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.