Evolving beyond ‘pack animals’ (part one)

We are in the process of integrating a six-month-old English Springer Spaniel named Micah into our family. We also have a six-year-old English Springer Spaniel named Isaiah. Isaiah spent the first six years of his life in our family with our older Sheltie (Mocha) who passed away shortly before we adopted the new puppy.

Shelties are work dogs. They instinctively herd other animals, so Mocha felt his job was to shepherd Isaiah. English Springer Spaniels (ESS) love to run freely, so the two worked out their respective household (or pack) roles. Mocha’s job was to keep Isaiah out of trouble. Whether they were on leash or off leash, Isaiah was always a step ahead of Mocha.

Mocha and Isaiah were devoted and faithful companions to each other, and to my husband and I. We often care for other family dogs managing up to five dogs at a time. There were minor conflicts between the dogs over toys, but generally they established their own roles and responsibilities, and pecking order.

We thought bringing home a new puppy of the same breed as Isaiah would help Isaiah because he was grieving the absence of his buddy, Mocha. We chose another ESS because we thought they would love to do most of the same things; run, swim, chase balls, go for walks.

Micah joins our family

Micah joins our family

I failed to understand that dogs are still instinctively hierarchical pack animals. Mocha exerted ‘authority’ over Isaiah when he was a young puppy, and then he let Isaiah develop as a ‘peer’ in the pack. When we brought a puppy home, Isaiah exhibited aggressive behavior towards Micah. I reacted as though aggression was unacceptable. I just thought they ought to be friends and play cooperatively, including sharing toys and sharing our attention. The pressure built up and within three days Isaiah attacked Micah and bit him hard enough to draw a tiny bit of blood.

Shocked and very concerned that we had made a huge mistake adopting Micah, I began to research ‘problem’ dogs. Although there is a great deal of conflicting information online about dog training, I found a book that made sense to me, The Dog Listener. The author, Jan Fennel, raises English Springer Spaniels (among many other breeds). Fennel refreshed my memory; dogs are pack animals. More important, dog packs are hierarchies. At the top of the dog hierarchy there are alpha leaders (one male, one female) with other levels of leadership for pack members. The pack survives or thrives because dogs know their role and responsibility within the pyramid.

Given my passion for non-hierarchical styles of leadership, I wanted to resist the book’s recommendation that I assert myself as the pack leader. However, when I did assert stronger leadership, I found that Isaiah and Micah became calmer and less aggressive. I also learned to acknowledge Isaiah as the ‘big’ dog and acknowledge his authority over the younger Micah. Things are going much better now.

IMG_2437Since I read the first few chapters of The Dog Listener, I have been pondering dog and human evolution. Even though I am convinced that human beings have evolved to the degree that many of us crave partnership and egalitarian organizational forms, prehistoric humans were pack animals. The bond between early humans and their dogs is older than religion or civil society and it originated because humans became beneficial alpha leaders for dogs. Dogs were better off working for packs of people than just hunting on their own.

Do human beings still need hierarchical structures? Are we still very much like our dogs, do we need to know our place in the ‘order’ of our tribe or pack? Do we need alpha leaders, and are we willing to submit to their authority in the way that wolves submit to their alpha leaders?

Please share your comments and answers to these questions. Tomorrow I will continue this inquiry.