JD Allinder

Life with Elsa

In Posts on July 15, 2010 at 7:11 pm

Friend and neighbor, Elsa, has been staying with Jane and me the past week while her human companion, Elena, prepares to have a baby. Elena’s due date – July 4 – came and went, but still no baby. She was scheduled for labor inducement today, and I hope she and her doctor moved forward with that plan. I know how eager she is to have her baby boy – Griffin! – and start their new lives together.

In the meantime, Elsa’s been a welcome houseguest. She’s a perfect lady indoors and out. She’s sweet, thoughtful, attentive, and obedient. In many ways she’s the yin to Jane’s nutty yang. (And that’s not meant to be a criticism of Jane, even if it kind of sounds like one.) Elsa walks perfectly off-leash, instantly obeys all of my requests without complaint, and is grateful for any attention, exercise, and kitchen tidbits that come her way. She’s a great companion for Jane, too, and the three of us have been enjoying daily trail hiking and city leash walking.

Elsa’s a wonderful leader on the trail, followed by me in the middle and Jane at the rear with her nose to the ground, and, despite the heat – it was in the low 90s today – we’ve all been keeping up with daily eight to ten-mile lunch hikes. Jane is much more enthusiastic and engaged with a canine partner, and the two girls make a good team: Jane’s got the nose and Elsa’s got the speed. Today Jane demonstrated for Elsa the finer points of treeing.

Jane and Elsa have been friends since shortly after Jane came home with me in September 2008. Still very puppyish at the time, Jane groveled at Elsa’s feet when they first met, and Elsa demonstrated her alpha status with growls and nips to Jane’s upturned neck and belly. Even though they’ve both grown up and Jane’s developed tremendous confidence and (a little bit of) status, the dynamics of their public relationship remain the same. The minute Jane sees Elsa, she melts into a whimpering pup. That power dynamic completely shifts, though, in our house. At home, Jane stomps around like the boss, keeping a watchful eye over all her resources (eatables, creature comforts, affection), and evil-eyeing Elsa into total submission. Poor Elsa! Jane is really a bully – sometimes even demanding food from Elsa’s mouth – but Elsa’s being a good sport, and I’m being provided with new opportunities for teaching Jane about hospitality.

Elsa’s visit has helped me articulate some of the unique characteristics of Jane’s personality. Many of the things Elsa does are what I consider typical dog behavior. For example, she follows me around the house from room to room. When I fetch the leashes for a walk, she does a little spinning dance. When I work in the garden, she’s beside me the entire time, taking great interest in all that I do. Jane, on the other hand, doesn’t do these things. She doesn’t really care where I am in the house. When it’s time for a walk, she very calmly and pragmatically waits until the last possible second before she rises from her lie down and dispassionately moves towards the door. When I tell her I’m going to work in the garden, she gives me a look that says, “You go ahead and have fun. I’ll stay here on the sofa in the air conditioning. Wake me up when it’s time to hunt or eat.” Her behavior is often puzzling to me because it’s atypical to that of all the dogs I’ve ever known. I don’t know if her quirks are unique to her or typical of coonhounds. There’s just something very logical (for lack of a better word) about her. Elsa will endlessly chase pebbles thrown into the river. She understands that the pebbles are not alive, that she’ll never catch them, and that it’s just a silly game. Yet she loves it and throws herself into the activity with great relish. Jane, on the other hand, stares at Elsa and me like we’re insane. Her body language says to Elsa, “You’re not seriously chasing rocks are you?” Then, while we’re occupied in the game, she tries to sneak away into the woods to do her coonhound stuff – stuff that she’s intensely driven to pursue on her own.

When I first adopted Jane, I couldn’t understand why she was so different from all other dogs I’ve known. I found I didn’t always know how to motivate her, and that my ideas of fun and hers didn’t always converge. Like a parent who wants or expects his child to be something other than what he naturally is, I tried to make Jane conform to my expectations of what it meant to be a dog. But instead, thankfully, my love for her expanded my rigid definitions. She didn’t have to change to become a member of my pack, my pack principles had to evolve to accommodate her. I love Jane so much. Having Elsa here exhibiting all of her typical dog behavior has somehow made me appreciate Jane even more. If we know how to listen, animals teach us everything we need to know.


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