Maria has always intuitively understood what it took me much longer to learn. The intelligent and appropriate use of food is central to establishing trust, communications and safety with almost every animal, especially dogs, donkeys, sheep and horses.
Food is the gateway to understanding and communications. If you pay attention or follow the veterinary literature about pets (I do), you can see that most animals, especially pets, are grossly overfed. In fact, overfeeding is the leading cause of death among domesticated dogs, according to the American Veterinary Association.
Dogs are give too much food, “gourmet” foods that are often too rich and unnecessarily costly. Dogs are given fatty, expensive gourmet treats they don’t need and that is not healthy for them. Simple basic foods like Science Diet, a food most veterinarians use at home. Dogs do very well on this food and it is almost universally recommended by vets, but since they are not expensive or marketed as gourmet specialty foods, many people prefer the exotic premium, and dramatically more expensive dog foods.
They can’t do enough for their dogs, which is why overfeeding kills so many of them.
In general, we give our pets what makes us feel good, not what they need. Dog food makers have learned to play on the neediness and insecurity of pet lovers. Few farmers overfeed their animals, they can’t afford to. I have learned a lot from farmers about the difference between what dogs need and what we think they need.
When we get a dog, I will often sit on the floor next to them while they eat (being careful to know the breed and nature of the dog). I want them to associate me with sustenance. We love to think our dogs love us dearly because we are such fine and loving creatures, but the truth is that animals love who feeds them, and will bond almost instantly with them, no matter what they are like.
I have never been bitten or even nipped by one of my dogs, a record I intend to preserve.
We make it a point to be near our animals when they eat, they associate us with good things and come to trust us. Seeing Maria sit with the sheep every now and then while they eat – and how accepting they are with her – says much about her very special instincts for connecting with animals.
On a farm, trust is a serious matter. I’ve had to read into these ewes and pull out stuck babies while they hold still, I’ve had to walk this big pony back into the pasture several times when a broken gate flew open or I left a door open carelessly. It is nearly impossible to get donkeys to do anything they don’t want to do if they don’t trust you, and even then, it is not simple.
The key to food is not pressing too much of it on our animals, but letting them associate us with their food. Their life depends on food, and they will attach to whoever provides it. I remember flipping Frieda around, it took a year and a lot of beef jerky, she eventually decided it was better to get a lot of beef jerky than kill me.
Maria’s love of animals is very intuitive, rather than learned. She knows how to be with them, talk to them, listen to them. She is frequently a guest at their dinner table. i have learned the same thing. Food is the gateway to understanding and listening to animals.