I grew up in the midwest, in a town that was exactly two hours away from a big city in every direction, but where I lived was half in the wild lands of the country and half in a bumbling suburbia. The country is what I remember the most. As a kid, I spent a considerable amount of time riding my bike past corn field after corn field, sometimes with a little soy bean thrown in between. When I think of dogs, and when I think of people and their dogs, I remember the big ole softies that would run up to the side of the street, barking and baying and making a terrible ruckus. I learned to not fear these dogs, because although they weren’t held back by a chain or a fence, they never left their yards. These were farm dogs, the dogs that protected farmers from hooligans and predators that might try and hurt their way of life. Dogs were man’s best friend, yes, but usually man’s best friend with a purpose. Although I loved my own dogs, a quiet, but loyal little chow/shepard mix and a bull-headed, but exceedingly clever German Shepard, I did not consider them my children or my family. They were my friends and my companions.
Since I moved to Colorado, just over two years ago now, I have met a myriad of different people and their different dogs. I also own a different dog myself, a sweet and skittish malamute mix. She is a different type of dog altogether, and her behaviors and mannerisms make a high pitched cry back to the wolves her ancestors were bred from. Although she can come off as independent of “her people” when you see her wander off during a hike in the mountains, if you watch close enough, you will see her ears swivel if you stop walking and her head rise up above the foliage. I’ve calculated that she won’t go further than 50 ft. away from me off the leash, and if I call her name, she will zip by me with only a brush of her nose against my leg indicating that she came by. When she is at home, she follows Karl from room to room and will plop down wherever he does; if it’s on the couch, she will usually wedge herself in a spot between him and myself. Koda is very much a people dog, and very much a pack dog; nothing upsets her more than if she is shunned from the house after misbehaving, even if it is only for a few hours. I’ve found that many of the people in Colorado, mainly the ones residing in the little foothills of the great mountains, own these types of dogs. I’ve seen wolf hybrids, malamutes, and huskies, and the more I’ve spoken with these people and interacted with their dogs, the more I’ve recognized a ringing disparity in how the people of the mountains interact with their dogs and how people of other regions interact with their dogs. It is almost as if the pack mentality has permeated the barrier between man and dog, and we have taken in that mannerism the way we take in these dogs: with little, if any, formidable resistance.
It hit me yesterday as I was standing in the dog park, watching Koda play with two, massive malamutes that had paws as big as my hands. It hit me when I saw this skittish little puppy, which looked more like wolf than dog, try and come up to “the pack.” I’d seen this behavior in some of the huskies and malamutes, but more predominately in wolf documentaries. She dragged her butt against the ground with her tail curled between her legs, and when “the pack” ran up to sniff and greet her, she hunkered close to the ground. After a few seconds, she scurried away, frightened that she may have been rejected. Each time she started to approach “the pack,” she would skitter away if any of our dogs made too sudden a move.
All the while, a grizzled man and his wife talked to me about their dogs, about the intelligence, the stubbornness, and about the desire to be with “their people.” His wife talked about growing up in Alaska, where everyone had huskies and malamutes, and where wolf and wolf dogs were often kept as companions; never as just pets. They would never dream of owning a different breed than malamutes, which I think is true of many people in Colorado who fall in love with the wild breeds, because they neither want to relearn the temperament or behavior of another breed, and also because you can’t find the same type of love in another dog that these pack animals have to offer. As their people, as their owners, we have to establish ourselves in their pack and rise to the top. We become their leaders, their friends, but mainly, their family.
That is not to say that other dogs are inferior or incapable of loving their people; that’s absurd. I know the dogs from my childhood loved me and looked upon me as family; the mannerisms that they use to express their loyalty and their love feel somehow different than what I’ve experienced with my malamute. The way that I interpreted my relationship with the dogs of my childhood has undoubtedly impacted my understanding of their expressions.
Colorado has changed my perception of the world in many ways, sometimes as subtle as the way water evaporates into the air, and sometimes as quick and profound as water’s effect on powdered magnesium (it explodes violently). I feel most impacted by my fellow dog owners, whether they keep huskies and malamutes, or whether they keep other breeds or mutts. The interaction between owners, the way they look out for each other and each others’ dogs, strikes me very powerfully. The sign that hung outside of the dog park on Sunday read “We know you love your two black dogs, but they have repeatedly and viciously attacked our dogs. Please do not bring them here or we will have to report you to animal control.”
We know you love your dogs. It was a very strong admission that we, the community, recognized that these owners care about their dogs and want to try to socialize them. However, the need for the greater good, the need to preserve the well being of all the other dogs in the park, would force the community to have to do something it obviously didn’t want to do. What a strange sign. I don’t think anywhere else I’d see such a sign; you would see, perhaps, someone just decide that the owners of these two black dogs were bad people and wouldn’t even bother to give them a warning that, while expressing familiarity and understanding, also demands compliance. There would be no warning, no understanding or familiarity, no compassion.
We love our community the same way we love our dogs. Where else, but in the wild mountains of the not so wild west, would you see such a thing?