Opal my Teacher: How Lessons I Learned From my Dog Inform my Research Practice.

By Dr. Holly McKenzie.

Dr. Holly McKenzie is a Banting Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Sociology at the University of Saskatchewan.

Holly and Opal standing together in April 2019.
Opal and I looking for adventure in April 2019. Photo by Maki Fotos

Towards the end of my PhD, I met one of my best teachers – Opal. In April 2017, my partner and I brought home a black Great Dane puppy named Opal whom a breeder had placed with us as a therapy and performance dog prospect. I felt 100% ready for the challenge of living with and training Opal. My confidence was understandable: I had trained many horses (some shy, some confident) while growing up in rural Saskatchewan, Canada. I had read many books in preparation for this day, including Ian Dunbar’s Before & After Getting Your Puppy, Patricia McConnell’s The Other End of the Leash, Rachel and John Cawley’s Barron’s Dog Bibles: Great Danes, and I had reviewed countless websites. I had also spoken with Opal’s breeder at length to get the best sense possible of what I was preparing for. And no surprise here, but Opal, my spouse and I were enrolled in a puppy class that started just days after she arrived home.

I pretty well knew from the get go that Opal was not going to be an ‘easy’ student. In fact, she wasn’t going to ‘just’ be a student, she was also going to be a teacher.  It took me a bit longer to learn that lesson though.  She is a confident dog and at six months of age, she seemed a bit unsure about whether I was up to this task of being (one of) her human leader(s). I think she asked herself daily whether walking past exciting animals, humans, leaves, birds and butterflies was really in her best interest. She was pretty sure that she could identify every person and animal she should visit, every bird she should watch and every butterfly she should chase. So, lesson #1 from Opal – confidence in myself. I figured out what she loved in life, straightened my shoulders, walked calmly and showed her that where we were going held contentment (i.e. the yummiest treats and affection from humans) as well as joy (i.e. sniffing, staring at birds, toys and chase games)  and that we couldn’t visit every animal. I didn’t feel very confident at first, but over time I did and not just in my interactions with Opal. This transferred into my work life. For instance, I took a risk and submitted a grant application for a Banting postdoctoral fellowship in the area of human/non-human-animal relations; not my area of PhD study but an area I was growing more passionate about as I worked with Opal. For the next 18 months, my work will be in a new field that I am passionate about, specifically examining the experiences of therapy dog-handler teams and patients accessing Canada’s first emergency department to have visiting therapy dogs.

Opal at 4 months looking at camera.
Opal ‘looking me in the eyes’ at 4 months. Photo by Steve Espey

Lesson #2 from Opal is learning to listen and better communicate. Working and living with Opal required that I learn more of her language, and she learned to use different communicative techniques to tell me things. For instance, like most dogs, she will look away when she is feeling pressured or stressed and I have learned to read this and respond in a supportive way. She also learned that by looking me in the eyes (which is not polite canine-canine communication), she can tell me when she needs or wants something. Of course, learning to communicate with each other has been fraught with tension and misunderstanding, since I am a primate and many of the ways I try to tell her something communicates something totally different in canine language. However, this imperfect (ongoing) process has led to a deeper relationship between us and an expansion of my attunement to communication and relationships. As Suzanne Clothier wrote,

All of us…move through life trying to be heard, trying to listen. Should I ever lose the power to speak and to write, my two major forms of communication, I sincerely hope someone loves me enough to guess what I’m trying to say. I sincerely hope someone is intensely curious about what’s going on inside me and takes the time to listen to the whole message. I hope someone treats me like a dog they love very much.

(2002: 101-102)

Through learning to pay attention to Opal’s communication, guessing what she means, and being receptive to her feedback, I have become more attuned and present not only with her, but within other relations. For instance, in research meetings (with humans and canines), I strive to communicate openness and non-judgement in various ways, and I pay attention to body language and verbal communications (as well as pauses), in order to further understand what humans and canines are expressing. This is helping me deepen my collaborative relationships, which fosters more meaningful and useful ideas, analyses, and products.

However, even today, I am not always attuned and present. This is Opal’s lesson #3—the importance of putting into practice my values and knowledge. Sometimes, when we are going for a walk or training together, I get lost thinking about work or what we ‘should be’ doing. In these moments, Opal gets my attention (sometimes by ignoring my distracted attempts to communicate). Like always, she is perfectly herself and engages with me in ways that reflects similar past experiences, my emotions and the environment (Clothier, 2002). She does not care how many books I have read or what values I tell others I have. She only cares how I act from moment to moment. The importance of putting into practice my values and knowledge is integral to my academic research work. Working within academia comes with institutional pressures, demands and short timelines.  Some days I feel like all I have accomplished is ‘putting out fires.’ Within this context, putting my values and knowledge into practice means using them as a lens to prioritize and focus my work (in particular, the importance of doing research that benefits the communities I am working with, including non-human animals), as well as to challenge institutional norms and practices that do not align with my values. For instance, I allocate time and resources to community involvement and community products within research projects, and recognize collaborators’ contributions through co-authorship, honoraria and in other ways (see for instance, McKenzie, 2020). 

Opal and I looking at each other.
Opal and I learning together. Photo by Dogwould

While many have taken the time to share with me some of their knowledge, in these last three years Opal has become one of my best teachers. The examples I have shared here are just three lessons that immediately come to mind. There are many, many more. Through cohabiting with Opal, some of the things I have learned are: to have confidence in myself, to be attuned to various forms of communication, to consistently work to integrate my knowledge and values into practice, to trust the process, and to be responsive and adaptable – all things that make me a better human (and a better researcher). I am still learning with Opal as a partner by my side and this process of learning with Opal has also attuned me to the fact that the therapy dogs I will be working with during my postdoctoral project also have lessons they will share with me, if I am open to them.

Acknowledgements:

  • I write this blog post from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada located on Treaty Six territory and the homeland of the Métis. I am thankful to, and hold deep respect for, the First Nations and Métis ancestors of this place who cared for these lands. Along with Indigenous people and other allies/accomplices, I am working to build better relations between settlers and Indigenous people.
  • Thank you Dr. Colleen Dell for reviewing an early version of this blog post and for your support and guidance in my postdoctoral fellowship.
  • Funding for this research work has been provided through the Banting Postdoctoral Fellowship program.

More information about Holly McKenzie

Works Cited

Cawley, R. & Cawley, J. (2012). Barron’s Dog Bibles: Great Danes. Hauppauge, NY: Barron’s Educational Series, Inc.

Clothier, S. (2002). Bones would rain from the sky: Deepening our relationships with dogs. New York, NY: Warner Books.

Dunbar, I. (2004). Before & after getting your puppy: The positive approach to raising a happy, healthy & well-behaved dog. Novato, CA:New World Library.

McConnell, P. (2003). The other end of the leash: Why we do what we do around dogs. Reprint Edition. New York, NY: Ballantine Books

McKenzie, H. A. (2020). Indigenous women’s reproductive (in)justices and self-determination: Envisioning futures through a collaborative research project (Doctorate of Philosophy), University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC. 

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