Deepening Our Relationships With Dogs – by Suzanne Clothier (Warner Books, 2002)
THIS EXCERPT MAY NOT BE REPRODUCED in any manner without express written permission from Warner Books & Suzanne Clothier.
Some of the advance praise for BONES:
“Clearly, this is a book written by someone who truly understands and loves dogs. All dog lovers will want to read it.”
Jane Goodall, founder of The Jane Goodall Institute, author of Reason for Hope
“It is impossible to read this book about dogs and not learn some surprising and provocative things about yourself. I can’t recommend this book highly enough. It is a must read.”
Susan Chernak McElroy, Animals As Teachers & Healers
“If dogs could pray, they would ask that people read this thoughtful and warmhearted book, which suggests how differently animals see their world, but also how much our spirits are akin.”
Rev. Gary Kowalski, author of The Souls of Animals
“Down-to-earth and easy to read, Bones Would Rain from the Sky is a memorable tribute to the grace, spirit, and soul of our co-pilots through life.”
Marc Bekoff, Ph.D., Department of Biology, University of Colorado, Boulder, author of Minding Animals: Science, Nature, and Heart
“The essence of Suzanne Clothier’s message and wise observations about dogs, their people and relationships can be summed up by one sentence from the middle of this book: ‘A dancer who concentrates on technicalities may forget to hear the music.’ If dogs could write, they’d probably write books like this one.”
Terry Ryan, author of “Toolbox for Remodeling Your Problem Dog”
(Excerpted from) Chapter 2
A Black Dog’s Prayers
“With an eye made quiet by the power of harmony, and the deep power of joy, we see into the life of things.” – William Wordsworth
I believe that I have seen dogs praying to whatever gods dogs pray to, their prayers as silent but surely as heartfelt as our own. And this dog was praying for the leash to break. He did not strain against the tether that bound him to his owner but sat quietly as far away as the long tracking lead allowed. He sat with his back to us, a gleaming black stillness of dog against the lush green field. As he stared intently across the pasture and beyond, I had no doubt that should the leash break, his escape route was already plotted. The pasture fence that stood between him and freedom served more as a reminder than a meaningful barrier, meant to contain only content dogs who did not pray such prayers and my gentle, elderly horses, who obeyed even a thin string as a boundary. In my mind’s eye, this dog would clear the sagging wire fence with one effortless bound and be gone, a black arrow moving quickly away from us to somewhere more interesting. But his prayers went unanswered, and so he sat, the uninterested blankness of his back a clear message to us as we watched him.
If dogs do pray, it may be that they pray as we do, for what we long for, for what we need, and for solutions to situations they can neither solve nor escape. Not all dog prayers are serious ones. My husband’s Golden Retriever, Molson, prays frequently and gleefully while we are cooking. As far as we can tell, she prays for us to drop entire cartons of eggs (which we sometimes do), to lose control of whatever is on the cutting board (which happens frequently), and for us to turn our attention away from fresh bread cooling on the counter (we are slow learners). Molson sometimes smiles in her sleep, and we suspect that she is remembering our wedding day, a day when her prayers were answered in a way that may well rank as one of the greatest moments of her life.
The wedding cake had been carefully transported home to the farm, where we were to be married, and placed in the cool of the basement, an area unavailable to the dogs. The cake’s arrival and resting place did not escape Molson’s notice. Ever watchful, she waited for her opportunity amidst the chaos of preparations for an at-home wedding and reception. Inevitably, someone left a door open, and without drawing any attention to herself, Molson seized the moment and disappeared.
I had finished bathing the horses so that they looked beautiful for their part in the ceremony, and as I stepped into the basement to put away the bucket and sponge, I was surprised to be greeted by Molson. The ecstatic look on her face was quickly explained by the mound of icing on her nose. Groaning with disbelief, I looked at the cake, which now read, “Congratulations Suzanne and —” The entire corner of the cake with John’s name had been eaten. For a long superstitious moment, I stood wondering if this was an omen to be heeded or some form of canine commentary on our wedding plans. (Our guests, when served the mutilated cake, also ventured a few interpretations, but they nonetheless ate the cake without hesitation.) Never before or since have Molson’s food prayers been answered in such a spectacular way. But she continues to pray, and sometimes, the kitchen gods answer.
Molson’s prayers are simple ones, easy to interpret. But this black dog’s prayers were complicated ones, filled with sorrow and anger and love and pain. To step into a dog’s mind requires that you step into his paws, and see the world through his eyes. To understand his prayers, you must look for what lights his entire being with joy, and look also for what dims that light. As I talked with Wendy, the dog’s owner, I was searching for an understanding of what might make a dog hold himself apart from us. He was clearly loved and cared for with meticulous attention – every inch of his body glowed with well being, and there was no evidence of his past when he wandered a city’s street, unloved and fending for himself. The intervening years of good food and love had polished this nameless street urchin into a handsome, funny and intelligent dog named Chance. And yet, there he sat, removed from us, his mind distant and uninterested. Something had gone wrong; why else would a dog pray as he did for the leash to break so that he might gallop away?
Any relationship is a complicated thing at best, springing as it does from an intersection of two lives, two sets of desires, interests and fears, two different perspectives and understanding of the shared world. In our relationships with animals, we find additional mysteries of other languages and cultures quite unlike our own. While the differences between us and animals both charm and attract, they also serve to complicate the whole affair. I am quite certain that every dog on earth goes to his grave mystified by certain human behaviors. My own dogs adore water in any form except that which is found in a bathtub accompanied by dog shampoo. As a result, they are very often wet, especially in the summer when their wading pool is constantly available to them. While on most nights I welcome the comfort of their warm bodies as I sleep, there is something less than delightful about snuggling up to hot, wet dogs. As I shoo them from bed for reasons they cannot comprehend, they throw themselves on the floor with dramatic sighs and expressions that reveal the truth of John Steinbeck’s comment, “I have seen a look in dogs’ eyes, a quickly vanishing look of amazed contempt, and I am convinced that dogs think humans are nuts.”
Whatever dogs may think of us, it is also true that it is no easy matter to have an intimate relationship with an animal who communicates in variations on a theme of ears and tail, who mutters under his breath in dark rumbles when displeased, and who enjoys rolling in decomposing creatures. But for all the difficulties and differences that lie between us and our dogs, we love them, and we want to understand them. We look at our dogs and they look back and the sense that our dogs are trying to speak to us is unshakable. Equally unshakable is the nagging feeling that we often fail to understand what they have to say. We are right on both counts. But what we long for is not necessarily what we get, at least not without having to learn some hard lessons along the way.
In Search of What is Possible
Although Chance had already earned his first obedience title, Wendy was still deeply worried about Chance’s tendency to bolt. Each time he had run away, she could see that his mind and body were no longer connected. His eyes were flat, empty, his body moving in panicked flight from whatever had upset him. Until he calmed down, he would not return to her unless she or someone managed to catch him. Each time he ran away, Wendy knew his life was in danger; living in suburbia, it was only a matter of time before he was hit by a car and injured or killed. Concerned for his safety, Wendy had tried everything that had been suggested by various trainers but with no success. At times, Chance still ran as though his life depended on it. Although her experience in training class had left her shaken and distrustful of trainers in general, she sought out a well known trainer and author who promised a “motivational” approach. After briefly working with Chance, the trainer told Wendy that an electric shock collar was the only solution that might save his life. Reluctantly, Wendy agreed.
The private lesson began innocently enough. The trainer carefully fitted the shock collar to Chance’s neck, then suggested that they wait for half an hour or so for the dog to forget about this new collar before they worked with him in a large, fenced-in field. As they waited, Wendy noticed that even though nothing much had happened yet, Chance was already showing signs of feeling stressed. His ears, normally pricked with interest in his world, were held flattened sideways in a position she thought of as “airplane ears.” This was not a good sign. Out in the field, he became even more apprehensive when Wendy removed the leash as the trainer directed and, leaving Chance on a sit stay, walked roughly twenty feet away.
“Call him,” the trainer said, and Wendy did, but even as the words left her mouth, she knew her dog was no longer in his mind. His eyes went blank in that all too familiar way. Ears now folded back tightly against his head, Chance bolted past Wendy and began to run in frantic loops along the field’s fence.
“Call him again!” the trainer urged, but Wendy’s command did not register on the dog who ran on and on. The trainer hit the button on the remote transmitter that sent a signal to the collar. When the shock registered, Chance leaped off the ground, screaming and snarling in surprise and pain, twisting in the air as he tried desperately to bite at the collar itself. Noting “He probably can’t hear you over himself,” the trainer told Wendy to call him again and again, but nothing penetrated Chance’s terror. At that moment, Wendy’s heart spoke up loud and clear: this is not what you do to a dog you love. No longer caring what the trainer had to say, Wendy moved to catch the frantic dog in her arms. Only then did the trainer take her thumb off the button – she had been sending shocks to Chance all that time.
“Well, that should fry his little brain,” the trainer noted with satisfaction, adding that he might need a “tune-up” session as a reminder in a few months. She pointed out how successful this training session had been. Indeed, Chance now stood anxiously watching Wendy, afraid to let her move more than a few feet from him. It was true that the bolting behavior had disappeared; what was not evident in that moment was the new behavior that had taken its place. After that session, Chance was unwilling to stay in any position for any reason, even if Wendy went no farther than the end of a six foot lead. For months afterward, Wendy had to return to the baby steps of puppy training to rebuild the confidence destroyed in just a few wretched minutes. Worse still, when Chance was able to once again successfully hold his stays, the bolting behavior reappeared with a vengeance. But now he would bolt in almost any situation, and without showing any of the early warning signs that had previously alerted Wendy to a potential problem
More than two years later, they stood in my training field, the cumulative weight of mistakes and misunderstanding heavy between them. Riddled with guilt for what she had allowed to happen, Wendy had slowly resigned herself to the fact that Chance was going to have a limited life. Only the gentle insistence of a mutual friend had convinced her that I might be able to help without hurting Chance in any way. After attending one of my seminars to watch me work, Wendy had agreed.
Watching Chance and Wendy as we walked out to my training field, I had no doubt that she loved her dog and that he loved her. But I knew from a lifetime of mistakes with animals that love alone was not always enough to carry someone where they longed to be. I understood how bewildering it was to stand lost at the end of a road that had been taken in good faith, each turn made in hope, every step fueled by a deep desire to get someplace that looked nothing at all like this unexpected destination. The road she had taken was a road whose twists and turns I knew all too well. But I also knew the way back. And I knew that all Wendy needed to find her own way back to where she had meant to go all along was contained in one simple phrase: What is possible between a human and an animal is possible only within a relationship.
The relationship between Wendy and Chance had been damaged, not destroyed; without repair, the damage would forever limit what was possible between them. The restoration of trust and joy that had once flowed between them began when I asked her to see the world through Chance’s eyes. He was simply a dog, and for all his intelligence, his understanding of his world was shaped by what the person he loved and trusted had done and allowed to happen. He did not understand good intentions. He did not realize that her mistakes had been the result of misplaced faith in trainers. He knew only that there was no joy left in working with her, that she had repeatedly ignored or misunderstood what he told her when he lay on the ground in mute resignation or when he fled fearfully away, pushed beyond his limits. In every way he could, Chance had told her how he felt, but she had not heard him. He was simply a dog, and he had no way to solve this. He was left only with his prayers. Once perhaps, he had prayed to be heard; now, he prayed for escape.
To reclaim the trust that had been lost, Wendy and Chance were going to have to learn new ways to work together. In everything she did, she had a choice: she could either support and enhance the relationship with her dog, or undermine it. She would need to learn to see the world from her dog’s perspective, so that she could understand how and why her actions either dimmed or encouraged the light in his eyes. With consideration for the differences between herself and a dog, she needed to treat Chance as she would want to be treated, with the loving respect she would treat any beloved friend. Communication would improve when she learned to say what she meant in ways the dog could understand, when she was able to listen to what Chance told her in his body language and responses. Her dog would never lie to her, but she had to learn to trust that what he told her was his truth at that moment. Everything she did with Chance had to be guided by this one elemental point: does this help or harm the relationship?
Chance’s prayers were answered, and he & Wendy found their way to a deeply satisfying relationship that continues to this day.
To read more, we invite you to enjoy the complete BONES WOULD RAIN FROM THE SKY: Deepening Our Relationships With Dogs. Autographed copies are available through our SHOP