Lao Tse wrote that we should honor our enemies for they, better than anyone else, teach us patience. I would never consider any of my Newfs to be my enemy, but my Newfs have surely helped me to learn patience.
Kaloosit, our first Newf, showed me that I had a temper. I had never realized that before. One morning when Kaloosit was about four months old, I had let her out to "get busy" one last time before being closed into the kitchen (this was time BC [Before Crates] for Consie and me). She knew I was going to close her into the kitchen and she refused to come when I called (smart dog, Kaloosit). She would not run away, but she would not come. I chased her. She thought that was great fun. I began to see this dog not as black, but in shades of red. Thoughts I had never known I could think came to mind: thoughts like, "When I catch you, I am going to thrash you within an inch of your life." And when I did, finally, catch her, I did hit her (with my hand) more than I should have. When I realized how I had lost control of myself, I sat on the ground next to her, hugged her and cried. She, of course, kissed me and told me she forgave me. But I had learned that I had a temper and that I must learn to control it. Thank you, Kaloosit, for teaching me one of my life's important lessons. I shall never forget.
After that, Kaloosit tried to teach me patience. As she matured into adolescence, she sometimes had ideas very much her own and those ideas sometimes did not correspond well with mine. In those years, Kaloosit worked with me every day the woods of Michigan's Upper Peninsula. I studied fishers, large members of the weasel family, in hopes of obtaining Ph.D. and Kaloosit hauled gear into the woods for me and hauled fishers out when we caught them. She sometimes decided did not want to wait in the jeep when I wanted her to; or, alternatively, that she did not want to hike with me when I wanted her to do that. At these times, we had a confrontation of wills. I did not lose my temper and, over time, I did learn to think patiently through the problem to understand her point of view as best I could. Then, with more patience on my part, she and I could resolve our confrontation.
I know that some people believe that dogs should be trained to obey their people, no matter what. I am, however, of a different school. I want my dogs to think on their own and to contradict me at times when they know something important that I do not know. They know that I am the alpha “dog” in our pack. But they also know that sometimes they know something I need to know and at those times they must tell me. Training dogs that think on their own is not easy because the dogs must learn perspective. They must become familiar with the jobs they do and be able to make decisions on their own. I do not want to have to tell my dog whether she scoot under or jump over a fallen tree. I do not want to have to tell her whether she should wade through the stream or walk a log over it. I want my dogs able to make those decisions their own. And I want them to learn to judge correctly they should obey and when the rare occasion has occurred when they should not. During the learning process, the often rate their own opinions too highly and must be taught what is important enough that they should disobey and, what is not so important. Teaching a dog judgment takes patience to work through the dog's mistakes, mistakes that are necessary for the learning process to work.
Ishkoodah, who is now 10 and who has worked with in the woods more than any other dog since Kaloosit, taught me another simple lesson of patience, showing me that my skills at patience are imperfect. It was winter northern Wisconsin, and we had worked all morning hauling firewood. Early that morning I had cut down several small standing dead oaks and a white birch or two. Once the trees were on the ground, I cut them in lengths that Ishkoodah and I could haul on her toboggan uphill to the woodshed. During the morning, she and I hauled load after load up the hill through the woods.
After our lunch break, Ishkoodah would not cooperate. I assumed that she was experiencing after-lunch doldrums. When the first load was strapped to the toboggan, she would not pull. I became impatient. I urged her, with words I can not print, to pull. She hauled the load a paltry few meters. I tore into her verbally and told her up one side and down the other how she was not helping to get the job done. Ishkoodah looked at me with her big, brown eyes and an "I can't help it" expression that I completely ignored at first but then noticed as she again tried to haul her load but could not.
During lunch, her foreleg had slipped between the chest straps of her harness and now, as she hauled, the harness pulled her foreleg from under her. She could not haul the load, but I had not been patient enough to give her harness a thorough check before restarting work.
Of course, as Kaloosit had done so many years before, Ishkoodah forgave me and accepted my apologies. We finished our job, with Ishkoodah's harness worn correctly and the two of us working together as always. Ishkoodah knew her work and did it well. I had received another lesson on the importance of patience.
I sometimes wish I could learn as quickly as my dogs. I have yet to master this patience trick, yet have lived with Newfies for three full Newfy-lifetimes. If I work hard, none of my dogs will need to teach me patience in the future. But, given my human fallibility, if I need a lesson, I know my dogs will be there to give it to me.
Next time your dog irks you, stop. Be patient. Think. And give her a hug from me.
reprinted from NewfTide 1998