Saturday, November 17, 2007

Pack Dynamics

Dogs are such fascinating creatures.

Pete's integration into the pack continues and I must admit that such things are stressy for me as well as for the other dogs. Sometimes I wish that I could adopt the attitude of some of the well-meaning but not-very-dog-savvy owners I know who a.) don't think twice about bringing a new dog into a multi-dog household; b.) believe that aggression is something which must be taught to a dog (HAH!) and c.) remain blissfully unaware of the thousands of subtle communications between dogs, consisting of posturing, positioning, glances, facial expressions, tail flagging and even hair signals. On the other hand, I've seen the results of that ignorance when things get out of hand, and so has just about every trainer and veterinarian.

"Eavesdropping" on the conversations between dogs is interesting and informative, but it's also full of gaps. It's like eavesdropping on a conversation between people who speak a language you are learning but haven't mastered. Depending upon your skill level, you may either catch a word or two here and there or complete sentences, minus those words not yet in your vocabulary. I had that experience yesterday at a doctor's office (I have been spending a lot of time at doctor's offices lately - thankfully, not my own appointments!). There were several clumps of interesting people - one was a middle-aged woman with her deaf mother who were signing furiously. For someone who has deaf dogs and several books on communication, I'm amazingly deficient in ASL, and didn't have a clue to what they were talking about. Another was an older couple and a young nurse who was interviewing them in Spanish. I'd sure like to know from where they hailed, as the young woman's speech was just lovely - I could understand almost every word she said, while the couple's speech was muddled and imprecise and virtually unintelligible - at least to me.

I don't believe that humans can ever be fluent in dog language. The best we can manage is understanding most of it, and we can communicate many things to dogs in it, but we'll never be fluent because we can't be - we just aren't equipped for it. We have no tails and our ears don't move. We lack hackles. But as pack leader, I think it's my job to eavesdrop on them as much as possible. I'm not one of those "let 'em work it out for themselves" kind of people. I shudder when some self-proclaimed dog trainer doles out that advice, especially to folks with the gladiator breeds and dominant dogs. Among certain circles, the term "dominance theory" is kicked around like a one-eyed stepchild, and that word "dominance" has become not only politically incorrect, but is the subject of heaves and sighs and cries of "Neanderthal!" and "Old-fashioned" and "abusive." Somehow, being the "dominant" individual in your human/canine pack is now a pejorative, conjuring images of cruel little dictators beating and starving their subjects into submission and executing those who will not comply. We have converted the leadership and control of the animals we own into a political statement, and I find that downright unfortunate. Dogs, like all social mammals including humans, have distinct hierarchies. When we humans bring dogs into our environment and create packs, it is entirely our responsibility to be at the top of that hierarchy. Yet we often do so much which indicates to our dogs that we are not. And the more I observe my dogs, the more I wonder how well the average dog is raised and how many pieces are missing when a dog is not raised with other dogs.

It's a funny thing - my dogs don't usually spend much time chewing things. Because of the makeup of my pack, I don't keep high-food-value chews like meaty bones, rawhide or any animal parts around because it would trigger too much competition and disharmony. I digress. But every time a new pack member enters the household, sooner or later they engage in a bone-chewing ritual. (For this ritual, both real bones and synthetics like Nylabones are employed.) Seemingly out of the blue, the established pack members all grab a bone, walk off to their favorite area and commence chewing. The newcomer ("it," like in a game of tag) then tests the resolve of each one to retain possession of their booty. I do not allow such ritual among adults, but it's an important lesson for a puppy, I believe, as long as the adults don't start mixing it up between themselves.

This morning's round: Max, Nugget and Piglet were chewers and Petey, of course, was "it." Rodney (basset) was more interested in sleeping and Sugar Baby was fixated on her ball - nothing unusual there. Petey was full of himself - posture high, tail up, even some hackles. Naturally, the adults expressed their displeasure as he approached. They'd stiffen, maybe growl, sometimes holding their bone with their teeth. As he came closer, they pulled back their mouth corners in a grimace, heads pointed 45 to 90 degrees from him, glancing out of the corners of their eyes - fightin' words in dog language. A sort of "Don't you even think of it!"

Pete's recent lessons have been well learned. He now either leaves and pesters someone else, or if he thinks his puppy license hasn't quite run out with that particular dog, he lowers himself, licks the air as he crawls to the prized bone, gingerly taking it and hoping not to get eaten in the process. Funny, but he now knows more certainly than I do which dogs will let him get away with this tactic. Once he manages to wrest the booty from a big dog, he occupies himself with it for just a moment, sometimes hackling up, being quite full of himself, before moving on to another object. This is where I think a puppy's lack of attention span comes in quite handy - the big dog can reclaim his or her bone and thus save face. While a frustration for a trainer, the short attention span may actually be a survival tool, especially in an emerging adolescent.

I wonder how a dog can possibly learn those lessons when raised as an only dog. I also question the wisdom of some advice regularly given to puppy owners, like: If your puppy is chewing on something inappropriate, distract him and give him a more acceptable thing to chew on. I have never, ever seen an adult dog "give" anything to a puppy, and I have to wonder what it tells the puppy when we humans do so, especially if this thing is given with a lot of cooing and petting - what we call "praise." The more I watch my dogs, the more I find myself growling, stiffening and looking sideways at the puppy when I want to redirect him to a more appropriate chew toy, I first hold it close, rub it all over, even spit on it, then drop it and lord over it for a moment before allowing the puppy to take it. This makes the object all the more desirable in his eyes. I do not make a big deal about taking undesirable objects away - To do that is to tell the dog "This is a PRIZE!" He may learn to ignore it when I'm right on top of him, but it will become quite attractive when I'm not looking. And really, I have better things to do with my time than to dedicate all my attention to my dogs. Like writing this blog...

Environmental Enrichment
or Avoiding Boredom During Confinement

Since I'm still being cautious about Max's interactions with Petey, I'm trying to keep Pete's crate time interesting. He rarely eats out of a bowl anymore - I've taken to feeding his kibble in a treat ball, which he'll knock around for a good while to extract his meals, one piece at a time. I also supplement his diet with some canned food and cottage cheese which I now stuff into a hollow shin bone. Plug one end with a canned-food meatball, fill the middle with cottage cheese, plug the other end with a meat ball and voila! A fun and nutritious dog puzzle. Petey doesn't seem to mind this and it keeps him well-occupied during crate time.

1 comment:

Marie said...

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