Wed, 11/03/2021 - 4:58pm

Them's Fighting Words!

M.J. Nelson explores the canine equivalent of a saloon-busting brawl

In the old “B” westerns, when one of the characters said, “Them’s fightin’ words,” it was almost always a prelude to a saloon-busting brawl.  If he wasn’t already a participant in the melee, the sheriff or the marshal was usually called upon to break it up and restore order, often emerging from the fray nearly as battered as the combatants.

On way too many occasions, throughout my life as a hunter and dog trainer, it seemed like I should have been the one wearing the lawman’s star, because for some strange reason, I’ve been nearby and had to intervene when two dogs have decided to try tearing each other limb from limb. I don’t know what words were exchanged that led to the combat, having not yet mastered dog language, but, at least to the participating canines, they must have been “fightin’” ones.  

There’s a really good reason why military pilots call air-to-air combat a “dogfight.” It is a fierce, fast-paced battle with intense maneuvering that leaves little margin for error – modern pilots call dogfighting “a knife fight in a phone booth” – and when a Navy or Marine Corps pilot is anxious to get into a dogfight, he or she is said to be “Fangs out,” all of which pretty much also describes dogs in a fight or looking to initiate some hostile action.

Males and females alike are all too frequently more than willing to settle disputes – whether it’s over territory, food, attention, toys or, in the case of Sporting breeds, birds – with a frenzy of teeth. When St. Matthew wrote “Blessed are the peacemakers,” one of the beatitudes included in the Sermon on the Mount, it’s a good bet he wasn’t referring to anyone attempting to break up a dog fight, because then he would likely have had to have written, “Wounded are the peacemakers.” 

Rarely do the “peacemakers” in a dog fight escape unscathed. It only happened once for me and that was because there happened to be a flat-bladed shovel handy, which I used to put a quick end to the fight before there was any damage to either dog or to me. The fight was between two of my Chesapeake litter sisters, Tee and Genny, who were the souls of amiability around other dogs but absolutely despised each other for reasons known only to the two of them. They coexisted very peacefully side by side if both were in their separate crates, but if they somehow got out of those crates at the same time, it was instantly World War III, and they weren’t fooling. Sibling rivalry is a ferocious thing. There really is a lesson for dog owners to be learned in the biblical story of Cain and Abel.  

Breaking up a dog fight usually requires the agility of Simone Biles combined with the strength of Hulk Hogan. In the middle of a fight, even the sweetest-natured dog has all the instincts of an enraged hippopotamus defending its territory. They will happily bite the hand the feeds them and having done so, display roughly the same level of contrition for their crime as a sociopathic killer. Many is the time I had to do a fair imitation of the iron cross male gymnasts do on the rings, albeit with both feet on the ground, as I attempted to keep the quarreling canines far enough apart to stop them from inflicting further damage on each other and subsequently on my bank balance. 

There are a lot of ways to break up a dog fight. But the tricky part is doing so without shedding your own blood in the process. I recall one fight between Sparky, my old Brittany, the canine incarnation of the Queen of Hearts from “Alice in Wonderland” (“Off with their heads!”), and Casey, a really affable Chesapeake Bay Retriever female who hadn’t an aggressive bone in her body but who nonetheless would defend herself if attacked. When I finally managed to pry Sparky away from Casey – who had in some way displeased her imperial majesty and thus merited being put on notice, once again, that offending the queen had consequences – both Sparky and I were bleeding. Casey, fortunately, had only a couple of superficial scrapes, but Sparky needed sutures. So did I, as it turned out. Since the fight occurred on a Sunday, and try finding a physician on Sunday, the vet, luckily, made the necessary repairs to both the dog and me, probably in violation of the state laws. But he was a practical man and if something needed stitching, it didn’t matter to him if it walked on four legs or two.

 

Amy was the only dog that equaled Sparky, the canine version of the curmudgeonly Queen of Hearts from “Alice in Wonderland,” who topped the charts when it came to being easily offended.

 

When it came to taking offense, Sparky was the undisputed champ. The only time she ever met her easily offended match was with Amy, my late hunting partner’s Brittany. Amy and Sparky were a formidable pair when both were hunting together, and they were paragons of cooperation when they were doing their jobs. In fact, it was positively lyrical when they were using their great talents as bird dogs to cut off and finally pin a wily old pheasant rooster. But that sweet teamwork vanished the second both arrived back at the truck at the conclusion of the hunt. 

Instantly they’d begin growling, posturing and threatening each other with snarls, raised ruff fur and semaphore white-of-the-eye messages. They’d stand facing each other mouthing the most awful canine threats imaginable. While it never came to physical combat between the two –they were like two diplomats rattling their sabers in front of the United Nations’ General Assembly – it didn’t take more than a couple of these preliminaries to convince Bill and I to immediately grab both dogs the nanosecond they arrived at the truck and stuff them into their respective crates with no pats, no “good girls,” not even a treat or a drink until they were securely separated from each other.

A friend of mine tells the story of the time he broke up a dog fight with beer, which he poured on the noses of the two pugilists. Actually, my pal was never sure if the fight broke up because the dogs were wheezing and snorting from the beer in their noses or because they were anxious to lap up what had spilled on their paws and the ground. 

Another friend didn’t have to lift a finger to separate the combatants when his Labrador and his hunting partner’s Irish Water Spaniel decided to dispute the ownership of a mallard in the bottom of the duck boat. These two had just spent the day together in the same duck blind without so much as a raised hackle. They came to blows amidships over the duck, which happened to be where my friend’s leg was at the time. As they started snarling at each other under his leg, he grabbed both but lost his balance, which pitched both him and the two dogs overboard into some really gunky, foul-smelling marsh muck and water. He said it was amazing how quickly the fight went out of both dogs being submerged in that godawful duck marsh beneath a 200-pound guy. 

 

When the Irish Water Spaniel and the Labrador disputed ownership of a duck in the bottom of the boat, both wound up submerged beneath a 200-pound man in some really awful marsh muck and water.

 

Actually, water is as good a means as any to break up a canine donnybrook. I once used a five-gallon jug of it to break up a spontaneous brawl that erupted between one of my Chessies and my hunting partner’s Golden Retriever with the Golden, surprisingly, being the one who apparently was insulted by something Mike, the Ches, must have said to him in passing. “Your mother wears dog boots,” maybe, who knows. Whatever it was, it was enough for the Golden to believe them was fightin’ words and attempt to duke it out with a Chesapeake that was 20 pounds heavier and three years younger. Needless to say, things weren’t going the Golden’s way although he may have thought he was ahead on points since Mike’s ear was bleeding from the Golden’s initial attack. 

The Golden’s opinion of the outcome notwithstanding, it was clear it was time for the marshal to step in and order, “Break it up, boys.” When they failed to obey, the order was enforced by wading into their midst with five gallons of cold water and dumping it over the pair, an act which magically separated both and cooled their ardor for any additional combat.

Dog fights aren’t funny, but I did witness one that made me laugh so hard while it was occurring that it nearly caused me to do something I haven’t done since I was a toddler. The clash was between pair of Labradors, and that probably was part of the reason for what one of the principals in the fight later called my “unseemly mirth” since I didn’t have a dog in the fight, so I wasn’t expected to intervene.

One of the dogs was known to be testy around other dogs. In fact, his entire temperament could be best described as akin to that of a starving bear with a thorn in its paw. The other combatant was only a tiny tad more benign. Indeed, for a breed known for its warmth and affection, these two clearly were absent when the amiability genes were handed out. 

The arena for this contest was a muddy wheat field. When I say “muddy,” I mean the kind of slick, gooey stuff you encounter from Nebraska all the way through the Dakotas and the central Canadian provinces. It’s the sort of material that NASA could cut into tiles and use on space vehicles to protect them on re-entry because it sticks tighter than any glue, and when it dries would outclass diamonds on the Mohs scale for hardness. It’s also as slippery, when wet, as a layer of water over ice.

The two dogs were headed for the same goose when their paths intersected, and the war was on. By the time the owners arrived at the scene, the fracas was already in full snarl. While one of the owners managed to get a hand on his dog’s collar, before he could get any control of his dog, the fight action knocked the legs out from under both owners and all four went down in a massive tangle of arms, legs, dogs, mud, growling, slashing teeth and only half-coherent yells from the dogs’ owners.

The guy who had managed to grab his dog’s collar had his hand trapped between the collar and the dog’s neck, and the pile kept rolling over and over as the dogs stamped their owners into the mud. In that mud, the two guys were about as surefooted as the proverbial hog on ice.  What’s more, everything the two men tried to say was muffled in the mud, which was probably just as well since it likely reached new heights on the profanity scale.

I enjoyed the scene as long as possible without being gauche. But it finally became apparent that I’d better stop laughing and do something to try to put an end to the fight because it was clear the dogs’ owners were losing. Luckily, I managed to grab the collar of the dog whose owner’s hand wasn’t trapped by it and twist it until it turned the dog’s attention from trying to kill his opponent to trying to breathe, and that put a stop to the conflict.

When the dog’s owner finally was able to regain his feet, he took his dog and proceeded to address aspects of the dog’s ancestry that I’m sure are not found in the American Kennel Club’s Labrador standard nor the breed’s history. The other owner may have made similar comments about my ancestry when I suggested that if he ever got tired of hunting, he might want to try mud runs for recreation. However, I’m not sure what his words were as it’s difficult to determine what someone is saying when they have a mouthful of mud.

Probably just as well, as what he was saying were no doubt “fightin’ words.”

 

 

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