After decades of farm dogs from undetermined backgrounds with many interesting idiosyncrasies, but only accidental usefulness, we decided to actually spend money on a dog bred to work cattle. I was switching from dairy cattle to beef cattle and it seemed a dog bred to work cattle might be a worthwhile investment. We chose a pup from a local breeder with a genetic mix of border collie and something called Hanging Tree Cattle Dog out of Idaho. Pete, as he was named, was an adorable and energetic dog, but after a bit we noticed an odd thing. He never looked at us when we called him. He was completely oblivious to any sounds, and a little research revealed that this breeding line carries an infrequent genetic flaw resulting in congenital deafness. The breeder is a reputable and fine person and would have taken the dog back with full refund, but by then he was a member of the family.
It’s difficult working with a deaf dog, especially one born deaf. For example, he would wander off to take a nap and the only way he could be located was to walk silently about and hope you tripped over him. He loved to chase cattle and was absolutely fearless, no matter the size and temperament of the animal, but it was extremely frustrating trying to communicate with him. Pete, the deaf dog, didn’t know that he was deaf and at no point would he discover that other dogs could hear.
I thought a lot about that, about going through life with no knowledge of one of our vital senses that we use to understand our world, and being totally unaware that it was missing. I compared it to my own life and wondered about the areas I was deaf and unaware of it. I realize that to some degree no matter how I might attempt to empathize I am deaf to what it is to be a woman. I don’t know what it is to be African American, or Native American, because I was born something else. I wonder how that deafness affects my attitude and actions. However, unlike Pete, I’m aware of my potential “deafness” and therefore morally responsible to compensate.
With the internet, Facebook, newspaper online comments, and the myriad other ways we can get our opinion out there for all to see, it seems as if there is a collective deafness that has descended upon us. We cling fast to our opinions and resolutely refuse to consider other’s viewpoints, or even the validity of them having another point of view. Individuals whom I regard as competent, contributing members of society express opinions that seem bizarre, and I wonder how they can be so profoundly wrong. They undoubtedly think the same of me.
A deaf dog on a farm has a certain predictable tragic trajectory, and that played out on an immensely sad day last winter when Pete didn’t hear the tractor. Unless we individually take responsibility to understand and address our “deafness,” I fear that as an increasingly polarized nation, we are on a similar tragic, and no less fatal, path.
Joe Brenneman is a rancher, farmer and former Flathead County commissioner.
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