Mary Brennan’s “Going to the Dogs”






“Throughout my life, each of my dogs fulfilled a different role—amazingly, the role I most needed most at that particular period. They enriched my life in wonderfully unusual ways. It is amazing how much a dog senses about the human psyche.”

Mary Brennan

If dogs are among your best friends, Mary Brennan can tell you how to make best even better.

In tribute to her seven setters—and one golden retriever—Mary Brennan has privately published Going to the Dogs, featuring training tips and mistakes made, inspirational stories, and how to work with dogs for show and service.


Mary Brennan with Sali (left), who lived around the world with the Brennans from 2001-2014, and Bel (1994-2005).

An accomplished horsewoman and Lake Forest and Mettawa volunteer, Mary learned how to help a dog survive six months’ quarantine in England under past immigration laws and the joys of sharing an animal with residents of nursing homes. In a book that took 8 years to write, Mary describes the unique personalities of Grouse, Sam, Brooke, Sloane, Bel, Sali, Brit, and Heidi—how they interacted with her, husband Chip, and their daughters, Cindy and Lisa.




Grouse, Mary’s first setter who came to her in 1967.



Friends and family are telling her to take the book public, and Mary says she is working on it. Those who have read it agree that there is probably no better guide to bringing out the best in your dog. The key ingredients to success? Recognizing that these animals have feelings and emotions and working diligently from the time you first bring the dog home.

“Every dog wants to please the owner, but dogs don’t know what to do. To be the fairest to a dog, you have to ask yourself if you have the time and the personality to successfully learn to discipline a dog to bring out its best.

“The number one rule is that you have to take a patience pill. Number two: you have to clear your calendar for training. You have to be consistent and start right away. Puppies do not understand yes or no. They learn that ‘yes’ comes with a little reward. Don’t let a new dog get away with anything—start making corrections right away.”

 Mary says you have to be aware of a dog’s likes and dislikes and presents the very useful 10 Commandments from a dog’s perspective, which was first used by Stan Rawlinson in 1993:

  1. Give me time to understand what you want from me; don’t be impatient, short-tempered, or irritable.

  2. Place your trust in me, and I will always trust you back. Respect is earned, not given as an inalienable right.

  3. Don’t be angry with me for long and don’t lock me up as punishment. I am not capable of understanding why; I only know I have been rejected. You have your work, entertainment, and friends. I only have you.

  4. Talk to me. Even if I don’t understand your words, I do understand your voice and your tone. You only have to look at my tail.

  5. Be aware that however you treat me, I’ll never forget it. And if it’s cruel, it may affect me forever.

  6. Please don’t hit me. I can’t hit back, but I can bite and scratch, and I really don’t ever want to do that.

  7. Before you scold me for being uncooperative, obstinate, or lazy, ask yourself if something might be bothering me. Perhaps I’m not getting the right foods, or I’ve been out in the sun too long, or my heart is getting old and weak. It may be I am just dog-tired.

  8. Take care of me when I get old. You, too, will grow old and may also need love, care, comfort, and attention.

  9. Go with me on difficult journeys. Never say, “I can’t bear to watch” or “Let it happen in my absence.” Everything is easier for me if you are there. Remember, regardless of what you do, I will always love you.


Brit at training.

 She writes beautifully about the uniqueness of each of her dogs.

“Sam, a field setter, was a very adaptable dog and managed to live 14 incredible years. She traveled the world with us, adjusting to new cultures in different countries. She lived in houses and apartments, and she managed to accept whatever exercise she was given.

“She became my grounding force and anchored me as I, too, experienced these many changes while raising a family. I never cease in my awe of her trusting acceptance of the various detours that came her way—even being in quarantine in England.

“Bel, another field setter, became an amazing therapy dog. She loved the work, and the patients just melted when she visited with them. In her own special way, Bel began my journey to formal obedience training. She opened my eyes to the fact that dogs like to have a job in addition to being a family pet. She was the first of my setters to be exposed to babies and toddlers and lived up to the setter reputation of having an excellent disposition.”

 Mary explains how she began writing about her beloved dogs.

“In May 1995 I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, which I would slowly realize was going to affect my life. I have always been a very active person. I was jogging 4-6 miles a day and was running a hunter/jumper show barn, sometimes riding 2-3 horses a day. I loved to go on bike rides through the forest preserve, alone or with friends.

“My first grandchild was born in 1996, and I was so busy that first month soaking up the joys of grandparenthood that most other activities were put on hold. My pain had lessened, and I then knew that I had to stop doing all the sports—tennis, paddle, cross-country skiing—that were causing severe pain.

“After the first few years, I realized I had to find something that was going to bring joy and happiness back into my life. So I started writing a simple memoir about all the different English setters we have had. Former Lake Forest College President, Gene Hotchkiss, was very kind to find Natalie Kalich, a professor at the college, to help with editing. She told me that it was a really interesting story and I should embellish and expand it. We had much fun working together.

“I really wanted my grandchildren to know about all our different dogs and what they did.”

 Here’s how Mary describes the English setter demeanor . . .

A unique breed, maybe a little wild and crazy outside, but they settle down and love to be quiet in the house. One does not risk losing a finger when giving a setter a treat. They make fantastic animal-assisted therapy dogs because of their pleasant demeanor and gentle mouth.”

. . . and how they fair in a show setting: 

“Though demanding at times, they can be excellence obedience dogs. However, a handler showing a setter in obedience faces a considerable challenge: to override the setter’s natural instincts for pursuing novel and distracting scents.

“The field setter has been bred to have a stronger sense of scent, and there can be anywhere from 100 to 300 dogs on the premises during a show.

No matter how the dog did, I knew that she tried her hardest that day and I would tell her so. Being in a show ring is a very humbling experience.” 

Dog owners—and fans of setters, retrievers, and anything in between—are sure to find joy in Mary’s outlook and hope that she will publish her book for a wider audience.

A dog is always happy to see you, greet you, and be with you. With a dog running around, living life in the moment, life can’t be all bad!”