The Fluidity and Dynamism of Dog “Packs”

(Another excerpt from my ISCP Diploma Coursework, for your information. This time the assignment was to observe how dogs behave in a group, whether there was a dominant dog or leader of the pack. Be advised – there are several mentions of bum sniffing and humping 😄).

Dogs in a designated dog park, where dogs are allowed off the leash, display a fluid and dynamic power play.

In Australia, we have “dog beaches” as well as “dog parks”. When we used to live near a dog beach and a dog park, we’d take my dog Scruffy to both. The first time we went to a dog beach, I was a little apprehensive as to how he would react off the leash when he saw the multitude of dogs playing in the surf. What if he got into a fight? What is he bit another dog, or worse, a human being? What if he got scared, ran off and got lost?

It took a leap of faith to let Scruffy off the lead. There were all those other dogs scampering after each other, barking at the waves, some were even swimming in the sea, fetching sticks or balls. All were off the leash and running freely. But there were no fights at all, no displays of aggression. It was amazing to observe, like some giant canine beach party.

Scruffy zoomed off as soon as I unclipped the leash. He ran straight towards a group of dogs, but as he got near them, I noticed that he veered off sideways and approached them from a curved angle rather than head on. As soon as the other dogs saw him coming, they stopped their play and stood still, allowing him to approach. Soon he was surrounded by many dogs, most of them bigger than him. There was a lot of “sniffing and greeting”, where Scruffy would sniff a dog’s behind, and get sniffed in return. All the dogs had a turn sniffing Scruffy, noses to tails. Some of the bigger dogs stood stiffly over Scruffy’s shoulder and placed their head over him in a show of dominance. Scruffy did not challenge this, but instead wagged his tail low to the ground as a gesture of submission, with his face relaxed and tongue lolling out, eyes soft and friendly.

The introductions over, one of the dogs instigated play by performing a play-bow, and then the pack, including Scruffy, took off running down the beach. I wasn’t sure how good Scruffy’s recall was, but he never strayed too far and if he did go too far away, he always looked back in my direction, as if to make sure I was still there waiting for him.

From what I observed at the dog beach that day, and on subsequent visits to the dog park, where the same kind of introductory ritual was performed over and over again, the dynamics of the “temporary pack” are quite dynamic and fluid. Each time a new dog presented itself to the gang, there would be a lot of sniffing and greeting, and a new hierarchy seemed to form. One dog would appear to be the leader of the pack, deciding where the pack went next and what it would do, until either that dog left the group, or a new one joined in. Then the ritual would happen all over again. Dogs low in the hierarchy would often slink with their bellies low to the ground, tails held low, behaving in an ingratiating manner. Dogs high in the hierarchy would stand tall and majestic, sometimes stiff-legged, with their head held high. (This reminds me of the Japanese ritual of bowing to each other, especially that between businessmen. Business cards bear not just the name of the person, but their credentials and how high their social status is. Even the type or quality of the paper the business card is printed on is taken into account, as well as the font used. Persons of lower social status would bow deep before someone of a higher social status, whereas the high up person would merely nod to acknowledge the lower person. The deeper and lower the bow, the higher up in status the person being bowed to is, and therefore commanding of the utmost respect. It would appear a similar hierarchical ritual applies to dogs).

As with humans, some dogs get along better than others. If a dog tried to challenge the “temporary pack” leader, and if the dominant dog didn’t tolerate that, it would pin the aggressor to the ground and there might be a warning flash of teeth. If the aggressor submitted, it would lay belly up on the ground unresisting, until the leader moved away or off it. Sometimes the dog on the ground would dribble urine to show its submission. The dog would often lick its own nose, as a “calming signal” to the other dogs that it meant no harm and wasn’t a threat. Other “calming signals” are yawning, or averting direct eye contact with other dogs.

But sometimes the aggressor would choose to fight instead of submit, and this could escalate into a real fight between the pack leader and itself. A nip from the leader would often be enough to put the aggressor in his place, but if he refused to submit, the pack as a whole might turn their backs on him literally, and refuse to let him join in their play.

Dogs are very good at observing their human’s behaviour, and if their owner is frightened and holding their leash very tightly, this transposes down the length of the lead and the dog also tenses up. This often happens when the dog is out walking with its owner, and another human appears with another dog in the opposite direction. If the owner tenses up and starts reining in the dog tightly, the dog feel restrained and gets frustrated because it cannot get near the other dog to greet it. If, on the other hand, both owners are relaxed and allow their dogs to move closer in a curved approach, yet not quite meet, they may be able to pass each other quite cordially.

Many dog owners who bring their dogs to the dog park or dog beach, where dogs run freely, and yet keep their dogs leashed because they’re not confident enough about how their dog will behave, are setting themselves up for possible confrontations. On the one hand, there are these dogs enjoying their freedom off the leash, running, playing, etc…and then on the other hand there’s this dog being restrained on its leash, unable to behave like the other dogs. The leashed dog will feel frustrated, and, as the other dogs run up to it, may find itself acting aggressive defensively. Its natural instinct tells it that if it can’t flee, it may have to fight instead. Sometimes, all it takes is for one dog to stare at another, a direct challenge, and the other dog’s hackles will rise (pilo-erection), an aggressive response to make the dog appear bigger. When this happens, it’s better to remove the dogs from each other’s sight, to avoid a full-on confrontation.

In a home environment, where there are 2 or more dogs, the play for dominance can change from time to time, depending on the “Alpha” dog’s age or health condition. Generally, one dog will be the “Alpha” dog and the others submit to it. But if the “Alpha” dog is ill or old, a fitter or younger dog may take over.

Humping is natural behaviour amongst dogs. It is normal for males to try to mount females, whether they are in heat or not; my dog Scruffy often does this to my neutered bitch Shelagh. However, when Shelagh humps Scruffy, it is not sexual in nature, but rather her way of showing her dominance over him. Shelagh is larger than Scruffy, and younger, but when they are at play, she sometimes gives in to him and lets him stand over her, but only for a brief moment. When they are reunited after a few hours of being separated, they go through the “sniff and greet” ritual, where Scruffy sniffs Shelagh’s behind, and Shelagh allows him to do this, while maintaining her dominant status by having her head over his shoulder. They sometimes play-fight, and Shelagh is gentle enough to that Scruffy doesn’t get hurt. Mouthing or jaw-fencing, and muzzle holding are common games between them, as is mutual grooming. Shelagh’s sheer bulk could roll Scruffy’s slight build right over easily, but she seems able to refrain from crossing that line. Both dogs sometimes work together as a team – I’ve seen Scruffy, a terrier-cross, get into tight corners to flush out mice, while Shelagh, a bigger Staffy-type, waits to catch them in her jaws when they emerge. Overall, there’s a spirit of camaraderie and cooperation between them.

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