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.

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Thunder and lightning and other scary things

September 6, 2012 § Leave a comment

The recent Wellington thunder and hailstorms have brought it up again. That old question of what to do when your dog is scared in a thunderstorm, or by fireworks, in earthquakes, etc.

As with anything dog and dog training, there are many different approaches around. Unfortunately, many of them are based on old-fashioned myths, such as totally ignoring the animal so as to not show any weakness as the “pack leader”. Another common one is to not provide comfort in order to not reinforce the fear.

In “Calming the fearful animal”, a video clip from one of Suzanne Clothier’s Relationship Centered Training seminars, she gives a reality check on the myth that we shouldn’t comfort a scared dog because if we do we only reinforce the fear.

Yes, don’t make the fear worse by panicking or overreacting, but don’t leave them out in the cold on their own either. Don’t be scared yourself (or if you are, try to not show it to your dog). Stay calm. Provide “meaningful comfort”, as Suzanne Clothier puts it.

And, most important of all, learn to listen when a dog tells you she’s afraid, so that you can work out how to manage it (i.e. don’t put the dog in that situation), or how to build her skills to deal with the situation in the long run. Because learning how to create a safe environment for our dogs is where the real answer to the question of what to do when our dog is scared lies.

If you need ideas on how to help your dog conquer their fear, Patricia McConnell’s booklet The Cautious Canineis a great starting point. Or have a look at the articles on Thunder Phobia and Sound Sensitivities collected on her website. Quickly accessible, practical, and helpful.

Here is me with my then almost ten-year-old kelpie. Always a quite shy dog, as her cancer progressed she felt stressed or scared more easily in more and more situations. Here she came to me after the neighbour’s dog at my friend’s place started barking and set off the other two dogs in the garden. Leaning and pressing into their human’s body is one of several possible avoidance behaviours for dogs. They use various body postures and signals to avoid activity or environmental factors that make them feel stressed or fearful. Then, I think, she was also not sure about the camera staring at her. But being able to lean into me, and me just putting a hand on her, always helped Fin to recover quickly from whatever scared her. If I had walked away from her and ignored her she would have likely crawled into a corner and taken much longer to recover.

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