Bones Would Rain from the Sky: Deepening Our Relationship with Dogs, Suzanne Clothier.
Usually when I really love a book, I’m a little resentful that it took me so long to get around to it. I read a lot, and a lot of books sit around in various literal and metaphorical piles waiting their turn. In this case, I’m thrilled that I didn’t read this a year ago.
Let me back up. This is a dog book that is, more truthfully, a religious/spiritual book–a book that is about using the challenges that life hands us by recognizing the intrinsic value of that challenge and turning it toward a new growth of consciousness. While for someone like Pema Chodron those opportunities arise from meditation on our interactions with ourselves and other people, Clothier explores how those opportunities can come from our relationships with dogs.
It is a beautiful philosophy. The things Clothier says about sympathy with other beings, about mitigating and recognizing the inevitable cruelty of life, resonated intensely for me. Clothier values thinking deeply about issues and resolving them in ways that align with one’s personal beliefs and ethics. As a natural over-thinker and navel-gazer (have you seen the length of the posts here?) I’m a perfect audience.
The friction comes, as with all philosophies, at the junction with practice. Thinking, no matter how well done, doesn’t solve problems on its own. Dogs do things. They behave, for good or for ill, and thinking about those behaviors, no matter how deeply, doesn’t change them. Toward the end of the book Clothier notes the two sides of this dichotomy. First, there is the wonderful opportunity for deepening human awareness and sympathy:
“To ask ‘What can I learn from you?’ acknowledges that all of us–including animals–serve at one time or another as teachers for each other. This humble question reminds us that we are, all of us, students of life; learning and growth are not phases we pass through on our way to adulthood, but constant companions in our daily life. When we are willing to ask this most fundamental of questions, something profound shifts inside us, creating an awareness that wherever we look, there are teachers bearing truths great and small for our lives.”
Even Clothier notes that “This is not a painless or certain process…exploration is at times tiring and confusing.” It is especially difficult when, as in life with dogs, the spiritual is routinely and exhaustively linked to the pragmatic, the physical, and even the disgusting. Without some kind of training, your spiritual inspiration will “rummage though your garbage, chase and perhaps even kill other animals, clean the litter box for you, [and] roll in dead things.” Clothier never closes this gap between the theoretical and the practical. Even in her example stories, the details are left hazy.
This last point is why I’m glad I didn’t read this book a year ago. Clothier is deeply invested in the relationships that people have with their dogs, and as a result is very quick to blame behavioral problems large and small on “the relationship.” Even worse for those seeking specific advice, Clothier patently resists telling you how you might improve that relationship. There are no guidelines or step-by-step instructions here. Relationships, she argues, are too case-specific and too amorphous for generalized advice. In her defense, this isn’t a dog-training book, and it never claims that it is. What’s more, I suspect that specific instructions would undermine Clothier’s entire ethical framework, based as it is on intense contemplation. Instructions are easy; relationships are hard.
Now that I’m not in the midst of house-training or a disastrous first attempt to go through obedience class, I have the mental space to think about such philosophical ramifications more intensely than the mundane ones. In the puppy days, I’m afraid that thinking deeply about my emotional/spiritual relationship with my dog would have made me feel even more inadequate than those training books with the puppies who only, desperately, wanted your approval.
Bottom line (I’ve made you wait long enough, haven’t I?): I’m glad I read it now, when I can get some use from it. I have food for thought on the level of a cruise-ship buffet. If you have no patience for spiritual hoo-ha, this is not the read for you. If your dog still has problems with basic obedience because he doesn’t know better, this book will not help you.
(And because this is my blog, and I can write 800 words if I want to: Last night I sent my husband out to open the garage door while I put Silas’s leash on. Then we played a little “Oh, look, the garage door is up. Why don’t we look around?” Which turned into even MORE sidewalk walking! I think this cautiously qualifies as a breakthrough.)