Canine Rivalry

By Diane Blankenburg

My three labs love to play with each other—often in a manner that some might describe as play-fight. In the mornings when they are most full of energy, they ritualistically engage in this behavior. It’s called play-fight as it playfully emulates behaviors common to fighting: growling, baring teeth, grabbing throats, and pinning to the ground. The dogs seem to know how far to go without hurting the other. But the sounds combined with intense actions, often make it difficult to know if and when it crosses the boundaries to true fighting.

Yesterday morning I witnessed the cross over. The three were in the middle of their usual morning romp around the bedroom as I was getting ready for work when the growling started escalating and climaxed with a loud, very serious yelp of pain. I quickly assessed the situation and realized that my older male, Beaumont, had put my young male, Boomer, in his place. It was clear that this was no longer play and it was clear who was top dog.

It is still common belief that domestic dogs descended from wolves and deep within the psyche of pet dogs lie instincts retained from wild ancestors. The definition of alpha dog has evolved in recent years but the idea of an aggressively dominant alpha wolf in gray wolf packs has been discredited by wolf biologists and researchers. The so-called “alphas” in packs are viewed as the breeding animals and dominance relationships are no different than the parent-child patterns of humans.

I am not a wolf scientist nor a canine behaviorist, but my personal experience and observations have borne out the idea that there is a definite hierarchy. The current alpha in my household is wiser but older Beaumont—and he puts the youngsters in their place when they cross over the line.

Yesterday morning was a great example of this at its best. After the so-called play-fight, I continued to get dressed and Beaumont and my young female, Beignet (pronounced Ben-yay), went about their business as if nothing had happened. Boomer had retreated to another part of the house and was sheepishly peeking around the corner of the hallway,  apparently checking on whether the coast was clear. He then slowly walked down the hallway, into the bedroom where the elder was awaiting, and play bowed—as if bowing to the master. The moment seemed much longer than the few seconds and the tension was obvious—then the playful bounce back from Beaumont and all were at peace once again with Boomer the wiser for it.

This episode was equally educational for me and just reinforced my belief that having an older dog run the show keeps my pack in line much better than I ever could.

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Last Weekend for Pick Your Price adoption fees at Nevada Humane Society. Adopt a dog or cat through October 31 for the price you choose. Open for adoptions 7 days a week at 2825 Longley Lane, Reno, 11 am to 6:30 pm, 10 am on Saturdays. For more info, call 775-856-2000.

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