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Just the other day, I heard the phrase “bone of contention” as someone was describing a social club and how it seemed every year at the annual meeting the membership would argue over whether to install a new floor at its club house. It appears that this issue has become a perennial bone of contention with this club as some members want to spend the money and others don’t. And so they argue over the issue, sometimes contentiously. It’s funny how an interaction long associated with dogs has come to define many a human act, and not always a peaceful one.
Fortunately for my family, the only bone of contention at our home this Christmas will be among the dogs, as it should be. The origins of the phrase “bone of contention” was first mentioned in the early 1700s when two dogs were fighting over a bone, usually with contention (meaning a heated argument). In this historic context, the dos were most likely fighting over a meal or a morsel just to survive in the streets of some urban community.
The term bone or in the plural, bones of contention, in the 21st Century has come to mean a dispute, a disagreement, or something to argue about. I spend way too much time in my living room just observing my dogs in their daily interactions. Sometimes it’s more entertaining than television! Definitely makes me laugh.
As for the bone of contention ritual, it goes something like this. Adele, our 3-year-old female elkhound, will walk over to the toy box, stick her nose in and sniff around for the ideal bone. There are a variety of bone options in the two- by one-foot wooden toy box. Ironically, the box is painted with an elkhound sitting in front of a rose arbor surrounded by greenery. The landscape evokes a soft subtle emotion, say in the Impressionist way of a Monet or Renoir, were they to have done artwork on a dog’s toy box. The box inviting calm with this serene scene on the side holds many bones of contention inside its rugged walls.
Out comes the white knobby Nylabone that tastes like chicken. Adele has left behind similar ones that are yellow and taste like peanut butter or even brown ones that scream, “Bacon, bacon, bacon!” Adele rarely takes all three out at once. But she will go back in and reach for her favorite white bleached bovine shin bone. She prefers a pile of bones when she chews.
As she’s gnawing on anyone of her tasty bones, Linx, our 11-year-old male elkhound, will saunter over to the toy box and pick out some of the left behind bones. Linx is a very subdued dog, he doesn’t bark much for an Elkhound and never picks a fight with another dog, despite the fact that he is an intact male, teeming with testosterone. Minding his own business, softly chewing on the bacon bone, Adele spots him and slyly walks up to him. Her purpose is clear, she wants his bone too! She’s not content with just her own. Must have all bones! is her mantra. Many times the straight forward approach works and she just grabs it directly out of Linx’s mouth. And many times he lets her. Then she takes the spoils of this rather tame bone of contention and brings it to her growing pile.
At this point Linx may go over to the toy box and select yet another bone, maybe a moose antler that harkens bark to his genetic heritage to seek out a Norsk Elg (Norwegian Moose). Pleased with himself, he takes the antler to his spot and slowly grinds his teeth along the ridges where the antler once secured to some big moose head. This grinding noise alerts Adele that there is another bone of contention to be had. But this time her feminine wiles don’t work on Linx. He’s had it with her bossiness. This will become a true bone of contention for him. As Adele tries to take the antler from his paw-hold, he lets out that low grrr, telling her to back off. Not taking no for an answer, she goes in for the grab, but Linx is too cunning for her now, and snaps his head quickly to the opposite side grabbing the bone of contention and claiming a win for this round.
Now in days of yore, this bone of contention would play itself out in a perfect dog fight. There would be growling, barking, hackles up fighting between canines to get that bone. We’ve all seen dogs fight over a bone, and for dogs that dwell together it’s usually a play fight show of dominance with the submissive dog quickly giving in.
But Linx has had enough of Adele and continues to chew merrily along on his recently won antler, round one of bone of contention goes to Linx. Adele comes back again, and Linx snatches the antler and heads to his corner of the living room. Round two to Linx. But that is as far as Adele will go in this game of bone of contention. In her third attempt, she quietly walks up to Linx. This time, she doesn’t aim for the bone of contention but walks over his body, in a straddle, with her rear aimed at his head. She then sits on his head. Linx, so dismayed that this little upstart has just sat on his head, drops his antler and stands up, and at the same moment, Adele grabs the antler and heads over to her pile, adding one more bone of contention to her booty.
At this point Linx is ready for a nap. And so is Adele. They are soon asleep on the carpet with a large pile of bones between them, the most recent bone of contention a mere memory. If only all bones of contention could be so quickly adjudicated.