Suzanne Clothier calls unconditional love a myth; her views are controversial. Her book “If A Dog’s Prayers Were Answered Bones would Rain From the Sky: Deepening Our Relationship with Dogs” is a seminal work that’s guaranteed to be as thought provoking as she is.
“Unconditional love is overrated,” says dog trainer Suzanne Clothier, who thinks nothing of casually dropping bombs in conversation. If I want a politically correct answer, don’t ask Clothier. If I want the truth – or at least her version of it, brace yourself.
“Unconditional love is an interesting construct,” she continues. “There’s no doubt some dogs will do anything for you because they want to, and the relationship is everything we romanticize about. These relationships do exist, and they’re a pretty wonderful thing. Then, there are the dogs who are all about rub, a dub, dub, thanks for the grub. Certainly, these dogs appreciate the shelter (of your home), an occasional game of fetch, and, yes, the food. Do they love you? I don’t know. If something happened to you, would these dogs love another owner who also provided shelter, fetch and food? You bet, in a heartbeat. Then there are the dogs who probably think their people are nuts. And they’re probably right, you know.”
Clothier continues, “Sometimes we just haven’t earned the respect of our dogs. Food will get a dog’s attention. I don’t think it will earn a dog’s respect. Respect is about a give and take relationship. It’s about listening to your dog.”
When Clothier speaks, people listen. About half of all weekends, she’s on the road, preaching her gospel about human/canine communicate to what has become a legion of followers. It’s the Clothier canine cult.
“Dogs talk to us all the time,” she continues. “They ask us questions. Respect starts with the ability to listen to what they’re asking, and offering reasonable answers. Historically, we don’t give dogs choices do we?”
Clothier says you can have the best trained obedience dog in the world, but the neighbor with a dog who knows little more that “sit” or “down” might have a far better rapport with her family.
Instead of writing on how to train dogs, she writes about how to train people to understand dogs in her seminal work, now in paperback, “If A Dog’s Prayers Were Answered Bones would Rain From the Sky: Deepening Our Relationship with Dogs,” (Warner Books, New York, NY; $13.95).
When it comes to understanding what dogs, or for that matter horses or even chickens are communicating, Clothier isn’t modest about her talents. “I am particularly skilled at picking up even the most subtle changes. People will show me videos of a dog who attacks, and they say, ‘You can see there was no warning.’ Well, they’re wrong. I say, look and listen, for a split second the dog stopped breathing, and look how stiff that tail is now wagging. I don’t miss these cues. I also look at the dog as a whole, taking a holistic approach.”
For this talent, she credits her abusive stepfather. “He was truly a sociopath,” she says. “Because he was abusive, and observing him was a matter of survival. I really developed great radar for noticing subtle changes.”
Clothier majored in Animal Husbandry at State University in Cobbleskill, NY. This seemed like the perfect subject for Clothier, but after a year she dropped out. “I died of boredom,” she explains.
From here on, her life has been a roller coaster ride which you may not believe if it was a feature film. Hold on, here are the highlights:
In 1977, after leaving school, she worked at Guiding Eyes for the Blind in Mahopac, NY; whelping, raising and evaluating litters. A year later, she moved to Milford, PA where she developed a horse riding program, and also got married. “He was a gay guy,” Clothier says and laughs. “The details are complicated.” Together, they had a son.
In 1980, she moved on to manage a horse stable operation, studying dressage and preparing foals for sale.
A year later she was in Darien, CT, assisting a dog breeder and operating a tattoo registry (for dogs). That breeder turned out to give Clothier her German Shepherd dog foundation stud. While she was at it, Clothier also walked off with the breeder’s husband. “He was older than my mother,” she says. Their union lasted 14 years. “It seemed like a good idea at the time (to marry him), and he is an amazing guy,” Clothier explains, or tries to.
With co-author Linda Caplan, Clothier wrote and published the “Agility Training Workbook.” With that, she began Flying Dog Press, which she’s subsequently published many booklets and produced videos (these are available online, as are many free articles: www.flyingdogpress.com).
Clothier’s mixed bag of credits go on and on, from helping to launch a veterinary chiropractic clinic (which led to the production of a video “Your Athletic Dog”) in 1992, to serving on the American Kennel Club Agility Advisory Committee in 1993. In 2000, she was named to the American Humane Association’s Task Force for the Development of Humane Standards in Dog Training.
Today, Clothier is among the most in demand speakers on the canine lecture circuit, speaking to dog clubs, rescue groups, and all sorts of organizations throughout the U.S., and worldwide.
In 1996, she married John Rice, a search and rescue tracking trainer. Two years later, they moved to a real working farm in upstate St. Johnsville NY. Life at Hawks Hunt Farm suits both John and Suzanne, but their bliss was interrupted with a fire which destroyed their barn in 2004. “Imagine knowing there are animals in there that you can’t get to; it was heartbreaking, an experience I wouldn’t wish on anyone.” A dozen of their beloved turkeys, two cats and a pig named Charlotte perished.
When word of the fire spread on the Internet, “friends” who donated money were greatly people Clothier spoke touched in some way on the lecture circuit. Today the barn is re-built. Residents on the farm include ten dogs (nine German shepherd dogs and a Labrador/Chow mix), five cats, 15 chickens, two pigs, three horses, two donkeys, 15 turkeys, a pet rat, a tank of fish, two blue-fronted Amazon parrots, a pair of tortoises, and 30 Scottish Highland cattle. The all have names, of course.
One thing won’t change, Clothier is all about truth, and advocating for animals. “Listen, when I get to heaven – which is a really big if – I don’t want a single dog to say, ‘You knew the truth, but instead of telling the truth, you only told people what they wanted to here. My goal is to never let any animal down.”