by Ellen Landauer
The White Dove was whisked into our lives by a damp, bone-chilling November wind. He stayed long enough to teach me something I needed to know...
On a profoundly dark, rainy and windy November day, two white creatures come to visit.
It is one of those overcast late November days. Shiny wet mats of cordovan brown oak leaves cloaking the ground glint in the dim light. Grey mist envelops swaying hemlock and pines, and the bare branches of beech and oak trees.
A woman has brought her dog, a 170 pound pure white Great Pyrenees for our first training session. With thick coat and head the size of a basketball, he resembles a bear. Problem: aggression towards people other than his owner.
I meet them down on the lower lawn.
The Pyrenees looks sullen and eyes me suspiciously. Clearly he is unsure and ready to be defensive. If I do the wrong thing, it will provoke him. Knowing food could help to soften and supple his stress, I go back up to the house to get some dog treats. The woman insists her dog won't be interested in food.
Approaching the house, I see out of the corner of my eye what looks like a big white piece of paper blown by a gust of wind. It whisks out of sight around a corner of the house. Totally absorbed with dog and owner, I quickly forget about it.
Returning to the woman and dog, I can tell the Pyrenees does not look ready to connect with me at all. Turning away, he won't even look at me. He is in total avoidance. I have an idea.
'Let's take a walk in the woods,' I suggest. 'You and he follow close behind me on the path. This will allow him to relax more before we do anything.'
Most dog trainers would try right away to interact with such a dog, attempting to sweet-talk him out of his resistance and rigidity, to make a little eye contact or offer food. Usually this is counterproductive.
Fear-aggressive dogs would feel every attempt at contact, even the food, as something of which to be suspicious. Such an approach would be perceived by the dog as someone closing in on, compressing them. NOT a great idea when there is an explosive emotional charge built up deep inside them!
For the Pyrenees to soften, his curiosity and need to connect with something new (me) needs to come from inside him. He needs to feel safe and un-pressured to open up. Walking in the woods can soften him and allow him to feel we are 'hunting' together as we explore in the calming environment among the trees.
With the dog on a 6 foot lead, the woman follows me into the woods. Anything more than a very surreptitious glance on my part will trigger him. I maintain a very neutral presence, with a little soft glance back just to see where he is and how he is responding. After a few minutes, I slow down and without turning toward him, take a little food out of the food pouch. I hold it in my hand behind my back as he catches up to me.
The Pyrenees is too nervous to take any food yet, and I don't try to tempt him with it. That would just make him more resistant. I do see that his nose is wiggling just a bit and his head is a little more forward.
Another few minutes walking in the woods and he is leaning into his collar a little, pulling toward me. When I stop with the food in my hand behind my back, he hesitantly takes it. That may seem like a tiny step - but from the dog's perspective it is huge.
He is ready to do some food work. We return to the lower lawn. I can see that the little bit of contact in the woods was a big deal for him. He has to go off and sniff the ground for a few moments. I walk away. He turns to look at me. I give him a tiny 'come hither' glance, then move away a little coyly. He follows, coming closer, then takes another piece of food from my relaxed palm.
I gently back away from the Pyrenees, another piece of food ready in my hand. My opposite hand is fully in his view, waiting for him to stretch his neck over it to reach the food. His soft neck fur caresses my left hand as he takes another morsel.
Gradually, I am able to massage his throat and provide a little resistance so he begins to push his neck against my hand to reach for the treat. His owner is amazed that he is going for the food.
I give the Pyrenees a break, then do a little more. He is more sure of pushing toward me for the food. He looks more relaxed, gives me some eye contact, and has a more confident demeanor.
Before the woman and dog leave, I show her how to do the food and pushing. I suggest that a large portion of his food should be given in this way every day to open him emotionally and begin to build calmness and confidence.
The lesson over, I go back up to the house.
Imagine my surprise to find the surreal spectacle of a pure white dove sitting on the waterlogged lawn near the front deck! He is bedraggled and looks very tired. Assuredly, he is lost.
An avid pigeon fancier years ago, I know just what to do and how to be around the dove in a way that won't scare him off. First, I bring out a large pan of water and some food - rice, wheat and split peas. Moving slowly and softly, not too close, I put the pan down, scatter a little grain nearby, then step away.
It doesn't take long for the dove to take a drink and gobble up the food. Kneeling nearby, I throw a little more grain on the ground closer to me. Within the hour, the dove is eating out of my hand, his silken neck feathers caressing my wrist. A little like food and pushing with the Pyrenees.
Not long after, he sits on my knee as he eats out of my hand. Our love affair has begun.
I am concerned because he seems so nonchalant walking about the lawn. What about the neighbor's cat, or a fox or...
From inside, I keep an eye on him as dusk approaches. But I needn't have worried. Stepping outside a little later, he is nowhere to be seen. Until I notice him up on the roof. White dove found a perfect shelter under the clerestory eave at the peak of the roof.
The weeks pass, and the passion grows.
Soon, every time I step outside in the morning, I can't even turn around before the wings of the dove are beating around my ears and he claims the top of my head as his perch.
I know what you're thinking.... BIRD POOP! Amazingly, he never makes a mistake.
Any time I go outside, if the white dove is at a distance, or sitting on the roof, all I have to do is reach out my hand to him and he flies to me. It is a most amazing feeling to enjoy a harmonious bond of attraction with an essentially wild creature.
He flies free, coming to me of his own volition. He graces our house, bestowing untold blessings with his presence at the peak of the roof.
Of course, there was the night that the FedEx man showed up. I switch on the front door light and step out to get my package. Turning to go back inside, I feel like I am being watched. There, on the top of the big globe light is - Bird. He had been presiding over the visit of the FedEx man unnoticed!
The weather gets colder. I worry that it will soon be too cold for the white dove to survive, even with the little shelter under the eave. I think about constructing a small coop to keep him safe and warm in Winter.
I also worry that he is too trusting of my dog.
Ena, my German Shepherd, knows the dove is out there. I feel her being attracted and pulled toward him. Though Ena is very good with other creatures, I worry that in her innocent attraction to the bird (and he to her) that she could crush him with her jaws in attempting to play.
I decide I should make the bird more afraid of Ena. I put Ena on a leash and let her run toward him. The white dove flutters only a few feet away. I do it again, faster this time. He still does the same thing, not seeming very concerned.
On the third try, I manage to frighten him into flight. He takes off, circles about then disappears! I am now in conflict, upset. I feel I've done the wrong thing. I wait for him to return but do not see any sign of him.
I bring Ena inside, feeling devastated. I feel like I betrayed the amazing trust and love of the white dove. I am quite agitated, wishing I could undo my actions.
Suddenly, something crashes against the outside wall, startling me. As my adrenaline rush reaches a new peak, I see the dove flutter to the ground. He leaps up and throws himself against the window, flailing wings pounding the glass.
As he repeatedly throws himself against the glass of the one of many windows in my house that I happen to be closest to, I am in bewilderment and awe. How does he know that I happen to be standing right near this particular window…?
My heart is ripping apart. I know what is happening. He has become so bonded and attuned to me that he feels exactly what I feel! His frantic actions are an exact mirror of my own agitation!
What should I do...?
I immediately call Kevin Behan, my dog training mentor, who has more wisdom about animals than anyone I've ever known. I describe to Kevin my fear of Ena innocently injuring the dove, and what had just happened when I tried to 'train' the dove to fear Ena.
'I'm afraid that because the dove is so attracted to me, that he could get too close and excite Ena to put her jaws on him. I feel like I have to show the dove that he must keep his distance from Ena. But then he would have to keep his distance from me, too. I feel like I betrayed his trust in the name of trying to keep him safe.'
Kevin asks, 'Why does it have to be 'either or?' Why can't it be 'both?' Why can't Ena and the dove coexist in harmony?' He explains how to foster that. 'Just have a little food with you. When you and Ena get near the dove, attract Ena to push toward you for the food. That way, Ena will channel her drive to make contact with the dove by making very satisfying contact with you.'
Kevin also reminds me that any tension and conflict I bring to the situation will be reflected perfectly by Ena and the dove.
It works. The next morning, when Ena and I come back from hiking, the dove is sitting right on the railing by the front door. Ena looks at the dove as I talk softly. The dove looks at Ena. We are all in harmony.
The days grow shorter. A bittersweet feeling of savoring a love in full bloom - in the face of approaching Winter - pervades my heart. Each day now, the white dove sits on my arm for a long time. We gaze out over the mountains together.
One morning I walk outside and there is no flutter of wings around my head. White dove is nowhere to be seen. I look all over.
Suddenly, I catch sight of him. He is doing something unusual.
He sits on a naked branch at the very top of the tall oak tree on the hill. I have never seen him perch on anything that high and far from the house. A sparkling white form against a luminous blue sky. The air is perfectly still. So is the dove - as though deep in thought.
He takes flight. I never saw him fly with such power and decisiveness - each wing stroke carrying him forward at warp speed. He cuts through the air like a scythe, courageously, inspiring an incredible feeling in me - an uplifting, exalted kind of feeling.
I step out in the open, knowing it is time...
The white dove banks, sweeping past me with awesome presence and purpose. As he passes, he turns his eye toward mine. As our eyes meet, love strikes me to my deepest core. In a transcendent state, I feel I am soaring with him.
Higher and higher he circles. Suddenly, he changes course, flying in a straight line...into the sun.
My heart flies with him...wherever he may be.