Of Dogs and Children and Finding Their Place

Livestock guardian dogs

I startled awake. Something ripped me from peaceful slumber and I peered into blackness, trying to figure out what it was. For a moment, there were only the normal sounds of the house. Then the night erupted with the yipping of coyotes.

They were close and my sheep were out.

The dogs volleyed with a chorus of vicious barks and snarls. But the coyotes sounded close. Like they had already cleared the fence and were advancing on my dogs and their precious charges. I slipped on my shoes and went out to join them. I don’t really know why I do this. I use to carry a hoe as a weapon with me as if I might need it to somehow defend my dogs — or more likely myself. But I walked down to the barn with nothing but a flashlight, mostly just to be sure that the coyotes were on their side of the line.

coyote at fence

It was difficult to see anything in the mist. The mist that gave predators the boldness to approach and to assemble and to plot. Rags paced the fence line, answering their taunts with his warnings. The sheep were huddled by the gate to the barn. They wanted in. They knew what was out there. Pilgrim stood next to them, head lowered, staring into the darkness. She was silent. I followed her gaze and caught the eye shine of a coyote lying in the field, watching from between the hay bales. Her six month old puppy walked between her parents, sometimes emboldened by her father’s presence to stand her ground and bark. But when the coyotes answered, she’d tuck her tail and slink back to her mother, taking safety among the sheep and next to her mother’s calm stare.

A second coyote stood at the corner of the fence, yipping at Rags, but the dog’s attention was on something I could not see. I wondered for a moment why he was even there. I’ve seen him jump the fence before. I’ve seen him take off over the fields to show the coyotes that the fence is their boundary, not his. But here he was, pacing the fence, barking his rage and staying.

It occurred to me that he knew if he left to chase one coyote, the others would cross the boundary. He stayed because they were under attack and no one had to teach him the importance of not leaving his flank undefended. 

It is an amazing thing to watch a working dog do what they were bred to do. There is an aliveness in their movements, and intensity in their eyes. This is who they are and they know it. And with the livestock guardians, it isn’t even something you can train. They either have it or they don’t. But my dogs know who they are and they come alive in the night when the enemy is on the prowl.

And I watch Poppy, learning from her parents who she is and where she fits in. She is barely six months old, with all the big-footed clumsiness of a puppy growing too fast to even know where all her feet are. Too young to stand against anything with teeth and cunning, but old enough to want to learn. She took courage in her parents’ surety. But when she looked the danger in the eye, she knew she was not ready and retreated to the safety of the flock, yielding her position of protector to stand among the protected. And there were no repercussions. Neither father nor mother scolded her. They didn’t encourage her to stand her ground. They didn’t encourage her to stay where it was safe. They maintained their positions and let her find her place.

I thought of my children as they grow and slowly discover who they are. As mothers, we invest so much time into prayer and worry and training to prepare our children for the future we want them to have, I wonder sometimes if we forget to step back and just be their safe space.

We are a family healing from significant trauma. Some of that grief I have written about. My children are all struggling in different ways to make sense of the past, find their place in the present and figure out what it means for the future. But all children need a safe place where their fears and their hurts and their insecurities can be shared without reprisal. The safer that space feels, the more courage the child develops to face the challenges of the world. 

And when they realize who they are in Christ, they find that same fire and passion I see in my working dogs. They learn to know who they are and they come alive.

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