It’s early evening and Travis and I are settling down to a conversation neither of us really wants to have. We’ve been at odds for a day or so, and now, finally, neither of us is at work or tending to kids, and it’s time to dig into the issue. Another discussion, another exchange of viewpoints, both of us trying to be heard, and extend ourselves to hear the other. He speaks first. I reply.

When he hears my voice, the dog gets up, walks across the room, and lies down exactly between us. I am on the couch, and Travis is on the big overstuffed chair. Thomas positions himself so that his head isn’t facing directly away from either of us. From this orientation, he can keep an eye on both of us. If either my voice or Travis’s starts to take on even the slightest degree of emphasis, Thomas will start getting fidgety. He’ll look carefully at the one with the raised voice, flick his ears, and turn his head slightly to the other.  If it gets even more intense from there, Thomas will get up completely and start licking the one who seems most upset. He may even shuttle between the two of us, licking each one of us in turn.

We both know this. Thomas’s presence helps us keep voices calm, and emotions under control. We have to keep it low key, or he’ll get agitated. And however we might feel about each other at any given moment in the discussion, neither of us wants to upset Thomas.

I’ve had many dogs, but never one with such an acute awareness of people’s feelings, nor one with such a knack for intuiting the character of human interactions. It’s not just our discussions that Thomas mediates. If Travis and the kids are wrestling or playing rough, Thomas will join in, but always with an implied warning that if they don’t keep it civil he’ll break it up. He also has an uncanny sense for the human mood. His usual default location is wherever I am, but if someone else in the house is sick or upset, he lies down near them and generally stays there, unless they fall asleep.

As adept as he is with human behavior, Thomas is completely adrift in the world of dogs. He doesn’t seem to understand them, and doesn’t get their motivations or intent. He always seems ill at ease in the presence of other dogs, and never relaxes completely. The closest he comes is with the three Brittany Spaniels our neighbors have. But they never have complete access to each other. The spaniels stay behind a fence, and Thomas and the spaniels run up and down the length of the fence, barking riotously and gleefully at each other. I’m almost certain the story would be different if he met the spaniels in the yard.

I suspect Thomas’s lack of facility with other dogs  — and his corresponding fluency in human behavior — have something to do with his lineage. One of his parents was a Border Collie, and the other a Siberian Husky. Both are working dogs, and he has a number of characteristics of each. He herds everyone (including the car, if it has one of his humans in it) and yet howls as often as he barks. Fortunately, some of these different tendencies cancel each other out. For example, Thomas is an escape artist like Huskies often are — he learned to open the sliding glass door and let himself out early on — but he doesn’t sprint off like a Husky would. Instead, he mostly confines his freelancing to the yard. After all, if he’s not close to us, we might all scatter to the four winds and then he’d have to herd us back together again.

When we’re on trails, Thomas has to hike at least twice as far as the rest of us, because he is constantly turning around from the lead position, circling back, and herding us all along. I first noticed this tendency when he was eight weeks old and I took him for his first hike in the Columbia River Gorge. Even on his leash, the tiny puppy constantly left the lead to trot a circle back around the family.

The herding thing is funny, but I don’t own any livestock that require it, and I can generally be relied on to move along a trail of my own accord. Really, it’s his emotional acuity that I value the most. Like most animal lovers, I readily accept that relationships with animals can crack you open emotionally, but I find Thomas’s role as the family diplomat pretty unique. I don’t know how many dogs out there can mediate fraught emotional situations with such dexterity. Like all working dogs, Thomas needs an occupation, and he has clearly made the family’s emotional management his career.

We never know how long we’ll have the animals in our care; that, like everything else in life, is uncertain and out of our control. But now that I’ve had him, I know I’ll always want a dog like Thomas. When I think of the therapeutic effects of animals, I ordinarily think in more passive terms, as when the mere presence of animals during stress can relieve it. For example, there was the time in my own therapy session that my therapist had to ask me to stop, and breathe through something difficult. To get there, I had to imagine my face buried in the rich fur around Thomas’s neck.  But if he’d been there, he would have been more assertive. He would have sensed my upset, and he would have come to me, licked my hand and perhaps my cheek, and immediately plopped down on one of my feet.

Tonight my mom and I sat at my kitchen table, chatting. She was discussing something that had been frustrating her lately, and her voice started to rise. I looked to Thomas, who was already in action. He got up, found his ball, and brought it to my mom, gently swerving away at the last minute in order to engage her in the game. He’s a working dog, and comforting is his occupation. He’s good at what he does.

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11 thoughts on “Therapy dog

  1. I’m not too familiar with Huskies (I owned a malalute/wolf hybrid 20 years ago and she was an expert escape artist. A skill which ultimately led to her demise on a busy road) but I think the intuition may be a Border Collie trait. I have two BC/Black lab’s. Male & female. I’ve always been amazed at their level of awareness of my emotions. For example, yesterday I got out of bed irritated. I didn’t say a word, I simply got out of bed and headed for the bathroom. Both dogs beat me there and refused to leave, curling up around my feet. I live in an old farmhouse and the bathroom is about 4 x 7. So with 140 combined pounds of black dog on either side I couldn’t even shut the door But always if there is a discussion taking place that has any kind of passion behind it, both dogs disappear into the bedroom and hide or wrap themselves up around my feet. Depending on my level of emotion, they’ll try to get as close to me as they can as if they’re attempting to climb inside my body or they will nose my hand until I pet them. But like you said, it keeps our discussion emotions in check. Neither of us want to upset the dogs. I guess in a way they are our furry little mediators letting us know when the conversation is headed south. I’ve never had dogs that were this in tune with emotions but I’ve never owned a border collie or a BC mix. Some days they are a pain in the ass, but most days I am just so thankful I have them in my life and can’t imagine a day without them. Cheers!

    1. I think you’re right about the border collie thing. I think they’ve been bred over hundreds of years to be responsive to human cues in a way that perhaps other dogs haven’t been. I bet your lab/bc mixes are gorgeous.

      I keep hearing really great things about BC mixes. They seem to get the really wonderful border collie traits, but it’s tempered with other characteristics as well. I think I’m always going to want a border collie or bc mix around. They’re just delightful dogs.

      How do your border collie mixes do with other dogs? Thomas just doesn’t seem to understand canine behavior at all. He’s much more attuned to people.

      1. Sorry for the delay….The summer really got away from me this year.
        Yes, I love the breed. Its a great mix.
        I think Thomas, just from seeing pictures of him, is wise beyond his canine facade. You can see it in his eyes. My male is like this also. There is a more than a just a dog depth behind his eyes. Something I’d call “an old soul” if I were talking about a person. Perhaps dogs come in “old souls” too.

        My male, Magnum, has always been a complete non-alpha type. When he was younger every time he met another dog he’d roll over on his back. He grew out of it though and is quite confident around other dogs. But he still has never been a big player with other dogs. My dogs love to play with eachother, but not so much with other dogs. My female, Claire,who seems to have a little more of the BC gene than Magnum, is the one who doesn’t really enjoy the company of other dogs; other than Magnum. And if the dog is smaller than her, all she wants to do is chase it.
        I don’t think I’ll ever have another dog that isn’t a BC or a BC mix. I love the breed and just stumbled across it on accident. On a whim one day I decided I was going to get a puppy. My boyfriend at the time adamantly disapproved of my dogs and I had just lost my beloved beagle to cancer a couple of months prior. I was fed up with him (the BF) and had been trying to find a way to end it. I thought since he had threatened to leave if I got another dog, that if I got a new puppy might that could be the catlyst to get him out of my life once an and for all. One of the puppies I had picked out (an adorable little aussie female with freckles all over) had already been adopted by the time I got to the shelter. Magnum was my second choice. How thankful I am now that it turned out like it did. I was hooked on the breed from then on. I had to drive 7 hours for my second dog. She was in a prison program being raised by an inmate. She had a few months if emotional hurdles to overcome, but she is the best dog I’ve ever had now. I love them both beyond words. I recently picked up a female BC along the highway (she is back home with her family now) and fell in love with her. She was the most beautiful black and white BC, very even temper, sweet. I brought her to work with me and she just laid around all day, went outside and played when it was time and just hung out. I was heartbroken that she had to go home, but happy for her family. If I had a BC I would want one just like her. She was my dream BC. So some day I will probably have one. I grew up with a black lab and I love labs. But for now, I have the best of both worlds.

  2. We had a BC/Shephard mix dog at the farm and he was, hands down, the BEST dog we have ever had. Like Thomas, he herded Jim and I, our goats, the cows, errant neighbor pigs…loved him so much. What a special gift you have in Thomas. Not only that, but you have 2 therapists in residence, each with their own specialty. 🙂

  3. I’ve read this post over and over again and each time it still touches me and it brings tears in my eyes because I really do know where you’re talking about Jen! Oh what I’m longing to touch one more time Pipke’s soft feathers and to feel the nibbling of her beak on my ears! You have a therapy dog and I had a therapy duck. Enjoy the time with Thomas to the fullest!
    I hope that he will live still a very long time.
    I wished that I could give him a hug!
    Fran

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