Sometimes you don’t realize just how stressed you’ve been until the cause of that stress is lifted.
Case in point: a yard fence for my dogs. What I thought would be a simple thing to acquire turned out to be anything but, and the stress just kept building.
In the span of the past week, I went from a terrible (and expensive) low to a wonderful high, both directly related to my dogs and fencing.
One primary reason I bought my Vermont house, sight unseen (except photos and a quick video tour with my realtor), was the back yard. I could tell that it would be a wonderful space for my dogs.
And really, what else matters (if you’re a dog nut like me, anyway)?
What I didn’t know then was how incredibly difficult it would be to find someone to hire to put up a fence to make the yard safe and perfect for me and my dogs.
A Fence, Anything for a Fence!
We arrived at our new home in mid-July. In early August I got a lead on a professional fencing company. They sent a guy out. Then…nothing. I called the company; the receptionist pretty much said, “Oh, that’s not right; I’ll have him contact you immediately.” He never did.
By September I moved on, but all that meant was striking out on any and all leads I was given. I hate making phone calls to begin with (it’s an introvert thing), but I especially hate it when those you’re calling, who are in business, can’t even be bothered return a call to say they can’t help you.
Several of my neighbors have their yards mowed by a thirty-ish young man who lives in town. I asked them whether he might be able to help me with the fence.
I learned that Young Man (I’m protecting his identity) has speech and other developmental challenges as a result of being born with microcephaly.
Microcephaly is a condition in which a baby’s head is significantly smaller than expected, often due to abnormal brain development. Symptoms vary and include intellectual disability and speech delay.Mayo Clinic
One neighbor thought building a fence would be too much of a challenge, but his wife said no, she thought he’d do fine if the fence was of simple design (it is) and he was given clear instructions. She also said he could plow my driveway in winter.
That neighbor introduced me to Young Man in early September while he was at their house mowing. He’s quiet, a bit shy, and gives off a very calm and serious vibe. He has a speech impediment, but I don’t have any trouble understanding him. We agreed he would stop by my house when he was done mowing so I could show him what I wanted.
After reaching an agreement that he will plow my driveway this winter (a bonus; one less elusive person to find and hire!), we discussed the sort of fence I wanted and where it would go. He said he could start soon. I didn’t press for a date.
Time passed. Meanwhile, I’m keeping Finn on leash in the back yard, and while Conall’s more responsive and trustworthy on recall, I worry each time we go out there that he’ll see or hear something up on the road and try to investigate, like the time the UPS truck stopped. That turned out fine, Conall loves meeting UPS drivers, but cars drive fast past the house so I don’t want either dog near the road if they’re off leash.
Some texts were exchanged between me and Young Man during this period, me asking if I was still on his list of jobs, Young Man replying that I was, but (insert excuse here). No firm start date. My level of frustration grew, but I wanted to accommodate his disability. Besides, I had given up trying to find anyone else to build a fence this year.
This became an exercise in patience and restraint on my part. I wanted action, but I didn’t want to alienate. Not only might I end up fence-less until sometime in 2022, but also without someone to plow my driveway this winter. Plus, in my gut I knew Young Man wasn’t being a jerk; he has a lot on his plate with all of his odd jobs, a wife, and a young child, all while living with microcephaly. I actually was in awe of all he had already accomplished.
As October arrived, with temperatures dropping along with the leaves and winter’s early snows not far off, I began scheming a yard fence plan B, something smaller, faster to install, to get us through winter.
One evening at dusk, Conall – secure on the deck – barked at something in the yard. From the safety of the deck, Conall, Finn and I watched a porcupine move from the ground near the shed/bunkhouse to a nearby maple tree and calmly climb up and out of sight behind its leaves. Ever since, I’ve been super-cautious before letting Conall off the deck because I worry the porcupine might be sheltering under the shed/bunkhouse. Having a fence would go a long way to keeping the porcupine out of the yard, as will screening off the space below the shed/bunkhouse. Suddenly a fence was way more urgent.
It was a brisk mid-October morning, though, that made me scheme a plan B in earnest: I opened the sliding door to the deck, from where I would open a gate to let the dogs down the stairs into the back yard to do their business in the morning. Wearing shoes with worn tread, I slipped and nearly fell on the deck. I was glad I hadn’t tried going down the frost-covered steps with Finn on leash, pulling in his eagerness to follow off-leash Conall into the yard. Visions of an injury-inducing fall danced through my brain. (Because Finn’s nearly deaf and doesn’t hear when I call him, I’ve kept him on leash in the back yard so he won’t try to follow his nose through the trees, onto a neighboring lot or toward the road. This is stressful for both of us, another reason I’ve been anxious to get a yard fence built.)
Later that day, I texted Young Man, hoping to light a fire under his butt. I offered to pay a higher hourly rate than he’s used to, as well as a $100 bonus if the fence was up by Thanksgiving. I didn’t know how else to get his attention without coming off as mean. He responded almost immediately, texting that he’d start on the fence the following day, a Tuesday.
Buoyed by that news, I went outside to figure out whether a smaller section of yard could be fenced, temporarily, to get us through winter. Imagining the deck and stairs to the yard covered in snow, I realized the boys and I wouldn’t be using the deck as access. That left two other doors. One is on the side of the house, the original front door to the old cottage portion of the house. The other is in the new part of the house, three steps down into the yard on the road side. I had originally envisioned just enclosing the back yard, including that side door, which would eventually get replaced with a dog door. I hadn’t used the road-side door from the new part of the house, fearing cars on the road, instead using just the side door or the deck into the back yard because that seemed safer.
Or so I thought.
Our Very Awful, Incredibly Stressful, Sunday Morning
That changed last Sunday morning, when just after daybreak I let Conall through the gate on the deck into the back yard and he ran straight for the shed/bunkhouse on one side of my lot.
“Shit,” was my immediate thought. I hoped Conall was after the chipmunk that resides in the nearby rockery, but I feared he’d seen the porcupine we had watched from the deck a couple of weeks earlier.
My only excuse? It was early, I was tired, and Conall didn’t bark.
It was the porcupine, a big one. And based on Conall’s initial movements, from one side of the shed to the other, it had been under there. Running toward him, I tried to call Conall away, to grab him by his collar, but this was a new and thoroughly enticing creature for him, one that had the audacity to invade his yard, and he wasn’t going to listen to me. I watched in horror as Conall opened his mouth to try to pick up the porcupine from behind.
Conall let out a quick yelp and backed away, quills stuck in his lips, tongue and muzzle.
The porcupine waddled away, through the neighboring field, in no rush. They know they have nothing to worry about.
Conall went into a frenzied effort to remove the quills with his front paws, spinning, panting, head down and nose on the grass as one paw, then the other, exerted downward pressure on the quills, but of course they didn’t detach. Conall looked at me with bewilderment, but wouldn’t let me near enough to even try to help him.
I knew my neighbors’ dogs had endured similar disasters, so I called the ones directly across the road. They called another neighbor, and within minutes three of them were in my back yard with me – one with a winter coat over her pajamas – trying to help, pliers in hand. Conall growled at anyone who got too close, including me. Using pliers, I managed to pull four the least-embedded quills out from Conall’s chin before acknowledging this wasn’t going to work for the rest. Conall kept up his frantic efforts to stop the pain and remove the quills on his own, at one point trying to throw up but he didn’t have any food in his stomach so just dry-heaving.
I’m so glad I had left Finn in the house. Two dogs with quills? I can’t even imagine. Conall’s distress and pain were horrible enough.
My neighbors suggested an urgent care veterinary clinic in New Hampshire, about 35 miles away, that’s open on Sundays. One neighbor texted me the contact info and left them a voice mail saying I would be bringing in a dog with porcupine quills as soon as they opened at 10 am. (I think I’ve mentioned in previous posts how lucky I am to have these neighbors. They’re awesome.)
As my three neighbors and I stood in my back yard watching poor Conall’s trauma play out, I did my best to stay calm and think clearly. I’m the sort who’s good in a crisis; it’s like by blood pressure goes down rather than up and my brain goes into hyper-focused problem-solving mode. But at one point, I let my frustration show: “This is why I need a fucking fence, now.” The neighbor who first introduced me to Young Man, saying she thought he could handle building a fence, said, “I thought he was going to start last Tuesday.” I shook my head and said, “So did I, until I got yet another excuse. Now he’s supposed to come by today to start, but because of this disaster, I won’t be here.” Bill from across the road stepped up and said, “Show me where you want the fence, and I’ll meet Young Man and show him.” I put Conall in the house with Finn, the two other neighbors headed to their respective homes, and, using some bright pink flagging on tree limbs, quickly walked the property line with Bill and explained what I had in mind.
Even after all that, I still had at least an hour to wait before leaving for the urgent care clinic. I felt so helpless. There was nothing I could do to make Conall’s distress go away. I got Finn outside – on leash – so he could take care of his business, and fed him. I knew that in order to remove the quills, Conall would need to be anesthetized, so I was glad he wasn’t even thinking about food because I wouldn’t have given him any. I watched as Conall kept pacing, panting, trying to remove quills with his paws, absorbing his stress, wanting this nightmare to be over for both of us. Conall managed to take a few sips of water, although I could tell it was painful for him to drink.
The boys and I made it to the urgent care clinic just before 10 am. After I signed lots of paperwork, they anesthetized Conall and were able to remove all of the quills without having to make any deep cuts into tissue. He had at least one quill in the roof of his mouth. I can only imagine the pain he endured.
By phone – Covid-19 precautions meant I only dealt with a clinic employee in the parking lot, both of us masked – the vet told me Conall did well throughout and complimented me on having such a wonderful dog, so apparently Conall charmed the staff before they put him under. He then asked if I had broken the ends off the quills. I admitted I had pulled four out with pliers, but left the rest alone, adding that Conall had been pawing furiously at them, so he must have broken some of them.
The vet passed along two valuable bits of information. First, he said owners should never try to remove the quills on their own. “They’re barbed, which embeds them, and pulling them out is incredibly painful for the dog. They trust you not to hurt them, right? You don’t want to abuse that trust. Just take them to a vet as quickly as possible,” he said. Good point.
And the reason he asked about breaking off quills? Turns out that porcupine quills will migrate inward, and that’s when they become truly dangerous to the dog. If they get quills in their chest area that migrate to the heart or lungs, or other vital organs, the dog could die. If the ends of quills are broken off, it’s not only harder for the vet to find them in the dogs’ fur when trying to remove every last one, but it makes it easier for a quill to migrate inward.
I was grateful I was able to find care for Conall so quickly, on a Sunday. The entire ordeal cost me $609 (mostly related to the need for anesthetic), but worth ever penny to know all of the quills had been removed and Conall would be fine. Conall’s lips were fat for a couple days, and I could tell his mouth was tender when he finally ate again. I gave him anti-inflammatory meds for three days, and he’s still on a course of antibiotics. He’s doing great now, a week later.
Except I think he’s developed a dark hatred of porcupines, which doesn’t bode well if there’s a future meetup. Walking the boys along our road two days after the incident, Conall was still slightly groggy from the anesthetic but when he saw a maple leaf blow across the road, he suddenly lunged toward it, pulling hard on his leash. A few minutes later, he lunged after a small bird flitting through the grass. He’d never reacted to either of those things before, so I’m pretty sure he was thinking, “If that’s a porcupine, I’m going to kill it.”
To my dismay, Conall doesn’t seem to learn from these highly negative wildlife encounters. He’s been sprayed by a skunk three times (in Idaho; so far, I haven’t seen a skunk, alive or roadkill, in Vermont, but I know they’re here), and I’m sure if he saw one during one of our off-leash walks through the fields and woods, he would lunge toward it, only to be sprayed yet again. I’ve never had the sense he’s trying to kill the skunk, or the porcupine, for that matter; it’s more like he wants to catch it with his mouth to learn more about it. I watched (in horror) Sunday morning as Conall opened his mouth and reached for the porcupine; it was almost like slow motion, he was so careful and gentle. The porcupine didn’t care: quills up, end of story!
Now that we’ve had a porcupine experience, I’ll take a skunking over a quilling, any day. But I prefer to avoid both.
But I digress, as I often do.
I Finally Get My Fence!
I learned from Bill later that Sunday that he had walked with Young Man around my yard and talked about the fence. I had already ordered rolls of wire mesh and clips to attach mesh fencing to posts. Bill showed him where those were stored.
But there was a miscommunication with Young Man over the posts. I thought Young Man’s father had plenty of used metal posts to sell to me. Turns out they were cedar posts, which for most of the area I wanted fenced would require much more work to get them into the ground. I learned of this new hiccup while sitting in my car, waiting for Conall to come out of anesthesia. I was unhappy, but hid that and instead replied that I would order metal posts asap.
Young Man came back to my house just after the boys and I arrived home from Conall’s “procedure.” Since we didn’t have metal posts, he started work by removing some downed tree limbs that obstructed the intended path of the fence with a chain saw, then using a heavy-duty brush whacker to cut away grass, weeds and shrubs. I was optimistic; work had finally begun.
Monday morning, I was able to find and order enough metal posts from a Home Depot in the same New Hampshire town where I’d taken Conall for care on Sunday. I was going to drive over to collect them that afternoon, but Young Man texted that his wife and sister were in NH and could pick them up for me. They did, and I was grateful, saving me a trip while Conall was still recovering.
I asked Bill what he’d said to Young Man to convince him to suddenly start on my fence so earnestly. Bill said he’d only showed him the flagging, but did mention the incident with the porcupine. I suspect that the other neighbor may have also impressed upon Young Man how urgent I wanted and need a fence because of the porcupine encounter.
Tuesday afternoon Young Man arrived with a friend in tow to help start installing metal posts, one roughly every six feet. I had earlier asked Young Man if he had one of those metal post drivers that allow one to simply pound the post into the ground without any digging. He said he did, but what he and friend showed up with was a sledge hammer.
I showed them the new, smaller area enclosing the front yard that I had in mind.
As I watched, it was clear the friend was there to advise and supervise Young Man. He showed him how to use the sledge hammer on the posts. I offered to pay him as well, but he politely refused any compensation. With a few instructions on post locations, I left them to it. They worked until dark, two to three hours.
On Wednesday, Young Man arrived in the afternoon and did some more clearing of undergrowth with the bush whacker. He told me the friend the day before was a member of his church who offered to help him, and that his father would be arriving later that afternoon to help show him how to attach the wire fencing to the posts. In the meantime, Young Man had found a post driver. After using it to pound a few more posts into the ground, he said it was the first time he’d used one and it was much easier than the sledge hammer. I agreed (having used one myself, once, long ago).
“We’re all learning as we go with this fence,” I said. Young Man was proving to be disarmingly charming in his directness and honesty.
Young Man’s father arrived and introduced himself. A big, gregarious man, he worked well with his son, offering guidance and encouragement in an upbeat way. The former family law attorney/guardian ad litem in me, who worked on parenting cases and saw way too much poor parenting, was impressed. The father also chatted with me as they worked to wrestle each 50-foot round of mesh wire into place, attaching it to the posts. They got about halfway around the yard before dark, leaving with a promise to return and finish the next day.
At one point that first evening, the father had mentioned the Yorkie he and his wife had, how much he loved that little dog. I’m a sucker for any man who’s willing to admit a fondness for small dogs and way happy to learn they’re dog people. A bit later, I asked if they’d like to meet Conall, for whom they were working so hard. Both said yes, so I brought Conall out and he joyfully greeting both men. “Oh my, he’s big!” said the father while also addressing Conall with “Hey guy, hey” and petting him on his head and sides. Conall was eating up the attention. But what captured my heart the most was when Young Man, who was standing still, watching and smiling the entire time, reached one hand out to rub the top of Conall’s head, slowly but lovingly. There was a moment, a tender connection, between Conall and Young Man, and I felt privileged to have witnessed it.
That’s when I understood that Young Man was an extraordinary person.
As I picked up Conall’s leash to take him back inside, I said to Young Man and his father, “I can see you’re all dog people. We’re good.” And I meant it.
Thursday afternoon was a repeat of the day before: Young Man arrived first, did what he could on his own, then his father arrived after his own long work day. By now I’m feeling guilty, seeing how hard the father is working to help his son complete a job, yet (like the friend) refusing any pay. Father and Young Man were determined to fully enclose this front portion of yard that day, and finished work under the light from two outdoor lights on my house and the headlights of Young Man’s truck.
And, like the day before, I “hung out” with the men as they worked, retrieving more wire mesh when needed, cleaning up bits of unused fencing, but mostly chatting and learning more about these people who were members of my new community. I learned that the father is the one person who regularly hunts on the neighbors’ land, something I’d been worrying about as deer season approached. He assured me that as he’s aged (he’s 60), he’s really less interested in killing a deer than just being out in the woods.
“Most of time I just sit in my blind and eventually fall asleep, never shooting a deer,” he joked. He said just days earlier he had driven into the neighbors’ fields to poke around. I’d seen his truck drive in from the road but at that time, didn’t know who he was or what he was doing there, and I worried about traps, since Vermont’s trapping season had just started and as a newcomer, I’m not clear where it’s allowed or not, although I was pretty certain my neighbors would never explicitly allow it on their land.
The father explained was walking around in the trees when he heard a growl. “It sounded like a dog guarding its dinner,” he said. “Like an idiot, I was curious what it was. I’d never heard a bear growl. As I pulled aside some shrubs, I saw a black bear laying on the ground, its front legs around a pile of apples, gorging itself. It took one look at me and hightailed it!” he finished with a laugh. I said I totally understood, sharing my own story of learning the sound of a black bear’s growl during a trail run in Washington state with my two female Alaskan Malamutes. (Another story for another day.)
It was clear we were both natural story tellers, bonding over similar experiences, and enjoyed having each other and Young Man – listening raptly, nodding his head and smiling – as an audience. Somehow, they managed to continue making progress on the fence, despite my gregarious presence.
I asked the father what time of day he’s usually out there hunting in “my” woods during deer season. He said usually in the afternoon, which was a relief; the boys and I always walk past his hunting “blind” (an Adirondack-style plastic chair hidden among some tree trunks) and I was worried about a conflict. I mentioned how my dogs and I walk there several mornings each week and he assured me he’d never shoot at something other than a deer, even if he was there in the morning.
I now feel much safe about rifle season for deer on my neighbors’ land, but Conall will still be wearing his bright orange Do Not Hunt Me vest.
As we had this conversation, I thought to myself how grateful I am to my father, who would also hang out with anyone working on his house or car, getting to know them and offering to help. I learned from his example, and time after time it has led to friendships as well as valuable information.
When, a bit later, the father repeated a similar comment about how he falls asleep in his hunting blind but that hunting gets him out in the woods, which he loves, I said in all seriousness, “You could always go out there to shoot photos. That’s what I do.” I was afraid I’d overstepped, seeing as we’d just become acquainted, but his reaction surprised me. He stopped, considered what I’d suggested, and said, “You’re right. I’m turning into a real softie in my old age. It’s why I got rid of my cattle. I couldn’t stand it when the guy came out to butcher one. Taking photos would be more fun.” He also explained that he’s one of twelve children born to parents with few resources, and in order to feed the brood, his father shot deer year-round. “I learned to really like deer meat,” he said. But I could tell he was open to the idea of no longer hunting.
You’re saving a wolf, you’re saving a wolf, I repeated to myself, internally. It’s becoming a sort of motivational mantra. Early on in the fence building, the father had asked why I came to Vermont. At first, I simply mentioned the uncontroversial reasons: too many wildfires, too much smoke, too many people. Eventually, after they met Conall, I admitted that a big reason I left Idaho was because I was afraid Conall would be shot, given the fear and loathing of wolves in Idaho. I shared how someone trying to shoo coyotes nearly killed me and Conall with a high-powered rifle while we walked along a country road one winter afternoon, the bullet making a sound like electricity as it broke the sound barrier whizzing past my head. Both Young Man and his father just shook their heads, shocked and baffled by all that. The father admitted that wolves live in Canada, just across Vermont’s border, and that eventually – if not already – they will appear in Vermont. I didn’t say this, but I know from experience that when that happens, all hell breaks loose because too many people let fear guide their thinking. I keep telling myself that the more I connect with people like these men, including those who hunt deer might see wolves as competition, the better chance I have of getting them to be open minded toward letting wolves live and thrive.
No lecturing, just connecting and finding common ground. Respecting each other.
As darkness fell, I assured the men that my dogs and I could wait another day for our fenced yard to be completed. “No, let’s get it done tonight,” said the father. They worked after darkness fell, first using the light from two outdoor lights on that side of my house, then adding the headlights of Young Man’s truck.
They finished and said their goodbyes. Young Man said that when he returned from a family trip next week, he’ll start putting in the posts for the back yard fence and see how far he can get before it snows. I promised to help by holding the wire mesh in place so that his father didn’t have to keep helping on his free time. I thanked them both profusely.
After they drove off, I let the boys out into their new yard.
Oh, the joy! The darkness didn’t keep them from exploring its perimeters. They were excited and appreciative, as was I. Their happiness became my own.
It was the next morning – Friday – that I fully understood just how much this fence means to me.
As soon as we got up, I let the boys out the front door. It was another fine, clear and brisk morning. There was frost on the grass in places, so I was glad I wasn’t navigating the deck stairs to the back yard, or worrying about a porcupine under the shed/bunkhouse. The boys did their business, then started playing and wrestling, something I hadn’t seen much of since moving to Vermont.
That afternoon, after I’d fed them, we all went into the yard. I tossed Finn’s favorite squeaky toy for him to fetch, which he did with the same verve and energy he had months ago. This had been our routine in Idaho, a post-dinner game of retrieve and chase in the yard, or just hanging outside to watch birds or soak up some sunshine. I smiled so much, watching old man Finn play with Conall, that my cheeks started aching. I felt lighter than air. Conall was equally happy, pleased to have his playmate back, taunting Finn into chasing him.
Giddy. That’s the best word to describe how I felt Friday.
And that’s when it hit me, when I realized how the stress of the past three months of no fenced yard for my dogs had weighed on me. Having a safe, secure enclosure for them lifted a huge weight off my shoulders. As Conall’s encounter with the porcupine made obvious, we really needed a fence. Now that we finally had one, my mood brightened and the prospect of the harsh winter ahead became a lot less daunting. We’ll still go for long walks in the fields and woods across the road, but having a fenced yard for quick trips outside, anytime it suits, day or night, makes day-to-day living so much better.
Getting to know Young Man and his father was the bonus. Because of this fence, I’ve met truly nice people who are my neighbors (if a few miles away), and we’ve built an initial connection. We looked past our differences and found some common ground.
And I better understand Young Man. He and I have something in common, although I didn’t mention it to him or his father: a neurological disability. His is more obvious (speech impediment) and challenging than mine, but when I learned he was born with microcephaly, I knew I wanted to work with him, despite the delays and occasional frustrations. I’m heartened to see the “village” Young Man has around him, from the church friend who came out one day, to his father so lovingly coaching and helping him learn a new skill. I’m learning how to more clearly communicate with Young Man so that going forward there are no misunderstandings.
I experienced emotional whiplash this past week. I went from a horrible low – seeing Conall in such pain and distress after being quilled on Sunday – to a wonderful high on Friday, watching my boys so playful and happy in their newly-fenced yard. Along the way, I met and got to know some neighbors, building bonds that I hope elevate us all going forward.
All in all, a good week, but one I’d just as soon not repeat.
PS: I am writing about wolves! It’s just that these stories insisted I share them now.
Feature image: Finn and Conall playing tug-a-war with the squeaky toy in their newly-fenced yard on Friday, October 29, 2021.