follow your dog John L. Hart, Ph.D.
Finding the Way In the Winter of 2002 I was trying to find my way . I was just about one failed year into cardiac rehabilitation. I had endured a major cardiac event 11,00 feet up in the Sangre de Cristos Mountains of Northern New Mexico and lost at least 25% of my heart. I had also lost confidence in my ability to work, live, love and faith in how I thought about myself.
Finding a Guide The Ghostbear arrived at Spirit Bear Farm that same winter. He was two years old. People had told me that a dog like this might be good for my heart. I was not so sure. He had belonged to a family that like some other Pyrenees owners had mightily underestimated just how big a large male Pyrenees could grow. They also had two small dogs and Bear was not able to share the space. The owners had returned him to the breeders. With a two year old dog of his size they had decided to offer him to me to see if he would bond with a new owner or if that failed then they would turn him into a predator dog guarding their flocks of sheep from wolves and cougars. There were good reasons to expect this not to work. 1. I had never had a dog. 2. I was afraid of large dogs. 3. This dog was giant, intelligent, independent, and strong willed. 4. At this age these kinds of dogs choose to bond or not.
bonding with your guide building connection and trust
acceptance or not So now I had a dog. But did I want a dog? Did a dog want me? Some very nice people had given me a dog that was a pedigreed monster. I remember the day I met the Ghostbear. I had arrived at the farm to spend the winter and try to find and recuperate some of my lost health and well being. I was not as hopeful about it all as I acted.
I had real doubts about recovery and like most every post MI heart attack patient I did not trust my body anymore. Is that a cramp? No, angina, no a cramp, or might it be a sign of a heart attack. Is my heart stopping? No of course not. Am I sure? I did not trust my own judgement about it.
First Meeting So here I was at the barn with Corky the Kiwi shepherd and all around farm guy and dog breeder. “Hiyu John and here is your Bear and he gestured over to a dark corner of the barn and as I turned a creature out a Norwegian fairy tale rose up out of the straw in the gloom of the barn and was literally glowing. I had never seen such an animal with his head and ruff as big as a lion’s. He had big golden brown eyes and he did not do any dog things. That is he did not bark, squeal or wag his tail or growl or run back and forth excitedly to see me. No he just stood there and looked at me. I had a number of questions. Number one was: So do you go up to this thing whose head is about your chest level and reach out your arm. No, I do not think so. Number two was: How strong is that chain he is on and why exactly does he have to be on a chain that BIG. Number three was Am I safe here?
Number three was my first priority. I stood behind Corky and asked him if this was the biggest Great Pyrenees he had ever had and he said “Yup, he is and wish I had kept him.
The Big Walk He said Bear had been the big cute guy in his litter but he had no idea he would ever have grown this big. The folks that bought him and raised him were dog people and already had a couple of small dogs and thought they would enjoy a Pyrenees. I think a lot of people probably think they would enjoy a Pyrenees, especially if they see a puppy. Anyway about two years later they call and tell Corky they can no longer keep Bear. For one thing he has just grown too big for their house and yard but also he no longer shares the space well with their other two smaller dogs. Corky was good enough to take the dog back but did not need another big male on their property and also thought Bear too old to be much good as other than a predator dog out in the field with the sheep and lambs on our farm. “but, said Corky, he might take to you John and then you would have a real good dog”. I wondered what that might entail. Well, spend some time together, he will let you know. If it don’t work out and you don’t want him here, we will figure something else out” Here yuh go John, take this leash and go for a walk and then come back and keep that up and we see what happens. So he hooked Bear up to the leash and off we went across the farm. I remember we reached the first gate leading out across the meadow and he just stopped there waiting for me to open the gate and then waited for me to say “Ok , let’s go “. He walked through and then stopped and waited again while I closed the gate. This guy had had some good training. He was very polite and well behaved. He was very excited about the walk and certainly seemed to be enjoying it all but stayed right by me, not pulling or anything. So as we went along I started imagining how wow this is great he already likes me and I am really in charge here, I say stop and we stop, and I say go we go, alright, I am the dog whisperer here. We walk about a mile across the meadow in this way and all is great and in fact I think I got this all figured out already. Bear apparently is easily controlled by my voice, he must have been trained to be a seeing eye dog or something, or already is so bonded to me he does everything I say and so we get to the big dark back meadow and the big trees and I decide that the dog whisperer will walk through the woods with his trusty big dog with no leash. I honestly believe I don’t need it anymore. It is amazing how expert I already am with this dog. Clearly I am an Alpha dog man. I kneel down and take off the least and say in my firm big dog whisperer voice “Sit” which obviously in Italy in the Pyrenees language means run away like crazy, as he shoots off into the woods. I am running behind shouting Stop, Heel, Sit, as he disappears probably forever into the deep woods of British Columbia. Every once in a while, I spot him gliding through the underbrush as I plunge through brambles and lurch across fallen logs. I stop bent over panting and question whether this dog is really good for my heart. It is clearly hopeless to try to catch him. All I can hope for is maybe he will return to the barn when he is hungry. I slowly walk back to the barn with the empty leash. Fortunately, Corky has left and there is no witness to my shame of an empty leash in less than two hours.
The next morning is a typical December day on the west coast of Vancouver Island. It is dark and rainy and cold. At the barn I find Bear in his usual place in the straw with his chain on. He does not even get up. Obviously he was not impressed yesterday. I go back to the house and return with some warmer clothes, a blanket, a book and snacks. I spend the morning just sitting there with Bear and reading. Well, not exactly. I also find myself after a while talking with him.
Chapter 2: TALKING WITH DOGS
I now believe that everyone who has a dog spends a good deal of time talking with their dog. Why? Why are we talking with our dog and why are they listening? Humans and Dogs have been partnered up for tens of thousands of years. This relationship has altered both of us. Since all of us are different I believe that some people are more or less receptive, attuned to, connected, bonded comprehending, empathic to dogs and each dog is more or less of the same with regard to humans. OK, sounds silly? Booga, booga? Sure it does, but so are a lot of things like love in the World of One. Logic, rationality, all of those World of One values leave no room for deep empathic bonding. Even the science of psychology struggles to find scientific sounding words like “attachment” for that special connection between babies and mothers.
Anyway I am out in the barn and notice myself starting to talk to to Bear. Not all at once. At first it is mostly a greeting which is purely defensive. I do not want this big dog thinking I am sneaking up on him. Remember, I am afraid of big dogs, actually most dogs. About a year previous I had just backed out of my car with an armful of books in the library parking lot and had a small terrier rocket through the window of the car parked next to me and sink his teeth into my arm. I still have the scar. So now I go within a friendly distance of the dog on the big chain and spread my blanket out on the hay and sit down. The rain pours down on the roof of the barn. I read my book. The dog sleeps and pays no attention to me. I keep reading. I have brought some snacks. Both the dog and people kind. We share some snacks and then I read some more. Later I put down the book and turn to see him sitting and looking at me. Both of us sitting down, he is taller than me and there is a definite sense of his strength and power and yet he conveys a sense of gentleness too. I notice that the rain has stopped. “How about a walk?” He definitely knows that word and jumps up. I get the horse lead and clipping it onto his collar off we go. This time I have no illusions of being the Dogwhisperer and we stroll around the farm having a fine time exploring some of the beaches and come back to the barn as
the rain begins again . I sit down and we share my lunch of salmon sandwiches. He goes to sleep and I take up my book. He is a pleasant companion I think. In the book Interrelations Between People and Pets Bruce Fogle reports that “research supports pets may have important effects on the lives of adults that are independent and supplementary to human contact”. In fact he goes on to say that pets are actually “not substitutes for human contact but offer a kind of relationship that other human beings do not provide.”(Fogle, 1981 p.50) .
TELLING BEAR MY STORY
The next day dawns dark and rainy. Dawn by the way this far north is after 8 in the morning. I dress in my warm clothes and rain gear take my daypack and snacks, lunch and book and head up to the barn. This time he is already standing and since the rain is light and say the magic word “walk” and get an enthusiastic tail wag and open smile. Off we go and thistime we go up into forest. The cedars and firs smell beautiful in the soft rain and we cross little seasonal brooks and have a grand time. Back in the barn again and the rains return and pour down on the roof. Bear shares lunch. The days go on like this and something has definitiely happened between us. One days, I am not sure why now, maybe I was especially down about my health circumstances but I decide to tell him about my heart attack.
I start with telling him about what a beautiful day and it was and that my friend and I are so thrilled to be up 11,000 feet plus with new New Mexico powder snow and a bright blue skyand then I start to not feel so good with a cramp in my back. We ski down and I just cannot seem to loosen up and shake the cramp in my back and on the way back up my arms are cramping too. I attribute that too the strenuous poleing we had done but then we I am about half way down the mountain my friend asks me “Hey, if this was someone else what would you tell them?” I realize I would tell them to check out the first aid hut. We ski down and do in the lodge and I take some aspirin and a drink and sit down and then start for the hut and the have to sit again. I can barely walk. I need help to the hut. Suddenly I am full of tubes and . At this point in my narrative with Bear I become emotional. He sits up looking at me. He moves closer and then lays his big head against mine. I put my arms around his shoulders and simply cry. I cannot recall when I had last cried like a small child, like my heart was broken. I am pretty certain it would not have occurred at this time in my life with another human being. I continue to tell the details of my heart attack and how they could not undo the blockage, the increasing looks of worry and concern on the medics faces, the long wait for ambulance to come to the top of the mountain and the long ride down to the ER and all the time pain not stopping and then the scared face of my wife and the ER cardiologist working and working and
working and finally they opened the blockage. By then I had lost a lot of heart function. But inside me I had lost a lot more of my self and that was what I was telling Bear.
ANOTHER TIME, ANOTHER PLACE, ANOTHER DOG
I realized after I talked with Bear that I should not have been surprised at his special capacity for listening and healing. Something similar had happened half a lifetime before. I was in my late twenties. I had been studying to become a psychotherapist. As a part of that I was involved in my own therapy. Therapy had not gone very well for me. I had been a psychology specialist in the U.S. Army after I had been drafted in 1968. I spent a year in Vietnam during the peak of the war in 1969-1970. It had not been pretty. Our First Sgt had been murdered by one of our patients, one of our own specialists had broken down and tried to shoot all of us one night, the work with psychotic soldiers broken by the war was brutal, relentless and scary. I never spoke of my experiences with my young wife when I returned. She never knew why I returned so dark, moody and depressed. Our marriage ended before it even started. I moved away from my family and my friends I had grown up with and went to California. One time I tried psychoanalysis. The doctor was a kind and warm man. I could not speak to him during the therapy hour. I would sit silently hour after hour. I remember him saying once in his Vienna accent. “You know your silence is as profound as your words” I could not speak. One day with another doctor I came for my scheduled hour and found that he had brought his dog a large malamute. He said this is King and today I would like you to spend your time with the good Dr. King. I will be outside. He is a good listener, why don’t you sit down with him in the corner and tell him what you cannot tell me. With that he left me and I sat there in the corner almost under the desk. I felt an uncanny sense of acceptance. I began to talk. I told the dog my war story. Something hard and dark broke down inside. He listened and I was the better for it. What had felt frozen and broken inside of me started to heal. Dr. King truly helped me recover from what was my own kind of personal PTSD. BONDING AND CONNECTING The daily walks and talks with Bear continued. Now we were starting to be true friends. He looked forward to seeing me in the mornings and I found that our walks and talks were actually helping me feel better than I had for long time. He still slept in the barn at night but most days he spent at the farmhouse in the backyard and now our walks were without a leash. Sure he liked to run and go off on his own but for the most part he just walked with me. I noticed now though that even though he would suddenly disappear and be out in the woods for one of his own adventures he seemed to always somehow have an eye on me in fact more than an eye
on me, he had some kind of dog radar on me. No matter where I went he knew where I was and where I was going. Sometimes I would get to where I was going and there he was. He also seemed to have some kind of ability to not only know where I was but how I was feeling. PROTECTION One day not long after our special talk in the barn and on one of our first walks without a leash something special happened. The farm had about 5 horses and one of them was a rascal. This horse was playful but also a bit of a bully. She actually had a reputation for intimidating people and even chasing them if she could get away with it. I had never had any experience with her and so was surprised when I saw her peel away from the little herd and started charging across the meadow towards me at full speed. Bear had disappeared and must have been some distance behind me, but he must have sensed my fear as this big horse charged down at me. Suddenly he turned from what had always been a quiet and benign big white dog into a monster. He charged roaring right at the horse which actually slid to a stop and then was driven back by the ferociously barking Bear. He was not playing and the horse knew it and it was no contest. She galloped back to the herd with him on her heels and that was the end of that. I just stood there. What a great feeling. What a great friend to have. I have never since that time ever been afraid walking in the forest. The farm has about sixty acres of woodland and is the occasional haunt of cougars and bears. I had always been wary walking up there and of course still am watchful but the sense of security of having a 170 pound bodyguard is remarkable.
MORE PROTECTION Still another time was even more dramatic in terms of what this loyal bond meant. It was late Spring. We had just received a small herd of cattle and were unloading in the meadow off of a truck. Last off the truck came the big bull who clearly had not enjoyed the commute and was not happy. He came ripping and snorting and bucking down the chute, spun around looking for someone and something to be nasty with and somehow I was right in his line of vision. I had no where to go.
Follow Your Dog is literary non-fiction for a wide general audience; it is a book not only for dog lovers, but also readers interested in he...