From the moment I brought home a litter of German shepherd puppies, Cleo singled out one for special treatment. The mongrel’s hackles rose whenever she saw Koko, although she had no trouble accepting the rest. She growled menacingly until Koko whimpered and peed in fright. I yelled at Cleo to lay off but she disobeyed.
When I returned home from shopping, my mother said Cleo had peed on Koko. I felt bad for the puppy. We divided the garden in two with chain link — Koko and her siblings on one side, and the two older mongrels Cleo and Pokhiri on the other. There were no further issues between Cleo and Koko, and I was complacent. In solving a small problem, I created bigger trouble.
When Koko’s brother Karadi matured, he and Pokhiri savaged each other through the gaps in the chain link. Except Karadi, all the dogs had been fixed. Should I neuter Karadi? But the vet said we had waited too long and it wouldn’t make any difference to the conflict now. To prevent the boys from seeing each other, we covered the fence with palm fronds.
One afternoon, Karadi busted through a gate and both dogs fought viciously. I screamed and beat them with my chappals, but they seemed more intent on killing each other. Eventually, during a break in the fight, I got between them and beat Karadi back to his side of the fence. When it was over, not only did the two dogs have bloody lacerations and swollen faces, but I suffered deep puncture wounds on my arms.
When Rom came home, I burst into tears. The physical wounds didn’t hurt as much as seeing my beloved dogs fighting each other like demons. I wanted them all to get along with each other so we could be one happy family.
Reading a bunch of dog behaviour books reminded me of the friction between my brother and me. I remembered my father driving five-year-old me to the hospital the morning after my brother was born. On the drive, father asked, “What shall we name your brother?”
I replied, “Nothing.”
Father tried once more, “Don’t you want a baby brother?”
Throughout the time we spent under our parents’ roof, my brother and I bickered over every little thing. He ran to our parents for support, and they chided me, “He’s younger than you. You should adjust.” Not only was I annoyed with him for complaining to our parents, I was irritated that whatever the problem, I had to back off.
I learnt much from the dog books that may as well be parenting lessons. Most importantly, the initial aggression between older and younger dogs should run its course. The dominant ones want to ensure new entrants know who the top dogs are.
Secondly, during these face-offs, owners should support the older dogs. By rushing to Koko’s defense, I undermined Cleo’s status, just as my parents had made me insecure. We are naturally protective of the youngest, making this the toughest lesson to practise.
None of this told me how to take down the fence that separated the dogs. I could let them meet on neutral territory to get to know each other. But I was too chicken to try it. Both Pokhiri and Karadi were powerful dogs, and I wasn’t confident I could handle them if they went for each other’s throats. The fence stayed.
When a leopard took Karadi, his siblings took over the territorial war. Cobras and tick-borne disease took their toll until only Koko remained. I adopted more puppies, and when Koko growled and threatened them, I ignored her. I learnt to trust she didn’t mean harm. The little ones rolled on their backs and exposed their bellies in submission, Koko was appeased, and everyone got along as adults.
Many years later, after Cleo and Pokhiri died, the fence came down finally.