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Most Treasured Teachers


I love the way animals educate one another. A young puppy accompanied her owner on his interview with me as a general farm hand. How could he have known that I am the world's biggest sucker for a puppy face? But I am, and Bear began accompanying her owner nearly every day he came to work. He brought her here because she was an only dog, and he felt it was socially important for her to interact with my four canine companions. I thoroughly enjoyed watching her grow, watching her learn, and watching her remind us all of the reckless abandon of youth.

Bear was tiny when I met her ... maybe seven weeks old, shepherd/husky/? mix, full of youthful apprehension and puppy love. My dogs quickly intimidated her right under her owner's Jeep where she whimpered for human comfort and salvation from the canine commandos at her heels. She was unappreciatively delivered from her hiding place and cradled in her owner's arms for proper introductions. Naturally, the resident dogs were bursting with curiosity, and huge noses pushed, prodded, snuffled, and absorbed every bit of the pup they could access before her owner decided enough was enough and allowed poor beset Bear to return to the relative calm beneath the vehicle. It didn't take long, though, for her to venture cautiously forth (but not beyond ready scooting distance back under the Jeep) to see where her human guardian had gone. Any random woof, much less a frenzy of extemporaneous barking from my pack, would send her fleeing for her life once again.

I was always there, ready to provide Bear sanctuary from the rowdy adults when her nerves failed. She did, however, slowly learn that the dangers of which she had initially been so certain were largely unfounded. She started to follow her owner farther from the Jeep. Eventually, she dared make brief explorations into the yard on her own without necessarily running for cover every time one of the large dogs appeared. In time, she would join in the offensive charges of my horde and run with them through the yard after some phantom intruder. Actually, she was careful not to run with them, but behind them lest she be trampled in the stampede. She began to stand her ground when greeted and examined by any single farm dog, though it was some time before she initiated contact on her own. It did happen, though.

Unfortunately, she chose the one dog made nervous and territorial over Bear's presence on the farm. Bear chose Sarah, the oldest and most neurotic of my canine kids, as a surrogate mother. It was a poor choice. As Bear would approach, and I would watch Sarah tense and begin to tighten her lips into a threatening curl, I would issue my own warning to Sarah, and she would obediently move away. But by now I wasn't finding it necessary to constantly monitor the dogs' interactions. So it was that Bear's owner and I ran to her side in time to spy Sarah racing off leaving a small trickle of blood winding down a most distraught puppy's ear. Bear was only temporarily dissuaded from pursuing this hopeless relationship, however, and within days was trying once again to convince Sarah of her undeniable charm. Her owner was nervous. I was nervous. Sarah was nervous. Bear was undaunted. She was to learn that tenacity and charm do not overcome all odds.

Meanwhile, Aspen, a mere puppy in dog's clothing herself, decided that Bear would make a most suitable playmate. It took only one good bowling over, however, to convince Bear that this alliance was not in her best interest and that the white dog was clearly trying to kill her. Aspen, oblivious to the unfortunate impression her exuberant play had made, attempted to renew the game only to find Bear retreating in a panic to her owner's side. Aspen was heartsick, and Bear had now misjudged twice, attempting to forge an ill-fated relationship with an unwilling partner and rejecting the counterpart who wanted most to be her friend.

The house and barn were natural extensions of the yard. All resident dogs moved easily through the buildings. Bear felt equally welcome. The dog door inset in the house door remained a mystery for a while, but soon enough Bear caught on to the other dogs' disappearances through the plastic curtain. Though uncertain at first, she saw no ill effects in her comrades, and the technique of in/out, in/out, in/out was learned at last.

The greater mystery lay in wait in the barn. Bear could not understand why her owner and I should try to restrict her movements in this seemingly innocuous and oh-so-inviting structure. But horses are unforgiving in the lessons they teach to errant dogs, and the self-possessed behavior of puppies makes them particularly vulnerable to equine discipline. "NO!" and "GO ON!" held little meaning for Bear until she began to grasp the effect such commands were having on the other dogs. I was gratefully able to prevent Bear from learning the lessons only horses can teach.

The goat, however, was another matter. Abbie had a habit of exerting dominance over all of the animals at every available opportunity, and this puppy would make a fine example. She could easily have killed Bear, had it ever been her intention to do so, but Abbie preferred to rule by intimidation rather than elimination. When the presumptuous puppy would hazard to enter the kingdom of the barn uninvited, Abbie would tilt her horns and widen her glassy eyes menacingly in Bear's direction. Any such threat going unacknowledged would promptly elicit a butt into the wall. I never did much to rescue Bear from these assaults; they saved me the trouble of shooing her out of the barn myself and taught her to keep a safe distance from this large horned sentry ... until Bear figured out that the goat, too, was more bluff than action. Then the young daredevil, having grown into her uncooperative puppy legs, became both brave and quick enough to play her own game of harassment with this intolerant mistress of farm discipline. Bear learned to stage attacks only in the open where no possibility of being trapped between horns and solid objects existed, and Abbie learned to live with one more thorn in her side.

Bear taught as much as she learned here. My animals, complacent and comfortable in their daily lives, were reacquainted with the face of apprehension, insecurity, and fear in Bear's first visits. They also rediscovered the boldness and naiveté of youth, and were imposed upon by the responsibilities of demonstrating tolerance and setting the right examples.

Bear herself learned much from my farm family. She learned how to interact with her own and other species. She learned about caution, discretion, respect, obedience, alliance, and duty. She learned how to accept and be accepted into territories beyond her own home. And very little, if any, of this knowledge was acquired through the efforts of her owner or myself. The teachers, the most treasured teachers, were those who at first terrorized, then teased, and ultimately taught Bear all that a puppy should know.

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