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March 31, 2008

The sermons of the Dog Whisperer

Christopher Middleton on a vicar who believes godliness is next to dogliness

For St Paul, conversion came en route to Damascus, but in the case of Graeme Sims, his epiphany occurred on the road to Royston, in Hertfordshire. The A10, to be precise.

Watch Rev Graeme Sims and his dogs in action

"It was 9.45 in the morning and I was going to the pub to get blotto. My company had gone bankrupt and I had lost my house, my cars and all my money," he recalls. "Suddenly, I saw this border collie lying in the middle of the road, about to be run over by a truck.

"I don't know why, but I called out 'Annie!', as in Orphan Annie, and she ran straight over to me, the truck missing her only by inches. It was a moment that completely changed my life."

No question about it. A rescue dog in more ways than one, Annie accompanied the newly impoverished Graeme and his wife, Maureen, to their new, downsized life in Devon ("We went there because at least the fresh air was free").

It soon became clear that, although he had in the past been a chef, a soldier, a gardener, a painter and the creative director of a large advertising agency, Graeme's true vocation lay in training - and talking to - dogs.

Put simply, Graeme, now 71, believes that we all have the ability to communicate with our four-pawed friends, and they with us. "Everyone knows that if a dog is wagging its tail, it's happy, don't they?" he says. "What I do just takes things a stage further."

Several stages further, it should be said. As he explains in his new book, The Dog Whisperer, he doesn't just use all-purpose doggy phrases ("Here boy… good boy"), he talks to each dog in its own language.

"With a timid dog, you need to talk in a soft, soothing language such as French," he says. "With a bold, tough dog, you're better off talking in German because of its authoritative tone and curt-sounding words. I've got one dog that responds to me when I talk in a North Wales dialect, another that I always address in a South Wales accent.

"But it's not just what you say, it's what you do. Each dog has its own individual head, eye and neck movements; the more you mirror those in your own body language, the more effective the communication between the two of you will be. It's all a matter of taking the time to observe.

"I realise that people lead busy lives, but the question I ask is: 'Why rush around all over the place, when you can stay in one spot talking to your dog?' That to me is the true quality time; forget those other false idols you're chasing."

It's no accident that Graeme's pronouncements have a bit of the biblical about them. For not only did his A10 experience point him towards a new career (he became resident sheepdog trainer at two West Country theme parks), it also led him into the clergy.

"Thanks to my grandmother, who had enormous religious faith, I'd always been sure God was around," he says. "One day in church, when the vicar didn't turn up, the churchwarden asked me to give the sermon, because he thought I had the gift of the gab."

Not one to downplay his abilities (unlike his censorious father), Graeme says his musings on the nature of the divine Trinity went down a storm, encouraging him to go on to become first a lay preacher, then a fully-fledged vicar, while at the same time keeping on his day job at the theme parks.

As a firm believer that godliness is next to dogliness, he filled his sermons with parallels between the canine and human condition. And frequently people came out worse than animals.

"I know it's a terrible thing to say, but I probably grieve more for dogs than I do for humans. Dogs love you on the same consistent level, day after day. They're prepared as a matter of course to die for you and for the rest of the pack. I glimpse heaven more often in the shiny, dark nose of a dog, or out in the fields, than I do in church.

"Yet, as I understand it, the Church of England doesn't recognise any creature other than humans. Which means that when you get to heaven, it'll be just people, not animals.

"Now, my friends in the clergy may disagree but, on the day I die, I hope I shall see once again all the animals I have lost over the years, including my Annie. Just as God gave her to me, then took her away, so I believe He will one day return her to me."

To order a copy of The Dog Whisperer by Graeme Sims (Headline) for £11.99 plus £1.25 p&p, call Telegraph Books on 0870 428 4112, or see books.telegraph.co.uk.


His master's voice

  • Say "sit" softly, not roughly; it's an encouragement, not a rebuke.
  • Tell dogs off in Arabic or Japanese; both have the right tone.
  • Dogs can recognise at a glance what your attitudes are towards them.
  • Dogs can't voice unhappiness; it manifests itself in behavioural problems.
  • Choose a dog whose personality (and body shape) reflects your own.
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