Decisions of the Heart

We sat solemnly and silently around our meeting table in the Workshop. Nobody wanted to start the uncomfortable conversation. The speakered phone sat silently in the middle of the table. A few more seconds crept by. Finally, I just said it. “The other option is to get rid of Muddy, finish training Chaga, then…”

“… Well, ‘getting rid’ of Muddy isn’t exactly what we’re talking about here. I’d say, ‘find Muddy a more suitable home…’” Oren interjected. With that, court was in session.

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We’ve been entering into an uncomfortable space with regard to our puppies lately. There have been a couple of incidents across the road involving Muddy, with each subsequent transgression becoming significantly more costly. Any more, and we could be looking at penalties unspeakable. So, though our Friday afternoon weekly planning meeting wasn’t the ideal space for such a conversation, the necessity and immediacy of the issue dictated that we hash it out.

Monica was on the other side of the speakered phone. Proposal one had been the implementation of an expanded fence: possibly to cross and gate the driveway and enclose the whole property, or just enclose Field 2, where Muddy could live. We hashed through some pros and cons. Psychological impacts of a totally fenced-in property, and an exclusive gate at the end of the driveway? Mehhh… Practicality of a fence keeping Muddy fully enclosed in the long term? Maybe not so good. She’s smart; she’s wily; she’s escaped plenty of barriers before.

Other ideas: Shock collar training. Dogs take off: blow a whistle once. No response: blow the whistle again. Dogs keep running: take them down. Unfortunately brutal, but not ultimately physically damaging, with a relatively quick learning curve. Practicality of someone paying the level of attention to be adequately on-guard through the work day? Based on our efficacy to this point, maybe not so likely. Nobody is on every day, so there would have to be multiple whistle-holders, to whom Muddy could react differently.

Additional proposal: Muddy lives in a paddock of the fenced-in pasture. We slowly work to incorporate her with the cows, and train her over time, as she runs off extra energy in the large space, closed off from the rest of the world. Practicality of us actually working enough with her, versus just eventually forgetting she’s out there for large swaths of days? Maybe not so good. Practicality of her not ever escaping with long hours unsupervised? Hard to tell. This proposal is still under consideration.

But most of the meeting time was spent on the issue of whether to keep Muddy, or find her a new home. It’s a damn tough decision. She’s great; she’s beautiful, and many of our members hold her in deep affection. We know she’s smart; we know she’s an instigator; and we know she’s got lots of potential under the right supervision and training. Time-after-time we’ve dedicated ourselves to increased levels of training, and time-after-time we’ve come back to the same sticking points. She doesn’t always respond well to commands. She has strong hunting instincts. She can react with some aggression to people and dogs. She kills chickens. She has demonstrated a propensity to chase the cows. She negatively influences Chaga. The result of all of this, plus the transgressions, has dictated that she lives her whole life on a leash. The unspent energy she acquires works strongly against any training efforts. Our fear of that road, to some extent, fences us all in.

Chaga, on the other hand, has demonstrated some success being off-leash. He’s got some obvious herding instincts, and seems very trainable. He genuinely listens, and seems eager to learn his job and do it. He’s not too interested in the chickens or ducks. He’s quite responsive. The two, however, have been inseparable since a young age, and to separate them feels, to some, like heartless cruelty.

We went around the table and put forth our feelings, ideas, and proposals, given the reality of the situation. The mood darkened. I glanced out at Muddy; tied to the wagon hitch. She snapped at a hopping critter, caught it between her teeth, and let it go. She snapped again. It hopped out of leash-range, and she stood, watching hopelessly as it hopped away. She stared at me with, with serious eyes and uncharacteristic austerity, as though she knew her fate lay in the balance. Maybe it was just my imagination. Poor pup.

I can admit, though, that I do not exist at the heart of this issue. I exist at the pocketbook of it. I have not given myself to an emotional connection to the puppies, and, as the keeper of the books, I enter countless receipts for dog food, treats, leashes, tie-outs, dishes and the like. It’s fine, so long as they do their job. They are lovely creatures, but everybody here works, and everybody has to pay the rent. From my perspective, if the traits she displays are very obviously counter to what we need, she may not have a place here. Chaga could be well on his way to a life of more freedom without her influence, and Muddy could certainly thrive under the right conditions as well. My thought: let’s cut our losses, and set us all free.

The sobs on the other side of that phone, however, gave testimony to the emotional weight and depth of the decision. I could sense Monica’s dismay as the general consensus leaned towards a new home for Muddy. She has put as much work in with the dogs as anybody, and has established a strong emotional connection to them both. And what a terrible thing, for the cooperative consensus to run counter to the yearnings of the heart. This is the ultimate risk and challenge of the cooperative: you may not have control over every decision, and your heart could be broken in spite of all of your best efforts.

We didn’t ultimately make a decision. We’ll hear out some more proposals, look for possible homes, and decide next week. I won’t be heartbroken if Muddy stays or goes. I’d like to see Chaga entering new phases of his development as a functional farm dog, but would accept it if we give Muddy’s training another go. I know how I’ll vote, but these decisions, emotion-laden or not, lie ultimately with the consensus of the whole.

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