A fam­ily’s best friend

‘Why hav­ing dogs has made me a bet­ter fa­ther’

The Guardian - Family - - Front page -

Fri­day evening – with the can­dlelit bless­ing of the Sab­bath loaves – is a spe­cial time in the busy weekly rou­tines of Rabbi Jonathan Wit­ten­berg and his fam­ily. And while his three chil­dren, now in their 20s and study­ing or work­ing away from home, can no longer al­ways be present, one mem­ber of the house­hold never misses the oc­ca­sion.

Mitz­pah, the fam­ily’s in­cor­ri­gi­bly greedy bor­der col­lie, has per­fected his tim­ing, al­ways ap­pear­ing at the table pre­cisely as the rit­ual hand­wash­ing sig­nals the break­ing of his favourite chal­lah bread. Af­ter al­most 12 years at Wit­ten­berg’s heels, Mitz­pah’s ap­par­ent re­spect for Jewish tra­di­tion – he also prof­fers a friendly paw at the word shalom – is fit­ting. Mitz­pah and the late Safi, his ca­nine pre­de­ces­sor, have been “an in­trin­sic part of fam­ily life” and, adds Wit­ten­berg, a “life-af­firm­ing source of com­pan­ion­ship, com­fort and love” for the past 30 years.

They have given much more than this, though, he ex­plains in his new book, Things My Dog Has Taught Me. Through them, Wit­ten­berg be­lieves, he has learned to be a bet­ter lis­tener, to for­give more read­ily and to be more ac­cept­ing and more fo­cused. He has also – over the course of many long walks, tot­ting up about 10,000 miles along­side Safi alone – be­come a hard­ened hiker.

“This book is about dogs but, ac­tu­ally, if I had to write a book about the things that mat­ter in car­ing for peo­ple, it would be very much the same thing,” he says. “They have made me a bet­ter per­son. You would have to ask my chil­dren, but I very much hope the dogs have made me a bet­ter fa­ther.”

Al­though, of course, the love he feels for Mitz­pah – “I tell Mitz­pah of­ten that I love him” – and Safi be­fore him is dif­fer­ent from that for his wife, Nicky, his chil­dren and his wider fam­ily, he says we should not triv­i­alise the strength of feeling hu­mans can have for their pets or the pos­i­tive im­pact that bond can have.

“I of­ten get calls from mem­bers of my com­mu­nity [at the New North Lon­don syn­a­gogue] telling me their dog is ill and ask­ing if it would be OK for me to say a prayer. A lot of peo­ple love their pets more than they want to ad­mit,” he says. “A pet is a loving, feeling, sen­si­tive, re­spon­sive be­ing who can make us feel needed.”

For those who live alone – he re­calls his aunt, who died aged 90 af­ter living for years with her cat – pets might be “the most sig­nif­i­cant other”.

Even in house­holds such as his own, un­til re­cently filled with the bus­tle of chil­dren, a pet can play a cen­tral role. “The dog doesn’t par­tic­i­pate in fam­ily con­flicts, is never in­sin­cere. It is a con­fi­dante for ev­ery­one,” he says. “Who else will sleep on any­one’s bed?”

Mitz­pah, he ad­mits, is par­tic­u­larly de­voted to him. “Bor­der col­lies are very much one-fam­ily and, ul­ti­mately, one-per­son dogs,” Wit­ten­berg says. But his chil­dren have grown up with the dogs, their ex­pe­ri­ences and sense of se­cu­rity in­ter­twined. “Some­times I come home and our youngest daugh­ter, Kadya, and Mitz­pah are cud­dled up on the sofa. That is spe­cial and hum­bling to wit­ness,” he says.

Mitz­pah’s pre­dec­ce­sor, Safi, an aban­doned staffie/labrador/ spaniel cross found on the street by one of Wit­ten­berg’s con­gre­gants, came be­fore the chil­dren. “As im­por­tant things of­ten do, it just hap­pened. He came into the room, licked our faces and that was it, re­ally,” he re­calls.

A few years later, baby Amos ar­rived. He and Safi be­came in­sep­a­ra­ble. “Mossy’s first word was dog. His sec­ond was Amen, so he did well,” says Wit­ten­berg. It was Kadya who was largely re­spon­si­ble for train­ing Mitz­pah, who ar­rived when Safi was 14, teach­ing him, among other skills, to walk through hoops and nav­i­gate a see-saw.

Fam­ily hol­i­days were de­signed to ac­com­mo­date the dogs. “Vir­tu­ally all were in Bri­tain, so we could take them. The dogs be­ing there – the walks, the chases on the beach, the games – were a huge part of it,” says Wit­ten­berg. “The dogs fea­ture in so many lovely, happy fam­ily mem­o­ries.”

De­spite Kadya’s ef­forts at dis­ci­pline, Mitz­pah has also pro­vided the fam­ily with many tales of mis­chief. A youth­ful propen­sity for chew­ing led to one scene, out­side the syn­a­gogue, in which Nicky, with one of the chil­dren po­si­tioned at the dog’s head, was forced to ex­tract a pair of tights that was prov­ing dif­fi­cult for the dog to ex­pel from its rear end. “He hasn’t al­ways been bril­liantly be­haved,” Wit­ten­berg sur­mises. “Those mo­ments be­come very funny in ret­ro­spect.”

In ad­di­tion, he says, the dog fa­cil­i­tates con­ver­sa­tion and com­pan­ion­ship. “Quite of­ten, Libbi, my mid­dle daugh­ter, or Nicky will join me on a dog walk. That might not oth­er­wise hap­pen, es­pe­cially as the chil­dren grow up. It is a time to touch base.”

Mitz­pah reg­u­larly ac­com­pa­nies Wit­ten­berg about his work, at­tend­ing the syn­a­gogue and meet­ings with con­gre­gants. If his pres­ence isn’t suit­able, he waits in the car.

“If some­thing is dif­fi­cult – and al­ways af­ter a fu­neral – I take a few min­utes to walk with Mitz­pah and re­flect,” he says. “It is an op­por­tu­nity not to be alone, but to be alone with your thoughts, to have your in­ter­nal di­a­logue.” The lack of ques­tions or con­ver­sa­tion can, he finds, be the per­fect com­fort.

“Hu­man re­la­tion­ships – even the best of them – have cor­ners of am­bi­gu­ity and com­plex­ity, but with a dog it is sim­pler. They judge us only by how well we love them back. Some­times it is eas­ier to show emo­tion in front of the dog than in front of the fam­ily,” he says.

“When my fa­ther died, I found be­ing with Mitz­pah very help­ful,” he adds. “Dogs are in­tu­itive of our mood, they un­der­stand so much of what we don’t say. When we are sad, they lie down next to us in quiet, un­spo­ken sym­pa­thy. That faith­ful­ness can be hugely com­fort­ing and, through it, we re­flect more on the hu­man re­la­tion­ships that are so im­por­tant to us as well.”

When he be­came an al­most ac­ci­den­tal dog owner, three decades ago, Wit­ten­berg had, he says, no real sense of “how close we would be­come or how much time we would spend to­gether”.

IThe dog doesn’t par­tic­i­pate in fam­ily con­flicts and is a con­fi­dante for ev­ery­one

n 2010, Wit­ten­berg walked from Frankfurt to Lon­don, fol­low­ing the path his grand­fa­ther, a rabbi in the Ger­man city, had taken on flee­ing the Nazis in 1939. The walk – about 450km over three weeks – was phys­i­cally and emo­tion­ally chal­leng­ing. “How could I pos­si­bly go with­out my dog? Mitz­pah was my com­pan­ion. He made me feel safer. He was a bit of home,” he says.

Each night, the pair would ar­rive, ex­hausted, at their overnight stops. “On a few oc­ca­sions, get­ting ready for bed, I would find the dog stretched out on the bed. I got into my sleep­ing bag on the floor,” says Wit­ten­berg. “I don’t rec­om­mend this as good prac­tice.”

Af­ter 30 years, has he be­come even a lit­tle hard­ened to the dog’s plead­ing eyes?

“No! I have learned noth­ing!”

Things My Dog Has Taught Me by Jonathan Wit­ten­berg is pub­lished by Hod­der, price £16.99. To or­der a copy for £14.44, go to guardian­book­shop.com or call 0330 333 6846.

Pho­to­graph by Jill Mead for the Guardian

Rabbi Jonathan Wit­ten­berg with his dog, Mitz­pah

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