Animal Nature? Human Nature?

“No, Teddy. No. Bad dog!”

“I’m sorry I ate Bear’s food, Martha,” says the mini-Aussie after being punished for purloining a bowl of food that was meant for Bear a giant breed dog, his big sister, his friend. And Bear? Thinks she’s being punished, too. She comes toward me, her right lip curled in her particular facial expression of submission.

“It’s all-right, Bear, but if you don’t guard your dish, Teddy WILL eat it and he doesn’t need it.” She dips her head. Until she senses that happiness is restored between Teddy and me, she won’t relax. She also knows I’m not really angry. It’s about disciplining the puppy.

I feed her and she eats. Teddy stares at her bowl, completely unfazed by his recent “negative experience.” He’ll eat Bear’s food again if he gets the chance.

Dogs and food. One of my huskies was killed over the crust of a ham sandwich that fell on the kitchen floor. It happened in seconds. My year old Labrador retriever knocked out Cheyenne’s canine tooth and slit open her throat. It was the saddest interval in my years of living with dogs. Another sad event happened over food, too. Reina, my Aussie some time back, got in a fight with Lily, another husky, while I was teaching. I came home to a Lily who needed surgery and a Reina who was sorry, but had to be rehomed. She lives with a friend of mine, and she’s STILL sorry, and I still love her. Bear is neither of those dogs. She will GIVE Teddy her food.

Dogs act out in a moment. Perceived scarcity can set them off. “She has what I don’t.” “There’s only ONE crust of a ham sandwich. I’ll starve if I don’t eat it.” Humans are no different. I see the great divide in this country as being based on one group reacting against what they perceive as scarcity.

I know we’re not supposed to ascribe human motives to animals, but from my point of view, we’re animals and ascribing emotion-based motives to us or to them is likely to be correct.

Bear is NOT going to fight Teddy for food. She WOULD fight an enemy to protect him (and me). My huskies preferred not to fight, but they could be pushed and if they were pushed, there were two levels. One was a simple dominance thing that looked bad but never led to serious injuries.

My male husky — Cody O’Dog — was extremely intelligent and fierce in this way. He couldn’t abide Dusty (a male dog who was “there first”) and he never liked or trusted the Evil X. He and Dusty had a few tussles and they each came away with bites on the back legs, nothing serious. As for what he would have done to the Evil X? I don’t know but it might have been ugly.

The next level for dogs is fighting to the death, and no one expected a Labrador retriever to be a killer — but she was. Everyone would have expected my husky/wolf hybrid to have an amped up level of ferocity — and she did. She was a murderous beast. But, other than her breeding, she’d also been used a breeding bitch, had known hunger and her loyalty to me was absolute, intense. She hated it when I was not there and would act out. She never made friends with her “pack mates.” I was her pack, her whole world.

There’s that “pack mentality” thing, and maybe dogs have such a mentality, but to differing degrees. Siberian huskies absolutely do NOT like living as only dogs, but Bear, an Akbash, a livestock guardian dog, is an essentially solitary being as are all her breed, bred to spend long periods of time out in the middle of nowhere watching sheep. She needs “alone time.” I think of the Basque sheepherders of Montana who, with their sheep-wagon and their dogs, also live months at a time in the high country without any other people around. Could everyone do that? Why am I here instead of in some big city?

I suspect we humans are also made up of different intrinsic “breeds.” No, I’m not making a pitch for eugenics. I just suspect that nature and nurture can work together to make a husky/wolf mix human or an opportunistic, loving, grateful little guy like Teddy or a gentle, humorous, protective being like Bear. Certain nationalities are renowned for certain traits — the little fighting Irishman? That was my dad and, uh, uh, uh…

Innate intelligence seems also to be a factor in this diversity. Bear is unlike any other dog I’ve owned. Her intelligence (part of her breeding as a livestock guardian dog) leads her to be gentle, very patient and “kind.” She shows enthusiasm and curiosity, but training her to do “tricks” (which Teddy thrives on) is a challenge. A trick I’ve taught them is to go “down” on the count of three. “One, two, three,” and Teddy goes down. Bear goes down on “One.” Not only does Teddy go down on “three,” he will not go down on “One, two, five” or “One, two, seven, twenty-three, forty-one, three.” It has to be “Three” in the right place. Teddy wants the treat but somewhere in his mind the procedure must be executed correctly. He’s a law and order guy except when it comes to filching food.

Meanwhile, Bear tries again and again (smirking inside?) or chills on the floor beside him, knowing a treat is coming sooner or later. Which dog is smarter? Bear is a lot more pragmatic. Teddy seems to have “book smarts.”

BUT…Bear has never known hunger. I think Teddy has. When I adopted him, he was skin and bones. He was found tied up in front of a 7-Eleven. How long had he been wandering? How long before someone caught him? His collar was too small — it could have been a while. When my friend Lois was walking him, he was always looking back, worried that I wasn’t there. Why?

Teddy fetches, puts the ball in my hand, and returns with it, prancing like a puppy. He loves it when the ball is difficult to retrieve so he can solve a problem and return to me with great pomp and circumstance. Meanwhile, Bear leans against me, a little jealous but basically knowing that Teddy’s tricks are irrelevant in the grand scheme of scaring off cougars and bears.

I think all this can be extrapolated to people. While dogs are dogs, and people are people, there’s the thread of animal nature weaving through all of us.

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20 thoughts on “Animal Nature? Human Nature?

  1. At the end of the day, humans are animals too, and there’s the survival instinct in every species. How on Earth you coped with what happened to Cheyenne I can’t imagine though. That must have been incredibly traumatic to have to go through. Poor you. Give Bear and Teddy hugs from me. 🙂 ❤

    • I had to put Cheyenne to sleep (obviously) and it was traumatic because she was terrified and I loved her. AND was 11 pm. Long drive down the mountain with a dying dog. Then, when Daisy went after Lily a couple days later, I had to put Daisy down, a perfectly healthy, beautiful but murderous Labrador retriever. The vet and I agreed she was overbred and her brain was broken. Sad. BUT it gives me a story to put up against pet stores and puppy mills. Bear and Teddy say thanks for the hug and some mead would not be amiss. 😉 ❤

  2. “I know we’re not supposed to ascribe human motives to animals, but from my point of view, we’re animals and ascribing emotion-based motives to us or to them is likely to be correct.” In fact, perhaps the opposite is the case — that we should ascribe animal motives to humans.

  3. I couldn’t agree more with your assessment, Martha. We are animals. Some have “developed” or grown to what society calls civility, but at a moments notice (as witnessed throughout the years) if threatened on a prime level, will revert instantly. I love Bear. What a treasure. The other events you spoke of must have been so painful, I can’t imagine it but I can imagine it happening. Even with Loki, who at the moment is a gentle giant, he’s learning or hitting “protection” mode and I could see him getting really fierce if it became necessary. The next we months (now that he’s finally hopefully healed) we begin again. Some of his training he remembers, some he’s forgotten. Those first few walks my son takes him on, I’ve said will be Loki taking him! not the other way around, lol. Not sure I want to see that! but it’s going to happen.

    • What happened to Loki? (I keep trying to follow your blog but it never works!!! Grrrr….) He’s a breed that likes to learn. Bear’s a breed that really doesn’t need to learn anything. She has learned everything important, but nothing will change her from being a lap dog (since, to her, that’s how to take care of her charges). I tell people, but I’m sure they just think I haven’t tried to train her. I have trained her to sit, down and come, but the rest of it? We did obedience school. She aced it, but the training didn’t transfer to real life. It won’t and it’s OK with me. I like who she is and I’m willing to cooperate with her. Out in the big world, she won’t “come” if there are more important matters to tend to — the the smells of “bad guys.” She KNOWS if a bear or badger or fox has been around. Teddy, on the other hand, is at the stage in an Aussie’s life where he’s ready to get everything right. That’s his nature. They’re so different but love each other so much.

      • That’s wonderful! You understand Bear and that makes it perfect! Loki had two surgeries on his front elbows. On the right side they screwed it together because the bones had nearly but not quite fused. Once that was done, they removed a piece of bone in the other one since it hadn’t even begun to fuse. Unfortunately he got infection in it and it’s been 18 weeks of doing nothing but sit with a cone around his neck. He’s finished the antibiotics now and he’s ripping around like a maniac, not to mention that he is in every way a FULL grown dog. He’s long and huge. He’s lost weight through the ordeal only weights 90 lbs. now but when he sits beside me, he’s up to my shoulders. He’s bright happy and your right, loves to learn! He
        is a problem solver and man does he ever. Whatever he decides he needs to know, he learns and instantly! OMG it’s amazing to watch! Every time we have to update (microsoft) we dont want to try not to, but it happens, it seems to screw up all my connections both here andin every other program and it always takes Adam awhile to fix because he has specific setting in place to protect our computers. Then he’s started a new position at work and is working (150%) every day on that. He’s like that. He gets good then fast and he’s considered the best they have. I don’t mind saying, he aced 10 categories at 150% and they didn’t know what to say about it, he’s capable smart brilliant but at the end of the day, mentally fatigued so I don’t often ask him to fix something. In a few weeks when he’s feeling solid ground again, then I can ask him to fix things, lol. He will, without hesitation.

      • He’s been through 18 weeks of hell but when they shoved the needle right into the stitches and cuts, he didn’t flinch or move. He didn’t whine or anything, they were stunned! He’s so amazing, Martha. I wished you of all people could meet him. You’d love him! He’s Bear in so many ways!

  4. There’s not understanding the various food-related events. Duke steals treats. Bonnie’s, Gibb’s — if it’s a cooking or a piece of unfinished cookie, he’s on it and FAST. But if either dog wants to eat his dinner, he will politely step aside. He’s absolutely urgent about dinner arriving ON TIME — to the minute — but once it’s out, he’s only minimally interested in eating it.

    The ONLY dogfight we every had was over a piece of fallen blueberry muffin. I hope we never have another … and it was many years ago. I was lucky that I was able to et them apart almost instantly and in the end, the only one bleeding was me.

    Some dogs are wildly food-driven and others don’t seem to care. At the moment, all of the dogs will eat each others’ food — I think that’s more of a competition issue than an eating issue — but none of them will fight over food. But we have had very food-driven dogs and that fight was with one who was the sweetest dog in the world — EXCEPT about food. I also discovered that bones caused a lot of disquiet, so I no longer give them to any of them.

    I think this is a DNA sort of issue. Food-driven dogs seem like that from when you first get them and they don’t seem to change. Fortunately, not all of them will actually FIGHT over the food.

    • I think it’s DNA and also if they ever didn’t have enough to eat. Labs are VERY food driven and huskies aren’t. Daisy could have thought she had to attack Cheyenne to get the piece of ham. I’ll never know, but that she took it so far indicates her brain was broken. My Aussies have all been crazy about food, all three of them. I think it’s interesting to think about how those mentalities might translate to people.

  5. We’re pretty firm about feeding time here. I put the food in the bowl. Then I let them in. They have to do a sit and stay before they’re allowed to eat. Otherwise. they just get crazy. Like a pair of wolves all amped up to go on a hunt.

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