Read an Excerpt
It’s the question prospective dog owners should ask first, perhaps the most important in anyone’s life with a dog:
The most critical decisions about our lives with dogs are often made before we bring one home. Acquiring a dog in America is disturbingly simple. You can trawl online, find a breeder, or take one of the puppies some kid is offering outside the supermarket (I wouldn’t advise it). You might come across a stray while out walking or driving.
Some people seek dogs for rock-hard practical reasons: security,
hunting, therapy, search-and-rescue. But most of us, say psychologists and behaviorists, have more complicated emotional and psychological motives.
WHY DO I WANT A 1 DOG?
The more trouble humans have connecting with one another, the more they turn to dogs (and other pets) to fill some of the gaps. We seem to need to love and be loved in ways that are uncomplicated, pure, and dependable.
Contemporary America is, in many ways, a fragmented, detached society. Our extended families have moved away; we often don’t know our neighbors; many of us hole up at night, staring at one kind of screen or another. Divorce is commonplace. Work has become unstable, uncertain for many, often unpleasant. Many people seem to find it easier to live and interact with dogs than with one another, and so the bonds between humans and dogs grow steadily stronger.
Yet this development in the relationship of these two species is onesided.
Many dogs are well served by humans’ deepening attachment, but the dogs can’t make similar choices. It’s human need that has spawned the great canine love affair.
Humans have decided to bring dogs into the center of their lives.
For all the fussing about animal rights, dogs have none. They don’t get to make consumer decisions. They’re dependent on us for everything they need to survive. They can’t talk back; they have no say about their environments or futures.
Although dogs have helped and worked with humans for thousands of years, it’s only in recent decades that they’ve come to be seen as something other than (perhaps more than) animals. Pet-keeping was popular among the wealthy and powerful in medieval times, notes animal ethicist James Serpell in the book Animals and Human Society:
Changing Perspectives, but it didn’t acquire widespread respectability until the late seventeenth century, a time of growing enthusiasm for science and natural history and increased concern for animals’ welfare.
Since then, our attachment to dogs has intensified significantly. We humans have never been closer to another species. We spend tens of billions of dollars on their care, feeding, and amusement; give them human names; talk to them as if they can understand us; believe we know what they are telling us in return.
This emotionalism often entangles dogs in our needs and wants. It is commonplace now, though it would have been shocking even a gen-
eration ago, to hear people say—without apology or embarrassment—
that they love their dogs more than they love most people, that they see their dogs as members of their family, that they confide their most intimate problems and secrets to their dogs, who are more loyal and understanding than parents, spouses, lovers, or friends. Spending a few days in a vet’s office as part of my research for a book, I was amazed to hear one woman after another urge, “Look, Doctor, I can live without my husband, but you’ve got to save this dog!” Yet vets tell me they hear it all the time.
And not just from women. Behavioral research shows that women love dogs in part because they seem emotionally supportive yet complex,
able to understand their owners in a profound though wordless way. Meanwhile, men love dogs because they are perfect pals, happy to go places and do things, but unable to hold or demand conversations.
Like it or not, our dogs’ upbringings reflect our own. We tend to treat our dogs the way we were treated, or the way we wish we ’d been.
Either way, our own pasts profoundly shape our attitudes about dogs and the ways we train and communicate with them.
This is usually an unconscious process. Few owners bring much self-awareness to their canine relationships or reflect on their own families when they scream at their dogs to come, or coo at them as if they understood. One school nurse I know grabbed her dog by the ears every night when she came home, yelling, “Do you love me? Am I your sweet mommy?” She wondered why the dog tried to run off during walks.
So the motives for getting a dog become important, if you are worried about its welfare and want a good relationship. Is your answer to the why-a-dog question that it’s easier to seek companionship from a dependent animal than from a person? Do you want a dog because of subliminal messages from TV and movies? Are you more drawn to rescuing creatures than to training and living with them?
Do we discipline in ways we were disciplined, ask for the levels of obedience and perfection demanded of us, criticize them in the voices and words we heard? Are we reenacting old family dramas, trying to heal traumas? Can we honestly say that we or somebody else in our
household is willing to take emotional responsibility for a dog, not only loving but training and caring for it?
A woman named Susan told me she wanted a dog because she felt unsafe in a gritty, impoverished neighborhood in Elizabeth, New Jersey.
So she got an English mastiff so enormous that her landlord soon made her give him away, then a German shepherd named Thunder. The dog does effectively protect the house, charging the front door when strangers come by. But since Susan, who works as a New Jersey Transit conductor, concedes she is a poor trainer with little interest in working with the dog, she has to lock Thunder in the basement when friends or relatives visit. She ’s come home to find countless pieces of shredded mail; the dog understandably sees envelopes coming through the door slot as a menace. She ’s also had to replace scratched doors and broken windows.
By now, Thunder weighs ninety pounds and pulls Susan all over the sidewalk when she takes him out. The neighbors and their children are terrified of him, though he’s never actually bitten or harmed anyone.
The dog doesn’t seem aggressive so much as conscientious; he is doing the job he was hired to do, a victim of his own effectiveness. But Susan,
who says she loves Thunder, concedes that she never really wanted a dog for its own sake. She probably should have taken a self-defense course or called a security-alarm company instead. “It would be cheaper in the long run, and easier.”
Understanding the reasons we want a dog is central to choosing the right ones, training them properly, living with them happily. The more we understand about ourselves, the better choices we are likely to make for both species.
When you think about it, you probably know plenty of people who complain that their dogs are too active or too sedentary, too interested in chasing squirrels or too distracted to come when called, too protective of the house or so nonthreatening they’d help carry out the valuables.
Though the dog usually gets the blame, as often as not the owner made an unfortunate or ill-considered choice. Consequently, the dog is under pressure to be something other than what it is, while the humans have their hands full. With a little thought and research, the lives of dogs and their people can be a lot easier and more satisfying. But that does require some understanding of one’s own psychology and emotions, some thought about where we are in our own lives and how our dogs fit in.
Jim, a hunter who lives near me in upstate New York, keeps three beagles in a large kennel 360 days a year. They emerge for a few morning hours on the other five days to track game. They spend a lot of time waiting, but when their time comes, they shoot out of the kennel and into the woods. “They are great dogs,” says Jim, who hasn’t even named them.
Does he like having them? I asked him once. “When they do their jobs I do,” was his response. I feel reflexively sorry for the dogs when I
drive by, especially when I consider my own dogs’ pampered lives, but
Jim’s dogs, while they’re loud, don’t seem to know they are deprived.
Not all dogs could live that way. But Jim’s beagles demonstrate the startling adaptability of dogs. They’re there to hunt, period. Jim has a wife and four children to whom he’s devoted, and he’s busy with his construction firm; he doesn’t need dogs to be his hobby or his confidants.
Once a day, he heads out to the kennel with a bucket of meat and leftovers and tosses the contents into the kennel. At Christmas, he adds a bucket of biscuits. They get all their shots, and see a vet if they’re ailing.
The beagles have never been inside his home. He speaks of them proudly and fondly, but they’re tools, like a drill or a new rifle, not little people, not even really pets in the contemporary sense.
Yet the dogs seem content and healthy. Jim knows precisely why he wants them. They understand the simple rules and, since dogs lack human awareness of the passage of time, don’t know how long they go between hunts. It may not be the way many of us would wish to have dogs, but his clarity about the kinds of dogs he wants and why seems to work well for everyone involved.
Then there’s Andrea, an artist who lives on a fifty-acre farm in Vermont.
For various complex reasons, she ’s given up on the idea of men,
marriage, a family; instead, she sought out a collie rescue group. She,
too, understood exactly why she wanted a dog, and the bond she’s formed with hers appears to make them both happy.
“I have not been fortunate with relationships, at least not yet,” she says. “But Whisper and I adore each other. I have so much fun with her,
and she gives me so much comfort and love. I hope she ’s a bridge to another relationship, but if she isn’t, I’ll be okay.”
It isn’t for me to say—and in truth I can’t really decide—whether
Andrea made a wise or healthy choice. But she thought about her motives,
about how a dog would fit into her life, and she made a considered decision.
“Because my kid’s been begging for one” is, on the other hand, usually a suspect reason to acquire a pet. It’s a common refrain, but dogs bought as Christmas surprises for demanding children often have a rough time of it. Promises get made and forgotten; interest in the newcomer peaks, then wanes.
Not always. A twelve-year-old neighbor of mine asked for a golden retriever last year for Christmas and his parents agreed, on the condition that Jeremy take responsibility for it. Perhaps they had confidence that he actually would because he’d already proved his commitment by feeding his fish and cleaning out hamster cages.
In any event, Jeremy does take care of Clancy. He walks him before and after school, feeds him, brushes him, takes him to training classes every Saturday. Each day after school, Jeremy and Clancy train together. The dog has learned to come when called, to sit, stay,
and lie down on command. People in rural areas familiar with 4-H
programs know how healthy it can be for children to take responsibility for animals. People in child- and dog-crazed suburbs—where the rule often seems to be, the smaller the yard, the bigger the dog—
know how unusual it is. For Jeremy, getting a dog does seem like a positive thing; he kept his word, or perhaps his parents took the unusual step of insisting that he keep it. Either way, I’ve encountered few kids like him. Parents, beware: somebody in a household has to take primary responsibility for a dog, and if the kids don’t, Mom or
Dad has to step in.
Parents often give their kids things they think are good for them—
cell phones, computers, dogs—without much thought about how these things will be used or treated after the purchase.
So why do you want a dog?
If the answer, in part, stems from a complex emotional history (as is certainly the case with me), make sure you understand and think through just what it is you are asking of a pet.
Despite our habit of anthropomorphizing dogs, they don’t understand what we ’re thinking and can’t possibly grasp the nuances of the emotional roles we sometimes ask them to fill. They can’t even behave amiably—by our definitions—if not properly chosen, exercised,
and trained. Since our expectations are usually much too high, we become easily disappointed or angry. There’s substantial evidence that we’re creating problem dogs—biters, chewers, barkers, neurotics in need of antidepressants. This happens partly because so many people get the wrong dogs at the wrong times for the wrong reasons.
There’s a moral component to taking on a dog. Though they aren’t capable of higher-level thought processes, dogs certainly have emotions.
They experience pain and loss, fear and affection. This has given them and other animals some moral standing among people of conscience.
It may not make them the equivalent of children, but it does obligate us to think about how we treat them. But every dog isn’t for
everyone. I don’t accept the growing, politically driven notion that every dog is equally deserving of rescue, that all dogs are essentially alike in their adaptability to our tense, crowded, litigious human environment.
I don’t find that to be true. Dogs are ferociously idiosyncratic, varying wildly depending on breed, genetics, litter experience, treatment,
and environment. Some are genial and calm, bred for temperament, and some are violent, bred and trained to hunt or fight. Few of us have the training skills or time to alter all of those behaviors. The wrong choice of dog can prove a nightmare for you, your family, and your community;
the right one, a joy.
Some dogs need to work, some don’t; some will hide from thunder while others won’t even notice it; some hate people in hats and others chase bikes. You can’t always know these oddities in advance; all the more reason to proceed with caution.
THE BEDLAM FARM CHECKLIST FOR
PROSPECTIVE DOG OWNERS
■ Get the dog you want. The abuse of animals in general, and dogs in particular, has led lots of owners to the conviction that the only moral option is to save a dog from a pound,
where he faces euthanasia. It can be a wonderful experience to rescue a dog (my rescued border collie Orson is lying beneath my desk), but, like dog ownership itself, it’s not for everybody. It can also be a wonderful experience to find a great dog from a good breeder. I have two of those,
as well: one herds sheep and runs my farm, and the newest,
Clem, suffuses my home and life with sweet companionship.
I smile almost every time I look at her.
Nobody can dictate what kind of dog you ought to get,
certainly not I. You’ve got to take care of it, so find one that you’re likely to love.
But do your homework.
Even with forethought, it remains something of a crapshoot. Dogs bought in pet stores likely come from puppy mills—high-volume breeding operations where inbreeding creates and perpetuates health and temperament problems. According to studies cited by editor James Serpell and his colleague J. A. Jagoe in The Domestic Dog,
dogs obtained from pet stores are much more likely to exhibit social fears and dominance-type aggression than dogs from breeders or shelters.
Many rescue and shelter dogs have behavioral problems,
through no fault of their own. They’ve been abused,
traumatized, or repeatedly re-homed, to the point that, according to the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary
Medicine, they’re much more likely to have problems like compulsive chewing, aggression, barking,
overeating, and what humans call “separation anxiety,”
than purebreds from quality breeders.
Responsible rescue groups and shelter workers not only acknowledge this but make sure adopters understand it, so that the dogs don’t bounce back or, worse, suffer mistreatment or injure others. But I’ve encountered some rescue workers—suffused with passion for and dedication to needy dogs—who are too eager to move violent or troubled dogs into mainstream homes.
And even dogs from conscientious breeders are shaped by their mothers and siblings, so that some are damaged, fearful, and cowering, while others learn to feel safe and trusting. Plenty of unscrupulous or greedy breeders mass-produce dogs for cosmetic or commercial reasons,
without regard to health or temperament history.
Since the dog universe is almost completely unmonitored and unregulated by overwhelmed, underfunded local governments,
people who want dogs are truly on their own.
That’s why it’s a good idea to ask breeders and rescue groups for references, so you can see how their other dogs have worked out.
It’s dicey to make dog selection a moral or political act. Know that if you choose a rescue dog, he or she may need particular patience and skill. Most dogs can be trained or retrained, even at older ages, but if you’re not willing or able to make the consistent commitment of time and work,
a different sort of dog may suit you better. Getting a purebred dog when there are so many needy dogs in shelters is still, to my mind, a perfectly valid option, and sometimes the better one.
■ Impulsiveness is your worst enemy when it comes to bringing a dog into your home. Take your time. Don’t decide on a dog because you saw one you liked on a TV show or walking down the street. Or to surprise your kids, or your emptynesting parents, or because you heard a breed is smart.
Border collies are smart, but they do unspeakably stupid things, like trying to herd garbage trucks. A smart dog isn’t necessarily a great pet, anyway. I was neither amused nor philosophical when Orson figured out how to open the refrigerator and remove an entire chicken.
■ Lower your expectations. The pups frolicking on lawns in dog-food commercials are beautiful, but odds are you will acquire a real dog. Real puppies have accidents during housebreaking training, mistake carpets for lawns, chew things you treasure. Real dogs roll in deer scat and then hop onto the couch. They need shots and medications;
they get sick.
Real dogs may never get much of a chance to bound alongside you through the park. Because so many dogs are so badly trained, they make non–dog lovers increasingly uneasy. Cops all over the country write tickets for people who walk dogs unleashed. Dog owners get sued for their pets’ bites, even for menacing behavior. Insurance companies increasingly check to see which breed of dog you have, and cancel policies if they don’t approve.
Some animal-rights groups believe dogs should be given greater legal status, almost equal with humans’. Some don’t believe humans should be allowed to “own” a dog at all. But the Rational Theory of Dog Training emphasizes the responsibilities of ownership.
■ And these responsibilities can seem unremitting. Dogs need to go out even when it’s pouring and freezing. They need attention,
affection, stimulation, and exercise, even when you’re tired, busy, or not in the mood. Their needs don’t abate when you want a weekend off or if you stay late at the office.
Informed dog lovers expect these problems and navigate them with humor and patience. In return, they get much love, fun, and companionship. There are conflicts
and rewards in any relationship, human or canine. I believe in taking a long view when it comes to dogs. You need to see beyond the moment, especially when you are on the floor at three A.M. dabbing at the carpet with Nature ’s Miracle,
trying to remove the odor.
The long view only comes with understanding the nature of these animals, and accepting that even with great effort they won’t always mesh with ours.
■ Beware the abuse excuse. Just a decade ago, dogs were still
“adopted,” not “rescued,” an even more emotionally charged notion. More dog owners than I can count now introduce or describe their dogs with the phrase: “She was probably abused.”When I ask how they know, the evidence is often circumstantial, at best.
Be cautious if the desire to save a dog from abuse is the primary reason you want one. There are lots of ways to express humanity and empathy, for people or animals, but this particular animal is moving into your home. If you misread your own purposes or make erroneous assumptions,
both of you will be coping with the aftermath for years.
Steven R. Lindsay, in his seminal two-volume Handbook of Applied Dog Behavior and Training, explores assumptions made about abuse in the acquisition of dogs.
Fear of human contact and other avoidance behaviors can sometimes be traced to previous mistreatment, Lindsay acknowledges. But shelter workers are quick to invoke that explanation when they talk to prospective adopters,
without knowing whether it’s true. “Undoubtedly, physical and emotional abuse occurs and may be a significant cause of fear,” Lindsay writes. “However, it probably occurs far less often than one might expect from the frequency of such reports.”
Since dogs can’t correct us, or complain about their parents, it’s simple to assume that they’re victims of human cruelty, an idea that also often fits our own emotional needs and histories. But genetics, inbreeding, and conditions in a litter, among other factors, can also profoundly shape a dog. Most of the time, we will never really know—a reality that may prove less satisfying than a rescue fantasy. Would you love this dog as much if you knew that she was fearful because she was insufficiently socialized as a puppy?
■ Be skeptical of yourself and expect skepticism in the people you’re getting a dog from. Good breeders and conscientious rescue and shelter workers will be wary of your wish for a dog, even to the point of obnoxiousness. They’ll ask about your schedule, yard, fence, kids, dog-owning experience—
and they should. In fact, if they don’t, take it as a warning sign that you might be seeking a dog in the wrong place. So many people know so little about dogs when they get one or have such unrealistic expectations that millions of dogs are mistreated, returned, or abandoned each year.
The people who distribute them have seen a lot, too much sometimes. You don’t want a dog from someone eager to give or sell you one without asking some tough questions.
■ Know yourself. People tend to blame dogs when problems arise, but they are almost always our fault. Either we made a dumb choice (bringing a huskie to a condo in Boca
Raton), or we don’t really have the time and personality for training a dog, or we took refuge in fantasies.
Most likely, you’re getting a dog because you need or want something to love, or another thing to love, or because you’d like to replace things you love that are gone.
There’s nothing wrong or troubling about that, but it does a dog no service to repress or deny it by insisting, “I got a dog for the kids” or “I just got it to keep burglars away.”
And does that desire to love outweigh other characteristics?
Are you patient? Do you have a high tolerance for noise, disorder, and tumult? Do you prize clean rugs and furniture? Or sleeping late on Sundays? Do you anger easily?
Getting a dog is a big, expensive, life-altering decision that affects you for years.
■ Dogs are not human, remember. They don’t think in human words or terms. They can’t tell stories, follow narratives,
read our minds (although they do sense our moods). They are not “children with fur,” or children at all. We may love them to death, but that doesn’t mean they’re like us.
In fact, most dog owners love them because they’re not
like us. To deny them their dogness is a disservice to both species. To forget that they are animals, driven largely by instinctual desires for each other and for food, sex, and attention,
is to alter the reality of their natures, and to endanger them.
■ Dogs aren’t therapists, either. Your relationship with the dog will likely be affected and shaped by your own family history and emotional past, but the dog’s ability to heal old traumas or fill voids is limited. People will tell you that their dogs understand their innermost thoughts and know their deepest secrets, but don’t dump your emotional baggage on an animal. If you need help with problems, major or minor,
get it. If your dog understands you better than your husband or wife, give the dog a bone, then go see a marriage counselor, or at the very least have some discussions with your spouse. Don’t ask your dog to make you happy or treat your depression. Your dog’s thoughts probably center on when you’re going to get off your butt and feed him.
■ Dogs are increasingly being seen as sagacious spirits and prescient souls. The Rational Theory doesn’t buy it. The simpler your relationship with a dog, the better, because dogs are simple. They love rules, routine and clarity, leadership,
intriguing smells, other dogs, and, of course, food and the people who provide it. One of the cornerstones of the Rational
Theory: Your dog is crazy about you, but he can also learn to love almost anyone else holding a hamburger.
■ A bedrock notion of my approach to living with dogs is that we need to be realistic, flexible, and creative, harder on people but easier on dogs. Expect a lot of yourself in terms of patience,
determination, and consistency. As you are, the dog will follow suit. Try not to think in terms of “good” and “bad”
dogs. These are human notions that do not apply to animals.
There are, instead, dogs that understand how to live in the world and dogs that don’t. Occasionally, dogs are inherently violent, genetically damaged, or mistreated beyond repair. Happily, they’re rare.
A CAUTIONARY TALE
Acquiring a dog is a far more seminal event in a person’s or family’s life than the purchase of a plasma-screen TV or an SUV. Yet people will spend weeks or months test-driving cars, researching models and prices on the Net, gawking in parking lots. Then they’ll buy a dog—a living thing who will be with them for years, often at great expense—
having done no research, and with nothing ready but a bag of dog food. Dog and owner both pay for this, one way or another.
Hence my trepidation about Kyle, a TV producer who called to tell me he’d decided to adopt a border collie from an upstate shelter to share a one-bedroom Brooklyn apartment with him and his wife. “They’re the smartest dogs, I hear. And this one is beautiful. I don’t want to see him put down. I believe in helping dogs.”
It was an admirable impulse but a poor choice, for man and dog.
Millions of dogs fill our shelters, and it would be wonderful to adopt all of them. But a border collie isn’t likely to thrive in a cramped, urban environment.
I worried that Kyle was more interested in feeling righteous than in choosing the right dog.
A bad decision, I cautioned him. Border collies need a lot of work and exercise. They often go mad, almost literally, when they have nothing to do or are confined in a tiny space. And both Kyle and his wife worked long hours in Manhattan.
“Oh, we have a way with dogs,” he said airily. “We ’ll work it out.”
He didn’t want to hear any objections. He’d heard that border collies were smart, so he wanted one, an impulse outweighing the best interests of both parties, a common story to anyone who spends time with dogs.
The shelter, however, had the good sense to refuse to give him the dog.
Two days later, he was back on the phone. “There ’s a pit bull here in the Brooklyn shelter. They say he has problems with kids and dogs,
but he might be okay with training. I bet I can turn him around. I bet he’s not a bad dog.” Another troubling choice. Pit bulls are not bad dogs, of course, but they’re dangerous if treated poorly or in the wrong hands. Did Kyle really have the time and skill to work with a pit bull with a history of aggression? I asked. His neighborhood was full of kids and dogs. While he was filling out the paperwork, the dog bit a shelter volunteer and was deemed too dangerous for adoption.
“Why do you want a dog?” I finally asked Kyle, noting his confusion and impulsiveness.
“I just like dogs,” he said.
Soon he was clicking around Petfinder.org, a nationwide online clearinghouse for rescue groups, where he learned of a Boston terrier available in North Carolina. The local rescue group, which operated out of a basement in a private residence and about which Kyle knew nothing,
had only had the dog for a couple of days, but he seemed “nice and friendly and housebroken,” the website declared.
That was enough for Kyle, who rushed to the rescue, driving through the night to meet the dog and a member of the rescue group about halfway, in Norfolk, Virginia. This time he didn’t ask for my advice,
and I didn’t offer any.
I heard from him a month later. The dog barked for hours when left alone and wasn’t, in fact, housebroken, traits that didn’t endear him to
Kyle ’s apartment-house neighbors. He was friendly enough with people,
but not with other dogs, so he was soon barred from the local dog run. He had to be walked wearing a muzzle. “He ’s got problems,” Kyle acknowledged.
It was hard to imagine a happy ending. The last I heard, Kyle had confined the terrier to a corner of the kitchen, and had just bought a citronella spray collar, a device that sprayed what is, to dogs, a noxious scent whenever he barked. What happened thereafter, I don’t know. It’s usually good news when a dog is rescued, but this was the canine equivalent of Russian roulette.
I’ve made errors of judgment myself, and I’ve tried to learn from them. The three dogs in my current household all came from breeders,
Rose and Orson from Wildblue Border Collies in Falcon, Colorado,
and Clementine from Hillside Labradors in Pawlet, Vermont. Breeders
Deanne Veselka and Pam Leslie spent countless hours talking with me,
helping me choose dogs.
When it came to Rose, I already knew I was buying a farm with enough acreage for a flock of sheep, so I wanted a dog with working lines, one I could train to herd on my own, away from the oppressive dos and don’ts of the herding and training worlds. I wanted to make my own mistakes, experience my own triumphs, work free of scrutiny and second-guessing. I wanted to trust my dog, give her the chance to do her work by following her instincts.
I wanted a partner to help me move animals around and run a farm.
She didn’t need to be cuddly or terribly social. I didn’t picture her snuggling on the sofa with me, although she sometimes does. I imagined her as my primary working dog.
This suits Rose ’s serious, businesslike demeanor. She ’s not all that interested in creatures without fleece, but she ’s always ready to work,
whether that means herding sheep or chasing water from the garden hose. Understanding her role and her nature has made our mutual tasks clear and her training easier. Rose is the only one of my dogs who works with sheep.
It’s different with Orson, my elder border collie, who is and will al-
ways be my soulmate. He wants little more than to stay by my side, and except when Rose and I are working, I’m always happy to have him there. Orson is a handful, complex and excitable. I have worked with him for years, and will likely work with him for many more, but we ’re pretty close to the outer limits of how far we can go with our training.
He bears the emotional scars of a tense and fearful early life.
Still, he ’s made remarkable progress. He seems at ease, clear about his role in my life and on the farm, confident of the rules. Sometimes, for brief periods, he will sit on the farmhouse’s front lawn by himself, gazing out over the valley and its patchwork of cornfields and pasture. He does not see me peering out the window at him, smiling.
After Orson and Rose, I found myself wanting—perhaps needing—
a calmer, easier dog. I pictured a dog for whom two or three leisurely walks a day would constitute plenty of exercise, a writing companion who’d happily curl up under my desk rather than feel the need to monitor every passing bird, chipmunk, or truck from the window. Conscious of coming from a troubled family marked by turmoil and discord,
I wanted more affection. Training a dog gently and well is a powerful experience for me, a truly healing one.
Developing a clear notion about why I wanted each dog made it much easier to find him or her and greatly increased the odds that our lives together would be mutually rewarding. Knowing the breeders and the breed well also helped. Orson was a rescue whose training forced me to be a better human being. Rose was my working associate, my right hand on the farm. Clem was a loving lie-around dog who, as working dogs do, quickly sensed her true role and was happy to fill it. At nine weeks, she crawled onto my lap and dozed through an entire Yankees game. Then I went outside to herd sheep with Rose. Next morning,
when I settled into my office to write, Orson was wrapped around the chair leg. I am a lucky man.
The lessons learned from years with dogs are beginning to take hold. I know why I want dogs now, and I know what sorts of dogs can provide what I need. I try to do the same for them.
Everyone has to make individual decisions about these things. I
want dogs in part because they force me to step outside myself. I
wouldn’t write about dogs or have a farm if not for Orson, or sheep if not for Rose. Clem speaks to a very personal need to give and get affection.
Knowing that helps us live together happily.
When Orson came to me, I was shocked at how little I really knew about dogs. Now I know a bit more, and I’ve come to believe that the more we think about why we want them, the more likely we are to get the dogs we want.