Border Skirmishes

You can learn a lot about human interaction by watching dogs

(Note: This article was written in 2000)

When we were informed our 13-year-old chow dog Shiba had cancer, and would probably last less than a few months, we made the decision to get a puppy before Shiba left us, to make the loss a bit easier for my three daughters, who had no memories of life before the dog (the oldest was 2 when we got her). My oldest and I picked up a 10-month-old Laborador-Rottweiler puppy at the local shelter, brought it home, introduced it to the old chow, and waited for the firework.

We didn’t have to wait long.

It was interesting, to be underdramatic, watching the old chow and baby Labrador circle each other and shake down the territory issues.

Shiba was not only less than flexible, she was an only dog and queen of the roost for a very long time. Even the cat acknowledged Shiba’s position as diva, and rarely messed with her. Certainly the kids knew who was boss in that relationship.

But Dakota, the new addition, didn’t know – nor did she care – that chows are non-flexible, very cranky, and “do not play well with others.” Dakota saw Shiba as a playmate, which was amusing.

Additionally, Dakota encroached on what the SPCA called Shiba’s “prime real estate.” These were the spots Shiba slept in or otherwise staked out as her own – a certain spot in front of the television, the floor by my side of the bed, the bottom of the stairs.

When Dakota was still, which wasn’t often, she sat right in front of the television – you got it – in Shiba’s prime real estate. Dakota also liked Shiba’s “kitty,” a rope bone Shiba killed on a regular basis (as a substitute for the real kitty, who wouldn’t tolerate being shaken and thrown). Never mind Dakota had her own toy – it was so much more fun to grab Shiba’s out of her mouth and run with it.

Having been out of the “baby” business for a while, I was enlightened watching these territorial disagreements. Especially after a conversation I had with my then-16-year-old oldest daughter one day when we were shopping.

I marveled we had been together for about six hours, and we hadn’t disagreed or argued once. Normally, we couldn’t go six seconds without grating on each other and yelling and slamming doors.

She said, “That’s because Dad’s not here. We never fight if he’s not around.”

Very interesting statement. Not so much that she noticed it and I hadn’t, but that it was true.

In pondering the wisdom of my first girl-child, I came to a realization I had been ignoring or avoiding – I never figured out which.

Cori and I were indulging in our own territorial issues, just like the two dogs. And the issues – real estate, hierarchy, independence, and personality – were the same as the issues plaguing the four-legged critters.

I was – and still am — used to being the top dog when it comes to the females in the house. I’m Mom – I know everything, I have only their best interests at heart, and it should come as no surprise I like being in control.

Cori at 16 was close to being an adult, figuring out her place in the cosmos, and more importantly, figuring out who she wasn’t (me). She took her life more seriously these days, and no longer felt “Mommy knows best.”

I worked very hard to raise a girl who is not dependent, not a doormat, who has her own ideas and personality and wasn’t afraid to make those opinions known. Of course, that’s what I wanted, isn’t it?

Yes, but I guess I forgot to tell her she wasn’t supposed to use those against me – I will always be the mom, and thus, deserving of respect and genuflecting until the end of time.

Right. She’s not buying it, either.

So we danced around each other, fighting about things that aren’t really the issue, just minor manifestations of what we were really saying.

She was saying, “I’m not a little girl anymore. You can’t protect me from pain and unhappiness and fear. I have to learn lessons my own way, because that’s the kind of person you made me.”

I was saying, “I’m not ready to let you go. You’re still the tiny little girl who smiled at me and thought I knew everything and cuddled with me whenever you were sad or lonely or hurt. I’m not ready for you to be someone else.”

It’s a common conflict among mothers and daughters, I’ve heard. My mother and I are still dancing around the territory issues, even after all this time. She tells me when I am a grandmother, it will be easier to step back and see the big picture.

I’m not buying that. For 16 years, it has been my task to raise my little cubs, to protect them from harm and teach them. That’s a job I relish, and one that is very, very difficult to let go of. In this case, while Cori sees my unemployment as a validation of my life, I see it as a rejection of everything I have been for a good part of my life. I don’t like to be invalidated – there’s a serious lack of control in it.

So Cori and I dance around each other, baring our teeth, flattening our ears, sounding more vicious than we really are. But when no one was watching, we flopped down together, sharing the warmth of each other and enjoying the companionship, just like Shiba and Dakota do at the end of the day.

(Note: both Shiba and Dakota have crossed the Rainbow Bridge and wait for us, Cori is now the mother of three girls, and this grandmother sits back and watches the fur fly in Co’s house with a great deal of amusement.)