I loosened Willa’s collar. There is such a ritual in this simple act, the concrete acknowledgement of growth. Similarly when we had to finally retire Bindi’s baby collar, the adorable honeybee one her foster mama gave her, we marked it as a rite of passage and an important acknowledgement of physical growth. With our human children, we make pencil lines on the wall, we count how many words they know at age two – the stuff of measurement. What does your dog weigh, how many commands does she know? It’s all ways of quantifying and celebrating how a living being blossoms under our care. That’s why I wax poetic about the little things. The new collar. The marks on the wall. The quantification of care and love in flesh, blood, and bone.
The gift of last week’s family emergency is that all else was tossed aside – all trappings of “regular” life. Admittedly, I’ve had little by way of regular life for quite some time. It was years ago I told myself I would take no shit and give no fucks from now on. The gloves are off. Tom was with his daughter, handling the situation at her side, several hours away from home. Without Tom’s workaday schedule structuring my chaos, I’ve slipped ever deeper in a feral mindset. Meals and bedtimes are a construct for people who can swallow, people who do not have loved ones in the hospital.
Rushing to get to my own doctor’s appointment I consider telling the truth: I was late because I was taking photos of my dog. I was late because the light on his fur was compelling. I was late because I wasted time crying. And now I am late, and resentful that I am being forced to hurry the puppy through her sniffing. How do I explain that I am late because I am trying to savor this life?
So much happens each day, I struggle to absorb it all, writing in my head, but unable to carve out the time and mindset to write anything more complex than a To Do list. I was walking Hawkitt around the pond an hour ago and looked down to see blood on my camera. The morning walk was cut short this morning because Bindi and Willa had a fight. I need to write about it, so I put Peeka outside, Bindi upstairs, and let Willa chill on the couch. The peace and quiet needed to heal their trauma and allow me to write now has a fighting (do I really want to use this word?) chance.
I had trouble deescalating the situation. Resource guarding over a chunk of shelf fungus that both dogs have played with a few times, sharing and grabbing it from each other without so much as a curled lip, today became worth a knockdown, drag-out brawl. It lasted about a minute. I got a decent hold on one dog a few times, but had trouble convincing the other to back off each time I did. I fell, got my finger twisted in a collar, at some point injured my back.
The dogs are minimally injured. Both have small cuts on a front leg. Neither dog redirected onto me. It could have been much worse. Much worse.
Adrenaline is an interesting drug. I don’t remember what I said or did during the fight. I remember clearly what I thought and how I felt, but I’m not sure what came out of my mouth. I know I managed to wheelbarrow each dog once, and that doing so helped to distract the dog and slow down the intensity. The fight ended when I had one dog firmly in my grasp and the other chose to back down. I don’t know which. I wasn’t able to physically grab both at the same time.
My thoughts were simple: I will get them to stop hurting each other. That’s pretty much it. My feelings were of caring and compassion. I felt empathy. I know I didn’t get angry, and I didn’t bellow commands. I didn’t yell. I know this for sure; that much I do remember clearly. I didn’t think “I must stop this.” I thought “I will stop this.” I was confident despite feeling sad. I was calm. I never joined in the emotional escalation. I think I said things like “that’s all” and “eeeeeeasy.” I know I didn’t raise my voice.
I have no idea if this was the “right” way to handle the fight. It’s really hard to make choices about what to do in those adrenaline-filled moments. I’m not sure it’s possible to make choices about what to feel, despite knowing that feeling angry or scared creates hormonal secretions that are palpable to the dogs. I would prefer not to do that, not to freak out, not to feel panicked or enraged, but how much control does a person have in that moment? I’m not sure. I was lucky, perhaps, that I went to a place of calm and confident hope – my mantra was “I will help them.” I will be their rock. I will end this badness and help them get through it.
Why does my pack squabble and scuffle? I have theories and questions, not answers. Bindi and Willa have enjoyed healthy play consistently since Willa’s arrival, grabbing items (including this precise stupid piece of fungus) out of each other’s mouths many times before. I watch their play closely – it has been relaxed, full of reciprocity, rest breaks, and trading roles. It’s been healthy, wonderful play for both dogs. When I’ve seen even a hint of intensity I haven’t liked, I’ve just said “Eh! Eh!” and both dogs let go of each other. Today’s escalation is completely new.
Willa is 9 months old. Developmental issues, and hormones may play a role. Overall pack dynamics are chronically difficult, as Peeka and Brody are chronically difficult. This week has been one of emotional upheaval as Tom’s daughter recovers, and I take yet one more step into accepting my own health issues and the lifestyle limitations I face. Last week, the dogs and I were alone for 5 days straight. It was calm and peaceful. I was more attuned than usual, perhaps, because I didn’t have to divide my focus between human and canine family members. This week, Tom is home, and I have been at the clinic and on the phone with doctors. It’s been quiet as ever on the outside, but under the surface, the emotions have been shifting and changing.
And all dogs resolve conflicts through fighting to one degree or another. It is a natural and relatively normal canine conflict resolution tool. Some breeds are much less likely to escalate and get physical. Some breeds are more likely to do so. Having a collection of the latter, trash talk and scuffles are going to be more likely here than in a household full of different breeds.
Two nights ago, we had a three ring circus in here with Brody and Peeka becoming unglued. Tom helped and no dogs were injured at all, but harsh words were spoken by Peeka and Willa. I had been ready for that – primed for Willa to go there with Peeka. To see her go there with Bindi tells me something important about Willa. This is part of her repertoire. This is what she will do when her stress bucket is overflowing. I need to know this and believe it, not tell myself pretty little lies about how any of this is anyone else’s fault: not Bindi’s for starting it, not mine for failing to demonstrate adequate leadership. This isn’t an alpha thing or a training thing. It’s a Willa thing. I need to stare that reality in the face and accept it.
A feral honeybee swarm is cleaning out our uninhabited beehive. I hope they choose to stay and make it their home. I watch them every day, looking to see if workers are entering with full pollen baskets. Pollen going in means the queen is laying: it’s home. So far no pollen, but I keep watching. I looked up from the hive to see a bald eagle circling over the lower pond. Largemouth bass easily 18 inches long patrol the pond, and I swear they swim over to greet me when I walk past. Either that or they’re hungry. I’ve heard largemouth bass will eat anything. The snapping turtle is new this year, and drifts around like a nefarious pool float. The eagle hasn’t swooped down for a snack, but turkey vultures, a broad-winged hawk, and the ravens from next door visit regularly.
I dug up a perennial that got bulldozed during driveway construction and somehow managed to hang on and even bloom, despite being ingloriously shoved aside by heavy equipment. Digging that plant, I happened upon a huge garter snake – triple the thickness of a more typical sized member of that species. Right before the fight erupted, I was standing in a clearing listening to a baby barred owl whistle. I have taken to slipping outside to just stand in the driveway in the early morning. I just stand there, camera in hand. The wildlife comes out from every nook and cranny. I just have to be patient and pay attention.
This life. It isn’t a pleasant evening paddle on a mirror lake. It’s getting swamped upstream in a headwind and losing your gear in November. It’s class five rapids and your helmet doesn’t fit right. It’s zip lining, bungee jumping, sky diving for the acrophobic. Five dogs, an unfinished house, and a chronic, untreatable illness … it’s a lot.
The day after the fight, I’m sore in a collection of muscles and joints I didn’t know I’d used or abused. I feel like I was in a car accident. Maybe just a fender bender but I’m banged up and bruised nonetheless. I can only imagine how the dogs feel.
Today will bring choices and decisions, same as any other day. I’ll do my best to face those decisions head on and make the best choices I can. It would be easy to hand-wring and catastrophize. It would be equally easy to shrug off the fight as an outlying event – an anomaly. My goal is to walk the middle path, and respond to what is, instead of reacting to what I hope or fear. It’s a tall order and I’m a short person, but needs must.