The phone call came from a family whose young Rottweiler had just bitten someone — severely. And since this was his second recorded bite, he faced euthanasia. Rehabilitation was the only hope of saving his life. As a cocky young dog trainer, I was energized by this challenge.
My first meeting with the dog was with the intention of helping him change his outlook so he could survive and be happier. What I didn’t know then was the effect he would have on me.
When I arrived at the home, a father, mother and teenage daughter greeted me. Angry barking came from a crate that was violently bouncing around in the middle of the room. As I looked inside, I was met with growling, gnashing teeth and eyes that revealed both fear and hate. This was Thor.
Sitting down with the family, I asked some basic questions. Gradually, I realized that they had no interest in working with Thor. They only wanted to find him another home so he wouldn’t be put to sleep. Finally, they asked, “Can YOU take him?”
Surprised, I found the idea a bit exciting. I already had two dogs at home, a Mastiff and an Akita mix. I also had a wife who was pregnant with our first child. I couldn’t possibly take Thor; that would be too disruptive. But having my own Rottweiler to work with was tempting. I told them I needed a few days to think about it.
After discussing it with my wife (well, more like begging), I agreed to take Thor.
Safety was paramount. I built a chain link kennel in my basement that would be Thor’s temporary home. The kennel had two sections so he could be in one half while I cleaned the other half.
At first, I couldn’t go near him. I used a snare pole to get him into the crate in my truck, then into my basement. He seemed interested only in making me his next meal. This was going to be difficult. Thor wanted, no needed, to be in control.
I had to show him I would not hurt him, only help him. When I approached the kennel with his food bowl and asked him to “Sit,” he attacked the gate. So I walked away. Thor had missed this meal. A few hours later, I gave him another chance. This went on for two days. Finally, hunger won out. Thor sat down and allowed me to put down the bowl. He ate eagerly, watching me and growling. It was a good start.
In the weeks and months that followed, I won Thor’s trust. He learned that he no longer needed to control everything. He joined the family in the rest of the house. Eventually, Thor became my “demo” dog, an example of what can be achieved with persistence and commitment.
Fast forward about three years. Thor was my constant companion as I traveled from my Vermont home to my New Jersey animal training center, where I often spent the night. Evenings in the center were very quiet. With no television or Internet, I spent a great deal of time contemplating what it would be like to perceive the world as a dog does — trying to see through a dog’s eyes. This had been a passion of mine since childhood. And my fascination had grown because I was immersed in the exploration of Mindfulness, studying with a Zen Master and Taoist priest in Vermont.
On an intellectual level, I knew that the Mindfulness concept of living in the moment had to be similar to how a dog sees the world. My frustration was that I couldn’t experience it. As much as I tried, I kept coming up short. This discontent was exacerbated by my feeling that my work as a behaviorist was becoming, well, boring. I felt I was at a dead end. Was this all there was? I desperately wanted to achieve greater understanding.
One night, at the height of my frustration, I was sitting on the floor looking at Thor. He was lying there, as dogs often do, just looking at … what? He was thinking about … what?? I suddenly had an overwhelming urge to get inside his head. I wanted to “become” him. I knew the secret was locked behind those large brown eyes, inside that massive skull. What was going on in there?
Was he thinking about anything? No. Thinking, at least as humans do, is basically just a manipulation of symbols. It’s an inner dialogue — planning, remembering, evaluating, etc. Thor couldn’t do that. He couldn’t review his day or plan for tomorrow. That would require advanced abstract thought, something for which dogs are not equipped they way humans are. So what WAS he doing? He was just observing and experiencing everything that was coming in through his senses at THIS moment. he wasn’t thinking about future goals, or formulating long-term plans. He was just Here, Now.
I watched his breathing, and began to match my breath to his. No stories, no words … just experience …
At once, as if a great curtain were lifted, it hit me. To Thor, his life wasn’t a Journey to be taken, but a Dance to be enjoyed. He wasn’t guided by a map and an itinerary, but was responding to life’s present rhythm. The meaning of life to Thor was musical, and he was dancing with it, not trying to control or conquer it.
I gave Thor a hug. He growled — he always hated to be hugged — but he also looked at me with an expression of understanding. It was as if he were saying, “What took you so long?”
In my last few moments with Thor I wondered what he was feeling. I found peace in the knowledge that he didn’t know his life was coming to a close, and he wasn’t left with a feeling of incompleteness – that he had more to accomplish. To him, as long as he was breathing the music was still playing and he was dancing.
Thor passed many years a go, and now that I am older I often think back to when I was that cocky young dog trainer. There was nothing I couldn’t accomplish. My journey was just beginning. When these thoughts turn to frustration at the time past and some of the goals unrealized, I think about Thor and the lesson he taught me. It’s like putting on a pair of comfortable shoes. Not with the intention of going anywhere, but so I can dance to the music.