Thursday, May 1, 2014

Book Review: Bones Would Rain from the Sky

The full title of this book is If a Dog's Prayers Were Answered...Bones Would Rain from the Sky: Deepening Our Relationships with Dogs by Suzanne Clothier. Right on the cover is a quote by Jane Goodall, "All dog lovers will want to read this book." She's right, this is definitely a book that changed my perspective on my relationship with Brisbane. I love my dog dearly, and I want a relationship with him based on mutual respect and trust, rather than obedience.
Photo by Erin Koski
I had grown up reading about dominance theory, and watched training philosophy change to something that appeared kinder and gentler by comparison. Still, the trainers I talked to on internet communities echoed things that were almost, but not quite, "You must get dominance over your dog. You must be alpha."

Instead, it was "Your dog must see you as the leader, he must respect you. Obedience is a sign of respect." We had thrown dominance theory out the door, and replaced it with a slightly watered-down version I call leadership theory.
People who openly mocked the Dog Whisperer also said that the first step to solving behavior problems was to force the dog to respect the handler by not allowing it on the furniture, not allowing it eat before the handler or walk through doorways first. Some people even made their dogs always walk behind or beside them, never in front, even on leisurely walks. Body harnesses were considered bad because they gave the dog too much freedom to make choices, head halters were the preferred way to attach a leash to a dog, even a dog with spinal issues.
Photo by Erin Koski

Bones Would Rain from the Sky is full of stories about dogs that Suzanne Clothier has worked with, and how they taught her something new. One of the stories that has stayed with me for years after reading the book is about a puppy with a bone in her mouth. The author notes that there were several adult dogs that very much wanted that bone, but as long as the puppy had it in her possession it was hers to keep. The adult dogs would not violate her space or take the bone by force no matter how tempting, because taking resources by force is unacceptably offensive in the dog world. Old-school training theory would tell me that my dog should unquestioning relinquish any resource I demand from him because I am "dominant" or "the leader". Mutual respect says I should not demand that Brisbane give me anything, instead I should teach him that giving me his bone is a fun game. I only ask him for the bone when I have something better to offer. I respect him enough to not break his own social code.

Another Bones Would Rain from the Sky story that has stuck with me was about a foster dog that Suzanne Clothier was working with. Her own dogs don't normally wear collars at home, and she does not lead them around by their collars. This new dog has jumped up on a bed and was guarding it, she went to grab his collar to drag him off the bed and the dog reacted badly. The author realized that she was not treating this dog with the same respect she gave her own dogs, and that day she removed his collar. She taught him how to get off the bed on cue, and taught him what she wanted him to do instead of correcting him for guess wrong or doing what he had always done.

The central point of Bones Would Rain from the Sky is that my dog is an individual with his own emotions and desires. He loves me and wants to be with me, and he wants to do what I want him to do. When he does not obey, it is because I have not taught him what I want, or because he is incapable. He's not ignoring me because he doesn't respect me or see me as a leader, he's ignoring me because he is too stressed to give me his attention, or because I haven't taught him how to successfully ignore squirrels yet. I don't need to correct him and tell him that he is wrong, I need to remind him of what I want, or move him further away from the squirrels until he can focus.

Suzanne Clothier doesn't write that we should spoil our dogs, they should have rules and limits and structure. All she asks is that we view things from the dog's perspective, understand how they learn and what our world looks like to them, so we can work together with a mutual bond of trust. I love Suzanne Clothier's training methods because they not only work, but they feel good. When I use her methods I never feel angry, guilty, sad, or like I'm depriving my dog, or being mean to him.

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