Territorial Tendencies: How I Am Like My Dog

Our dog Dory has decided that her domain covers what she can see from our back steps. Unfortunately, the view is pretty good from there. Beyond our backyard, she can see three other yards, part of a public path, and a big chunk of prairie.

Dory: Tiny Queen of All She Surveys
Dory: Tiny Queen of All She Surveys

The result? She often barks at people and dogs that have every right to be where they are. The funniest thing about it is that she only weighs 12 pounds and barks louder the bigger the opposition is. One of our neighbors has an Irish wolfhound whose head is larger than her whole body, but Dory tells him that he is not supposed to be on that path every time he goes by.

I understand her territorial instinct. Even though we have a fence that clearly defines the boundaries of our property — Dory’s official domain — she wants all the elbow room she can get. She wants to be in control of everything she sees. So do I.

I feel more comfortable with a big personal space, which is how I wound up with over an acre of land to care for when I was single. Despite the size of my yard, I did not buy a riding mower. All my spare income had gone to the down payment for my house. I got a self-propelled walk-behind mower so I wouldn’t have to push as hard and made do.

The size of the yard and the effort required to actually mow it weren’t my biggest problems. The real challenge was upstate New York’s wet gray weather and the clay soil. In the spring and early summer, my yard was more of a swamp than a lawn. I had to wait for it to dry out or the mower tires and even my feet would leave permanent tracks in my lawn.

Unfortunately, my helpful neighbor didn’t realize that. He would be out riding his lawn tractor while I was shoving the mower around my yard. I’m sure he felt sorry for me. There was no fence between our houses, so one day when I was away and the grass was long, he kept right on mowing after he reached the boundary line, cutting the grass in my swampy side yard. I’m sure he was patting himself on the back the entire time, happy to be helping me out.

Only I didn’t see what he had done as help. I was furious. His heavy mower had left ruts in the soft mud under my grass, the very thing I’d been trying to avoid.

When I tried to get sympathy from my friends about the awful thing that had happened to me, they just laughed. They saw what my neighbor had done as kind and thoughtful. That I was angry was puzzling, even funny. When I explained about the soft earth and the tire tracks, they agreed it wasn’t ideal, but they still thought I was crazy to be upset.

My rage seemed natural to me. I came to realize it wasn’t just about the ruts. My personal space had been invaded. He had come into my yard without asking first. Under my anger, there was fear. I was just like little Dory barking in a rage that was really terror at a big dog who had crossed into the area I considered mine. I was supposed to be in control of the situation, but I wasn’t.

Once I understood what I was feeling and why, I was able to calmly thank my neighbor for his kindness while asking him to please check with me before mowing my yard again. I did my best not to express my anger or my fear while I was talking to him. I had done enough barking in my kitchen while I worked everything out by myself.

I keep telling Dory that the people on the path or in the other yards are allowed to be there, but she barks at them anyway.

And I laugh, thinking how silly we both are.

Author: Kit Dunsmore

Kit is a writer and an artist who adores living in Colorado. Whether she's hiking in the mountains or walking the prairies, she's always watching the wildlife in order to learn more about the natural world.

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