Before (and during) my life with dogs, I’ve also been an actor, a stage actor. Over the decades, I’ve been fortunate to experience the thrill of connection, that split-second fire, a mutual exchange of meaning. You reach out to the audience with your intention, or to your colleague across the stage, and you feel it land on them. Then they change, right there in front of you. Then in return they reach back and change you. It’s magic. It’s like love, almost. I suspect this is an exchange that only happens in live performance, not in television or film.
It’s a rewarding and weird mechanism, live performance. Once it's in motion, the whole assembled group – the company and the audience – move something and are also carried, from the realm of the notional into the concrete. We become hitched together by our sharing in the transformation. Of course, between these two points are hours of preparation. There’s lots of consistent work, lots of playing around in rehearsal. There’s a ton of learning, of making judgment calls, trimming what doesn’t work, of taking risks and being embarrassed. There's creating a habit of honesty and inspiring honesty in others. There's trial. There's tons of error. Lots of vulnerability, analysis, a boatload of doubt, and more belief.
And the thing is, there’s no way around it. I mean, you can try to fake the work, or just do the basics of line-learning, posing, showing up on time, wearing the costume. You can press the audience and company with decisions that are not honest, hiding behind a kind of mimicry of connection. You can use a lot of tactics to avoid the risk of it all. People sometimes do it, and sometimes they even get applause. You might even think, at the end of the evening, that the applause is as good as it gets. But, oh my god, that’s settling for so little. There’s no magic there. You’ve not gotten together and made a notion real. You’ve made a notion unreal. No one reached anyone.
Spending my last decade with dogs has been shockingly similar. Every time I meet a dog I place my faith in those good ideas –the happy, balanced dog and a close, healthy relationship. Then I put consistent and mindful work toward these ideas. I tweak it. I face some unpleasant things about myself. I challenge myself to be honest. I play. I watch. I correct myself. I feel doubt. I believe. I work more. Then I reach out. And...I feel it land. I feel it. We connect. And, my god, it is magic.
There is no short cut. While dogs might be programmed to hand out unearned love, it’s not in their power to give us unearned connection. You can fake the connection. You can treat them, spoil them. You can tell yourself stories about what they're thinking. You can evade seeing them truthfully. You can hide. And after all that you can still get a big lick and a tail wag when you get home. But that's settling for so little. You can have more. You can have their respect, their trust. You can have connection. You can have real magic.