Friday, June 17, 2011

Who's In Charge?

When Faith joined the family, I figured that Trevor would remain the "alpha" dog. After all, he's been established with us for five years, and he's twice Faith's weight. In my past experience with Rotties, the usual outcome has been that the established dog tends to show the way. Food Lady merely laughed, and noted that Border Collies have a way of getting what they want...

And of course, they do. Trevor tried repeatedly to hump faith to establish dominance. Faith would simply sit, and look over her shoulder at the poor, mentally impaired Border-Spaniel, as if to say "OK, so now what, big boy?" In due course, Trevor gave up. He doesn't think Faith is "in charge", but he's given up any notion that he gets to tell her what to do. Faith, for her part, gives no evidence of wanting to be in charge, which seems to cause Trevor no end of confusion.

As is so often the case, a picture is worth 1,000 words. In the photo, note that Trevor is using Faith for a pillow, and that before she raised her head for the camera she was contentedly lying on the floor with Trevor resting his head on her chest.

While this isn't entirely a surprise (brains over brawn, after all), the dynamic is pretty interesting to watch. I've previously seen scenarios where the smaller dog with the brains ends up the leader. What I haven't seen before is this somewhat strange scenario in which neither dog is evidently the leader. Faith follows Trevor's lead sometimes, and Trevor follow's Faith's lead at other times. This is not directly correlated with Faith's deafness. If Trevor hears something, Faith follows, but if Trevor gets on the bed, Faith shows no hesitation in sticking herself in the middle and pushing him aside.

This is completely consistent with the richness and dynamics of documented dog behavior. There is quite a lot of evidence that the entire notion of "alpha" is faulty, and that dogs in the wild will communicate to pick the best leader according to the circumstances at hand. What is a bit unusual is to see this dynamic arise in a duo, which (in the dog view) is something short of a full pack dynamic. I was well aware from the Rotties that the behavior of two dogs was quite different from the behavior of three. At three, you start to see proto-pack behavior, and at four or five you see overt pack organization. And it's fairly well documented that packs make a clear distinction between "pack leader" and "operational leader". The former has something to do with what dog exhibits baseline leadership. The latter has a lot to do with what dog is best equipped to direct the task at hand. What's a bit unusual here is to see it in a pair.

Twenty years in, and I'm still learning things about my dogs. Which either means that I'm terribly slow on the up-take or I'm not entirely ossified. Thankfully, Faith is helping me figure it out.