“How is this for you?” It’s one of Suzanne Clothier’s Elemental Questions. I can’t think of anything simpler to express who I am and how I care for my animals. It frames everything I do from the moment a puppy walks into my life until they take their last breath. I may not always get it right, but as long as I continue to ask, it always leaves me with another opportunity to adjust as needed.
“How is this for you?” has helped me with many big decisions that required me to put my ego aside as I listened to the answers.
- I retired my first agility dog, Zena, at the age of five because she didn’t like it.
- I retired my second agility dog, Quasar, from weaving when he began missing the turn back between poles two and three. I retired him from agility altogether at age seven due to the risk of his laryngeal paralysis choking him to death on course.
- I sought out some very expensive answers on behalf of my third agility dog, Spree, when she began refusing to put her front feet on my lap and started stutter stepping jumps. Turns out she blew a disc in her back but was so stoic that she was willing to continue her work. Turns out that I caught it so prematurely that the orthopedist was impressed it had even been noticed. After recovering from spine surgery, a three year hiatus and much consideration of how she uses her body on obstacles, I brought her back to agility, because she likes it — but she competed only in classes that don’t require her to climb, jump or repeatedly stress her spine. That meant she ran through hoops and straight tunnels on the flat.
- My fourth agility dog, Groovy, didn’t turn out to be one! His answers to that question, over and over again, led me to understand that he has some significant visual deficits that keep him from jumping, going up stairs, and walking through thresholds with differences between lightness or dark. Listening to his answers over and over again I learned that emotional and environmental stress sends him into life threatening fever episodes.
If I had failed to ask “How is this for you?” at any of those junctures, my dogs would have made enormous sacrifices for me and paid big prices related to their emotional and physical health and welfare.
But “How is this for you?” isn’t about life’s big choices. It’s about a way of life that enables you to adjust with every heartbeat and leads you to make the choices you do for the animal with great conviction.
In the last days of our old guy Grizzlee, his affect became flat, he began losing an enormous amount of weight, and he began refusing food. With each meal we asked “How is this for you?” and celebrated when his answer was “Yum!” After discovering that his thyroid levels were basically non-existent, we started him on meds that almost instantly brought his color and appetite back. Having already been on a pain medication for his arthritis, we added chiropractic to which he answered “I can jump into the van now!” We added a Back on Track coat overnight to which he responded “I can chase the other dogs!”
When he started to slow down again we switched to a pain medication with fewer side effects and layered it with a second pain medication to offer additional support. He answered “I want more to eat, and I don’t care what it is.” When it became difficult for him to get up on his own we added a full body harness to support him as needed. His response was, “Now I’m not worried about my balance anymore.” When he could no longer enjoy the outdoors unassisted, we added wagon rides around the yard. He responded with bright eyes and ears and his nose in the air.
When he started having difficulty getting around we added acupuncture, to which he responded by walking from one end of the house to the other repeated, all day, and with a twinkle in his eye. When he began to struggle with the walk out to the yard to potty, we made him a temporary potty area on the deck for easy access. He responded by standing and waiting at the door when he needed to go out. He also responded by not listening when we’d call him in. Instead he’d wander further out on the deck, lie down and stick his nose in the air to take in the great outdoors.
We ordered a custom cart for him as another way to accommodate a dog with very clear answers every step of the journey above that suggested his will to live in this life. Knowing his physical limitations and with a clear understanding that some autonomy would be revoked once I secured him in the cart, I carefully considered how to introduce the cart to him and remain hyper-aware of responses that might suggest an unwillingness to continue. I was and continue to remain wide open to Grizzlee’s answers to “How is this for you?”
We started by having him stand in it for two or three minutes while feeding him chicken a few times a day. By reaching for the treats vigorously as he stood in the cart his answer was “I’m good.” Because he likes to use his nose, and for the purpose of good traction to prevent much movement, his next phase of training started in the grass, where he could hunt for the meatballs that littered the ground. His choice to pursue the hunt and move accordingly to the best of his ability suggested his willingness to participate. And then it came time to teach him how to move with the cart and evaluate how his body was responding to it. Grizzlee had the option of protesting, not moving, not pursuing the treats, not following Alan, every step of the way. While his body is old and feeble, his mind is not. Grizzlee wanted to learn this. He wanted to persevere.
Every morning and at the end of every day we looked into his eyes and asked “How is this for you?” To not ask that question, which has been the cornerstone of every relationship in our home for many, many years now, to not honor Grizzlee’s answer, would have been disrespectful, selfish and unloving.
It was snowing as I wrote this so many years ago. I’d been up twice to help Grizzlee to his potty area on the deck since I started. I had been surprised when he asked for my help again, as he just pottied a few minutes earlier. I lifted him up, stabilized his rear by holding the handle of his harness and once again waited for him to pick which direction he wanted to go. He turned toward the door so I opened it. With the newfound strength that came after each cart ride, he walked through the doorway to an undisturbed bedding of snow on the deck, laid down and enjoyed his version of a snow cone. To think that he might have missed enjoying that experience because he was old, or couldn’t walk? Not in my house. Not my animals.
With each dog who shares my life, with each student’s dog in my classes, I continue to ask this “How is this for you?” It is such a powerful question when we listen for the answers.