Animal Wise: ‘Guides’ sheds light on difficult subjects

Photo by MabelAmber:Pixabay(Photo by MabelAmber/Pixabay)

As much as Susan Chernak McElroy gets it right with Animals as Teachers and Healers (Ballantine Books, 1997), she gets right to the heart with Animals as Guides for the Soul (Ballantine Books, 1998).

This follow-up is not only a worthy exploration of the relationship between humans and animals, but also a potentially transforming walk through some of the thorniest aspects of these relationships.

8482McElroy, who has worked as a technical writer and editor as well as in several animal-related occupations, writes largely from her experience on a small Wyoming farm. Insights from people who wrote to her after reading her previous book are included.

I appreciate so much in Guides for the Soul, but here are three primary take-aways.

The first is that the healing benefits of our relationships with animals are often subtle, but no less powerful. It isn’t always the spectacular, tossing-away-the-cane miracle with the therapy dog. More often, it’s the steady warmth of the cat curled up on the patient’s lap or the jingling of tags along a quiet country road day after day. Sometimes the miracle is only seen in hindsight.

“We are so conditioned to expect drama and heroics in healing that we forget the staggering importance of all the healing that goes unseen,” says McElroy, a cancer survivor. (Check out this wonderful six-minute video about two guys — one a morbidly overweight human, the other a middle-aged rescue dog — who healed each other.)

What if, she asks, we were to believe that the being at the end of the leash, in the cat carrier, or on a perch could heal by his or her very presence, offering exactly what is needed in every moment? That the dog nuzzling a crying adult was administering critical emotional first aid, or the horse heard the bullied teen as no one else could? Is that so far off the mark?

Second, McElroy delves into the rocky territory of death in a way that can benefit anyone who has lost a much-loved animal, particularly when the loss is accompanied by shame and guilt. These experiences and memories, however long ago, stick to us until we acknowledge their multilayered impact, she says.

Quoting respected authors on pet loss as well as people confronting long-buried grief and remorse, she offers perspective and tools for healing. However, she is respectful enough not to put forth easy answers. The stories of McElroy’s precious llama, Phaedra; and Jody Seay’s elderly black Lab friend McKenzie, are likely to bring both a tear and a spark of hope.

Finally, even when the animals involved are not our own, what can we do when we witness the inexplicable and cruel? When McElroy was about 11, a young coyote with his mangled leg still dangling in a steel-jaw trap was part of a wildlife exhibit at a nearby park. Day after day, he lay in a rusting wire cage with no food or water. She pleaded with the park rangers to care for the coyote. They ignored her. She begged her parents to do something, wrote to the local paper, and contacted the town mayor and her family’s veterinarian.

No adult would intervene until she called Mrs. Roberts, the mother of a friend, who picketed the park. The exhibit shut down within a week. The coyote made the front page of the local paper and was released to Mrs. Roberts, whose veterinarian husband helped care for the coyote in a backyard pen. Months later, Mrs. Roberts drove the coyote to the desert and released him back into the wild.

“She reminded me that although it was she who freed the coyote, it was I who had brought the coyote to her attention. At the age of eleven, I learned that one person can stand up against suffering and make a difference,” McElroy recalls.

We should all have, or be, a Mrs. Roberts.

The green-eyed monster: jealous dogs

Photo by 9DamnedDogs on Foter.com : CC BY-NC-SA (1)

Got dogs vying for your attention? You’re not imagining it. (Photo by 9DamnedDogs on Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA)

A University of California study gives scientific credence to what we’ve known all along: Dogs get jealous.

The 2014 study by Christine R. Harris and Caroline Prouvost found that when their owners displayed affection toward an animatronic stuffed dog that barked, whined, and wagged its tail, the dogs snapped at and pushed against the stuffed dog and tried to get between it and their human. The 36 dogs were videotaped at their homes while their owners ignored them and interacted with a series of three objects: the stuffed dog, a children’s book, and a plastic jack-o-lantern.

The study looked only at small-breed dogs such as corgis, pugs, and dachshunds, apparently so the dogs would be easier to control if things got out of hand. One of my favorite sayings is, “The smaller the dog, the bigger the attitude,” but I’ve seen dogs of every size, breed, and temperament get their noses out of joint over having to compete for a human’s attention.

The dogs in this study were much more miffed by the stuffed dog, and more specifically the human’s interactions with it, than they were by the person reading aloud from the book or showering attention on the pumpkin. Being ignored in favor of an inanimate object is one thing. The interaction with something so doglike that its butt had to be sniffed (which 86 percent of the dogs in the study did) made the difference. The study was published in PLOS One, a peer-reviewed online scientific journal.

So, how much of a problem is canine jealousy? Relatively little snapping was reported on the part of the dogs in this study. Since dogs are not inclined to hold grudges, it’s reasonable to assume that the next time you encounter the phrase “jealous rage,” it will not apply to a dog’s behavior.

Still, there is an important reminder here for maintaining a more just and happy household: There’s no substitute for one-on-one time.

If a friend’s dog is staying with us, Molly — our golden retriever/German shepherd/collie rescue with her share of issues — is fine with sharing her space and toys. But if my partner or I pet the guest dog, Molly wedges herself between us. This is when I make sure Molly gets just as much attention and lap time (yes, my 60-pound dog thinks she’s a lapdog) as she normally does. This makes her feel more secure and lets the visitor know where he stands.

It’s also not unusual for animals to feel threatened by the arrival of a new four-legged family member. Every time an animal joins or leaves a household or herd, that small civilization shifts. The rules and hierarchies are reset. This is especially true for cats, whose independence and territorial nature does not preclude forming strong bonds with other animals and humans. Spending some one-on-one time, even if it’s just a few minutes a day of play, walking, or snuggling, with each animal will help everyone (including you) feel fully loved and appreciated.

Of course, thanks to the power of the canine nose, a potential rival need not be present to  merit suspicion. When I go home after an in-person animal Reiki session or my rounds at Summit Equestrian Center, I can count on a thorough sniff-over from Molly. She gathers all kinds of data about where I’ve been and with whom. While she doesn’t entirely approve, generally within a few minutes she’s ready to move on to something else — going outside, angling for a treat, or making sure the UPS man knows the premises are protected. I still make sure she knows that even though I have been out working with other dogs (and cats, horses, pigs, sheep, etc.), I am happy to see her.

Like our previous dog, Ellie, Molly also has a knack for coming into the room and settling beside me when I’m sending distant Reiki energy to an animal, especially another dog. She doesn’t mind … but she doesn’t want to be left out, either. Fortunately, there is always enough Reiki to go around.