They Lost Their Pack Leader: Now What?
by Terri Florentino
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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 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?
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.