The Pack, Part 1

They Lost Their Pack Leader: Now What?

by Terri Florentino

pack

Terri and her pack.

I never bought into the theory that I had to be the dominant leader of my dog pack. I never saw myself as such, nor did I ever feel the need to attempt to “act” like my dogs in order to communicate with them. Yes, I spend time individually training my dogs, feed them, groom them, socialize, exercise, and love them but I am not their “pack leader.” Yes, humans have domesticated the dog, but to what degree?

I have lived with many dogs, at least five at a time, over the course of fifteen years, and can tell you that there appears to be a pecking order within their own ranks. I’m not sure why we would believe otherwise. We humans fall into similar social hierarchies. For instance in sports, doesn’t every team have a coach? Most social animals do. It seems to be natural for any pack, pod, or flock animal—consider the very phrase “pecking order,” which comes from watching chickens.

Tulley, Echo, Mirk, and Roy, who was just visiting.

l. – r. Tulley, Echo, Mirk, and Roy, who was just visiting.

What actually constitutes the definition of a pack leader, within a group of domestic dogs? We know that for a pack of wolves or coyotes it’s all about survival, so we can appreciate the importance of a strong hunter.

My dogs have never had to fight for food. I know of puppy evaluations where a piece of meat is thrown to a pack of seven-week-old pups. Whichever pup “guards the meat” is one that the breeder might be very interested in keeping for its dominant temperament. So does the display of a survival instinct define a leader? Perhaps a leader is determined by the tendency to discipline other dogs for inappropriate behavior, in effect, to govern them? How about the drive to ward off strangers? Perhaps the ability to charm humans into doing their bidding might be the real and true mark of a canine pack leader. I’m often amused at how often some dogs have their owners so well trained, and the owners don’t even know it.

As of last week, my family and I lived with seven dogs.

Heather and her soul-dog, Epic.

Heather and her soul-dog, Epic.

After careful examination and an abundance of medical testing it was apparent that my old girl Epic had developed a bleed in her brain. There was no turning back. My daughter Heather and I knew that we had to let her go.

Epic had chosen my daughter Heather as “her person” soon after we rescued her from a hoarding situation. Heather trained her, competed with her in obedience, and became her bed bug at night. In the vet’s examination room, Heather cradled Epic in her arms, inconsolably sobbing. I held both Heather and Epic, reassuring Epic that she was a good girl as the doctor gave her the final injection. Epic took her last deep breath and was gone. She lay peacefully in Heather’s arms until Heather was able to let go.

Now the mourning and healing for the human family would begin. But what about the other six dogs?

Sweet Epic has left us.

Sweet Epic has left us.

A bewildered uneasiness had fallen upon our pack. Epic had been the matriarch who commanded respect. She managed all of them with strong-willed peacekeeping diplomacy. She was a guardian, the greeting committee to the countless rescued dogs who entered our home, an “Aunt” to the occasional litter of puppies, teaching them right from wrong. Any dog who had been under Epic’s regime would greet her by laying down, rolling onto their back and licking her mouth, even when she’d reached the fragile old age of fifteen.

Scout

Scout

Now our pack consists of Scout, who, at nearly sixteen, is the oldest of them all. Next is Deja Blue at fourteen, Tulley at a youthful twelve (He was featured in the “Mean Dog” series in BCI), Mirk, age eleven, Echo at seven, and young Wyn of five years. Scout has always been the family pet, too old to care about leading the pack.

Deja, Mirk, and Echo

Deja, Mirk, and Echo

In her day, Deja was a tough lady, a talented sheepdog with too much of an independent streak. In her “hay day,” I suppose I might have thought her the next pack leader, but she now prefers to be left alone to sleep comfortably on her bed, next to mine.

Most of the dogs defer to Tulley, but he has no interest in the pack behavior unless it has to do directly with him.

Mirk at work.

Mirk at work.

Mirk was born here (Deja is his Dam) and lived with us for the first year of his life. Then he went off to pursue a professional sheepherding career. Over the course of the last ten years, he would come home on occasion. Just a few months ago, he retired and is now home for good, and the pack is still adjusting to him. He does have a very strong presence within the group, but strong enough to step up to the role of leader?

I love them all, but my heart and soul is Echo, a younger full sister to Mirk–she finishes my sentences. She’s not one that stands out as a leader, but she is well balanced within the pack and will step up to control any improper conduct with the other dogs. It’s said that the best leaders rule with a velvet glove, so maybe it will be Echo?

Will Wyn be the Winner?

Will Wyn be the Winner?

The truth is, I always thought that Wyn, a daughter of Echo, even though the youngest of the pack, would be the next leader. After Mirk she is my most talented sheepdog, by far the most boisterous and always into every other dog’s business. She may be too much of a busybody to rule the pack.

Either way it will be interesting to see how the dynamics of my pack eventually play out. For now, we’ll let nature take its course.

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17 responses to “The Pack, Part 1

  1. Reblogged this on Lisa Lanser-Rose and commented:

    “What actually constitutes the definition of a pack leader within a group of domestic dogs?”

  2. Pack dynamics is so interesting and often changing. It can even be location or situation dependent. I learned that from the late behaviorist John Fisher. While one dog may be ruler of the house, another might be master of the yard. I experienced that with a pack of shelties & Border Collies years ago.
    When I added my 3rd dog several months ago, Dandy’s son Dezi, I assumed Tempo would be the leader as he was more inclined that way. But shockingly Dandy has stepped into that role for the most part. I think it’s all still evolving, but all 3 get along fine so they have worked it out for now 🙂 But it’s not always the way we would anticipate.
    Terri, my thoughts are with you and your family AND pack as everyone goes through this process of loss and change. RIP Epic ❤

  3. Thank you for commenting, Linda. Dialogue is what I had hoped for with this post. As you stated, it’s ever changing. I think the most popular misnomer is the fact that the “oldest” just by virtue of age, earns the top dog position.

  4. It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out. I’ll be waiting to hear how the next pack leader moves into the position. Sometimes those young ‘uns surprise you:-) My heart & thoughts are with you & your family following the loss of Epic.

  5. From the first day I met your pack 4 1/2 years ago I was simply amazed at how they communicated. If it wasn’t for seeing it first hand when they helped Chase I would have never believed that it was possible. They put Chase in his place from that day and at first it was scary to see but I realize now that it was something he needed. He needed to know his place. Just by watching them they taught me so much also. Till this day Echo still puts Chase in his place – I see how when Echo is around, Chase is a different dog and gives Echo her space. It is so neat to see that respect from him. We can all learn from them and I can’t wait to see how this turns out also but I think I my bet is on Wyn 😉
    Sorry for your loss of a truly special girl – thanks for helping Chase – Rest In Peace Epic 🐶🐾

  6. Ren, from one pack owner to another, thanks for your sympathy and support!

  7. Appreciate you sharing your experience with my pack, Deb. Your post thoroughly described appropriate social interaction amongst the border collies. Thanks for your sympathy as well.

  8. My crew (three dogs) had to adjust when I had to let Bo, the leader, go. Not an easy transition for humans and animals. Best wishes.

  9. I lost my Old English Sheepdog, Riff, in August at 12 3/4 years of age. He had an extremely strong presence up to the very end. Banner, my Aussie who is now almost 11 years old, was waiting in the wings for the leadership role. Much to his dismay, my OES handed over his bed to Gracie, my border collie, a few years back; she was only going on 2 years old. This REALLY miffed my Aussie; he did not take the transfer well. But Gracie, the intuitive and sensitive girl that she is, took the leadership role quietly, staying in the shadows of Riff and Banner only using the crown on her head to keep peace amongst the pack. To my surprise, Gracie, who has non-stop energy, stayed in her crate for almost 2 days morning the loss of Riff. Banner and Gracie, individually and as a pack, are still adjusting to the loss of Riff. I am fascinated by the dynamics between dogs; there is more going on than we will ever know. Again, my deepest sympathies to Terri, Ed, and family on the loss of Epic.

    • You’re right Judy, there is more going on than we will ever know. I enjoy stepping back and studying the dogs pack like behavior with little to know interference. They’re beautiful creatures! Thank you for your sympathy as well. Just yesterday I was sure I heard Epic barking outside, it was bittersweet.

  10. Levels of pack control are interesting…

  11. Great job. It was great read mom.

  12. Pingback: COMING UP FOR AIR | The Border Collie Inquisitor

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