Monday, March 19, 2012

Do Dogs Seek Status?

I'm sure you all occasionally get the pack structure question, right?

  • "Which one is the dominant one?"
  • "Which one is in charge?"
  • "Which one is the Top Dog?"

Normally, this question comes from non-dog people. Or, perhaps, regular good ol' pet owners who are not members of the Crazy Dog Person club.

Usually, my initial obnoxious answer is "me." Recently, though, I have been asked this question by 3 or 4 actual CDP club members.

I don't see our little pack structure as this rigid linear thing. We do not have clearly defined ranks like the military. It's not like-

General Monica
Corporal Poo-Key
Sargent Nina
Staff Sargent Cadence
First Sargent Verdae 

I see it more like a family structure. The parent(s) are in in charge and the kids are just the kids-

Poo-Key – Nina – Cadence – Verdae

And before you start frowning, I am not comparing raising kids to raising dogs, nor do I think of my dogs as replacement kids. Just talking family layout here.

I usually explain that neither of the dogs have any interest in being in charge of anything as they are all cowardly by nature and I also tend to think of their relationship more in terms of levels of confidence, than dominance. Poo-Key is, overall, the more confident of the group. There are, however, certain situations where Cadence takes that roll.

I also think that most behavior that people refer to as dominant behavior is really just a dog being a pain in the butt. It is more likely due to any number of the following:
  • Being young.
  • Not trained.
  • Lacking confidence.
  • Being fearful.
  • Being encouraged to behave that way.
  • Having a generally obnoxious personality, perhaps a bully (or an German Shepherd… haha).
  • Trying to initiate play.
  • Trying to gain a resource.
  • Experiencing some pain.
  • etc.
So, all that got me thinking about status-seeking behavior. I am not someone who believes that a rigid pack structure exists. I have, however, referred to things as status-seeking behavior. If dogs don't live in a rigid structure why are they doing things to gain status? What do they think they are gaining?

I'm not even sure that dogs are capable of thinking about status in the same way we do. I don't think that they think long term like that. I don't think that a dog will sit around his house thinking…"well, I stole Fluffy's bone today, that knocked her down a peg or two. I'll do it again tomorrow and she'll be on the bottom. Next week, I'll start on Rex. In a few months, it'll all be mine!!!" No, just no. It just doesn't go like that. I think they are more in the moment. For example:
  • I want that bed NOW.
  • I want that bone NOW.
  • I want to pester you so you play with me NOW.
I don't know that a dog that steals a bone from another dog is thinking about status or dominance. I think they just want the dang bone! I could be totally off here. Maybe it's just my dogs. The perpetual young dog, Verdae, who just wants his needs taken care of right now, thankyouverymuch.

Poo-Key and Nina have this thing where they switch bones. They will both be chewing and one will get up. The other will take that ones' bone and the one that got up will take the other one. They do this frequently. It's like they are on a schedule. Fifteen minute chewing rotations. Shift work. When there is this voluntary swapping, we let it happen. We do not, however, allow one dog to take something from another dog just because they feel like it. It's fine in play, but if they are not playing it is not allowed. Are we interfering with "structure?" I don't think so. I think we are managing a three-bitch household (with the exception of Verdae) to do everything we can to avoid any possibility of a fight now or in the future. Sure, Poo-Key may let Nina take that bone from her right now, but what about tomorrow? It's not good for house harmony to allow behavior that could potentially escalate. Right?

Maybe it's the language that I have a hard time wrapping my head around? "Status seeking" and "dominant" when used in relation to people usually just means"jerk."

I don't like thinking of my dogs as jerks. Other people's, sure. Just not mine.

So, what are your thoughts on the whole "status seeking" thing? What are the relationships like at your house for you multi-dog people?

And, the funniest thing about these recent conversations is that all of the people thought Cadence was the dominant of the four! That makes me wonder if people, even CDP members, are just really shitty at reading dogs or I have absolutely no clue who's living in my house!

So, who is running the show here?!

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