Saturday, June 16, 2007
Leadership Lessons in the Pack
This week I have had some management issues with the dogs.
The issue is not who is on top -- that has always been Trooper, who is male and weighs about 18 pounds. Trooper owns his position by right, and though he is old and his teeth are falling out, he does not have to flex his muscle to keep it. Trooper nods to no one but me.
With the females, however, things have never been quite as clear-cut; it never is with middle management.
When Mountain showed up a few years back, Sailor -- who weighed only 9 pounds -- was not about to become the Omega in the pack. She held her rather tenuous Beta position with judicious use of teeth and a kind of intelligent furry. Sailor never looked like much, but she could surprise you, and not just in the field working.
After Sailor died, Pearl was added to the pack. At the time, I figured Mountain would move up the hierarchy and Pearl would become the Omega. Mountain was a half-inch taller that Pearl (12 inches versus 11.5 inches) and perhaps 2 pounds heavier (12 pounds as compared to 10 pounds), and also older and rippling with muscle. The only real question was whether Pearl really wanted the Beta slot, and whether she could get it and hold it.
And it turned out, Pearl really did want that Beta slot, and she and Mountain went through a few tussles over the issue.
While a few squabbles occurred while I was around, several serious battles occurred while I was at work as evidenced by small bites mark to Pearl's muzzle. In the end, Pearl ended up on top, but it was an obviously uneasy relationship in which Pearl would routinely "match off" against Mountain at the door to the garage, her body rigid and still as she forced Mountain to turn sideways in a gesture of supplication.
I did not like it. Mountain was being much too nice, and if push came to shove I had no doubt things would erupt again. Pearl was in a job she could not hold.
When Pearl went in to get spayed two weeks ago, I could see a storm cloud on the horizon. She would be a bit tender from surgery, and I suspected that this might be the moment that Mountain used to dethrone her.
To forestall any problems, I kept Pearl apart from the other dogs for 12 days so that she could completely knit up before they all got back together. With her stitches out, she rejoined the pack and everything seemed fine.
Until yesterday morning.
Yesterday morning, I let the dogs out of the laundry room and into the garage where I typically collar them up before letting them out into the yard. As soon as I opened the door, Trooper was out into the yard and then the other two were on top of each other and going at it right in front of the door.
At first I thought it was just a squabble, but it turned out that this was a serious fight, with Mountain grabbing Pearl by the side of her head and not letting go.
Having been bitten a few times before by fighting terriers, and not looking forward to re-living the experience, I grabbed a broom and slammed it down on the driveway next to the dogs, but neither one was startled enough to let go. In the end, I had to choke Mountain off of Pearl, and when she loosened her grip I tossed her up on top of a stone wall while I scooped up Pearl to see if any damage was done.
I was in the middle of that quick cursory examination, when Mountain came back, leaped up, and bit Pearl on the back thigh, and held on, while I was still holding her. Shit!
I grabbed Mountain around the throat and choked her off again,and then I tossed her in the garage, and closed the door. I was mad, and Mountain was lucky to have the door between me and her at that moment.
Pearl was in the yard and under a bush, and though she was clearly spooked, she was none the worse for wear. The leg bite had not broken the skin, and neither had the head and ear bite. A canine had grazed her left eye, but there was no damage to the cornea. It looked like the eye orbit was bruised, however, and there was a small cut parallel to the eye.
I washed Pearl off and checked her over again. It looked like she was going to come away from this with the canine equivalent of a black eye and a battered ego, but she was otherwise going to be all right.
I gave Pearl an antibiotic just in case a blood vessel in her eye might burst while I was at work (better safe than sorry with eye issues) and I crated her in the laundry room and scurried off to my job, having lost the glasses off the top of my head somewhere in the commotion. I would have to find them later.
In the evening, I let Pearl out of her crate and checked her over again. She was fine, but her eye orbit was indeed bruised. I gave her another antibiotic (just to be careful), and loaded her up with good food and went to look for my driving glasses. I found them on the driveway, run over by one of the trucks. Great. Wonderful.
This morning, I let all three dogs out, and things seemed to have returned to normal. I cannot tell if Pearl has falled in rank and assumed the Omega position, but that is my bet after the drubbing that Mountain gave her.
Hopefully, things will now stabilize. Size and age matter in canine hierarchies, and anytime those two attributes do not line up within a pecking order, you have to expect sudden and explosive tectonic plate shifts. Hopefuly, now that things are as they logically should be (at least by my lights), there will be no more jockeying for position. Yeah, I know: I should be so lucky.
It's interesting to note what my dogs do NOT fight about. They do not fight over food. Kibble is tossed out onto the driveway (I use no bowls), and the dogs just scarf it up as quickly as they can. Each dog is too busy looking for the next bit of kibble to worry about the other dogs, and by the time they figure out that every little nugget of food has been scooped up, it's all over. It's a pretty low-tech system and it works; I have never had a dog fight over food, and my dogs have never had any kind of food aggression since there is no "stash" or bowl of food to guard.
Fighting over doors is something altogether different. Doors are a big damn deal as far as the dogs are concerned. In fact, every squabble (other than a squabble over quarry possession at the end of a dig) has been a squabble at the door.
Dogs are not the only animal that make a big deal out of doors. Cows do too, as so do goats and sheep. If you watch a herd of cows going into a barn, you will find it's always the same cow walking lead. If you try to usurp the order, and lead a not-top-status cow into the barn first, she will balk and refuse to enter.
Cows know their place, and they do not want to overstep their boundaries. I do not know how "boss cows" enforce the code, but I know they do. "Bossie" is not an accidental cow name; it is a description of the "lead cow" phenomenon at work.
The same kind of hierarchies are also at work with sheep. When a herding dog first circles a herd or flock, and begins to build pressure on the animals, it is looking for the keystone animal -- the sheep or cow that is calling most of the shots. Once that animal is identified, moving the herd or flock is often just a matter of moving that one animal in the right direction.
Moving an animal in the right direction, of course is different than getting it through a doorway or gate. If the leader of the herd cannot be maneuvered into position, things can fall apart, as a lot of pressure is going to have to be put on the other animals in the group in order to get them to break the rules and go through the gate or chute before their accepted leader.
Oddly, however, there is one way of "hot wiring" the system which has long been used at slaugher houses where sheep are often confused, and several small flocks may be comingled in a grouping pen.
Into this disorder a slaughterhouse worker will introduce a goat.
Goats and sheep are closely related, but goats are so much smarter and more dominant than sheep, that sheep treat them like demi-Gods and will follow them anywhere.
At the slaugherhouse, when it comes time to get the sheep up the chute, it's simply a matter of calling the trained "Judas Goat" who readily goes through the gate and up the ramp, pulling dozens of sheep along behind him.
The goat, of course, is let out a side door of the chute just before the killing room floor. A Judas Goat may spend a decade or more leading hundreds of thousands of sheep to their death, but he himself will be well-fed and sleep in a heated stall. Draw your own political and corporate analogies.
Back to my problem. What do I do about this uneasy situation between my two quarrelsome bitches?
Well for one thing, I can remove a major source of tension by opening all the doors out to the yard before I pop the latches on the crates -- a simple enough way to make sure there is no chaotic canine backup inside the garage.
The second thing I can do is make sure that I always open the crates in the right order; a simple way of reinforcing the new pack hierarchy that (I hope) the dogs have established.
Finally, I need to start working with the dogs, both individually and as a group, so that they have to get permission to pass over the garage door threshold. No more chaos at the door.
Training the dogs to stop and get permission should not be too difficult -- it's a small door and I am a pretty big person. By simply squaring up my body in front of the door and leaning forward a bit with a firm "yaaa" they should stop dead. Whatever "yaaa" means to them, it's certainly not "proceed."
Will this be enough to put things in order? I hope so, but who knows? Dogs are a bit of a mystery, and it may take a few more turns of the wrench before I get the nuts set right.