Heavy Petting

How I Became a Pet Psychic

This is the second excerpt from the new book What the Dog Did: Tales From a Formerly Reluctant Dog Owner, by Slate columnist Emily Yoffe. Read the first excerpt here.

When I saw an ad in the Washington Post for a workshop on communicating telepathically with your pet, I thought being able to have extrasensory conversations with the animals about bladder control might reduce the amount of cat urine I found around the house.

I looked up the Web site of the communicator, whom I’ll call Delphine Carnack. On it she explained that we are constantly experiencing two-way communication with our animals that we might not even recognize. For instance, if in the middle of the day I wonder, “Did I remember to hide my slippers?” I may believe that my brain generated this thought. According to Delphine, it is more likely my beagle, Sasha, is sending the following thought to me, “This slipper sure is tasty. Glad you didn’t hide it.”

I signed up for the $145 one-day workshop. It was held in a hotel meeting room; seated in a circle were 15 women and one man, between the ages of 30 and 55. There were also four dogs: a hound mix, a Labrador mix, a mostly German shepherd, and one shaggy, cat-sized, gray mutt that looked like a prototype for a stuffed animal that never made it into production.

Delphine had us each introduce ourselves and explain why we were there. I was not surprised that there were several single women with what could be considered a surfeit of cats. One said she had 15, and she was here because “my feelings overwhelm them.” If I was scooping 15 litter boxes a day, I too would be overwhelmed with my feelings about the cats. Another woman was there because she wanted to express the intensity of her love more directly to her Labrador.

Julie was a dog lover, but because of the rules of her apartment building, she could only have guinea pigs. She took out a thick stack of photographs of them and passed them around the circle. The other participants observed they’d never seen cuter rodents. Julie had started with a single guinea pig, Russell, who was very content running around his exercise ring and being adored by Julie. Then she added a second guinea pig, Twix, and all hell broke loose. Russell started attacking Twix, and when Julie took him out of his cage to pet him, Russell was cold and distant. She called in an animal communicator to evaluate the situation.

Through the communicator, Julie tried to explain to Russell that Twix was his new friend. She also told Russell that Twix had been abused in the past. (I wondered what had happened to Twix—could he be a guinea pig who had been used as a guinea pig?) Russell wasn’t having any of it. He told Julie back, through the communicator, that he didn’t really care about Twix’s problems because now Twix was in his cage making his life miserable. Julie said things in the cage were at an impasse and that she was at the workshop to learn how to communicate directly with Russell and Twix, since having a communicator on call was prohibitively expensive.

I was up next. I explained that despite making great progress with Sasha, I still felt we could deepen our bond. Specifically it would help if she didn’t think of the kitchen garbage can as a kind of doggie vending machine. I also explained how things had degenerated urine-wise with the cats. Then there was Lisa, who was the owner of the four dogs roaming the room. She had just quit her job and now was on the eve of launching a doggie day care center at her home.

As she spoke her dogs sniffed us, each other, and the snack table. I was impressed with their good behavior. Then Wiley, the German shepherd, squatted and made a rather liquid poop on the carpet. It seemed thoughtless of Wiley not to have sent a signal to Delphine warning her what was coming.

Delphine began telling us about the essence of telepathic communication while she dabbed gingerly at the mess on the carpet with napkins. She explained that she had no special psychic skills and still doesn’t—telepathy is an ability all of us innately have. We just have to trust our feelings and our intuition. “When your body goes ‘unnhh’ trust it.” Everyone was nodding madly, except me. When my body goes “unnhh,” it’s usually because I’m trying on bathing suits.

We started the process of tuning into Lisa’s dogs. We began with Lulu, the hound. She seemed to understand it was all about her and happily lay down in the center of the circle of chairs. Delphine explained that when we began our communication with animals we had to be open to all kinds of messages. Some communicated in images, odd mental pictures we would have to interpret. Some animals were extremely verbal. Delphine treated one rabbit that was so loquacious she had to schedule a second session to hear everything the rabbit had to say.

Delphine advised us to start by asking, “Are you willing to communicate with me?” Once we got the animal’s go-ahead, we were not to conduct an inquisition; better to ask some gentle, open-ended questions such as, “Tell me about yourself,” or, “Share one of your favorite activities.”

With that we were ready, all of us, to start a simultaneous dialogue with Lulu. By this time, however, Lulu had fallen deeply asleep and was snoring contentedly. “Being asleep will not affect the quality of the communication,” said Delphine.

We all closed our eyes and concentrated on Lulu. Usually when I have tried to enter quiet, meditative states, I find my mind wandering to such pressing topics as, “Did I pick up the sweater from the dry cleaner?” and, “Are we out of onions?” But as I concentrated on the thoughts of Lulu, my mind was an utter blank. At first I felt like a failure, then I realized: This may be the mental state of a sleeping hound.

Delphine called us back to attention and asked what we had picked up. “Action” said one woman. “She’s confused by the size of her head,” said another, “she feels it’s too little for her body.” “I see swings,” said one woman. “Me, too!” said another. Then Barbara, a therapist who used her 10 cats in her practice, spoke, “I think she was an Indian warrior in her previous life. Also a teacher, because I see a middle school. I also see her driving in a car, looking out the window, and the car is smashed.”

We were all stunned by Barbara’s detail. Unfortunately, Lulu did not rouse herself to confirm or deny any of this. It was my turn. I knew, “Your dog is flat-lining,” would not fit the mood of the day. Instead, since Lisa had said all her dogs were rescues, I went with, “She loves you very much and her big concern is having to go back to her previous situation.” Both Delphine and Lisa furrowed their brows at this. It turned out, said Lisa, that Lulu’s mother was a rescue, but Lulu had been born at Lisa’s home.

Next we tuned into Rex. Rex was not as soporific a subject as Lulu. Lisa had a hard time corralling him into the center of our little circle. Finally he sat and we began our communication. The therapist, Barbara, again had the most complete reading on Rex. “I first saw an eagle feather with a drop of blood on it. That turned into an Indian-head nickel. Next I got an aerial view of a racetrack. And I kept seeing teeth. He’s very proud of his teeth, he wants everyone to admire them.”

I couldn’t compete with that, but he seemed like a lively dog and I was determined to say something not completely off the mark. Without ever feeling Rex had whispered in my ear, I settled on the notion that he lived to have fun. “Fun. That’s his raison d’etre!” I said, to another set of frowns from Lisa and Delphine.

It turned out, Lisa revealed, “Rex bites the other dogs viciously.” She held out the inside of her forearm, which had a red, raised scar. “He bit me. But he felt terrible about it afterward.” Clearly I was no animal clairvoyant, and clearly Barbara was. Lisa explained that she had found Rex at a highway rest stop when she saw a van there filled with dogs. They were being taken from a kill shelter in West Virginia and, as she said, “I had to have one.”

In the two years since, Rex’s behavior had gotten worse. “Why does he bite the other dogs? And how can I do doggie day care with him around?” Lisa implored the group. I realized she had a serious problem. It would be hard to say to her customers, “Here’s Fifi. Oh, hold on while I stanch the bleeding.” All of us closed our eyes and concentrated on Rex again. After five minutes people had many insights. He needed to sniff flower essences; his chakras were blocked; he had gas.

By then the time had run out. Delphine assured us we had all done a fabulous job. “This is telepathy!” she said. She reminded everyone who was going to the next day’s advanced workshop to bring photographs of their animals. People would then look at the photo and communicate long distance. “You will find it is easier because you are not reading body language.”

“Can we bring pictures of animals who have died?” asked one woman.

Absolutely! It didn’t matter if the animal was asleep, in the room, or even alive. Delphine implied the deader the animal, the better and more pure the communication.

She encouraged us all to exchange phone numbers and e-mails, and to meet once a month to keep up our new telepathic skills. But I slipped out before everyone could read my mind.