Where joy resides

Last night a classic August drama unfolded with thickening clouds at 4 pm and an evening of downpours punctuated by bangs, flashes, and crashes. This morning the air is soft and damp, and if you tilt your head the right way you can see it – tiny droplets slowly drifting and dissipating. I went outside before dog walk time, just to take photos of the air and enjoy the coolness.

By the time we headed out for the walk, I thought all that mist would have evaporated and we could walk anywhere on the mountain… it’s all the same to me. I was wrong – the mist was still filtering through the trees, turned by sunlight into three dimensional shafts and columns. I wanted to stick to the eastern slopes where the light would be most dramatic and try to get some photos of mist and trees and dogs and who knows what else.

When we got to the junction, the dogs danced in anticipation. Ok, Hawkitt danced. The others, ears perked, sat and watched Hawkitt and I discuss the plan. “This way.” I opened the negotiation with a clear directive. Hawk spun and play bowed. That was his way of saying “all ways are good, but some ways are gooder than others. I kinda disagree with your route.” “This way,” I repeated. I’m not especially creative or verbose in my negotiations and today I wasn’t interested in a compromise. I added a gesture. Hawk does well with hand signals. He paused, cocked his head, then attacked a tree branch. I strode off and the other three came with me. Hawk soon overtook us, tree branch catching me behind the knees as he passed.

I think a lot about our communication, and about our relationship. Hawk is a lot of dog, in every way. He gives me a lot to think about; a lot to feel about. Our relationship is as rich and nuanced as most of my human relationships. He is a complex and sophisticated being.

About 45 minutes later I became entranced with something I was photographing. Might have been a red eft or a particularly striking fungus. It took me a while to get my shot. Once I got up and walked on, I realized I was completely alone. All four dogs had buggered off.

I walked for a little while, thinking about this. I listened. I daydreamed. I thought about why this was ok, why it wasn’t a problem. And then I got to a spot where I had decent visibility and issued the call: Hawk-HAAAW-AAAAWK! Three full breaths later a huge black blur graced my peripheral vision. No, not a bear. Hawkitt. Peek and Brody in tow. Cinder followed a bit later.

Why did they give up whatever it was they were doing to heed my call? Some would say training. I trained them to respond to that sound with that behavior. But as anyone who has ever owned a dog (especially a fun-loving dickheaded one) knows, the dogs had a choice. Much like children or spouses, they could “not hear” me. They could have continued to shove their heads in rotten logs up past their ears and lolled their tongues sideways, singing “la la la I can’t hear you.” Unless the dog is on a leash (and sometimes even then!), that dog can decide to trade his or her agenda for yours… or not.

The simple answer to my questions is the bond. The bond I develop with my dogs is the reason why they trade their agenda for mine every day, willingly and even happily. Every reunion is joyous. Hawkitt’s return to me is as enthusiastic as his departure; Peeka runs headlong into my knees and grins every time. Brody flops at my feet, his bones becoming overcooked noodles from the sheer joy of my praise. Even Cinder drops her veil of dignity and becomes puppyish when praised for these nice recalls.

I asked Facebook friends recently – how do you develop a bond with your dog? I received a ton of great responses. Concrete suggestions about feeding and training and play and affection all make sense. Yes, we definitely do all those things and more. But I think I can sum it up more succinctly than offering a list of specific exercises or techniques. It’s not a set of things to do. It’s a way to feel.

Bonding happens when you meet the dog’s needs. Not just physical needs, but dare I suggest… deeper needs. Not all dogs have complex spiritual and emotional needs (cough Peeka cough) but most of the dogs I am familiar with (i.e. pointy-eared herding breeds that have crappy genetics and a terrible start in life replete with neglect and abuse) are not exactly “easy.” Bonding with them is not straightforward, but it is necessary. And it comes from determining what their needs are, first, and then endeavoring to meet those needs as best as possible, despite being a flawed human.

Bonding takes time. Not necessarily time spent doing anything in particular, just time getting to experience each other’s harmonic vibration and adjusting to synchronize the vibe together. How’s that for some new agey bullshit??? I don’t exactly believe it, but I don’t NOT believe it either. I believe that those first three nights that Peeka was here, when I cornered her in Maya’s old bedroom and caught her like a wild animal and then held her in my arms while we slept all night… I believe those nights were profound for both of us. She was a filthy stinking rat of a dog, reeking of lime sulfur dip and infection and blood and misery. She was afraid of everything except Hawkitt. And yet she slept all night, curled against my belly. I’ve never done anything like that before or since, and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone trying to figure out how to bond with a dog. But I believe she needed exactly that, so I gave it. And she is bonded to me. Soul-spliced even.

Hawkitt needs structure. He needs clear boundaries and a ton of interaction – intense interaction. But he doesn’t really need all that much affection. He’d rather do bitework than snuggle. Cinder would rather snuggle than breathe. And Brody? I’m still trying to figure out what his needs are.

The thing is, once you commit to meeting the dogs’ needs, you can fall into the trap of thinking that at some point you will actually be finished. That somehow, all this meeting needs will end up with a being that no longer has that need because it has been sated. That was the ah-ha moment I had this morning while I took photos and yelled for my dogs. No matter how much I snuggle Cinder, she will need to be snuggled tomorrow. That is a defining characteristic of Cinder: it is who she is. Hawkitt might become an easier dog as he ages. He might stop needing me to be a drill sergeant. He might not. It’s not a failing on his part or mine. There is no goal – we don’t meet the needs with the hope or expectation that we will extinguish them.

Meeting the need isn’t a means to an end – the end being the absence of that need. Meeting the need is love in action. It’s an “in the moment” thing – a presence and selfless giving, with no expectations regarding the future. It’s definitely why I live a life surrounded by dogs.

Sometimes what’s needed most of all is to NOT meet a need when it’s presented. Saying no, setting a limit, and pushing a dog to be ok without that particular need getting met by me this instant… sometimes that meets a deeper and even more important need for both of us in developing our bond. I’m not an affection Pez dispenser and you can’t just noseflip my arm every time you feel needy. No, it isn’t play time 24/7 and no, you can’t always come with me every time I leave. Discerning which needs are the ones for me to meet as Loving Hippie Earth Mama and which needs are better met by Drill Sergeant Mama is an important distinction that comes with experience and trust. Trust in myself, trust in my dogs, and trust in the universe, I guess, that it will all come out ok.

Sure, training is part of what we do. It’s the technical part, the boring part for me. Boring but required, a bit like memorizing times tables or knowing how to drive a stick shift. It’s part of the package of this life with dogs, but it isn’t the point. It isn’t the end; training is just building a common language. The why, the bond, the choice – that’s where the joy resides.  

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2 Responses to Where joy resides

  1. Jody says:

    Another fabulous essay.

  2. dogfish6 says:

    I “liked” this, but really, I loved it. Thank you. I feel the same way about creating those bonds, as well as bonding versus training. Both needed, but one has a special power.

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