Dogs and their poems

July 1, 2013 § 2 Comments

While procrastinating, tempted to do so by an article by Bruno Latour, I clicked my way absent-mindedly through the Facebook news feed until a post of a friend: Actor Jimmy Steward recites a poem to his beloved dog. That got me. It’s a touching and sweet and funny recitation.
It’s comforting to see that I’m not the only sentimental one who wrote a poem for the dog they lost. Jimmy Stewart is of course much more of a writer of poems than me, but still. It made me dig out the poem I wrote about my first dog, my kelpie Fin, when she was dying. I wanted to let my friends know where she was at; I had had an emotional day, struggling with the knowledge of what the impending loss would mean. Back then I was reading Patricia McConnell’s book For the Love of a Dog. In it she encourages dog owners to see themselves through their dog’s eyes. If the dogs could write down what we do around them (and sadly often to them), what would they write. I had started out trying to do that for Fin, but I ended up just wanting to write about Fin and me. And I wanted to share it with my friends. So I wrote that poem and emailed it to my friends back then.
While out for a walk with a friend and the dogs today, we talked about soul dogs. This made me think about my kelpie. It’s been more than a year since I lost her, and it still hurts. I still feel her. I still look down at my feet on walks and I still startle when she is not there. So here it goes.

Fin, to her human

I’ll be at your feet

While you write, while you read, and while you sleep. 

Until I smell 

an antechinus, or a mouse, or a cat. 

Until I hear 

the waterhose, with my neighbour, 

waiting for me to come and play. 

Until I sense

a tennis ball—somewhere, anywhere

Then I chase. 

I come back and get you. Drop.  

And your feet and my paws run together. 

And later, when we sit down and look out at the world together

I lean into you

and you rub my belly 

while I smile my kelpie smile.

Fin

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And more

Jimmy Stewart’s poem to his dog.

More about Fin. 

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The black dog (WG Sebald)

June 25, 2013 § Leave a comment

We made our way back on foot. For both of us the walk proved too long. Downcast we strode on in the autumn sunshine, side by side. The houses of Kritzendorf seemed to go on forever. Of the people who lived there not a sign was to be seen. They were all having lunch, clattering the cutlery and plates. A dog leapt at a green-painted iron gate, quite beside itself, as if it had taken leave of its senses. It was a large black Newfoundland, its natural gentleness broken by ill-treatment, long confinement or even the crystal clarity of the autumn day. In the villa behind the iron fence nothing stirred. Nobody came to the window, not even a curtain moved. Again and again the animal ran up and hurled itself at the gate, only occasionally pausing to eye us where we stood as if transfixed. As we walked on I could feel the chill of terror in my limbs. Ernst turned to look back once more at the black dog, which had now stopped barking and was standing motionless in the midday sun. Perhaps we should have let it out. It would probably have ambled along beside us, like a good beast, while its evil spirit might have stalked among the people of Kritzendorf in search of another host, and indeed might have entered them all simultaneously, so not one of them would have been able to lift a spoon or fork again.
(WG Sebald, 1990, Vertigo)

The large black Newfoundland. One of the many dogs in WG Sebald’s work.Here the dog is menacing. But not as the dog that rushes the fence (although that seems to be a deeply ingrained fear for many), but as the black dog that figures depression. The narrator in Vertigo visits his friend Ernst, who has lived most of his life in a mental institution. Both are dealing with mental illness and in this episode they literally walk into the terror of it.

In Vertigo, as in Sebald’s other work, the dog mostly is a melancholy omen of actual or potential illness. As someone living with dogs, I find this aspect of Sebald’s work difficult to reconcile with that so much of his work is inspired by dogs. In an often quoted interview Sebald talks about how he has always had dogs and how the dog running in the field, following his nose, has taught him about writing and about walking and finding things.

For me, my dogs bring so much happiness and fun and laughter into my life; I cannot think easily of dogs as harbingers of bad things. But there is, of course, a long tradition in folklore of the dog as bad omen. And particularly the black dog.

There is also a dog in the cover photograph of my Penguin Books 2005 edition of Campo Santo, a collection of Sebald’s writings published after his death. It is a Kertesz photo of the church in Piana, Corsica, 1932. Men clad in black and in hats are lined up sitting outside the church, in the shade. It is probably a Sunday. A yellow, or white, dog shares the shadow of the church with them.

The photo is so Sebaldian in its style that I wonder whether it might have been one of the remembered images at the core of Sebald’s writing process: “[…] and on a walk there a remembered image came into my mind”, he writes somewhere in one of the pieces in Campo Santo. I can’t remember where, but it might have been the title essay, based on Sebald walking in Corsica. André Kertesz, of course, was a poet among photographers, observing the everyday, the easily missed moments. So here a dog as part of everyday life. No matter whether white, or black.

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Statue in Edinburgh Botanical Gardens

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And more

Interview by Joe Cuomo with Sebald talking about dogs and writing

W.G. Sebald and the Writing of History (ed. by Anne Fuchs and J. Jonathan James Long 2007)

“Don’t Shoot the Dog”

January 21, 2013 § 2 Comments

This book is worth a much, much longer review, but alas there are so many other things to do, so just a brief one.

Karen Pryor’s Don’t Shoot the Dog: The New Art of Teaching and Training is an oldie. First published in 1984 it was part of the whole start of clicker training in the dog training world. But although being a time-honoured classic, the book is worth reading–or, if you’ve already done so, even rereading. It’s fun, and it manages to pack a whole lot of useful knowledge into a really readable little book. I’ve been reading, for the first time, the 2002 revised edition, reprinted in 2009.

Pryor explains the principles of positive reinforcement and clicker training. Clear and entertaining–the animal in training in her ‘case studies’ often is us, with our bad habits. For anyone who wants to understand animal behaviour. If nothing else, read the “10 Laws of Shaping” and the “8 Methods to Get Rid of Behaviour You Don’t Want”. These two sections are a good primer on real positive reinforcement training, showing the fallout of the use of punishment, corrections or any other aversives, for that matter.

Get a clicker, or get out your old one and brush it off, or remind yourself of what other marker signal you’ve used (Yes!), and have fun with your dog.

Playing around with Tuhi.

Playing around with Tuhi. Photo courtesy of Sybill Lieber.

1000 pictures

October 4, 2012 § Leave a comment

I’m fascinated by dogs and by their behaviour and body language. I often wonder what the relationship with my dog would be like if we could ‘talk’ a little more directly to each other. I want to be more able to ‘understand’ dogs, and I want to learn how to ‘read’ the signals given by dogs.

Barbara Handelman’s Canine Behaviour: A Photo Illustrated Handbook (2008) is a pictorial guide to canine behaviour. It gives a detailed look at dog behaviours and signals. These behaviours are illustrated by many photographs, but also by texts compiled from scientific work, letters to the author by various dog behaviour experts, as well as by quotes from poetry and other literary writings about dogs. The last section provides the opportunity to try and read photos of behaviours yourself first, and then provides an answer key.

These various forms of explaining and illustrating behaviours make the book a useful resource. I did not find it an easy to use resource, though. Although the key to using the book says that related behaviours are grouped in categories with section headings, the headings to me don’t make any sense other than its alphabetical order. A lot of typos in the text I also found a bit annoying. But these are questions of use rather than of content, and the book is full of useful information, such as in the section 11 ‘Learning Theory Terminology and Methodology’, which is a good primer (or reminder) of learning theory for dog training.

The many, many photographs (1000 of them), by various photographers, are exquisite, particularly the wolf photography by Monty Sloan. They themselves make the book worth having as a resource on your bookshelf. And the pure joy with which the book’s author revels in the love of dogs, celebrating their beauty with the many photos and quotes from literary texts that intersperse the behaviour terminology sections.

Here is a photo of my two dogs. They so often looked like they were ganging up on me, and their interactions always made me wonder what was going on.

It sure looks to me like my cheeky puppy Tuhi (on the left) is trying to talk my good dog Fin (on the right) into mischief.

The light in a dog’s eye

September 26, 2012 § 3 Comments

I’ve just finished reading Suzanne Clothier’s 2002 book Bones Would Rain from the Sky: Deepening Our Relationships With Dogs. I’ve heard it mentioned so many times, and seen referenced in many other books and on websites, and after months and months on my to-read list, I have finally read it.

I’m not sure where to begin and how to write a review of this book. I loved it. It is a beautifully written and deeply engaged book about our life with dogs. It is beautiful, honest, funny, sad at times, informative, and always courageous. Writing about the spiritual aspect of our relationship with dogs is a challenge, given how difficult these things are to put into words that do justice to the experience rather than fall into new age talk. Suzanne Clothier makes you think about how we treat and connect with animals on every page.

And this is what the book is about: our relationship with our dogs, the experiences that develop out of this connection. Clothier writes that this is actually what we want from dog training and from wanting to know about dog training. We want to know about this connection between ourselves and our dogs — something which is about more than knowing how to teach them tricks and how to stop them from destroying our garden or couch. Bones Would Rain from the Sky is a wonderful essay on the need to learn to understand dog behaviour — and the beauty of this learning process, together with our dogs as our teachers. Clothier calls us into educating ourselves continually in the technicalities and mechanics of behaviour and training, but then to not get lost in them and continue to be able to see the art of animal training.

The book is not a training manual as such, but every page brims with training tips and with explanations and exemplifications of dog behaviour. One of my favourites is when she describes her gold standard against which all training techniques and philosophies are tested:

[…] I need look no further than a dog’s eyes to find the precise moment when my connection to that dog shifted away from clear and free agreement between us. Did my approach to the dog create resistance, fear, distrust or pain, dimming the clear trusting light in his eyes? Then I had to find a better way. At first unconsciously , and then with deliberation, I began to evaluate all methods, philosophies and techniques against just this simple standard: the light in a dog’s eyes. Over and over I asked myself, “Does this allow the light to shine?”

And once you’ve seen that glitter of joy in a dog’s eye, you never fail to notice, painfully, when it is not there, or when it suddenly disappears. In the dog’s eyes also lives what Clothier calls the “responsibility of togetherness”. She reminds us of the need to keep the covenant we enter when we take a dog into our lives — and this reminder of our responsibility is still necessary today, ten years after the first publication of Bones Would Rain from the Sky. Just think of the huge numbers of abandoned or abused dogs in shelters. The relationship between dogs and humans is as old as human history. A good reason to think hard about how we treat dogs and to respect our responsibility when we touch an individual dog’s life, but also, more generally, when we continue to integrate dogs into human society — as working or assistance dogs, as pets, as entertainment, or even as a source of food.

Bones Would Rain from the Sky is probably the first book that as soon as I finished reading it, I immediately wanted to read again — in case I had missed something, not “learned” everything in it and absorbed it so that it would now be part of how I treat dogs and of my being with dogs.

Friends at Makara Beach, Wellington, New Zealand.

The Dog’s ode to rain (Murray Ball)

September 13, 2012 § 4 Comments

Rain is a very New Zealand thing. In some places on the globe, winter manifests in snow. In many places in New Zealand, winter manifests in mud. (Remember those scenes trudging through mud in the film The Piano?)

After weeks and weeks of rain and mud here in New Zealand we are finally walking into spring. Phew. Maybe one wouldn’t notice the mud so much if one weren’t walking a dog every day. Or wasn’t a farmer. Not that I’m a farmer. But I’ve just spent at least three months toweling a wet and muddy dog at least two times a day. And for three long months I’ve tried to arrive at work without shoes caked in mud or without mud splashes all over my black pants. Not possible if you have a very lively dog that needs running before you ask her to wait in the car or sit still in your friend’s house while you are at work.

The other thing that was always there over the last three winter months was another real Kiwi thing: I’ve been reading all of Murray Ball’s Footrot Flats cartoons. When I first moved to New Zealand so many people told me that if I wanted to know what New Zealand is all about, I really really have to read Footrot Flats. I went yeah, yeah and never bothered. But when I had to put my dog Fin down and sat on my neighbour’s garage roof sobbing (I shall write more about my neighbour and that roof later), he gave me his collection of all the Footrot Flats cartoons. My neighbour Maurice is a retired South Island High Country shepherd and musterer, was a dog man for most of his working life, and is very proud of his Footrot Flats collection. He keeps them all in a plastic bag together. He said, “Here take that; it’ll help.”

If you haven’t come across Footrot Flats yet, by any weird accident, you really should have a look. The cartoons are just so funny, and, yes, reading them did make me laugh and it did help after Fin was gone. The Dog, a black and white working border collie with an unspeakable name and tortured by Horse the cat, tells us all about New Zealand life. The Dog is just so .. well … so much dog. Murray Ball captures everything that is the essence of dog. The drawings are superb, and all the characters are bigger than life. Wal, Cooch, Pongo, Rangi, the Murphies, Major, Jess, … Go meet them.

But anyway, to get back to what started me off, that very New Zealand phenomenon: rain. When it first starts it’s great and beautiful and fresh and all the plants look fresh and all the surrounds look clean … and then it rains and rains and rains. Here is the Dog’s ode to rain:

AH, THE GENTLE KISS OF SUMMER RAIN SPRINKLES LIQUID DIAMONDS ON GRASS BLADES. WATER-FAT LEAVES EXUDE HEAVY SCENT AND FANTAILS SPRAY SILVER IN THE DRIPPING BRANCHES … MILK TURNS INTO SCUMMY GREY WATER AND UNEATEN MEAT ON BONES HANGS WHITE AND TASTELESS LIKE SOGGY COTTONSHEEP DROPPINGS SQUASH THROUGH YOUR TOES LIKE SMELLY PEA SOUP; FLIES HANG IN A HUMID, HUMMING CLOUD AROUND YOUR HEAD; MAGGOTS HATCH ON UNCURED LAMP-PELTS

B____Y RAIN!

— From Murray Ball, 1983, The Cry of the Grey Ghost

Photo of a page in my reading diary. A quote from Footrot Flats #7 (Murray Ball 1982), from the dedication to Horse.

Of dogs and humans

August 30, 2012 § Leave a comment

One of the dog training books has just seen its tenth anniversary. Here is why Patricia McConnell’s The Other End of the Leash: Why We Do What We Do Around Dogs (2002) is still worth reading. Simply, in one sentence, because there still is so much misinformation out there about dog training and dog behaviour that contributes to the problems and miscommunications between humans and dogs and this still is one of the most readable, comprehensive, and scientifically informed books about dogs, their behaviour, and their learning.

The purpose of The Other End of the Leashis to increase our understanding of human and dog behaviour and to improve the relationships between people and their dogs. In New Zealand alone, the dog population is more than 700,000; and we are quite a little country. Dogs worldwide are an extremely successful species, so this is important.

I’ve just read the book for the second time, and here are some of the points in the book that I like most. Actually I like the whole book the most, but anyway, here are some points.

  • McConnell takes the viewpoint of an ethologist — observing, understanding, and respecting the innate signals in animals’ behaviour — and invites us to practice reading our dogs and honing our observational skills. While we are at it, she suggests, why not focus our attention on ourselves as part of becoming conscious of the differences between the behaviour of two species at work: canids and primates. The “contrast and compare” descriptions between humans and dogs are real eye-openers, at times real funny, but often times also real tragic.
  • The power of learning to manage the space around our dogs in order to guide or control their behaviour.
  • The concept of pressure: about how to use space and develop a sense of how close you need to get to another animal to begin to influence its behaviour. We often are way too much in the face of our dogs when training them and it is amazing just how much many dogs manage to put up with. But some can’t, and it would be good for us to become more like a good herding dog and know when to take the pressure off.
  • The power of paying attention and becoming consistent with the words we use to communicate with our dogs and with our visual signals to them.
  • The many passionate anecdotes that are absolute fantastic exemplifications of what McConnell describes. They make the book both a training manual and theoretical book about dog behaviour.
  • The encouragement to find a coach for your dog training and dog handling. It’s a sport and like any sport not all of it is intuitive, so why not get a “personal trainer”.
  • And, finally, if a bit unrelated, I love the cover photo, and am intrigued by it. A human in shoes and coat. And you can only see the shoes and the coat and a bit of the hand holding the leash. At the other end of the leash a black-and-white dog, mid-air, cheeky look straight into the camera. How? The only info about the photograph is that it is by Elliot Erwitt/Magnum Photos. I want to know more about the dog in the air. It just makes me go “God, how much I love dogs”.

I love how books always take you to other books. I must go and check out Elliott Erwitt’s several photographic books about dogs. There is To the Dogs(1992), Dog Dogs (1998), or Woof: I Love Dogs(2002). The tag line on Erwitt’s homepage (elliotterwitt.com) is “for life-like snaps”, and it looks like he really is fascinated with the lives of dogs.

Oh, and by the way, this book is also a great read if you are not that much into dogs, but are generally interested in animal behaviour and human-animal interrelations. There is, for example, also a lot about primate behaviour and research.

Just read and enjoy :)

At Home Beach, North Stradbroke Island. A doggie paradise off-leash beach. Though this one had to wait while her owners were playing at the beach.

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More things:
Elliott Erwitt — official website
New Zealand Survey Reveals a Nation of Pet Owners and Animal Lovers

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