By Cesar Millan

A tiny piece of insulation on a wire frays. There is a spark, and then an explosion, and three men are going to die without an heroic effort.

You may recognize that as the plot of the movie “Apollo 13”, as well as a description of what really happened, forty-three years ago today, halfway between the Earth and the moon.

You may have seen the movie or even lived through the event, but there’s something you may not have realized about the incredible rescue of those three astronauts.

It would not have happened without the power of the Pack.

In the process of figuring out what went wrong and then figuring out how to fix it and bring Apollo 13 home safely, NASA and the astronauts (Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert, and Fred Haise) had to act exactly like a well-balanced Pack. Failure of any part of that Pack to fulfill its proper role would have truly meant the difference between life and death.

Any well-balanced Pack has its rules, and NASA is no exception. Everyone working on a mission has their particular role and is responsible for a specific job. The astronauts could not have decided to just start steering the spacecraft on their own, while mission control wouldn’t know what advice to offer without vital information from the crew in orbit. Likewise, not just anyone on the ground can call up the astronauts and give a command because they feel like it.

In a dog pack, there are three positions — up front, in the middle, and at the back — and each position has its own function. The Pack Leaders in front are like mission control. They decide where the Pack goes and what it does, and defend it against threats.

A short way of putting this is that pack leaders provide protection and direction. In the case of Apollo 13, it was up to mission control to protect the astronauts by bringing them back to Earth safely, and to direct them by telling them how to do that.

This may make it sound like the back of the Pack isn’t an important position, but it is. The dogs at the back are there to alert the entire pack to danger. Remember the famous quote from the movie? “Houston, we have a problem.” That’s what the dogs at the back do for the Leader of the Pack.

The dogs in the middle moderate the conversation between the front and the back, the same way that all those NASA engineers listened to what mission control wanted, and what the astronauts had, then figured out how to get the former by working with the latter.

Now, it may seem a bit extreme to compare Pack Leaders and dogs to rocket scientists and astronauts, but it isn’t really that far off. Space is a completely alien place to a human being. Go up there without a pressurized ship or a space suit, and you will die very quickly. Even if you’re up there in the International Space Station, you still have to have everything you’re going to eat or breathe brought to you from Earth.

In the same way, the human world is completely alien to a dog’s instincts, and it can be just as dangerous as space. For example, a dog would not normally have any understanding of the concepts “don’t run into traffic because you saw a squirrel on the other side of the street,” or “don’t drink that yellow stuff in the garage even though it tastes sweet.” It’s our job to help them understand what they should and should not do.

Yes, we need to let a dog be a dog; humanizing them doesn’t do them any favors. However, we need to do it by creating rules, boundaries, and limitations so that our world of emotion and intellect is not so alien to them. We are mission control, there to provide protection and direction. If we don’t step up to do that job, then our dogs will be left to drift on their own.


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