The good shepherd

by
02 April 2008

When Graeme Sims rescued a dog, his life and vocation changed. Pat Ashworth hears his story

Dog collar: the Revd Graeme Sims with his seven sheepdogs

Dog collar: the Revd Graeme Sims with his seven sheepdogs

THE Revd Graeme Sims describes the journey from prosperity to poverty as like losing altitude in an uncontrollable way: collision with the ground is a certainty. “All the victim can do is hope that it doesn’t come too soon and that it isn’t too messy when it does,” he says in his newly published book, The Dog Whisperer.

The sudden collapse of his successful advertising business 20 years ago left him with nothing. At his lowest point, aged 50 and reduced to selling even the furniture, his rescue of an abandoned dog from an oncoming car set him on the path to a new career as a shepherd and dog-trainer — and, a decade later, to ordination.

“I could speculate for ever (and have) about how she had managed to get to the same place as me at the same moment. She needed me and I needed her, and something or someone had arranged our coming together,” he writes. Having first worked in publishing, where he also learned to use his artistic skills, he had enjoyed “the more demanding, sophisticated, and better-paid world of advertising”, and had risen from studio manager to creative director, and then to heading his own company.

The crash, therefore, was all the harder, and he says: “I had been a blue-eyed boy for maybe 20 years, and deep down believed I couldn’t possibly fail. If you win and get every idea right, you begin to think you’re charmed — which, of course, I wasn’t. I was as daft as the next man.”

The odds of finding the sick and underfed Annie that day are something he never ceases to marvel at, he says. It was “a gentle kick from God to say, ‘Wake up’”.

He used a dog whisperer’s instinct rather than a manual to train Annie and restore her confidence. Dog whispering treats dogs as partners and friends, not servants. Interpreting a dog’s body language and habits can help man and dog communicate and understand each other, Mr Sims believes, and the book — subtitled How to train your dog using its own language — has the simple aim of teaching people to train their dogs well.

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Annie “took to the training like a duck to a very attractive millpond”. he records. Months later, when Mr Sims and his wife had retreated to Devon, on the grounds that beautiful scenery was a free gift in their situation, Annie’s unique education proved to have given her the knack of herding sheep, and Graeme found himself in demand as a shepherd, after a neighbouring farmer’s flock escaped and surged past his house “like an uncontrollable woolly juggernaut”.

Acquiring more sheepdogs, he found he could control a large number together by using commands in a different language for each one, together with different whistles and body-language signs.

In demand for demonstrations at sheepdog trials, and later as a full-time demonstrator at the Milky Way adventure park, he loved the showmanship of it all. “I noticed that the more outrageous you are, the more the crowds like it. But you still have to make sure everything you say is true: you must never get so showy that what you’re doing is an act rather than the real thing. It was always the real thing.”

His way of treating the dogs was considered wholly unconventional at the start. “When I began to train my dogs in this way, traditional dog-trainers thought I was quite potty. They laughed openly and said, ‘You’ll never get anywhere like that.’

“Their dogs were servants, and offering a dog an option seemed daft to them. They say you can’t do it, because they’re frightened of trying it: they have to be the master. That’s nonsense. There are moments when you do have to be the pack boss, but, like a good general, you should get on your horse and go out in front, and not be havering on a line 25 miles behind and saying what should be done.” Shepherds love their dogs; farmers tend to regard their working dogs as a replaceable tool, he observes.

The book is mischievously illustrated with cartoon dogs in every kind of pose and situation — most poignantly, the “dog in an iron mask”, muzzle firmly strapped on, eyes frightened. The step-by-step advice to dog-owners is simple, straightforward, and heartening. Dogs are what they eat; dogs need routines; dogs are much brighter than you think; shouting is human barking; love is a two-way thing; peaceful coexistence is easy to achieve.

Some hackles still rise, he finds: “I get critics saying, ‘The man’s mad.’ But it’s worked for me. It’s worked beautifully for years and years and years.”

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There is an absence of sentimentality, though he does quote the “lovely Sunday-school story” that has God naming all the animals and leaving the dog till last because it was to be man’s best friend. God tells the dog: “Your name shall be God spelt backwards.” Mr Sims’s attitude to dogs is very much conditioned and informed by his Christian faith, he acknowledges.

Ten years after the crash, he offered himself for ordination as “a thankyou to God for putting Annie in my way”. He ministered as an NSM for ten years before retiring last year.

The book deals with the death of beloved dogs. People do ask a lot about whether dogs have souls, he confirms, and in his book he reflects that the Bible “appears to allow only humans a soul”. It’s pretty open-ended, though, he suggests. And, while he notes in the book that clergy friends reading it will point out his theological error, he gives an unashamed picture of heaven where, from the gate of a cob cottage on the edge of the moor, out will rush a host of dogs and cats, geese, ducks, and sheep to meet him. “Then I shall hear laughter from inside the cottage itself, as if a wonderful tea party is going on, and all those I have loved and lost will be there.”

He has, he says, “a theology close to Zen”. “I’d like, when I die, to understand things a bit better than I do.” Children at primary school assemblies often ask him whether their rabbit, hamster, guinea pig, dog, or cat will go to heaven. He responds, “I answer, ‘Yes,’ reasoning that, if God is love, then love draws no barriers. Did the donkey that carried Jesus go to heaven? Of course it did!”

Now living in a rural valley in South Wales — “a return to my Celtic roots” — he has 15 dogs, a flock of sheep, and a number of elderly ducks. His favourite spot, to which he brings a group of dogs each evening, “in a sort of fairness rota”, is an outcrop of rock high above the valley, where the dogs lean in to him, their bodies touching his legs.

“It’s heaven”, he suggests, “— and if heaven’s like that, by golly, it will be good.” The book concludes: “Peace is dog-shaped. Contentment wears a black-and-white furry suit.”

Out with the dogs that morning in the orchards and fields, Mr Sims reflects — without vanity, he hopes — “I hope God treats me and loves me like I love these dogs. I’ve watched them for signs of illness and discomfort, and every morning I ask them, are you happy?”

He laughs.

“They don’t exactly say to me, ‘Yes, I am, thank you,’ but I can tell from their body language how we’re progressing, and it’s a kind of warming feeling, giving a bit of strength to us.

“I’d be barmy if I said Jesus had a dog. But I’m sure that the deep meaning of it all is that we do love animals. Dominion over the earth is meant to be an intelligent dominion, I’m sure, not a forceful dominion.”

The Dog Whisperer is published by Headline Publishing Group (£14.99; 978-0-7553-1698-4).

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