‘Unschooling’ for dogs and their humans

I have been thinking about how similar caring for a dog is to how we brought up our son, Henry.

There was a book on our shelves called the ‘The 7 o’clock bedtime’ when Henry was little. It was always our benchmark. We knew that if Henry went to bed at 7pm, we would get an evening for ourselves, he would get enough sleep (we all would!) and the next day would get on the right footing.

In this respect, dogs are remarkably similar. Dogs and children need their basic needs met – enough sleep, quality food, water, the freedom to toilet and social contact. We even had to protect our son’s ‘freedom to toilet’ during Secondary School in the U.K. This had been limited during class time and caused much stress amongst young women with their periods and boys and girls who couldn’t wait. This is how many dogs feel every day as they wait for us to brush our teeth, check our phone, and take that last sip of coffee.

I have to say that Henry never had a ‘temper tantrum.’ His basic needs, and more, were almost always met. I nursed him until he was over three (only at night at the end) and he had plenty of hugs and physical touch from my husband and I. Henry recently told me that ‘humans need 12 hugs a day’(1) and promptly asked for one. Dogs don’t need or like hugs, but research has shown that they do prosper being near us and from human touch. (2)

Recently, my colleague, Pennie Clayton, posted an article on Facebook about children and parenting that discussed children ‘seeking to connect instead of seeking attention.’ I don’t have the original article to refer to but found plenty online that talks about how ‘Planned ignoring can make an emotionally unmet child even more desperate.’(3) The article goes on to suggest that parents purposefully plan time to spend time with their children, focus their attention on other positive behaviour, be ‘spontaneously’ attentive to [your] child and to not ignore your child as has been the trend in the past. You could replace ‘child’ with ‘dog’ in every sentence above. In fact, the remedy for dogs is the mission statement of the Slow Dog Movement.

We are not perfect parents by any means. But we are honest with Henry, listen to and respond to his needs, and show him that we are ‘striving’ to be the best we can be. Now that he is almost eighteen, we don’t have to worry too much about many basic needs but sleep and eating right and drinking enough water – hey, wait a minute, yes, we still watch over many of his basic needs, just less intently.

When caring for a dog, there is plenty of opportunity to understand our dogs as individuals and care for them in a similar way to our children. The exception being, once they are past puppyhood, they must be considered as wise sentient beings with their own knowledge about the world. A world that we may never enter because of our species differences. Anne Lill Kvam recently gave a talk on ‘Mental Activities for Dogs’ for the Nordic Dog Trainers, and she reported that dogs have ‘150 square cm of membrane in their nose’ versus ‘2-3 square cm for humans.’ That is just our olfactory differences. Our senses differ in many ways, but we also share a lot of physiology with dogs – we both get emotional over specific scents and sounds, according to Anne Lill.

Respect is needed when caring for both children and dogs but there is one thing that we will not be able to match as Anne Lill says ‘Dogs live in another universe really…They are able to see, hear, smell, feel, things beyond the reach of our senses.’(4) People know this deep inside but they are often out of touch with how ignoring a dog’s sensory world impacts their day to day life. Instead of welcoming a dog into your life and being excited about how they will make your life richer, try turning it around!

Many others have written about this before me so I will keep this part short. A dog is wanted. Breeds and/or shelters are researched. Or both. Dog beds, toys, classes are sought out. Mainstream books are bought and read, or the internet is scoured for every activity and bit of training advice that can be consumed. This happens with expecting human parents as well! All of this happens without many prospective dog parents knowing very much about dog physiology or dog basic needs, never mind correct equipment or appropriate exercise. And this new dog is an individual! This dog is unique. He or she is his or her own ‘person,’ so to speak. With his or her own life experiences, likes and dislikes and health profile. Even a puppy will have history, whether positive or negative.

So, think of this unique dog or puppy, entering a human’s life and what the average human brings to this new relationship and then add society’s expectations and norms around how dogs and humans should interact and how we should train dogs, exercise dogs and so on. The same goes for human children. They are born and ‘bang’ the template for child rearing is fitted.

With our son Henry, we resisted much of what society said we should do. Henry was outside for most of his early life. We had no TV and still don’t! We avoided mainstream medicine (allopathic) for his ailments, preferring homeopathy for tooth ache and fevers. Henry didn’t go to a regular school until he was 7. Before that, we fostered Henry’s love of learning at home. He taught himself to read when he was four. All his learning arose spontaneously around his interests and from his individuality.

As with human carers, with most dog parents, the urge to start training starts very early. Caregivers believe that early training for their puppy or rescue dog is the responsible thing to do. Society and fervent dog trainers online encourage this belief. Puppies and rescue dogs are brought to dog training classes and/or 1:1 lessons are arranged.

When we adopted our six-month-old Westie, Bonnie, from my Mum, I too felt it was the right thing to do and promptly enrolled in an obedience group class with her. I last about ½ hour before I walked from that boring, slippery floored school gym into the brilliant sunshine of that Saturday. That was 1996. I have never been back to a classic dog training class. With the exception of a couple of dominance classes disguised as scent tracking, Bonnie and I didn’t have to ‘unschool’ or ‘deschool’(5) very much at all.

After these early days, when I followed my gut and left the obedience and dominance dog lessons, Bonnie was free to be a dog. I have spoken of her before in this blog, but for those of you who don’t know her name, she lived to be almost 17 years old and died in London in 2013. Bonnie lived a natural and happy dog life. She came to work with us, had choices of where to walk and what to eat or chew and slept wherever she wanted. She was never asked to sit again. She did like waiting at the side of a busy road until I said the release word and this was her choice!

It was the same with Henry. He did not experience formal education until he was seven years old. He was always an independent learner and challenged all information he was given. This is not an easy path! After leaving Secondary school in the UK he choose to take Boat Building at college instead of a pure academic route. If he was controlled by his parents or hadn’t learned who he was, early on, he may have felt the pressure to conform and go to university. There is nothing wrong with university! It’s just not for everyone. By allowing him to be himself and explore his world on his own terms, Henry followed the ‘red thread’ in his life. His love of boats.

I think that we are quite lucky, in this sense. Both Bonnie and Henry grew up naturally, were observed by us, their caregivers. We responded to their individual (dog and human) personalities. We didn’t conform to society’s mainstream rules for dog guardians or human parents. Henry didn’t always like mainstream school, and he did have some years, after the age of seven, where he didn’t attend school. I would like to say he was ‘homeschooled’ but this implies having lesson plans and sitting down with Henry and asking him to learn something. We did none of that. No curriculum at all. Henry’s classroom was the world, at his pace and focused on his interests. No assignments, no tests. Henry and us as his parents, had nothing to ‘unlearn.’ We didn’t feel confined within some belief system that regulated Henry’s subjects, pace of learning or style of pedagogy.

With many dog parents, the opposite is true. Once they embark on the dog training path, it becomes integrated into everyday life and in effect, a habit. Their dogs must sit for a treat or to cross the road or to even have attention. In some cases, people are scheduling hours every week dedicated to obedience, agility, flyball or a myriad of other dog training sessions and activities. They may not know that there is a completely other way to be with their dog and still have a good bond and happy and healthy animal in their care.
This is where the term ‘unschooling’ comes in:

‘Unschooling is an informal learning that advocates learner-chosen activities as a primary means for learning. Unschoolers learn through their natural life experiences including play, household responsibilities, personal interests and curiosity, internships and work experience, travel, books, elective classes, family, mentors, and social interaction. Often considered a lesson- and curriculum-free implementation of homeschooling, unschooling encourages exploration of activities initiated by the children themselves, believing that the more personal learning is, the more meaningful, well-understood and therefore useful it is to the child.’(6)

The American author and educator, John Holt, who wrote ‘How Children Learn’ as far back as 1967, was often referred to as the ‘father of unschooling.’(7) My favourite book of his is ‘Learning All The Time’ and he died just before he finished writing it. It was published in 1990 and his book is still radical today. Even though teachers and dog trainers alike may have their hearts in the right place, much of what we deem important to teach either our children or our dogs, is, in my opinion, unnecessary. John Holt says that we need to provide a trusting relationship, in some cases closeness, for children to feel safe enough to learn and the same is true for our dogs. Beyond that, it is our responsibility to make the world accessible to our human children, and I would argue, our dogs. He is a promoter or children finding out what they like and figuring out how to do things on their own accord, not being provided an adult curated version of the world as he remarks ‘…any teaching that the learner has not asked for is likely to impede and prevent his or her learning.’(8)

One of the teachers interviewed in John’s book, Rasmus Hansen of the New Little School in Copenhagen, said that ‘…it had taken him many years to stop doing – one at a time all the many things he had been trained to do, and finally to learn that this tiny amount of moral support [just sitting with children who are reading] and help was all that children needed of him, and that anything more was of no help at all.’(9)

I can relate to this with my own child, Henry. If I tried even just a little bit, to play teacher, Henry would completely close off. He needed to be the one discovering what was interesting to him, end of story. I bit of an ego deflater for a Mum who is excited about the learning materials and curriculum she just bought but at least I listened early. And of course I have never attempted to teach my dogs to read but be honest, there are a myriad of trainings people plan for their unsuspecting dogs.

If we approach dogs in the same way as children, in a holistic and respectful way, we need to observe them. What makes your dog curious, excited and fearful? How does your dog learn? From watching you? From watching his house mates or other dogs? In which context will your dog definitely not learn? What is essential for your dog to know to live a safe and happy life with you?

If you keep your dog on a leash around cars, then you may not feel the need to teach road safety. I felt this necessary for our son and found that he, because of his dyspraxia, was slow to learn about the spatial awareness that comes with cars. My dog Ted, grew up as some sort of breeding dog in training for a puppy mill. He has absolutely no thinking or cognitive ability when it comes to cars. Maybe one day but for now, he remains on leash.

For my family of dogs, there is nothing I feel I need to teach them. I don’t feel the need to teach my husband or son anything either! I would like to do scent tracking and man trailing with them one day but that day hasn’t come yet. I prefer to simply ‘be’ with my dogs and watch how they navigate new places, watch them sniff when on a walk, watch them choose their walking direction, see their personalities blossom in different situations. I feel it is my responsibility to offer new experiences for my dogs to explore – not new places every week but to provide variety in walks, sniffing places, natural parkour areas in parks and in meeting new people. Dogs like to walk in their neighbourhood and don’t need new places to be every week but sometimes, just like us, they enjoy seeing and experiencing a new place. Or revisiting a car park when it’s quiet and has been full of people that day – oh the scents!

In terms of ‘unschooling’ with your dog, especially if you have done a lot of obedience training already with commands or find yourself constantly wanting to ‘shape’ your dog’s behaviour or comment on it with a ‘good boy’ then I challenge you to pull back from this completely. Less is more! It will be a huge relief for you and your dog to not do this anymore. You can observe your dog in a non invasive way. Learn about dog body language and be humble! Don’t sit there and say you know everything there is to know about your dog or dogs in general! Give yourself time and be patient with yourself. This type of obedience or command habit in life is difficult to break. It’s like going from being a ‘helicopter parent’ to a chilled out dog parent – cold turkey!

For some extra guidance on this process and how to ‘let go’ of your inner helicopter, see my colleague, Jonas Thulin’s video on ‘The Circle of Trust’ on the Slow Dog Movement’s Facebook group.

Giving up your habits and perhaps even values around teaching dogs things may not be easy for everyone. I am suggesting that people stop training altogether and embark on observation and relationship building with their dogs instead. It’s not as sexy or catchy nor as widely known. It makes jobs for classic ‘dog trainers’ virtually obsolete. It also makes schools for classic ‘dog trainers’ obsolete. I consider myself a ‘lifelong learner’ when it comes to learning about dogs and dog behaviour and am able to find courses and mentors to teach me what I want to learn next. I personally don’t see the need for schools to teach humans how to command and control their dogs. No dog asked for this. And the way to help dogs with issues is not to teach them something new. The dog guardian may need to employ a skilled and carefully observing dog consultant or coach who can help the human look at stress and other elements in the dog’s life.

Learning to just ‘be’ with your dog takes practice. It may not be easy for you at first. Your dog has no problem because they will follow your cue. So first you have to learn to slow down. Then your dog can relax and slow down too. For humans, I highly recommend Carl Honoré’s book ‘In Praise of Slow’ published in 2005 by Orion. Carl has great ideas for taking breaks from your gadgets, checking to see how fast you are going at any given time and tips on how to actually do things at the correct pace. Humans weren’t always this busy you know!

I will leave you with a dog focused question that asks ‘Instead of asking what your dog can do for you, turn it around and ask ‘what can I do for my dog?’ In the context of ‘unschooling,’ the answer to the this question may surprise you.

1 https://www.healthline.com/health/hugging-benefits#7.-Hugs-help-you-communicate-with-others
3 https://www.parent.com/blogs/conversations/attention-seeking-connection-seeking
4 Anne Lill Kvam, ‘Mental Activities for Dogs’ 27th May 2021, Nordic Education Centre for Dog Trainers https://www.facebook.com/trollhundeskole/
5 http://www.ecotopia.com/webpress/deschooling.htm
6 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unschooling
7 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unschooling
8 John Holt, Learning All The Time, Taylor & Francis Inc., 1990
9John Holt, Learning All The Time, Taylor & Francis Inc., 1990

The Nash Chronicles

How keeping a diary will help you slow down and learn about your dog

We adopted our ex-breeding dog, Ted, in late February. I guess he’s an official ‘lock down adoptee.’ The adoption was a quick one. One of my clients knew I was looking for a male terrier, and she sent me a photo of Ted. Ted arrived from the North to a Somerset Rescue Centre called Paws4Thought. Well, we all know how powerful photos are! ‘Showing the right thing’ in photos and videos is what the Slow Dog Movement relies upon to share its message. One look at Ted and I was in love.

My husband and I were on our way up to Durham on the Friday before Dr Amber Batson’s Canine Aggression course. We received a photo of Ted en route. I took Amber’s fabulous course and then we picked up Ted in Somerset on the way back down to Cornwall. The rescue centre wanted a quick turnaround, so we made it happen.

Ted is a two-year-old, neutered, Weechon (Westie x Bichon) male. He had his surgery a couple of weeks before we picked him up. I wouldn’t have neutered him but sometimes these things are out of our hands. Especially with rescue centres in the UK. Because Ted was neutered while in a very fearful state, Ted has retained this nervousness for now. His anxiety also stems from him most likely living in a barn or outbuilding before he came to us. He was likely a puppy farm stud in training. He is afraid of the sound of wind, anything blowing in the wind, men, anything above his head, like clothing or laundry and many other things. If we could move around the house horizontally, he would be much happier.

It’s been over a year since Ted came into our lives. I started a dog enrichment business before lockdown, so I didn’t think to keep a diary to help observe his progress. He has gained confidence and has learned a lot from his house sister dog, Izzy, but now I don’t remember all the details. Keeping a diary, over time, is an excellent way to slow down, observe your dog and create a valuable resource.

We adopted Nash on the 9th November 2013, an ex-breeding dog, from Many Tears Animal Rescue (MTAR) in Wales. I did keep a diary for him. Nash was a seven-year-old neutered Cairn Terrier with a brindle coat. Emily Blackwell, the head of Animal Behaviour at the University of Bristol, used my diary when she helped us with Nash. She said it was ‘incredibily useful!’ We had applied to go on Dogs Their Secret Lives, the TV show in the UK, with Mark Evans. The payment for agreeing to appear on the show was help from Dr Blackwell. This was before I took my International Dog Training Education (IDTE) with Turid Rugaas.

I would never choose to go on TV now, after what I have learned from Turid about dogs and stress. Dr Blackwell’s advice was to cushion our house from noise. We put a tablecloth on our dining table and more rugs on the floors. This helped Nash to relax. Turid’s advice to use the hand signal with Nash proved invaluable. He was resource guarding and biting my husband and sometimes my son. Nash also had separation anxiety. He would try to pull our trouser legs with his teeth when we tried to leave our narrowboat.

We moved from Bristol to a 35 ft narrowboat in Bath in 2014. If you’ve ever had experience with an ex-breeding dog from a puppy farm, you may know already that they are often super sensitive to noise. Nash had spent his seven years before we adopted him, in a pen, probably in a barn. He had never lived in a house or been on a leash besides the slip lead in the shelter. When we went to pick him up at MTAR, they said we could take him for a walk. My husband and I looked at each other and knew that we couldn’t. Nash was so fearful that he was flat on the ground. I couldn’t pull a dog along and wouldn’t. We picked him up and took him ‘for a walk’ away from the reception area. He didn’t pee until we got him home to Bristol. Almost a two-hour drive away!

Looking back over the diary now, I see many details of his behaviour I noted from the moment we met him:

‘On Saturday afternoon, when we brought him home, we tried to make it as calm as possible for him…we had no radio on…for a ten year old boy who was excited about having a new dog, [our son] Henry did very well.

‘I sat beside Nash on his new bed, on the floor of the dining room. I sat there, with my hand beside his torso, all night. He would hear a noise (a pot lid clanging for example), his hear would prick up and he’d lift his head and then he would just lie back down again. By Sunday he rarely lifted his head. He has a sweet habit, if stroked, and while getting himself more comfortable, of groaning in pleasure.’

There are notes about what MTAR fed Nash:

‘they fed him only once, at 07:30 am’ [and what we decided to do]: ‘But we’ve decided to feed him three smaller meals instead.’

Nash had an upset stomach at first, but we switched his food over time. from the high carb kibble to cooked chicken and yam at the beginning. He did very well on this protein high, three meal feeding. It helped him to feel secure and kept his blood sugar on an even keel.’

It is painful to read how shut down Nash was at the beginning. He didn’t know his name. Wouldn’t come to his food bowl. Nash was very worried about going through ‘thresholds’ – like through the doors in our house. We were lucky enough to rent a house with a back garden adjoining the house with a sunroom and French doors. Even though it was November when we adopted our little Cairn, we kept the French doors open for him all the time.

Puppy-mill, breeding dogs stay in one place all their lives. It’s not surprising that they would be afraid of going through doorways. At MTAR, with so many dogs to care for, they corral the dogs out of their pens and into a toileting area a couple times per day. For an already nervous dog, this would only heighten their stress levels. Sometimes, he didn’t want to come back indoors and would make a hole in the soil in the bushes and just sleep there. My husband would sleep on the downstairs settee in that case, so that someone was always there for Nash.

A diary entry a few days after Nash came home (all comments in brackets are from original diary entries):

‘Nash was much better today in the garden because (I think this is why?!) I opened the kitchen door and the French doors to the outside and then I just stood and then crouched in the garden. Not moving unless to pick up poop and not speaking. Nash stopped his incessant running or fast paced walking from one end of our 40ft garden up to the door, walking inside sunroom and into kitchen – back and forth – he ended up slowing down. Stopping! Sniffing and then, at the end, as I crouched near the deck, he would walk away and then come up to me, nudge me, let me pat him, over and over. It was a relief.’

Nash got better in some ways – getting used to sounds, going through doors and walking on a leash. But he became more afraid of my husband because of a pairing of events when we first adopted him. Brett had tried to pick up Nash, like he used to pick up our Westie, Bonnie. He tried to do this a few times, out of habit, forgetting that Nash was different to Bonnie.

Brett and I were having an almost silent conflict at the time. Already wary of Brett, Nash picked up on the tension, and started resource guarding me. He had hyper attached to me in the car journey to Bristol and he now would not let Brett near me. Out of desperation, we contacted Dogs Our Secret Lives, the TV Show. We had heard about a chance to be on their show and get free behaviour advice. I have backtracked a bit because I have already said that the hand signal saved us in this situation.

Re-reading the diary has made me realise how much adopted dogs, with limited experience of the world, must cope with. Nash had no depth perception experience. He fell down steps and didn’t know how to climb up or down our terraced house steps at first. Everything was new to him. It’s like being ‘born again’ into a brand-new reality. He had to learn how to jump up and down from the bed and sofa. When Brett or other men were standing or walking, they were scary to Nash, even before the pairing of events. One diary entry, six days after we adopted Nash, on the 15th November entailed a lot of progress for our little Cairn:

‘Nash took some chopped fishy treats from us today. Not from our hands but if I put the in front of him. He is relaxing because he wouldn’t do this before. Slept at the end of our bed last night. Feeling more secure and even will rest beside Brett’s leg or arm.’

On the 18th November, Nash experienced Zoopharmacognosy. He was polite and subdued during the one and half hour session. He preferred the barley greens and spirulina and the olive and rice bran oils. He also chose calendula and green powders. After an hour and a half, he slept. Nash had dental surgery in August 2014. He had eleven extractions and twenty-four stitches:

‘His breath is beautiful, and he no longer pants all the time. We have also started giving Nash anti-anxiety drops (Bach’s Flowers) 3 x day and he is responding very well to these. He even lies down more and rests a lot more during the day…’

 We were grateful for Dr Martin Brice’s (Emerson’s Green Vet Surgery in Bristol) help with Nash’s teeth.  He told us that small terriers like Nash, and puppy-farm dogs, often inherit congenital issues. When it is their teeth, this can likely mean they also have heart issues as well. It was so obvious to us after the dental surgery, that Nash had been suffering with dental pain for much of his life. This contributed to his behaviour. It makes sense if you think how you feel when you’re in pain! So, after Nash’s dental work, he was much calmer and able to learn things like walking on a loose leash and recall. Before his surgery, this was not possible.

I kept up with Nash’s diary for almost one year, my last entry was the 4th September, 2014. I love about re-reading these early days with Nash. Over the four years we shared our lives with him, he evolved so much. He was a very fearful dog without experience of living with humans or walking on a leash or the world. In the end he was the most amazing communicator with other dogs. He was curious, calm, and loved people and other dogs. He had no separation anxiety because we had used the hand signal. The hand signal had also helped him when he was nervous of men, including the men in my family.

Nash died of congenital congestive heart disease on Easter Monday, 2018. Even though his time with us was short, his life was much improved. He touched our lives in a very deep way.

Last night, I listened to Dr Amber Batson speak about the ‘Importance of Sleep’ with Hannah Capon of Canine Arthritis Management (CAM).[i] Amber suggested the use of a diary as a valuable tool for health concerns. We forget things. It is difficult to catch slower changes if we don’t write them down or keep track in some way. Using our mobile phone camera to shoot mini videos of our dog is also a good way to capture the changes with our dogs. Using both written diary and video would be an ideal combination.

There are a few special dog diaries on the market. You don’t need to spend more than a couple pounds for a cheap blank diary at an office supplies store. I have even used a blank notebook and written the date when I observed my dog. The point is to write often and with loving observation.

Much of us have endured quieter times during the last year, but it doesn’t mean that we are not making ourselves busy. People find it difficult to slow down and create new habits that ease this. The Slow Dog Movement’s mission is to help dog guardians slow down. Carl Honoré’s ‘In Praise of Slow’ book (and his 30 Day’s to Slow Workbook) are excellent resources for humans to start slowing down.[ii] It will help our dogs if we can: stop multi-tasking, take regular ‘nothing’ breaks and leave our gadgets at home more often. Another helpful habit is to learn to move calmly around the house instead of at a frantic pace. Perhaps, grab a hot drink and sit and write some diary entries!

I hope that you enjoy the value of a dog diary and welcome your stories and feedback about this post.

The Nash Chronicles Postscript

While writing this blog post, I found something I had written in 2016, about ‘slowing down’ with Nash. Because I have been so busy with building the Slow Dog Movement, my blog posts have been infrequent. I am endeavoring to change this! In a way, it is good this one took so long though as I found this extra bit of writing about Nash:

9 October 2016

‘This week I discovered that I need to do REALLY slow things with Nash …I do take Nash on different walks every week and I try and take him somewhere completely new like a new friend’s house or a shop but this week I did two things differently…and I realized that I need to be very still with Nash more often. I was on the sofa lying down, and I picked up Nash and placed him on my stomach. It took him a little while to settle but then he fell into a deep sleep and started dreaming and twitching. It was so relaxing. I wasn’t asleep but in a very calm state. I know that it was good for both of us. By routinely hanging out with Nash in this prone position, doing nothing, we can truly connect and relax together.

The second thing I did differently and need to do more is, I took Nash into town with me to run an errand. I hadn’t done this very often when we lived in Bath because it was too long of a walk into town. I sometimes took him on the bus, but not often enough. I want to start ‘inoculating’ (This is what Turid Rugaas calls exposing your dog to new and different things, very slowly and regularly so that they get used to life…good for new puppy owners, with the emphasis on S L O W L Y!) Nash with experiences like being in a town, amongst more people and travelling on public transport. He is a rescue ex-breeding Cairn from a puppy farm, so he tends to get very wired if there’s a lot going on around him. He is intensely curious and likes people so his energy spirals quickly when in a town or city!

This week, when we were walking in Penzance town, I realized that Nash had had enough of town life when we walked past a gentleman who was sitting below where we were walking, we were on the raised walkway, on the upper part of the high street and the man’s head was just visible from where he was sitting on a bench, below where we were walking. All Nash could see was a bald head, talking on a phone. Nash tried to bark and jump on the man’s head. Of course, I curved away with Nash, but it showed me that, given time, even bald heads suspended in air may not phase Nash if he sees enough of them. When we adopted Nash, the sound of a teaspoon touching the table would send him into the other room and by the time we lived in Bath, just over a year later, he was used to walking on a bridge with an ambulance blaring beside us. Not pleasant but possible. A little bit at a time, that’s how we do it. 

Nash likes being brushed but does not like being groomed with scissors or anything that makes a metallic noise. I have had success grooming him when we lived on a narrowboat because I could stand in the boat and groom him when he was on the stern deck – with an incentive of treats, of course. As we don’t live on a boat anymore, I have encountered difficulty again…even by doing a small bit at a time…he just would not stay and relax. Until we went camping at the end of July.

As we left the campsite, and the rain poured down, I sat with Nash in the back seat of the car. It’s like one big cozy sofa and he feels safe in this place. I hid treats in his car blanket and slowly started to groom him. He did not flinch like he does in the house. He was calm and relaxed, and I was able to groom him. Our car is not one that gets detailed or that we’re very precious about so a hoover job after a grooming was well worth it.’

Nash knows he looks beautiful and is happier. So am I. Now I need to replicate a quiet and cozy place to groom him in the house. It’s all about paying attention to what works.’

Stay tuned to The Slow Dog Movement blog for more ideas. Join me in creating a sea change – an evolution revolution for dogs. Where ‘less is more’ and seeing things from a dog’s point of view makes life easier for you too!

[i] https://fb.watch/52vMJZAd1s/

[ii] Honoré, Carl. In Praise of Slow: How a Worldwide Movement is Challenging the Cult of Speed. Orion Books, London, 2005.

Slow Grief

I haven’t lost a dog since Easter Monday 2018. Before that, it was February 2013. Both were Scottish terriers – one a Cairn and one a Westie. They both died in my arms of all system failure. They passed in the wee hours with no medical intervention. Nash, our Cairn, was on heart medication. They didn’t want to rush to the vet in the middle of the night – they went fast. Bonnie had been our dog from a pup and had lived in three countries with us. She left us at almost 17 years of age. She was healthy her entire life and died of natural causes. Nothing is good about it. Death is part of life.

I recently posted an old photo of our dog, Nash (the Cairn) on Facebook. He was an ex-breeding dog from a puppy farm. We adopted him when he was seven years old from Many Tears Animals Rescue in Wales. When we learnt about Nash’s bad teeth, when we adopted him, we didn’t know until later that this meant his heart was bad. Born with congenital heart weakness, he died of congestive heart failure. Like my Father did in 2015. When you adopt a dog with health issues, you try to make their life beautiful and healthy. You don’t dwell on the issue. At least we didn’t. It does not make it any easier when they leave you.

When I posted that photo of Nash on a UK Cairn Terrier group, the response was immense! I know none of the people in this group but felt like sharing a photo of my boy, Nash, RIP. Four hundred and thirty-seven people interacted with the post and seventy-nine wrote personal messages to me! Many left sayings, poems and spoke of their own lost Cairn. When my Mother passed away last year, only sixty-four people engaged. Forty-six people left comments – and these are my Facebook friends! My Mum was a lovely person, that’s not it. It’s the fact that people grieve deeply over dogs.

 In this blog, I will talk about all the elements of grief (we feel) over a beloved dog. And about Slow Grief – the grief that takes time to process, and sometimes, never leaves us at all.

Right now, I am grieving the loss of my Mum, over one year ago. It is still painful, fresh, and debilitating. On the anniversary of her death, in September 2020, I couldn’t walk. I was exhausted. Sad doesn’t even come close. I have been making notes on this blog for months now. I wrote another blog post altogether because this one wasn’t complete. This blog has also been published in the Pet Dog Trainers of Europe January 2021 Newsletter. Because of grief, for my Mum, I wasn’t ready to give this subject the attention it deserves. Ironic but true.

Grieving for my Mum, brings back all the grief I have had in the past for the dogs who have left my life. I grieved for my first dog, Muffin, when I left Canada for the UK in 1984. I missed him more than my Mum at the time. I cried into my pillow for many nights in my new ‘digs’. I was working in a Cotswold village B&B. When my Mum told me he had passed away, I blamed her. When I had seen photos of Muffin, he had gained a lot of weight for a Chihuahua cross JRT. My Mum had tried to convince me to give him away to an old lady in West Vancouver because Mum was moving to South Africa. I refused and said I would come home to look after my dog. It was then that he died. I felt so much regret and guilt. I was young, and at nineteen, should have been exploring the world. But my heart was with my dog. I was too late. I lost him. I still remember everything about him. The way his hair felt when I stroked him, his bright eyes and his little foot pads. He left me thirty-five years ago.

I don’t think about him every day anymore. But when I do, there is love. When we allow our hearts to feel the grief – to ‘wallow’, it is healthy. It’s like a peat fire or a bit of hardwood in the wood burner of the heart. We experience emotion and process it in the time that feels right for us. Slow Grief is to allow the time for all the feelings losing a dog (or human) can bring. If you have a friend who has lost a dog, ‘Do NOT impose a timeline for feeling better – there is no timeline for grief.’[i]

When we lost Bonnie, our Westie, I cried on and off for three months. I definitely ‘wallowed’ in grief. I felt as if I had frozen my diaphragm because I cried so much. My son is seventeen now – it’s a long time to be close to a sentient being, human or dog. I slept on Bonnie’s bed, I lit candles every night, I wrote poetry and held a wake after a couple of weeks. It was early March in London and it was cold! About fifteen people came and shared single malt whiskey, tea and shortbread with us for about three hours. I displayed photos of Bonnie, heather plants and candles to honour her. I even shared my soppy poems. It felt good to do this and cathartic. It says alot about people relating to the death of a dog, that fifteen folks would show up in a London Rec on a cold March day.

Reflecting over your life with your lost dog is a natural and positive thing to do. Pour over photos, sit with loved ones and remember your dog. Or sit alone and write down beautiful memories of your best friend. When you do this, you are healing your loss. You can do these positive things alongside feeling the pain of grief. But with the pain, let it run loose – don’t try to shape it.[ii] Mourning need not be a creative exercise. It doesn’t need to be a ‘scrapbook’ experience. My ruminating over Bonnie gave me a certain ‘freedom’ in the end. I miss her to this day, but I am not in pain anymore.

Moments before Bonnie died in my arms, in a panic, we felt it necessary to find an emergency vet. She was almost gone so it was futile. My brain didn’t work, nor my fingers when I tried to use my laptop to find where we could go at three in the morning. Immediately after, I was holding my Bonnie and she was gone. I sat in the car and we went to the emergency vet anyways.

We sped towards Richmond (we lived in Chiswick), along Thames Road. We were all wailing in grief. I said to my husband, ‘Just drive into the Thames’ and my son yelled from the back ‘No Mum, I don’t want to die!’ He was ten years old. Poor guy. That is very macabre and actually quite funny to me now. But we go crazy when we lose our loved ones.

We had handed Bonnie’s body to the lovely Scottish veterinarian and went home to share ½ a bottle of Whiskey. We cried until we fell asleep. It was not a pleasant sleep as we missed Bonnie’s warmth between us. Our hearts broke that night.

Bonnie was our ‘first born’ we joked. My husband worked at night so that he could be at home with her during the day when I was at my office job. As time went on, we took her to each of our jobs. One beautiful summer’s evening with Bonnie, I was sitting in a local park. An older man came over and told me I should have a real baby. Bonnie was being a dog, beside me. He was wrong. My bond with my dog was so deep and real. I did have a human child seven years later. Henry was my second ‘child’!

It’s been seven years since Bonnie left us and I still haven’t given away or gotten rid of her leash, coat or blanket. It smells like ‘old dog’ and any feng shui person would tell me to throw them away. When she was younger, we used to say that her feet smelt like ‘soda crackers’ and her head like watermelon. I have a silver heart shaped ‘dog tag’ pendant that I wear. It says ‘cracker feet’ and ‘Bonnie’ on one side and ‘Maist Michty’ on the other side. ‘Maist Michty’ is the Scottish dialect from Greyfriar’s Bobby meaning ‘Most extraordinary’. We become very intimate with our dogs. We spend as much time with them as we do our partners. Or more? Is it any wonder that we grieve for so long? Try and read Eleanor Stackhouse Atkinson’s, ‘Greyfriar’s Bobby’. Or watch the film, the older version.

I would like to share with you, some of the raw emotions I experienced when Bonnie died. I haven’t read these pages torn from my 2013 diary for some time and they still give me a lump in my throat. I am a paper ‘pack rat’ for good reason. This makes me realise that even though I miss my Mum, I haven’t written a word in my diary, nevermind poetry.

Written in my diary, the day Bonnie died 27th February 2013:

Our beloved Bonnie died near midnight of this day – may she chase rabbits and squirrels in the fields of heaven until we can do our special family whistle and welcome her in our arms once again.

The day after Bonnie died, 28th February 2013, I wrote:

Warmer day – damn Spring – why didn’t it come earlier for Bon. Crying all day, my skin feels on fire. I am hollow, everything is flat, my heart feels broken – literally, a pain in my chest. I can barely lift my limbs. I can’t smell because I have cried too much. My impulse is to write, emails, FB and phone my Mom – to let out feelings, share the pain and to reach out to family and friends – but I can only talk to my Mom. At 02:37 I get up and drink water, write and call Allison [sister in California]. Hot milk and back to bed at 04:20 am. I am mad at the birds for not singing when Bonnie was still here. I don’t sleep very well.

There is no right way or wrong way to grieve. It’s not helpful to bottle it up because then, it may make you ill in some way – there needs to be some sort of release. Grief is personal. Grief is subjective. Grief is universal. You can bury grief. Often, your grief is often uncomfortable to others. Other people can even hijack your grief. If this happens, you may feel like keeping it closer to you again – returning to the private experience of your loss.

Diary entry, 1st March 2013:

I go to Spitalfields but can barely walk and I cry when alone. I can talk to others but feel brittle and am exhausted when I come home. My body still feels empty/gutted. I care not for the world, without Bonnie. Brett and I talk about our guilt over not being Bonnie’s advocate with the vet in her last days. I go to bed very sad but sleep okay.

It feels like Bonnie’s spirit has left our house a bit. I reach out to find her and I can’t and this is distressing to me.

The day that Bonnie had died, she had had trouble breathing that morning. We had taken her to the vet, and he had prescribed some allopathic medicine that may help her. I asked him what the side effects were, and he said anxiety and a worsening of the situation. In retrospect, I wish we had never given her that medicine. She rarely had pharmaceuticals. She suffered from the side effects on her last day on the planet. She died from natural causes, but with added anxiety from those pills. Poor girl. Still, there is no point in going over the guilt. What we can do is learn from these doubts and be more of an advocate for our next dog.

Diary entry, 3rd March 2013:

Too much room on the bottom shelf of the fridge where your meat used to be. I save the last mouthful of oatmeal [porridge] and remember you’re not here to eat it. Empty bed, empty bowl. Empty passenger seat . Leash with no pull. No begging at mealtimes. No sound of your nails on the floor. I can wear black now, no white hairs – oh for your mark on me! What do I do on Monday when Brett goes to work? Walk, all I can do. I can’t be here. Every song on the radio reminds me of you, my girl.

When we drop food accidentally on the floor at mealtimes, no rush not to pick it up. My midnight yogurt [snack] buddy is gone. You’re the reason that Brett could join the Chris Evans breakfast club [on Radio 2] And besides all these trivial things, our reason to be… you shaped our lives, the rhythm of our days, with the clink of your food bowl, the tinkling of your leash and tags being the hands [of a clock] ticking.

I conclude my own Westie grief with this poem. I wrote it and posted it on the local Rec fence to announce Bonnie’s wake in London. The corniness of it makes me wince a bit now but I was completely devastated:

After Bonnie died that February 2013, my son and I went to Canada in June. Brett followed us and we spread her ashes in her favourite West Vancouver stream. I had planned to scatter rose petals along with the ash in this little river. Like the macabre scene of us driving along the Thames, the scattering of ashes did not go as planned either. If you know anything about mammal ashes, well, they are heavy! I had not experienced this lesson in physics before. The roses went sailing down the river and the ash soon sunk to the bottom. Another tragi-comedy. And that wasn’t the only crazy thing that happened around Bonnie’s passing.

The author Emile Zola said:
‘Can’t you see, an animal’s death
is something very special. But,
obviously it cannot touch or affect anyone else other than the
one who loved it.’

We went to view Bonnie’s body at the crematorium. This was more for Brett than myself, as he had not come to terms that she was actually gone. It was a very impersonal and odd time. I did not enjoy seeing the giant smoke stack as we approached the building. The ‘Pet Remembrance Garden’ outside was sad and tasteless. As we entered the building on the outskirts of London, there was no one but a recorded voice to greet us. It told us to have a seat. No one else was in the waiting room. We sat and looked at their book of pet remembrance. As we sat in this room, we could see Bonnie’s name (spelled wrong) on a TV, above the door. The time came for us to enter the viewing room and I followed Brett into a dark room with a table inside. A woman who worked for the crematorium stood by Bonnie’s body. Our beloved dog smelled like disinfectant.

When I touched her, there was no lifeforce – she felt like a carpet. Brett started crying. I asked the woman if Bonnie had rigor mortis and she said that that stage had already passed. Now, she said, Bonnie’s limbs were quite bendable – and she started to bend them back and forth! Oh my God, I was completely shocked. At the same time, the craziness of the situation made Brett and I laugh afterwards. Death, as in life, is never simple. We gave Bonnie a beautiful wake and scattered her ashes.

We still have Nash’s ashes. We had no wake for him. It is strange, but we don’t know as many dog friends here in Cornwall, after five years, as we did in London after one year. I once saw a woman hold a public wake in our local park in East Vancouver. She had made a sort of ‘grotto’ with sheets hanging from trees, to make a kind of tent. She had candles burning, photos of her dog on the ‘walls’ of the grotto and a pile of toys to give away to dog friends. She was talking to all the people and dogs who came into her mourning tent cave, her altar to her dead dog. It was very touching.

The point is to do what is right for you, in your own time. You will know what feels appropriate. In ‘How to Make an Old Dog Happy’ by Olivier Lagalisse, it says that some people still have their dogs taxidermied. I remember seeing this a few times when I was growing up, in Canada. But Canadians, hunters, seemed to do this a lot back then. It is not to my taste, but who is to judge? I wish that we could have buried Bonnie on our land in Canada or spread her ashes there. Being in a city, without land, people may have to be more creative than Brett and I at the crematorium.

On the Isles of Scilly, there is an unofficial animal cemetery on the edge of a stunning beach. Tall dune grass surrounds the little graves. Families have made driftwood headstones with jars of flowers as decoration. In the end the details about burial and ashes are important. But they are not the most lasting and poignant feelings that remain. They are a marker of a life you wish to remember. They can offer a place to return to pay your respects.

It is an understatement to say that last year (and into this one) has been difficult for many of us. A global crisis affecting us all. Some of our PDTE colleagues have lost their dogs. As I knew I was writing this article/blog on Slow Grief, I paid extra attention to their posts. I felt for their losses.

There are many articles online, guides to coping with the loss of a dog and they can be helpful. This article is to speak of the beauty of allowing grief to be public and ‘out there’ and to let this be any length of song. This is an example of such public sorrow. A cathartic ode.

Federica Iacozzilli gave me permission to share her writings about her dog Mr. Nano, whom she lost in June 2020:

photo credit Federica Iacozzilli

Vivere senza di te non sarà facile.
Mein Engel, mein Ich, mein Alles.
Torna presto.

Living without you won’t be easy.
My angel my me my everything
Come back soon.

Being close to someone silently
with constancy and delicacy, there is enormous dignity.
My heart, my heart.

Today marks a week you’ve been gone,

You left everyone in the void, we’re all disconnected and disconnected, untied where
before there was unity and cohesion.
Franco is very angry you know…
I think I underestimated how close you
really were.

He’s in the shoes of the man of the house,
not that I put them on him, and I think
this role really scares him. You were there,
before, to adjust everything… even with
your presence. Sometimes he just changes
his expression and leaves to be alone. I try
to lift it up a bit, but I’m not too capable of
it. You knew how to do it right, you

Lilli looks pulled, tired… sometimes she looks at me with those
dark, liquid eyes, who almost seems to want to ask me why all this
happened. You know that she’s not one to open yet, since you’re
not there, I can see it in her face.

I know it’s going to take time, but for now it all sucks.
I miss you so much, Mr. Nano, I miss you so much…
This morning I found all the mole [more] of how much I miss you.
We think it’s better, because we get used to the deafening and brutal absence, because we get into a new routine, made of new things
and new spaces. But nothing is enough.

A walk with one of the others is enough, through the dark streets at
dawn in the morning, because the absence fills up like a boulder.
Remembering how much you liked to go out on the street when no
one was there yet, how much you liked to play on your deafness
(selective, very selective) to have the excuse to look at me and leave
on your own business.

I don’t think you’ll ever get used to the terrible devouring black hole
that leaves such a great absence. Never. Never. Anyway, Mr. Nano,
you always accompany me one way or another. #MrN

Thank you, Federica for sharing your heartfelt, beautiful, and even joyful words about Mr Nano.

Whether we lose rescue dogs or dogs we have known from a pup, they weave themselves into our very being. With their pure essence. Their generosity of spirit. Their trust or even their initial distrust. They often teach us how to be better guardians, and better people. So much unspoken time with dogs, by our side, gets under our skin. When they are gone, we see them – phantom sightings. We mark time by the day, week, month, year – the ebb and flow of grief throughout the first year. In the first year and beyond, we may be touched by something unexpected, into a sudden feeling of the loss anew. A burst of tears or anger may arise.

The idea of Slow Grief is to allow yourself time and space to feel everything. To wallow in the grief. Name it with words. At the same time, celebrate your lost friend by remembering all the stories. Look at photos, create art, poems, and honour the way they filled your life with purpose beyond the daily walk. When we slow down and go into the emotions around death, instead of tidying it away, we will suffer less in the end. Our pain will transform, over time, into a melancholy or longing. Not that having no sadness is the goal. In years to come, we may see a photo and be able to smile without looking to the floor first.

Stay tuned to The Slow Dog Movement blog for more ideas. Join me in creating a sea change – an evolution revolution for dogs. Where ‘less is more’ and seeing things from a dog’s point of view makes life easier for you too!

Harding, D.E. The Little Book of Life and Death. London, Arkana, 1988
Lagalisse, Olivier. J’aide mon chien à bien vieillir. How to Make an Old Dog Happy. Translated by Elfreda Powell. London, Souvenir Press, 2005
Porter, Max. Grief is the Thing With Feathers. London, Faber and Faber, 2015

[i] https://www.vetmed.wsu.edu/outreach/pet-losshotline/support-for-bereaved/dos-and-don’ts

[ii] https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/ animal-attachment/201702/7-self-care-essentialswhile-grieving-the-death-pet