In Defense of the Big, Bad Wolf

In Defense of the Big, Bad Wolf
May 16, 2011 by Steve Duno
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If dogs were wolves, our lives would get very interesting.  Homes would be torn to shreds.  No one would ever visit.  Domestic tabbies would disappear from earth, and doggy daycares would have to hire Navy Seals to watch the little darlings.  Thankfully, though, our dogs are not wolves.

No one with any sense thinks domestic dogs act like wolves.  Canis lupus comes into estrus once per year, practices monogamy (what a concept), loathes socializing with strangers, can eat far larger meals, possesses superior strength, endurance and intellect, and works seamlessly with others to defeat prey ten times its size.  Try getting a Pomeranian to do that.  A Jack Russell, maybe... but I digress.

But here's the rub.  Over the last decade or so, books, articles, papers, websites, academicians and self-proclaimed dog experts have inundated us with the ever-growing conviction that dogs are seemingly as detached from wolves and wolf behavior as we are from the slimy slugs that crawled out of the ocean to eventually morph into contestants on Survivor.  They would like us to think that eight healthy dogs placed into a fenced yard will interact with the same undirected entropy as might a box of hamsters. Well, that's balderdash.  There- I managed to get balderdash into the conversation.  A underused word that I recommend you use more in everyday conversation.

At the heart of this imagined dog/wolf disconnect lies the abiding, emotional, and often overzealous revulsion for the concept of the dominance hierarchy among domestic canines.  Incorrectly interpreted by some as a rather martial, perhaps even chauvinistic theory, its disfavor among today's new-age dog connoisseurs is understandable, I suppose. Indeed, old-school dog training techniques were simply too butch, and not all that effective.  But the concepts of hierarchy and leadership in general are, in my opinion, not outdated or mannish at all; in fact, they couldn't be more compassionate, loving, or accurate, from a dog's perspective.

Those who share this distaste for the idea of hierarchy even go so far as to claim that the gray wolf itself does not in truth abide by any form of a pecking order at all, but instead operates under a simple familial construct- Mommy and Daddy ruling the kiddies, the cousins, the aunts and uncles, etc.  That it is purely a function of family.  Perhaps, but beyond the fact that this family construct is, in and of itself, a type of  "dominance" hierarchy, there is too much empirical information available regarding outside, unrelated wolves taken in by wolf packs, for anyone to claim that wolf packs do not accept strangers in, then put them in their respective places.  See the paper "The Acceptance of a New Breeding Male Into a Wild Wolf Pack," by Daniel R. Stahler, Douglas W. Smith, and Robert Landis for an example.  But again, I digress.  I am not a wolf expert.  I am, however, a dog expert. 

Dogs do not act in an unpredictable fashion around other dogs.  They show distinct, predictable behaviors.  They covet, bully, hump, solicit, fear, play (though even play has social purpose among dogs).  They posture, act out, teach, steal, tease, share, pee and poop, intimidate, kiss up, brawl, and try to please.  Dogs even pretend to ignore, and get grumpy and impatient.  Dogs are highly social, but not always in a mirthful, altruistic sense; they interact for personal, and often selfish reasons.  And, in my opinion, based on years of experience, they do it nearly as well as wolves. 

The revulsion of the term "pack," in my opinion, stems not from honest objective observation, interpretation and experience, but rather from an emotional (and, for some, economic) desire to redefine the dog, and move it closer to humans in behavior, wants, and desires. An attempt, if you will, to morph the dog into a childlike, simian companion, with little connection to its ancestral birthright.  The term "grouping" is perhaps less threatening to these would-be anthropomorphisers, who ever pine for a new philosophical and behavioral model that re-defines the dog into something more nurturing and squishy, and less like the ancient tribal predator it was born to be.

To deny the dog its clannish heritage is insulting, and naïve.  The same people who now rebuff the dog/wolf connection are often the first to point to how similar human physiology and behavior is to the great apes, particularly chimps and gorillas.  This, despite the fact that we are millions of years removed from them, while the dog is only tens of thousands of years removed from the wolf.  Dog and wolf DNA are nearly identical, while chimp and human DNA, though very close, are nowhere near as similar.  True, selective breeding has accelerated the process, but can any of you state with a straight face that the Siberian Husky or the German Shepherd are farther removed from the wolf than an orangutan is from Justin Bieber?

Let's get back to our eight dogs in a fenced yard.  Once placed in there, they will, without hesitation, begin to interact.  Some will play chase games, others will hold peeing or pooping contests, one or two might snap and snarl, two might fall in love, and one might hide in a corner.  But, without pause, a palpable group dynamic will begin to form, and anyone with any dog experience at all will see a hierarchy, or power ladder, take shape.  It won't be precise at first; two or three dogs might run themselves silly then plop down together, exhausted, while a few others might wander about eating grass and watching the events peripherally, nervously wondering what to do next.  One fearful, two modest, one untenably macho- all of this is the hierarchy forming.  It's schoolyard.  Remember?  Do you honestly think that there wasn't a playground hierarchy? 

To all of you long term dog owners who have had multiple dogs in the home; you know what I'm talking about.  You don't need me to convince you that a home hierarchy exists, and that you becoming the beneficent, respected mentor is always the key to harmony.  You know how crucial "cult of personality" is to dogs. 

Is a dog hierarchy less efficient than that perfected by wolves?  Darn sure.  But a hierarchy nonetheless.  For any trainer or dog advocate to deny that this dynamic should be recognized and used in the training procedure is poppycock.  Another excellent word.

Some claim that observing the behavior of domestic dogs in our artificially conceived, human environments cannot accurately portray their true instincts, and that, to get an honest appraisal of the "pack" potential of Canis familiaris, one would need to watch stable, feral dog packs in action, something that is very hard to do, as wild dog packs are by their nature fleeting, and too imperiled to safely breed multiple generations of wild dogs. 

I personally know individuals who have studied (and aided) multi-generational packs of dogs containing both strays and feral dogs, in Mexico, Puerto Rico and in parts of Southern Italy; all report hierarchical structures- short-lived and very fluid, to be sure, but clearly identifiable. And, the greatest dog I have ever known, Lou, subject of my memoir Last Dog On The Hill, lived feral for the first six months of his life, before he rocked my world and rose the bar for all dogs.  His feral beginnings helped him to become something more than a dog- a wolfish conduit between nature and civilization, I suppose- something that cannot be quantified by observation, pontification, or scholastic supposition.  Providence, it seems, cannot be yet measured in the classroom.

Honestly- we are all interested more in our dogs, and in their behavior, than in the artificial, fleeting construct of the feral pack.  To that end, I must tell you that, having trained and associated with thousands of dogs over the last twenty years, it has been clear that every single one of them had a hunger for status, power, privilege, and guidance.  One cannot avoid seeing and understanding patterns of hierarchical behavior, after experiencing this level of contact. 

Ah, who to trust- who to listen to.  Who is right?  Most of us, in varying degrees I suppose, with the possible exception of those du jour revisionists who attempt to redefine the nature of things in order to please, or prosper.

With regard to expertise on dog behavior, I think it comes down to this; if you wished to learn about how fine oak furniture is made, would you listen to an experienced carpenter, or to a university arborist?

Back to the eight dog yard.  A squirrel, perhaps high on fermented wild grapes, foolishly hops down into the yard, to search for a walnut he'd buried a year before.  Do the dogs ignore it?  Do they chaotically chase it around, without any cooperation whatsoever?  Not at all.  I can tell you from experience that these eight dogs will, without a huddle, subconsciously and wolfishly cooperate to nail that drunken rodent and send him to his maker.  Two fast dogs take off after it, while three others instinctively calculate the terrified squirrel's likely trajectory and potential escape routes, cutting him off and ending it.  It's an event driven by an instinct buried deep in their bones.  It's wolfish.

I have owned dogs who could hunt with the skill of a fox.  I've owned and trained dogs who demanded respect or subservience, and dogs who needed to be subordinate in order to be happy.  But every dog I have ever known has, to varying levels, understood instinctively that privilege equals power, and obedience, deference.  And that, I contend, is the essence of the divide; some dog lovers simply cannot avoid treating their pets as equals, and abhor the idea of pet compliance.  But when you try to make a dog your equal (can't be done, by the way- not from the dog's perspective), you short circuit the age-old concept that I have been carping about here- the hierarchy is their overarching rule book.  Dogs given gratis attention, allowed to go anywhere, do anything, sleep anywhere, eat anything, jump, bark, nip, snarl, ignore, discipline- these dogs are stinking miserable.  Like children who crave direction and boundaries, dogs cannot prosper without a beneficent maharishi there to oversee their world, and define what is good or bad.  And, truth be told, any dog without a healthy sense of deference to its owner, or an understanding of consequences, is always a royal pain in the ass.

I have said this before; dogs who naturally want to do one thing but choose to do another because it is what you want them to do, are the happiest, most affable pets around.  Compliance through force or intimidation?  No- except when absolutely necessary, to prevent disaster.  But getting your dog to want to please you is the key, something that will never happen through the use of a bucket of bribes, distraction theory, an attitude of complete parity, or in a belief that the dog has no connection to the wolf.  It will only happen if you understand that your dog needs a kind, competent, omniscient mentor at the helm, every day, just as a pack of wolves needs big daddy to call the shots. 

Or, you could get yourself that box of hamsters and have a ball.

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