Are You and Your Dog Sympatico?

woman with dogA while back, I watched a television special where singer Sheryl Crow was discussing the process of songwriting and producing music. At one point she mentioned working with another person, and smiled as she said they were “sympatico.” She described a relationship where each seemed to feel what the other was feeling and know what the other was thinking, in such a way that allowed the creative process to flow freely. Like so many other things, this made me think of dogs.

Although there’s no true dictionary definition of sympatico, it’s generally accepted to mean having a strong mental connection or bond; to get along; to have a mutual understanding. We’ve all heard stories of people who have these types of relationships with their dogs, and if we’re lucky, we’ve been those people. I’ve had friends over the years whose dogs knew when they were feeling sad, and would come over and nuzzle or otherwise comfort them. Then there are the dramatic stories where an owner-dog bond is so strong that the dog lays down his life for the owner, or won’t move from the place the owner has died.

As much as I hate to admit it, although I’ve had dogs I absolutely adored, and one named Mojo who will forever be my soul dog, I never had that truly sympatico type of relationship. Take Soko, the German Shepherd who was Mojo’s buddy when he was alive. One winter morning, I slipped on the icy dog ramp in back of our house and went down in a most ungraceful heap. My ankle was twisted beneath me at a horribly painful angle, and it felt as though it might be broken. The pain was excruciating. I began to cry. What did Soko do? Did she whimper, whine, look concerned, or nuzzle against me to offer solace? Did she, in an act of inspired canine wisdom, dash indoors and dial 911 with her paw? No. She disappeared around the corner of the house, only to return moments later…with her tennis ball! She dropped it at my feet as if to say, Since you’re down here anyway, why not toss a few? It was disappointing, to say the least.

I always felt badly for students in my group classes who seemed to have little or no bond with their dogs. It was difficult for them to master obedience skills together, because their communication was sorely lacking. Neither seemed to understand the other, and there was frustration on both sides. If there were a word for the opposite of sympatico—perhaps nonpatico?—that was them. Of course, with encouragement and coaching on how to work and communicate better together, relationships can improve. But some bonds are just effortlessly special.

I said earlier that I’d never had a truly sympatico type of relationship with my dogs—that is, until Sierra. I was absolutely crazy about her and somehow knew she was mine from the moment I saw her at the desert shelter where she’d been impounded as a stray. Ours was a strong, immediate bond. In the months that followed her adoption, we worked through her separation anxiety (yes, there can be too much of a bond), did lots and lots of training, and learned gradually about each other. Her prey drive was so high that at first I thought I’d never be able to allow her off leash, lest she spy a squirrel and cease to remember I existed. But now in the mornings I let her run loose over park trails. She happily bounds up and down hillsides and races around dirt tracks, but always looks back to check where I am. And she always comes when I call.

As for Sierra’s ability to sense my moods? Well, I’m normally a fairly strong, balanced person emotionally, but last week I had a bit of a meltdown. The trials and tribulations of caregiving for two elderly parents who are both seriously declining at once are exhausting. After receiving some especially bad news by phone, I hung up, sat at the kitchen table, and just lost it. My other dog, Bodhi, stayed a short distance away and circled nervously, apprehensive about those weird noises that were coming out of Mom. Sierra ran to me. She sat in front of me, looking up in a way that I can only describe as very concerned, and kept pawing at my leg. Now, she does paw when she wants her chest rubbed, and through my tears, I automatically complied. It calmed me. But it was more than her wanting affection; there was real worry in her eyes. There have been many other instances of our being in sync, but really, it’s more of a constant, everyday type of thing. It’s the ease of a relationship where you don’t have to try so hard, the natural rhythm of simply being in tune—the type of thing we look for in a life partner. I’m lucky to have that in my husband, and now, happily, I finally have it in a canine companion as well.
Fundraiser alert! Between now and Christmas, I am donating $5 per “Hit by a Flying Wolf” sold ($3 per ebook) to Villalobos Rescue Center. Books must be purchased through Get a great holiday gift (or a gift for yourself!) while doing something good for dogs in need.

24 Responses to Are You and Your Dog Sympatico?

  1. Reblogged this on The Wolfdog Blog and commented:
    This is lovely and describes my relationship with Zeph….he does the pawing for a chest rub too!

  2. Larry says:

    My rescue, Ella, likes to curl up in a ball next to me on the sofa and seems to have bonded with me over the year and a half I’ve had her. However, like Sierra, her prey drive is off the chart, so although I would love to see her run fast and free across the field, I fear that day may never come. I haven’t given up completely, but when she eye’s a squirrel, it’s as if I don’t exist. I always tell people, she’s a work in progress. Maybe next year.

  3. dix10e says:

    This is lovely, Nicole, an issue seldom addressed so well, and I am sharing it. FYI, I think you accidentally said “Sierra” in paragraph three when you meant Soko?

  4. Chris Vereide says:

    I loved this article. We just lost our dear greyhound friend, Luath, to osteosarcoma on Monday and I have been thinking a lot about this subject. Like you and Sierra, I knew the moment I took Luath home as a foster that he had found his permanent home – there was an instant connection. He licked my face and then lied down in the grass in our backyard, like he had lived there all his life. The day before we said goodbye, my husband was lying on an air bed, crying. Luath immediately went over to him and snuggled with him for about two hours. I have some wonderful pictures of that, Luath had the biggest smile on his face when his dad was giving him neck scritches.

    • wildewmn says:

      Chris, I’m so sorry for your loss. It sounds as though Luath had a beautiful life with you and your husband, and it’s so special that you have those beautiful photos to treasure. I’m glad you liked the blog.

  5. Mary Boehm says:

    LOL Nichole… after reading about your fall I thought of when I took my Border Collie out with me while on roller blades which normally my husband would do. I stink at roller blading, I only did it for my dog Neetah to get some exercise (I am also not fast, she was nipping at my heels to speed it up as my husband goes faster). I fell hard, flat on my patooty while out with her. She ran over in a flash, sat directly on top of me and licked my face as if to say “Are you ok? And….you stink at this, maybe you should stay down here before you kill yourself”!!! I really believe with her it is “sympatico”! Thanks for all of your great articles.

  6. Jenny H says:

    I have had bitches that seem to show real concern for me, and respond to my moods sympathetically and even possibly empathetically. Is it something to do with ‘mothering’ behaviour?

    The dogs usually seem more concerned that my bad/sad moods might mean they miss out on something.
    Though I don’t know — maybe they are just Klutzy, permanent adolescents and THINK that all you need to cheer up after you’ve fallen and sprained an ankle is the chance to throw a ball for them?
    I’ve known men who seem to think that all their wife needs to cheer her up is a chance to run around after them.

  7. Lynn says:

    I love your blogs Nicole, thanks so much for sharing them. Your story of Soko is so funny and so familiar! I was always a little sad that my dog (he’s my first dog, a rescue, and we’ve been together nearly twelve years now) never seems to sense when I’m upset or sick. It’s reassuring to have confirmation that such a bond is extraordinary, not commonplace.

    • Katie says:

      Clover is 13, and while I’ve had her since she was a puppy, we grew up together, and although I absolutely love her, that “sympatico” thing just isn’t there. Everything is perfect on paper, so to speak, but that THING is missing. That last little bit. Glad I’m not the only one. To be honest, I think a lot of people are either deluding themselves or ironically, not in tune enough with their dogs to realize that they aren’t close enough to truly be “sympatico”?

      • wildewmn says:

        Interesting line of thought, Katie. I think you’re probably right, as surely we read more into dogs’ behavior sometimes than is really there. There were suggestions for example that Soko’s behavior (bringing me the ball after I’d fallen) might have been to make me feel better, take my mind off my ankle. I don’t think so. I’m sorry you and Clover aren’t sympatico–as I said, Mojo and I didn’t have that either, to the extent that Sierra and I do–but he will always be my soul dog, that one special dog in my heart. And it sounds as though you and Clover have THAT. 🙂

      • Jenny H says:

        I feel sad that you think this way 😦

  8. Sarah says:

    I am sorry to hear of your trials w/ your parents. I too am going through the same type of experience. I can not imagine going through this w/out my dog Nani( 9yr Chi) Dogs have been helping us since the beginning of time and I believe this is one more of their special talents. Good luck and take good care.

  9. Great topic! I have had the blessing of a sympatico dog.
    I’m so sorry to hear about heartache over your parents. I, too, have cared for an aging mother and it was sometimes a full time job. You will get your reward. Beautiful idea to donate to Villalobos! You are a giving person – both to people and dogs. I just ordered my copy. I look forward to reading it. Keep doing the great work that you do!
    Have a blessed holiday!

  10. BCMom says:

    I absolutely have a simpatico relationship with my male BC – my heart exploded with love (cupid’s arrow) as we drove home from the breeder’s and it has not lessened. You hit it on the head when you said its the ease, the rhythm of the relationship day to day. He is about to turn 8 and since he was a tiny puppy he has been incredibly responsive to me if I trip, bang a knee, etc. He is also very responsive to happiness! I am bonded to my other BC, a younger female, who is loving and biddable, but we are not in sync the same way. Great blog!

  11. Pat K. says:

    Thank you for this wonderful piece, Nicole. Three weeks ago I had to put down my heart-dog Malamute, Rhett. He was “the one”. I called him my “Mister Big” :). We worked through dog-dog issues and that made the bond even stronger. I am so glad you have found that bond with Sierra. I feel what you are going through with your parents. I lost both of mine in the last 3 years. Lots of loss that feels overwhelming right now. I still have my sweet and silly Malamute girl, Belle who is makes me laugh and shows me that we need to carry on and keep having fun. She has the most upbeat personality and our Vet said she was definitely put on this planet to make us laugh. I am so fortunate to have her. We are now considering another male for her as she loves to play with other dogs. Thank you for all you do and I wish you strength and peace :).

  12. wildewmn says:

    Thanks to all of you for sharing your stories about your own dogs and your “sympatico” relationships. It warms my heart. Also for the kind words about the ordeal with my parents.

    And my heart goes out to those of you who have lost your special dogs. I know that pain all too well, and I always think about a phrase I heard somewhere that stuck with me: “Grief is the price of love.” And to me, it’s always worth it.

  13. Judit Arroyo says:

    Puffy, my 15 year old, has been with me for half my life. He has seen me grow and together we have experienced so many life changes. Not only, is he a big influence in my character today but the reason why I became a dog trainer. I will never be 15 and a new dog owner again and will never be able to recreate that special (and tough) life journeys- we will forever have a unique relationship no future dog can recreate and he will be always be that one special dog who helped me in life.

  14. Jenny H says:

    > There were suggestions for example that Soko’s behavior (bringing me the ball after I’d fallen) might have been to make me feel better, take my mind off my ankle>

    Ah, Nicole, that was, on my part a facetious answer.
    I adore Ironbark — who is a big goofy klutz and is quite as likely to jump all over me in excitement if I hurt myself. I do believe that he is expressing his “love”, because I know that he only does this with ‘family’. But I don’t believe that it has anything to do with his being empathetic to my moods.
    On the other hand because Topsy, and Kelly and Sally would come and lie down quietly beside me or lie in the doorway to protect me if I was sick, was possibly not ‘sympatico’ either but an expression only of their fear that I might ‘leave’ them. I *feel* that they have empathy for my pain/illness an that makes be feel better.

  15. wildewmn says:

    Actually Jenny it wasn’t your comment I was thinking of, but thanks for clearing that up. Your Ironbark sounds like my Bodhi. 😉

  16. Harper says:

    I believe the antonym for sympatico is antipatico.

    • Katie says:

      Do you think there’s a neutral sort of “apatico”?
      I’d describe 99% of my relationships (canine and human- any species, come to think of it) as “apatico” – neither antipatico nor sympatico. They range from horrible to wonderful, but I define “sympatico” in a very specific way. I’d say I can count the creatures I’ve been sympatico with on one hand and antipatico with on the other.

  17. philospher77 says:

    I have had three dogs of my own, as opposed to “family dogs” while growing up. I can honestly say that I haven’t been “sympatico” with any of them. I don’t necessarily consider that a bad thing, either. It means that the relationship takes more effort, yes. But that means that I have to learn more, and wonder more about what my dogs are thinking or feeling in any given situation. The first dog was an excellent “starter” dog… pretty much bomb-proof, and therefore a good dog to get into the routine of being a dog owner. However, she was so bombproof, it sometimes felt more like we were roommates. The second of my dogs was taken on as a “project dog” (extremely shy/fearful), I would find it amazing if she were even trying to be sympatico with me, but she is the one who has taught me the most about dogs, training, body language… so much I have learned from trying to get this girl to a place where she can be happy in the world. And my latest little girl is a delight to my heart, cute, cuddly, eager to please… but definitely an independently-minded terrier, who I am pretty sure isn’t really concerned about how I am feeling at any given time, except as how it affects her.

    I just wanted to point out that while it may be advantageous to be sympatico with your dog, it’s not the end of the world if you aren’t, and it doesn’t mean that there isn’t a bond between you and them, of a different sort.

    • wildewmn says:

      Rebecca, very good point and I absolutely agree. And I certainly didn’t mean “sympatico” to be synonymous with an easy or perfect dog. We often learn the most from the difficult relationships, that’s for sure!

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