Lightening Up and Letting Go: Learning From Fighting Dogs

Yesterday afternoon, two of our dogs, Ruby and Elsie, got into a fight. They’ve been fighting periodically over the past 5 months, and each fight has gotten worse. I had thought that their last fight, well over a month ago, was the final battle, and that they’d worked things out. Basically, Elsie, now an adolescent, has begun to irritate Ruby, soon to turn 8. When we first adopted Elsie, who was around 6 months old, she was like a fountain of youth for Ruby. The two played and played, and we were delighted that Ruby had a best friend, sister, and playmate.

But this year, Elsie’s been pestering Ruby, sidling up next to her, on her tail, challenging her status as queen bee in our household, and Ruby has been voicing her displeasure by growling. Elsie doesn’t take the hint, and Ruby has attacked her half a dozen times. The first couple of times Elsie barely fought back, but yesterday, she fought back hard. Usually, I let them work it out and no one is hurt; but this time, they wouldn’t stop. I tried everything I could think of: yelling at them, tossing a sheet over them, throwing their stainless steel dog bowls, and finally getting a broom. The broom worked. I got them apart. We were all shaken.

And when this happened, my husband and I were soon to hit the road to drive to Massachusetts to watch our son’s breakdancing performance at school, and I didn’t want to leave our housesitter to handle any fallout from the fight. So I called the motel where we’d be staying and asked about bringing Elsie. They said yes.

Elsie traveled for six hours, four hours longer than the longest road trip she’d ever been on with us, arriving at a strange motel room to spend the night. She seemed a bit anxious, but she cozied up in the bed and fell asleep. In the morning we went to the school to watch the performance and stopped to take Elsie for a brief walk in the rain. A carpet of pink flower petals lay on the ground and Elsie lay among them, a beautiful sight. A balm after the storm that had precipitated her joining us.

A couple of hours later we were back on the road home. Elsie was a good traveler, confused though she must have been. When she and Ruby saw each other upon our return they were wary. Elsie slinked into the house, obviously worried. But then they ran outside – where they are always best friends – before coming back in and slipping into their uncertain patterns in the house. Ruby growling quietly; Elsie refusing to back off.

I hope there won’t be any more big fights. I hope that Elsie will stop challenging Ruby’s status in our household, or if she simply must be the alpha, that Ruby will let go as she ages. I hope that Elsie will learn not to be such a pest around Ruby, and that Ruby will just lighten up.

As I write these words, I find them familiar. I see the ways I, too, can be a pest in my family (like Elsie), and the ways I, too, can be inflexible around my likes and dislikes (like Ruby). I see the ways in which as much as we love one another, we, too, can fight (although we do so with words, not teeth). I see the ways in which we each seek control in different forms and styles and the ways in which lightening up would be just the solution to many a conflict.

Maybe if I work on my own behavior, Ruby and Elsie will miraculously solve their behavioral challenges, too.

Zoe Weil, President, Institute for Humane Education
Author of Most Good, Least Harm, Above All, Be Kind: Raising a Humane Child in Challenging Times, and The Power and Promise of Humane Education
My TEDx talk: "The World Becomes What You Teach"

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