“We as humans are always talking about love and how it’s unconditional. We don’t even really know what that means, but they do. There’s nothing like the love from a dog,” says one satisfied dog owner at the end of the sixth and final episode of “Canine Intervention.” The new reality dog training series from Netflix shows humans how to get their problem dogs to behave themselves. But it’s also about how dogs get people to work at love.
In the tradition of life-hack reality shows like “Queer Eye” or “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo,” the series is very gentle.
The protagonist of “Canine Intervention” is Jas Leverette, who runs the dog training company Cali K9 in Oakland, California. Each episode, Jas drives his van out to meet some Oakland resident with an adorable dog or two. Perhaps the most satisfying story involves Jas helping a couple polish their dog’s guarding behaviors; it’s essentially just 30 minutes of the dog showing off as it attacks and releases on command. Most owners, though, call Jas in when there’s trouble. In a couple episodes, the dogs are violent and have bitten other humans or other animals. Other dogs just won’t listen to commands. One enormous German shepherd mix keeps putting his front paws up on cars when he’s walked. This is very cute on television but presumably more frustrating if you’re the dog’s owner.
Some of Jas’ clients are quite well off. But other Oakland neighborhoods he serves are not affluent. One owner is still recovering from the psychological effects of prison incarceration; some dogs and owners have gunshot wounds. A fatherless family has an emotional support dog for their young son because the last of his three older brothers is moving out to go to college. The other two brothers are in the military, and the youngest has a lot of anxiety about their safety. Jas himself says he got interested in dog training in part because he felt he needed protection when he was young and didn’t want to have a gun.
Though there are many allusions to violence and trauma, “Canine Intervention” is not a violent or traumatic show. On the contrary, in the tradition of life-hack reality shows like “Queer Eye” or “Tidying Up With Marie Kondo,” the series is very gentle. Viewers can be assured that every dog ends up a good dog in a happy home. There’s little judgment — just dogs and owners who need some help.
Jas does administer a modicum of tough love at times. He tells one overprotective mom that the dog really doesn’t care if her paws get dirty, and she needs to stop putting booties on her. Jas also talks about pack dynamics. Humans need to be firm and work with the dog so they know who’s in charge.
But Jas’ reinforcement methods are virtually all positive, for humans and for dogs. With every dog he starts out trying to figure out what motivates it — treats, toys or praise. He also checks to see what the dogs are afraid of and why they become aggressive or nonresponsive. He’s teaching people how to control their dogs. But he’s doing that by teaching them how to talk to the dogs and listen to what they’re saying.
Like love, dog training is all about communication — and again like love, the communication makes the relationship deeper and more satisfying. At his facility, Jas has ramps and barriers for dogs to run up and down at his side. He calls it agility training, but it looks a lot like controlled romping. He’s essentially teaching the dogs how to play by playing with them. Even attack dog training looks like a game when Jas does it.
The dogs generally respond very quickly, and often miraculously, to Jas’ intervention. As per the makeover-show tropes, owners will tell Jas they don’t think he could possibly train this dog, and then are amazed when the pit bull that wouldn’t go outside at all is happily and docilely walking around the block on a leash. Or, more movingly, one owner is worried his aggressive dog will never learn to love anyone but him, and is tearful when he sees her able to interact with and nuzzle other people.
The changes seem even more miraculous and more satisfying than those on the usual makeover show. The dogs don’t just alter their surface appearance; they undergo a kind of moral transformation — or at least, that’s what we’re told. They learn how to be good dogs.
The lessons Jas teaches about interacting with canines are transferable to interacting with other people to some extent. “The only thing they want is love and attention. Same as humans,” one of his employees muses. Jas himself, though, is careful to remind pet owners not to anthropomorphize their pets. Dogs aren’t us; we’re more complicated creatures, for better and not infrequently for worse. “Canine Intervention” isn’t exactly a guide for how to live your life. Unless your life includes a dog who you’re trying to train, or just to love.
Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer and critic in Chicago.