in-Law and Father-in-Law, Grandmother and Grandparent,” “Greatest Storyteller, Hitch-Hiker, Babysitter, Gardener, Youth-Hobby-Instructor, Temper-Tantrum-Reducer, Neighborhood Myth-Buster, Complainer, Injustice Fighter,” or just plain “Greatest Neighbor?”

“Bah,” say the reality-show promoters. These “greatest” are not low enough on the sensuality ladder. Reality shows have to evoke, greed, danger, ego, adventure, sex, manipulation and self-absorption. Raw cravings!

Some of you may remember that Hollywood had a formula for popular films. Celebrities, romances of the rich and powerful, extravaganzas or thrillers, but above all don’t show the common folk for they live in Dullsville.

But, then after World War II, different films began to come to the screens. Out of war-torn Italy came “The Bicycle Thief” and “Bitter Rice” about ordinary people negotiating the travails of life. Presto, the movie screens became wider in more ways than one and a larger panorama of life entered the cinemas.

The point about these possible reality shows is that they help recognize or reinforce standards in a fast-changing, evolving, devolving society which blurs, depreciates, and jettisons standards that form the connectedness and meaning of inter-generational life lived on small-scales in small communities or neighborhoods.

Sure, such shows would require breakthrough imaginations by their creators. Knee-jerk prejudgments would not be given the benefit of the doubt.

Whole worlds of daily life would open up for audiences accustomed to being treated as Pavlovian specimens—who were, after all, dogs.

Ralph Nader is running for president as an independent.