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.



Anonymous said...

I like your door control plan a lot. One of the things I do w/ my 2 dog pack is to occasionally put 'em on a sit-stay while I go out the door, then release them one at a time (I have an old male and a middle-aged female - they long ago sorted out pecking order). It emphasizes that I'm in control of access to the yard and cuts down on the 3 Stooges routines.
Please keep us updated - I've been told that bitch-bitch dominance is the toughest to deal w/ - may just be projected sexism or it may have a grain of truth. It's of particular interest to me - there should be a new female shorthair (NADKC) joining the circus this year and the plan is to add a female wire teckel (for fox, cottontail, snowshoe hare and maybe deer search) next year.

kabbage said...

Most stuff I've read indicates that bitches tend to be more serious in their fighting than the dogs. Males fight for status and rank order, bitches fight to eliminate one or the other from the planet, is how I've heard it. My guess is that you will be able to have your two loose with you present but not loose together while you are physically absent. Some breeds are notorious for bitch fights, some are not.

I did not plan to have two bitches because my aussie doesn't generally care for another bitch coming near me, but she picked a belgian shepherd bitch 8 years ago when I wanted a second dog (both aussies and belgians have some bitches who don't do well with other bitches). The belgian is 20 months older, 20 percent heavier, and fortunately doesn't give a hoot about politics. The aussie cares about food and going out doors first, and the belgian gets any toy she wants (the aussie decided getting body-slammed and/or t-boned over a toy didn't work for her so she counts coup if she reaches a toy first -- "I could've picked up this toy, but I choose not to!")

The belgian is now 13 with a bad heart so slowing down rapidly, while the aussie is 11. I doubt I'll have another bitch until both are gone from the scene. They're too old to risk fights with a younger bitch.

BorderWars said...

The city boy in me finds the Judas Goat anecdote particularly fascinating. I will be sure to incorporate it into my vocabulary, as one can always use another reference to "leading the sheep to slaughter."

I can also appreciate your current training issue. Raising two Border Collie pups at the same time (2 months apart) is an interesting experience. I too need to separate them more often than I do.

Being smart and natural team players, they've divided up lots of tasks that I'd like them to complete in full, for instance one runs out and leaps to catch the frisbee, and the other steals it and brings it back. So I have one dog who doesn't catch because she doesn't have to, and another who will hand off the frisbee to any dog he can find instead of bringing it back.

The convenience of taking them to back-to-back agility classes is easily outweighed by the jealousy expressed in the caged dog and the resulting distraction in the dog working.

And just like with issues of separation anxiety, it's very difficult to train at a distance. A dogra bark collar and a dogtra e-collar have come in very handy to stop the barking and prevent harmful behavior like teething the metal wires of the cage, and the e-collar also worked wonders to stop the dogs from biting at the tires of the lawn tractor.

I'd challenge anyone to find another method that can be done with one person that is as effective, practical, and humane. Clicking and yelling does nothing over the noise of the tractor, and there isn't a treat smelly enough or a toy entertaining enough to pull off a BC with a misdirected prey drive. And it's only misdirected because the large noisy lawn muncher is a Sears instead of a Steer.

It's actually humbling to realize the mental gymnastics that we put our pets through because of our own eccentricities and inconsistencies. Sadly, too many people blame and then ditch the pet because of their own shortcomings.

Anonymous said...

I have found door-permission to be a massive behavioral lever for my Akita. It is the easiest way to sort his attitude, and almost invariably when he has started getting bratty and willing to push me or blow me off, I have been able to trace the problem back to my spouse getting lazy about making him ask permission to go through the door.

Dogs never having gotten the message about feminism, it's easier for him in the short run to let stuff slide; the dog knows a larger intact male when he smells one, and is far less willing to push *those* boundaries. If he's wondering about his status, he tests me first.

PBurns said...

My own thinking, such as it is, is that there tends to be an Alpha male and an Alpha female in most packs. Things are diciest when there's more that one contender for either position, and that's often the case with working terriers which tend to be close to each other in terms of size.

Add into the equation the fact that terriers are not very phlegmatic to begin with, and you have a good starter kit for fireworks.

There's a chance I did something to set this off, and so I am going to be hyper-aware of my movements for a while. The point here is that squabbles between dogs are often triggered by human actions. It does not take much for a human to send a mixed signal to the dogs about their relative pecking order. When two dogs are still "keeping score," as Pearl and Mountain are, human communication mistakes can upset what had been, up to that point, a carefully stacked apple cart.

Pearl and Mountain played together in the yard this morning, so there does not seem to be any deep emotional animus between them. I think it will work itself out if it hasn't already.


BorderWars said...

This just came to me, but don't discount the distinct odor Pearl now carries because of her surgery.

I saw an episode of Beyond Tomorrow that talked about cancer sniffing dogs and it reminded me of my father, who had the smell of anesthesia on him for at least a year after surgery, and that was with a human sense of smell.

We noticed that one of our dogs at the time was very suspicious of him when he came home and would give him the sniffer once over several times a day for weeks and weeks.

The sniffing routine was so noticeable that the "you smell like a hospital still" conversation happened all the time.

Perhaps the residual odor from the surgery is enough to spark the behavior.

Just a thought.

C. Johnson said...

patrick, your issues with mountain and pearl sound identical to the ones i have at home with my two females. never fight over food as i have fed in a similar way. our main source of problems has always been doors. i have also found that they generally do not fight unless i am around.

Anonymous said...

Sorry to hear that your bitches came to blows; terrier bitches can be among the worst. (Though sister pairs of springer spaniels have been particularly troublesome in my training practice.) I would not count on either of them backing down in the long term. You may never be able to fully relax about them.

My adolescent GSD bitch is suffering from a bad case of teenage at the moment, and proving a trial for my uber-alpha English shepherd bitch. Sophia outweighs Pip by about 25 pounds, thinks that this should mean something, and can't wrap her tiny brain around the reality that she will never be the Queen Bitch while Pip lives -- it's not the size of the dog in the fight, etc. She's having trouble transitioning from the pack role of "baby" to the pack role of omega or jester. She hasn't the stones for a serious challenge, but makes witless attempts that get smacked down. Pip can flip her by the muzzle so fast I don't see it happening -- the ancient art of dog-jitsu.

I'm crating Sophia when I'm away now, because I've come home twice to a scene that makes me suspect that Pip (possibly backed by her son Moe) has delivered a drubbing to Sophia. No scratches, not real fights, just psychological ass-kicking. Pip has eight six-week-old puppies right now -- there's nothing more authoritative than a dominant stockdog bitch who is raising young pups. This is a dog designed to stop a thousand-pound bull in full charge -- she can eat the lunch of a wannabe teenage German shepherd.

Your door-control plan is what I'd suggest. I do a lot of down-stays in front of wide open doors, releasing dogs one at a time by name, then sending them back. Do it at all the doors that lead to the outside, the car door, and the crate doors when you are releasing the dogs. And do it on the way in, as well.

While I know a favored Judas goat who drinks lager from the bottle, I did not know about cows and doors. I have always seen a mystical side to the relationship between dogs and thresholds. They are crepuscular souls, daemons, inhabiting the between-territories everywhere -- dark and light, civilized and wild, inside and out. A dog who has a problem with the household doorway is showing that he has a problem with life. A dog who has comfort and no conflict centering on doorways is usually a balanced dog. I start almost every dog I work with on door manners as the first exercise.