It’s too quiet around the kennel lately. All the dogs went home last week as I prepared for a surgery that I had been putting off for some time. Nothing dramatic, just one of those things that were easy to ignore for a long time, but eventually my life long practice of “Wellness through Denial” led to the inescapable admission that I was aging and there are certain things that need to be addressed rather than ignored. Enough about that already!
Anyhow… the point is I’ve had lots of time on my hands lately and I’m not really allowed to lift anything heavier than a book. I took advantage of the situation and lifted some books! The experience I want to share with you is a book by Suzanne Clothier with the cumbersome title, “If a Dog’s Prayers Were Answered, Bones Would Rain From the Sky”. If that title isn’t long enough, there is also the sub heading: “Deepening Our Relationships with Dogs”.
The title is obviously too long and awkward in an age that is dominated by acronyms and messages limited to 140 characters. Nevertheless, the overly wordy title sets the stage for a writing style that does not balk at detail, is not afraid of conditional clauses, and takes every opportunity to communicate the vast riches of canine-human relationships regardless of the ever present danger of the run-on sentence. Whew! Still with me?
The preceding paragraph contains what is probably the only valid criticism I can muster against this book. Let me confess right here that I was deeply moved by my first reading, I found new reasons to be delighted in my second reading and I continue to be head over heels in love with this book on my 3rd reading. The translation for you short-sentence-twitter people: I heart it!
Bones Would Rain from the Sky is easily the most important dog related book I have ever read. You can’t really grasp the import of that statement unless you have seen my bookshelves. I am a voracious reader on many subjects. I have read literally hundreds of dog related books. Many of these books are more like owner’s manuals or recipe books: How to Train Your Retriever, Canine Calming Signals, Essential Animal Behavior, etc.
I’ve learned a great deal about the nuts and bolts of dog training and animal behavior through reading. Many of these books have collected dust for a long time, but they remain on my shelves because I found something in them I thought was important. Several of these books are old, time tested favorites. I have used methods or ideas from these books and found the ideas to be sound. There are a couple of these books that I revisit at least once a year because the messages they carry are especially relevant to me and my work.
Bone Would Rain From the Sky is going to be one of those books I return to often, yet this book is in a class by itself. Let me try to explain why:
If we took all the animal related books from my shelves, we could probably rough-sort them into 2 piles. One pile would be books that are human centered. In other words, they espouse an approach that defines the place of humans in the animal / human relationship and they go on to speak about how we can move the animals closer to the humans. The next pile, predictably, contains the books that center on the animals place in the relationship and they offer concepts and methods that help humans to approach the animals in their space.
Bones Would Rain from the Sky makes a courageous attempt to look at the empty, white space between humans and dogs and shows us ways to prepare that space so that we can both move closer to each other on mutual territory.
Let’s take a look at what that means from a practical standpoint. One of the common issues we deal with in behavior modification is the so called Alpha dog. There has been much talk of the alpha and there is much contention about whether or not it is helpful to view an animal as an “alpha”. In the human centered approach we might see suggestions that the human needs to dominate the dog or take back his alpha-human status. In the animal centered approach we hear of ways to limit the dog’s access to alpha consistent behaviors and methods to reinforce the acceptance of human authority.
Clothiers approach is different. It stresses the context of the behavior. Example: the dog that growls when we tell him to get off the sofa. In this instance Clothier suggests that we have allowed the dog to make the rules about who gets the sofa. When we allow the dog to make the rules, the rules will be enforced with dog behaviors, i.e. growling, snapping, biting. Rather than inserting ourselves directly into the situation, we need to prepare the space between us for a more successful relationship. Forcing the dog off the sofa in this instance may earn you a growl or a bite. I say “earn” because if you force yourself into a situation where the dog is enforcing the rules, you DESERVE to be bitten! Instead of forcing your rules where you have no authority, try to prepare a space where you have authority. Use food or other motivators to reestablish yourself as a rule maker.
I don’t think I’ve really done justice to this concept in my very brief treatment here. That is why you need to go buy this book. Right Now! You’ll be glad you did!