Running With the Big Dogs

I come downstairs in the dark like I do most mornings in the hour before dawn and flip on the lights to the dooryard. The puppies are two months old and have been spending the nights in the barn for a couple of weeks now, but they are up before me and you can hear them calling to be let out the moment I open the door to the house. I usually walk to the barn barefoot no matter how much snow or how low the temperature is because it wakes me up completely and it gives me an idea of the kind of day I’m facing. I pull the big door open and they come tumbling out sliding across the ice and the older dogs join them as I open the feed bin and fill their bowls. The cats emerge from the shadows and take their place on the hay bales waiting their turn, keeping a wary eye on the puppies. My daughter decided which one we’re keeping, a thoughtful looking female with her mother’s coloring, but right now having a pack this size is oddly satisfying. The dogs set to eating, heads face down in stainless steel pans their choker chains tapping rhythmically in the frigid air. The puppies follow at my heels, climbing up on the side porch while the rest of the dogs gather just inside the barn. I pause for a few moments and watch the moon cresting over the edge of the mountain listening to the sound of their teeth and jaws at work and then I step back into the house; coffee and warmth.

If you know anything at all about dogs you know that they have an innate sense of rank. Dogs know where they fit in the mix, whether top dog or second. Every member in every gathering of canines understands by instinct exactly where it belongs in the order and how to behave in relation to the others. There are, of course, moments of jockeying for position, the sudden lunging or fights over scraps, but rarely do these altercations escalate to the point of bloody violence unless there is a deliberate provocation. Dogs seem to know the social structure on a molecular level and this allows what are little more than an advanced weapon system designed by humans to live together in relative harmony, especially when joined together as a pack. There’s no training that can undo their natural inclinations, no way for them to behave as if these structures didn’t exist. You can teach them all kinds of tricks that mimic human behavior, but you can’t make them into something else. Dogs evolved because of their hardwired discipline into obedient and valuable tools maximized for human use. I’ve had dogs most of my life, single dogs and small packs, working animals and travelling companions. These days our dogs serve on the farm as protectors of home and family. They keep predators at bay, help us with livestock and produce whelps to both replace themselves and for barter. They are our eyes while we sleep, our companions when we work and watchful playmates for the children. They are completely comfortable living outdoors as our first line of defense and they commune with the rest of the pack when we are absent, aloof and free from our control, but this distance vanishes the moment we return to view and each time they greet us with the same excitement and joy regardless of how long we have been away. They say that the level of intelligence in even the dullest of breeds is about that of six year old. The dogs we currently keep are a mix — shepherds and collies and the top dog possesses the kind of intelligence that regularly amazes me, far more sophisticated than any six year old I have ever known. My kids love to ask which dog I loved the most because every time I say a different name. I have had a great affection for them over the years that borders on love, but I am constantly aware that they are still dogs. No matter how many we’ve gone through in our lifetime and regardless of the personal attachments to them, they remained true to their nature throughout their lives, with us, but not us.

The first puppy went to a farm near the coast. The farmer came up to pick up a sow and the children helped him select a nice pick from the litter. They helped him put it in the small carrier behind the seat of his pickup and the older dogs pressed their noses up to the wire gate, the puppy nosing back. We shook hands and thanked him for coming up and as he turned and drove down the lane in the blue dark we stood there looking after it, the remaining puppies circling at our feet, yapping excitedly. The older dogs ran all the way to the bottom of the hill right alongside the truck and the puppies peeled off to follow them, running with the big dogs until the truck drove through the gate. From where we stood at the top of the hill we could see the dark mob of them, watching the tail lights dim in the slowly falling snow that drifted silently from above.

The other puppies are leaving today. The children picked the one that we’ll keep for ourselves and starting tomorrow she’ll be a permanent fixture of our pack. We can start to work with her now and we’ll likely repeat the kind of training we’ve done with the other dogs, making adjustments for her strengths and weaknesses of course and the other dogs will assimilate her into the working life through their own instruction. When we’re not with them and we watch from a distance you can see the way that the other dogs instill discipline, allowing for the playfulness of the puppy while keeping a tight rein on the challenges they throw. The big dogs, even their dam, will not allow them to feed from the bowl until she has had her fill and will nip lightly when they try. The sire will wrestle and snap, but never allow his jaws to close fully, knowing the power he has, showing great tolerance for the sharper teeth of his offspring. When it becomes too much he simply takes off at a fast run for another part of the farm where he knows the puppies will not follow. I have seen them take the puppies for tours, visiting the chicken coop and the piggery, out to the run-in to watch the cows standing sullenly at the feeding ring, the entire pack lined up like they were at the circus, watching intently from the safe side of the cattle panels. Clearly there is something going on between them and we do not intervene when they’re in synch. When we do come out to feed and water the livestock, the dogs follow dutifully, waiting to give a hand at the gates. The puppies seem to know when to stay close and when to give us some distance and when we arrive home after being away, they fall all over themselves to shower us with affection just like the big dogs, jumping for pats and acknowledgement, each one looking for affirmation and a sense of belonging.

The commonly accepted theory is that human beings domesticated wolves between 15,000 and 30,000 years ago. As I am sure I have observed before, I have questions about which animal domesticated which. Long before we figured out agriculture, herding and long before the wheel, the bow or anything that resembled civilization, two species of advanced mammals discovered, to their mutual benefit, a co-operative form of behavior. Dogs benefited from the human ability to locate protein with regularity and humans from the advanced senses, speed and violence that canines contributed to the hunt. Win-win, as they say. Dogs allowed humans, perhaps for the first time in their existence, a good nights sleep and in exchange we gave them the warmth of the fire and a full belly even in the worst of times. What we have gained from that single luxury in a hostile world is immeasurable and what they have profited from our aid is equally imponderable. It is a relationship that may have been the catalyst for most of our forward development which followed closely on the heels of this abiding and fortuitous partnership, but it persists to this day.

We get a lot of phone calls from opinion researchers and pollsters these days. Living in New Hampshire has it’s rewards, but being at the front edge of a political campaign qualifies as a drawback in my book. We still have a landline so we get more calls than usual. Sometimes we shine them on, answering questions randomly and in contradictory fashion until we get bored and hang up. The younger children enjoy this the way I used to like prank calls when I was a kid and we give them the phone and laugh while they stymie the interrogators at the other end of the line. I have no idea who’s really ahead in the polls right now because I’m pretty sure we’re not the only family having the political establishment on when the calls come through on a Sunday or after nine o’clock at night. I do have a strong gut feeling who is going to walk away with this election coming up based on my observations of people and their behavior and it isn’t the person the people calling on our telephone would like to see in the White House. People aren’t dogs, but they have a lot in common with them or we wouldn’t have forged the kind of bond we have. They are curious and intelligent, at least compared to cows and chickens. They are loyal to each other and remember kindness as well as injustices and when pushed into a corner they can be dangerous and unpredictable. They also share a sense of rank and position on a level so deep and ingrained it can’t be trained out, no matter how hard you try. They recognize assurance and they can sense when something is weak and when they make their decisions it’s more in deference to that unspoken instinct than to any other prompt. In the end they always side on what works best for them whether they realize it or not.

The last puppy went to the friends of my daughter and wife. When I heard they’d picked a name, I knew he was spoken for even if they hadn’t said it out loud. We’ll miss having them, but they’ve all found new homes and new families where they will serve, like generations before them, in a line that goes back further than we can remember. And for us there will be one more dog to feed, but another life that looks out for us when we sleep and keeps watch when we can’t.

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