Of Dogs and Porcupines

A picture’s worth a thousand words. And when that picture is a trail camera photo of your porcupine-addicted dog standing calmly several feet away from a porcupine clambering into his den, it’s also worth a few hundred bucks in vet bills.

We live in the heart of Porcupine Country. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen such a porcupine-enriched ecosystem. This two-thousand or so acre area we call home is deciduous forest, farmed for decades before being sold to the New York City’s Department of Environmental Protection as buffer land for the NYC watershed. It’s a mix of maple, oak, beech, and hornbeam, with a few open meadows being taken over by hawthorn and blackberry. It’s used recreationally for hunting, trapping, and hiking. For reasons that a wildlife biologist or ecosystem scientist may be able to explain, it is an amazingly porcupine-rich place. We also have heaps of foxes, fisher, chipmunks, red squirrels, blackberries, bobcats and bears. But the porcupine population is gigantic – unusually so.

Porcupines are rodents. Squint and you can see how similar they are to beaver, the largest rodents in North America. Beaver are buck-toothed aquatic rodents equipped with a wide, flat, hairless tail. Porkies are buck-toothed arboreal rodents sporting wide, flat, quill-covered tails. Both flip or flick their tails when distressed. Beaver splash the surface of the water when they do so; porcupines often smack the faces of the scary marauders they are fending off when they use a tail slap.

Porcupines cannot shoot or throw their quills. The quills are barbed and hook into attackers. They are pulled loose from the porcupine only by attaching to something (or someone) else. I’ve gotten quills stuck in my hands and legs many times while removing them from my dogs. They hurt going in and they hurt coming out.

The most common wisdom regarding dogs and porcupines is that some dogs learn to leave porkies alone, and some do not. Some dogs never learn despite repeated encounters and some only get quilled once. Some never get quilled at all. Peeka has been quilled very thoroughly more than once. She has been unlucky: one of her more awful quill experiences came after the porcupine she barked at from a distance fell out of a tree and hit her in the head on the way down. Yup, Peeka broke his fall. Another encounter ended badly for all – Peeka killed the porcupine and endured three subsequent surgeries as quills migrated and needed mitigation. Some were removed from her eye socket.

But we live in a porcupine-enriched world in which daily interactions are unavoidable. You see, with five dogs and a steep wooded landscape filled with nooks and crannies (fallen logs, rock ledges, hollow trees, etc.), it isn’t possible to see what every dog is doing at all times. Tonshi, one of our foster dogs, was quilled at 10 p.m. when we went out for a pee break. She was out of sight for about 20 seconds. She returned to the pool of light by the front door sporting a quill beard. One of the local porcupines lived quite literally in our driveway for the better part of 2019. Tom and I would look up from dinner to see him strolling past the front windows. If we wanted to avoid all contact, we’d have to move, or never let the dogs out.

But it’s a bold claim I’ve made, that my dogs come face to face with porcupines on a regular basis without any quills shed. Because there’s no prickly evidence, and most of the time it happens when I’m not looking, it’s been hard to know for absolutely certain if that’s true. The trail cam photo is evidence – hard fast proof – that what I’ve believed all these years is true.

This evidence of calm, restrained behavior around a moving rodent – Peeka is obviously hanging back in the photo and not barking, not play bowing, not harassing the porcupine in any way – gives me pause. What do we really know about how our dogs comport themselves when we’re not there? It’s fascinating to ponder. What do dogs do when humans are not directing them, not ordering them around, not mitigating their interactions with each other, other species, and humans? For years I have been claiming that this is the norm, that my dogs have been taught to leave the locals alone, and that they do… with very few and very dramatic exceptions.

We can’t monitor and intercede at every turn… at least I can’t. It’s simply not possible.

I’ve been writing this post for days, juggling laundry, cooking, dog walks, and other interruptions. I started when I saw the trail cam photo. Today, several days later, Bindi took off at 6 a.m. only 3 steps from the front door. I hustled everyone else inside, grabbed a flashlight, and ran in the direction of her barking. Sure enough – a porcupine waddled into the pool of light, Bindi only inches from its tail. She hung back just enough to remain out of reach, and Franklin (I’m pretty sure it was Franklin, our recent porcupine resident of the wood shop soffit who has since moved to the rock ledge) ambled along, piloerection in full swing. I recalled Bindi. She obeyed. She tagged my fingertips and hurtled back to Franklin. This game continued: She obeyed my recall but shot back down the trail to monitor Franklin’s departure twice more. Third times a charm. She came, she stayed with me, and I can only guess that she decided breakfast (indoors, quill-free) was a good idea.

I can’t prevent these encounters. We’d never leave the house. The only thing I can do is train recall under distraction until we all turn blue. I believe in this kind of training, but sometimes I don’t even know I need to issue the recall command. What then? What happens when the dogs are on their own without direction from me, facing porcupines, deer, bears, coyotes, foxes, and so on? Because I think I can assume if we see Peeka on the trail cam with a porcupine, that’s the tip of the iceberg. That’s just the one time she got caught.

I don’t exactly have an answer. It’s food for thought. What do dogs do when we don’t insist they trade their agenda for ours? How much do they rely upon instinct and to what degree do they refer back to previous commands, previous training sessions, previous painful encounters? I’m sure it varies by breed, individual temperament, and other variables I haven’t even considered. But it’s fascinating.

Peeka’s and Bindi’s behavior definitely earns them the label of Good Dogs. The choices they made in those situations were good choices by any human standard. But we all know Peeka is not a good dog. Not really. She’s the minimally rehabbed offspring of a feral rat, with a bad attitude, serious mental problems, and no bite inhibition. She’s definitely not a good dog, no matter how you slice it. Bindi is a puppy, part terrier and part German shepherd. She is a prey-driven hot mess of a girl, more excited about hunting voles than playing with her border collie buddy when both opportunities are present. But both of them made pro-social, Happy Mama decisions WITHOUT ME THERE. I guess to me that’s just … well… fascinating. I don’t know what else to call it. It’s fascinating to think that perhaps somewhere deep in the recesses of their brains, there’s a piece of Mama that resides, giving orders and setting limits, even when I’m not physically present. Much like human children, somehow, someday, they choose to do the right thing without adult assistance or threats and bribes.

How do you make sense of good behavior that happens without your bidding?

The trail cam photo — Franklin and Peeka
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1 Response to Of Dogs and Porcupines

  1. Susan Montgomery-Kalozdi says:

    Excellent piece. I’ve asked myself the same questions many times. Do the dogs check in with any memory of past commands and encounters when they behave in a situation? Do they act purely on instinct? Is it a mixture of the two? Does it depend on the situation? Who knows. It IS nice to know someone ponders the same questions. Oh and by the way, I smiled when I read the correct plural for fisher!

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