I had turned on the classic movie channel and found myself watching "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance." It was made in 1962 and starred Jimmy Stewart who also played in a number of other movie classics such as "It's a Wonderful Life", "The Philadelphia Story" and "Rear Window", to name but a few. However, what I found my mind wandering to was the fact that Jimmy Stewart was fond of dogs and they were very important to him. I learned this while I was on a book tour and had the opportunity to meet and speak with him while we both were waiting to be interviewed on a TV show in Los Angeles. He was no longer the young Charles Lindbergh character that I remembered from the film "The Spirit of St. Louis", or the rugged, easy moving characters he played in his many Western roles like "Broken Arrow". His age had begun to show on him, and he appeared to be almost fragile. He was slow moving and even slower talking than I remember him being in the movies. However, when he started to speak about his dogs his face broke into a smile and the pace of his talking picked up. He told me:
"When I married Gloria she already had a German Shepherd named Bello. He loved her a lot and, after a while, he and I got along. Gloria really loves German Shepherds best of all, but sometime after we lost our second one, she decided that they weren't the breed of dogs that I needed. Anyway, she went out and got me this Golden Retriever named Simba, and it's been Goldens ever since for me.
"We actually have three dogs now. Kelly and Judy, are Golden Retrievers, and then there is Princess who is some kind of a mixed breed that my daughter found and we sort of rescued. Princess had some behavior problems and I think that Kelly and Judy picked up some of her bad habits — figured that if Princess could get away with it so could they. We had met Matthew Margolis [who co-authored of a number of popular dog training books, such as "When Good Dogs Do Bad Things," with Mordecai Siegal] and Gloria liked him. He runs the National Institute of Dog Training. Kelly and Judy were not behaving. They didn't listen to anything we said, and they were always jumping up and barking and pulling on the leash — both were just imitating Princess, I think. Well, anyway, Matthew told us that he would have to take the dogs to his training kennel for six weeks to get them to behave. The reason that he wanted them at the kennel had something to do with 'socialization' and other dog things like that. It was supposed to help their shyness and excitability. Gloria and I didn't like it, but she felt that we had to do something. Well that lasted just one day. You know I love my house, but without any dogs around it feels like some kind of mausoleum. I told Gloria 'Get those dogs back home because I can't put up with them not being here.' Anyway, Matthew tried to set up a training program at the house, but it really didn't work so well. In the end we compromised. We broke the three dogs up into squads, so we could send one or two of them to school for short sessions, and still have one or two at home for company. I still didn't like it, even though we got to visit their school on weekends. Gloria made a lot of phone calls to make sure they were OK — to reassure me I guess.
"I suppose the truth is that I'd rather have a happy dog than a trained one. My dogs have never been good at things like 'sit', 'stay' or even 'come'. I think that we've given the tourists a few laughs, especially when the dogs hit the end of their leashes hard enough to drag Gloria down the street. I don't even mind it when the dogs jump up. Matthew showed us how to jerk the leash to correct that kind of thing. I suppose that it does have to be done — you know to keep them from knocking someone down or messing their clothes — but it seems kind of cruel to me. If my dog jumps up on me I figure that he wants to kiss my face and tell me that he thinks that I'm a really nice person. I don't believe that you should punish a dog for saying 'I love you.' When your dog's face is up looking at yours like that I think that you should tell him just how nice you think that he is too. Gloria told me that Matthew says that we mother the dogs too much and that they'll never really be well trained. Well, they're a lot better now than what they were before, so some of the training must be working. The difference between 'trained OK' and 'trained perfectly' doesn't really matter all that much to me. I once did a film with Lassie. When that dog got excited it jumped all over Rudd Weatherwax [Lassie's trainer]. Now that's the smartest dog in the world. If the world's best trained dog can jump around to show he's happy then my dogs should be allowed to do the same.
"The truth is that it's just really hard for me to get to sleep without a dog in my bedroom. It's funny about that. I once had a dog named Beau. He used to sleep in a corner of the bedroom. Some nights, though, he would sneak onto the bed and lie right in between Gloria and me. I know that I should have pushed him off the bed, but I didn't. He was up there because he wanted me to pat his head, so that's what I would do. Somehow, my touching his hair made him happier, and just the feeling of him laying against me helped me sleep better. After he died there were a lot of nights when I was certain that I could feel him get into bed beside me and I would reach out and pat his head. The feeling was so real that I wrote a poem about it and about how much it hurt to realize that he wasn't going to there anymore."
I found a video clip of Jimmy Stewart reading that poem that he mentioned to me. I thought that you might find it interesting, not just for the words that make up the poem, but for the emotion that could not be surpassed during the reading and which clearly shows the depth of the bond that a person can have with a well loved dog.
Stanley Coren is the author of many books including: The Wisdom of Dogs; Do Dogs Dream? Born to Bark; The Modern Dog; Why Do Dogs Have Wet Noses? The Pawprints of History; How Dogs Think; How To Speak Dog; Why We Love the Dogs We Do; What Do Dogs Know? The Intelligence of Dogs; Why Does My Dog Act That Way? Understanding Dogs for Dummies; Sleep Thieves; The Left-hander Syndrome
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