That fighting spirit (among dogs)

Growing up in a family of two girls, we had some tussles, but by and large our disagreements were not solved with violence. I also raised two daughters who have strong opinions but who rarely erupted into physical fighting. So it was unfamiliar territory to see this dynamic being played out between our two (rescue) dogs.

We brought a second dog (a 35 pound Australian Cattle Dog mix named Kit) into the home because the first one (small blond with a shaggy beard named Livvie) seemed incurably shy and fearful. With the introduction of her “sister,” Livvie transformed into an animal who is interactive, particularly with dogs, but also slowly and steadily, with people.

With a single mind, the two canines will rouse from a state of inertia to leap up and gallop outside to chase away an offending squirrel. They will trot back in together, satisfied with their joint vanquishing of the rodent.

They will also wrestle, making gargling noises deep in their throats, but it is obvious that neither of them mean it. The other week while on the phone with a colleague, the volume between the two buddies increased exponentially and abruptly. The hair on the back of my neck stood up, responding to the all out battle for something completely unseen.  

I discovered most of a mole? bird? on the floor near the couch, and had to scream and flail at the besties who were launching themselves at each other’s throats, breaking skin and showering droplets of blood on the floor. Dropping my phone, I grabbed each collar and tossed their growling,  passionate butts outside. I hastily removed the animal carcass of such hot contention. 

After calling back my colleague, I took the two hounds for a cool down walk. Upon their return, both hopped up on their bench, the competition fully in the past.  

Two days later I was bringing some equipment out to the shed when I was alerted to the same frantic sounds of antagonistic disagreement between  pooches. Racing up the hill I spied a neighbor dog being herded and chastised by its human as she ushered it out of our yard. Shocked to see blood on Livvie’s face (the twenty pound Terrier mix), I discovered that most of it was just smear from the corner of her ear, which was actively bleeding. The dog herself was completely unperturbed, except by my intervention and submitted somewhat reluctantly to my wiping her down. Otherwise the fight was over; it was only my heart which was pounding still.

Important reminders that as lovely as they are, these dogs have a feral aspect which cannot be denied. They’re learning to trust us, to live peaceably and to love many aspects of their lives with us. But I cannot ever take for granted their presence in our home. They are here because of our choice. Although bred to please people, their instincts sometimes run deeper than their current situation, and they do not possess a superego lto short circuit their intentions. It remains our job as their humans to assert our leadership and convey what is allowed in our home. This means safety for us all. It may not be familiar, but it is surely what I signed up for when we invited a second dog into our house.

It makes me appreciate that it is not “owning” a dog, it’s about responsible living with them, and it is my job to make clear what is acceptable and what is not. They have worked out their own system. I have to work out mine.

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About Meg

Meg is a licensed independent clinical social worker with over thirty-five years clinical experience. She holds a Master’s Degree from the Boston University School of Social Work and a Bachelor of Arts from the State University of New York at Binghamton.