The Canine Gaze And Other Great Dog Mysteries

20160112_103030-EFFECTSI love reading books about dogs. I always have. One of my favorite childhood books included a dozen or so stories about dogs that protected their owners from bear attacks.

Of course, Old Yeller and Savage Sam were two stories that really pulled me in. The climax of Old Yeller is when teenager Travis Coates is forced to destroy Old Yeller. The dog, infected with rabies after protecting Travis’ younger Arliss from a rabid wolf, is now a danger to the family. As we watch the scene of Old Yeller’s death unfold — knowing in our hearts it’s the right thing to do — we still wish for a better way.

But it’s time for Travis to become a real man and overcome his personal affection for the dog and do what is right for his family.

Versa’s Flaws

When I began writing personal essays, my first attempt at a longer read (one-hour story) was about our dog, Versa. In some ways, Versa is like Old Yeller. When we adopted her, she was not overly likeable and a little rough around the edges — she had some flaws. The day we met, she did not impress me, partly because when my daughter, Molly, tried to interact with her, Versa was too timid — cowering with her tale between her legs, and quivering as Molly tried to pet her.

It wasn’t Versa’s fault.

She is a pound puppy and, as I wrote in Broken Spirit: Lessons From a Rescued Dog About the Politics of Life, she exhibits the traits of fear aggression — a tendency to be afraid of everything and everyone. It is a common trait of pound dogs. And, although, its grip on Versa is lessening, the trait is still noticeable after working with her for nearly three years.

In time Versa ‘grew on me’ and now she is part of my daily routine. As I wrote in Broken Spirit,

Versa and I have a daily ritual. I sit on a stool in my living room, start putting on my socks with my shoes beside me on the floor. Versa knows what this means: she is going for a walk. She wags her tail; prances over to our front door then back to me to check my progress. She nudges me with her nose as if to say, hurry up — let’s go.

True Companionship

Dogs provide a companionship that cannot be matched by any other domesticated animal. It is probably for this reason alone that so many books have been – and still are being – written about canines. We want to know how others interact with their four-legged family member.

contentA Useful Dog by Donald McCaig is a short-read — probably an hour or so — but by reading it you develop an deep appreciation for McCaig’s Border Collie sheep dogs. These dogs are energetic, bright and loyal, but as the author points out they can be difficult to train, control and work.

The book also includes snippets about the various jobs performed by other dogs, including sniffing out landmines in war-torn areas of the world. A deep bond grows between the dog and its partner in such adverse conditions, McCaig notes, but he says, this deep bond often exists in less dangerous situations.

He writes,

“On good days, I imagine humans are connected to our dogs on a primitive genetic level; that we don’t need to hear well because our dogs hear for us, that we don’t need good noses because our dogs sniff out danger, that we humans can dream because our dogs watch over us. On good days, I think dogs gave us our spiritual lives.”

The Gaze

packoftwoFor an even deeper look at the intricate dog-human relationship, read Pack of Two: The Intricate Bond Between People and Dogs. In the book’s opening, author Carolyn Knapp readily admits one reason she adopted Lucille, an eight-week-old Shepherd mix, from the local shelter was to fill the abundance of time Knapp acquired after becoming sober for the first time in her life. (She writes about her battle with alcoholism in Drinking: A Love Story).

Knapp fearlessly jumps headlong into issues only dog owners truly appreciate.

She speaks bluntly and honestly about dealing with other dogs and their owners, about condescending dog trainers with their various theories of control, and the hardest of all humans to understand – people who don’t like dogs. But one of the most intriguing passages is about the ‘canine gaze.’ If you own a dog, you’ve seen it. Often a dog’s gaze has a very definite meaning – I need to go outside, for example — but sometimes, we owners are clueless to what the dog is trying to communicate to us.

As Knapp notes, this non-understood gaze troubles us so when her dog launches into a gaze, Knapp, like all of us, concocts some really crazy ideas about what it means. She says,

In other words, I project. I project and I anthropomorphize and I make stuff up. I view her inner life through the filter of my own emotions and experiences, and the tendency to do this can make me crazy, for I can read anything into Lucille’s eyes. Anything. I can imagine that she’s mad at me, whether or not she is. I can imagine that she’s lonely or depressed, that’s she’s worried or chagrined or wistful, that I’m getting on her nerves.

It’s part of the Lassie Syndrome of life – we dog owners have come to believe that all looks, gazes and actions of our beloved canine friend holds some deep — often mystical — meaning.

Versa Knows

As I write this, Versa lies calmly on her bed beside my chair. She is always nearby. Whenever I walk to another part of the house, she follows. With her, I’m never alone.

And as she lies comfortably on her bed, she is a visual reminder that dogs are simple creatures. They are the embodiment of what life is meant to be — a pleasant process. Versa needs very little: Food, water, shelter and a daily walk. Once Versa’s daily walk is complete – meaning her work day is over – she is content to nap, relax, play with the cats or simply do nothing at all.

She has figured out the secret to a happy life.

And, maybe that’s what she’s been trying to tell me all along.

broken-spiritBroken Spirit: Lessons From a Rescued Dog About the Politics of Life

When a rescued, mix-breed mongrel with an ill-fitting name (Versa) and a behavioral problem (fear aggression) chose me as her sidekick, I reluctantly agreed. But as I helped Versa overcome her fears, she taught me about the secrets to work and life.

Categories: Books I have read, Dogs, Pets, Versa | Tags: ,

77-Pound Dachshund’s Journey To Healthy Weight Inspirational

obieSo I was sitting in the doctor’s office with Molly while she was waiting to get a vaccination — and I noticed the cover of a magazine with a picture of the most obese dachshund I have ever seen.

The poor dog looked like it had swallowed a large helium balloon. I won’t rewrite the story, but the dog became overweight by the well-intentioned actions of its elderly owners — and it took more than two years (and plastic surgery to remove the extra skin — which weighed more than two pounds) to get the dog healthy again.

Here’s how the woman who helped nurse the dog back to a healthy weight described seeing the dog for the first time.

“He was in the back of a small SUV and took up most of the space,” she recalls. “It was shocking to see his size.”

You can read the complete story here.

Categories: Good News, Pets | Tags: , , , ,

Broken Spirit: Leaving the Past Behind

I’ve got to start another circle and leave the past behind — Larry Norman

[This is part of an ongoing series of what a rescued dog has taught me about life. Read entire series here.]

Leaving the Past Behind

Versa’s past is somewhat uneventful — which is her problem. She was brought to the pound as a pup with her sister (who I always presumed was named Vice — the first half of Vice Versa), but a strange thing happens to puppies inside kennels and rescues — they never learn how to be a pup. There is no fighting, tumbling, or chasing after their brothers and sisters– just a pen, food and daily exercise. It’s not the fault of the organization — but it’s a harsh reality — pups like Versa struggle with fear.

Fear aggression is most recognizable by a dog’s need to bark at anything new — situations, people — and the tendency to cower. When Versa first came home, she would quiver and bark whenever strangers came into our house. Even today, nearly nine months later, she barks at visitors until I can calm her down.

Although, fear aggresion cannot necessarily be cured — several things help — and they boiled down to the same idea — making Versa feel secure. Security lessens the pull of her past.

Slow and Steady

With Versa, I’m using the tried and tested approach of slow and steady. I take her to a local kennel every three or four weeks so she can interact with other dogs. I walk her a lot without a lease. She is learning she can run off and come back and everything is fine. When family and friends visit they feed her treats and she learns strangers don’t have to frighten her.

It’s working. Her demeanor is slowly changing. In recent weeks, she has approached family members, without being coaxed, and let them pet her.

Past Limitations

We all have a past — my past included being bullied at school and in some ways just like Versa, limited socialization. But at some point, the past is just that — the past and you cannot allow it to dictate the present. You move forward, slow and steady, and find a way to come to terms with the pain and the mistakes.

And, eventually you learn, that starting another circle is just the cycle of life.

Late 70s/early 80s Christian blues album by Larry Norman.

Late 70s/early 80s Christian blues album by Larry Norman.

Something New Under the Son

Larry Norman was extremely influential in the creation of what is today known as CCM. He released his first Christian-themed album in the budding (non-existent) Jesus Rock genre in the late 60s. His four strongest albums are Only Visiting This Planet, So Long Ago the Garden, Upon This Rock and Something New Under the Son.

Categories: Middle age, Pets, Versa