I confess. I’m the alpha bitch in my pack! As I write this, I’m surrounded by my five housegirls. They are all happily snoozing after their dinner but will be instantly awake when I move to the livingroom as they feel they must join me there! Why would anyone want to have the bitches as housedogs? And why in a pack?
My kennel management and subsequent pack(s) has gone through many changes over the years. My dogs have been excellent teachers and as I’ve learned more, my kennel management metamorphosed. With the exception of one extremely dominant bitch, all my bitches live inside with me. Most of them are in the kennel runs during the day or part of the day (depending upon my schedule). All my pups start their life with me in the housegirl pack. The bitches are wonderful teachers – especially for the young males! The boys eventually live outside with visits inside. (They do seem to prefer being outside – particularly when they have their very heavy winter coats.) This seems to work very well for me. When any bitch comes into heat, as she is usually in the house anyway, she just stays inside all the time during her season. This eliminates the noise factor from lovesick dogs (which is something I must consider because of close neighbors) and unplanned breedings. When a bitch has been bred, her pregnancy is able to be closely monitored, her labor and delivery are in a familiar place, and her puppies are raised in a home/inside environment where they get the benefit of increased socialization and stimulation. But probably one of the biggest factors is that I bond very closely with my bitches – and I enjoy their company.
A bitch pack evolves
Temperament is of paramount importance when selecting a puppy and even more so when adding a puppy to an existing pack. It is imperative to have an idea of the existing pack members’ stature/pack orientation as well as having an idea of the pup’s pack orientation. For example, if a very dominant/self-assured single bitch is at home, it would be very unwise to add another very pack-orientated/self-assured bitch. That is a recipe for fights! Adding a bitch with a more easy-going temperament/lower pack orientation to the dominant bitch is a much better combination. Having two bitches who are easy going/non-pack orientated together can work – but they, too, will sort out their ranking systems. For myself, I prefer to mix individuals who do not have strong pack orientations but are more "middle of the road." These individuals often come with good self-confidence (another aspect that is important for me having lived with many dogs who have had less than ideal self-confidence.)
The easiest combination to have as a bitch pack evolves is the mother: daughter combination. As time goes on, it can evolve even as much as great-grandmother on down to the youngest member. I have enjoyed seeing the interrelationships between the generations – and have no doubt that they have some awareness of their connections. For example, Cassandra had a special relationship with her granddaughter, Echo. She displayed none of the caring that she gave Echo to Maia’s daughter. (Maia is unrelated.)
Through experience, I have found that the best/ideal age spread between bitches in the pack is two (or more) years. However, this is not a perfect world and sometimes we must add a bitch to our family earlier than that. When Maia was born and she was offered to me, it was a breeding that I couldn’t refuse. At the time, I had pups who were only 2 ½ months older than her! I requested, and received, the easier going of the girls but even so, there were difficulties between Maia and Sila until they sorted their ranking out. Then to add to the confusion, Maia and Sila’s brother, Drala, had an unplanned (by me) family. Naturally (as I’m a softie for puppies), one of the girls, Zhouma, insisted that she stay. This had left me with three bitches all within 15 months of each other! Since both Sila and Zhouma have been spayed and matured, they have sorted their ranking out even to the point that they will play and work in harness together. So even as I know the 2 year spread is preferred, I did go against my own advice and have had to deal with the struggles until they matured.
Ever been around a bitchy female dog about one to two months before they come into heat? I swear they have PMS – a major case of it – and smile to myself thinking this must be where the negative term (bitchy) referring to women comes from! All smiles aside, for unaltered bitches, this time (one to two months before the heat) is the time that they are more irritable which in turn can lead to fights. When the girls are in season, they are in love with the world (especially boy-dogs!). If a bitch is not going to be bred and she is becoming difficult around the other bitches, spaying (ovariohysterectomy) changes their attitudes remarkably. This topic can be very emotional and difficult for all of us to deal with. My question is that if the bitch is so pack-orientated that she is creating major problems in the pack, does one really want to breed her with the high probability that her strong pack-orientation will be perpetuated in her puppies? In my experience, this trait is genetically passed along as is the opposite/easier to live with dog/bitch. The other question an owner must honestly examine with a strongly pack-orientated bitch is a two part question. If the bitch is so difficult to live with that she cannot live in a group or even with another dog (male or female) is it really worth showing her (no matter how gorgeous she is) and if she is shown, what is the motivation to do so? (The second part of this question relates back to the original function of dog shows, i.e. to compare dogs against each other as to breeding quality.)
It is extremely important for the human pack member to also be the pack leader. As I’ve written/taught repeatedly over the years, the leadership role is one that is earned through respect. A strong leader is consistent, has clearly delineated what is and is not acceptable in anything regarding the pack, and is fair. A good leader does not bully, nag or play favorites. In a pack member’s eyes, the leader is one who is responsible for keeping them safe, secure, fed, and watered. The pack leader is adored and is shown signs of active and passive submission from the pack members. In turn, the pack leader returns affection and loving discipline as needed. The pack leader is listened to because he/she has earned the respect from the pack members through his/her actions.
A crucial skill for a good pack leader is combining both observation and knowledge. The majority of canine communication is non-verbal. An aware pack leader has learned the body language for dominant and submissive behavior so can recognize those seemingly subtle (or non-existent to the unenlightened) changes in "canine-speak." For example, the dominant stance of "standing tall" is often missed. In my experience, the subtle signs are usually shown before behavior escalates into fighting. An aware pack leader can easily see a subtle sign and defuse a potential problem quickly. Treats, toys, and other favorite things
A rule that I use and enforce (usually with visitors) at my home is: if one dog is getting a treat, then all dogs get a treat. All my pack members are treated equally; this in turn helps to reassure each dog that they, too, will get a treat when it’s their turn. My dogs learn this when they join the pack as I have regular "cookie times." I usually follow a routine order of cookie handouts starting with the highest ranking girl to the lowest ranking member. (If any of my boys are joining us inside, then they are true gentlemen and wait until after the girls get their treats!)
Another practice I’ve found useful is when a new toy is added to the toy box, I’ll put out multiple new toys to prevent possession/resource guarding issues over a solitary "new" toy. If I’m handing out chew hoofs (a favorite treat at Inharmony), each dog will get handed one and a couple of extras will be put into the toy box.
I also have a "no tolerance" policy regarding any grumbling and/or resource guarding for any reason. This is when the pack leader steps in and removes/claims any object that may be in dispute.
Useful pack management tools
Crates are invaluable tool. In addition to the crates in my shelter where each dog has his/her own crate for feeding, I have four crates permanently available inside my house for the girls. Three of these are in the bedroom where they are frequently occupied by the girls. Crates are necessary tool to have when a bitch needs to be separated, left in a "time out" or otherwise contained for one reason or another. (Malamutes hate to be left locked up in a room away from the action! It is a very effective "time out" tool if used sparingly.)
Squirt/spray bottles are another tool that are in various "easy to reach" spots in my house. All but one contain water, the "special" spray bottle has diluted vinegar in it. (More later on using that bottle.) Spray bottles can function as instant "attitude adjusters."
Kennel leads (a simple slip collar/lead combination) are also in easy to grab locations. As my dogs don’t wear collars, there are times when a more secure method of control than a neck scruff grab is needed.
Kennel runs are a very worthwhile investment. All of my dogs (except the two oldest housegirls) are used to spending a good portion of the day in a kennel run. As a general rule, the best pairings in the runs are one male and one female. I do not put two bitches together unless they are a mother:daughter combination who have a very good relationship.
As in a human family, there is always potential for disagreements in a pack. When the disagreement escalates into a fight, these are not fun to deal with. Bitch fights are very nasty and are much harder to break up than a male fight. When a pack is unsettled, tensions are high and fights happen more readily. Stopping a fight is possible – and if it involves one bitch being ganged up on, it is imperative to stop the fight immediately. Here are some suggestions that I’ve learned (the hard way) about stopping fights.
For a fight between two dogs and two people are available, each person grabs a tail and waits for the dogs to readjust their bites/holds. At that point, pull the dogs apart. Do not forcibly pull the dogs before they let go of each other as you will increase the injuries.
For a fight between two dogs and only one person is there, there are two options:
For a fight between more than two dogs, run for the vinegar bottle and slosh it at the dogs’ mouths. This is imperative if there is only one person to deal with the fight! This is extremely effective with the dogs stopping their aggression almost immediately. If, as in the previous example, the person involved with two bitches fighting is unable to separate them physically, again, the vinegar bottle is the best choice to use. If the vinegar does splash in the eyes, it does sting. (I’ve felt this!) The eyes can be rinsed with a human eye wash afterwards. As the eyes tear very readily, there is minimal if any injury to the corneas even before the eyes are washed out. This, to me, is a viable alternative to the severe damage that can happen if the fight isn’t stopped as soon as possible.
As an aside, yelling, hitting the dogs (with anything), water hoses or any other creative thing someone might grab in the moment does not work. These dogs do not feel or react to anything but vinegar in the heat of their passionate fighting. To emphasize: a tail or a hind leg or two are the safest places to grab a fighting dog. If you reach for the neck or collar, you’ll risk getting bitten by either dog.
This is a crucial time in maintaining the pack’s autonomy. This is what I do each time my girls scrap.
If the scrap occurs at bedtime, the offending girl(s) spend a good portion (if not all of it) in their crate. As normally my housegirls are loose in the bedroom with me (and, yes, help keep me warm), being crated like a puppy is a huge punishment – and they know it! After the offending girl has been released from her crate, she also loses the privilege of being on my bed temporarily.
Living with a housegirl pack may seem like extra work with potential problems. Is it worth it? That is a question that I can only answer for myself. I’ve had to do the "musical dog" routine when bitches who were not a part of the housegirl pack were inside for puppy rearing. It is a royal pain to deal with that situation. To add to the hassles of shuffling bitches, there is always the underlying worry if the girls got together – and heaven forbid – the pups were in the middle! Living with a pack of bitches who have sorted out their pack order and feelings can turn a puppy rearing event from an isolated bitch and pups situation into a more natural situation where the aunties and grandmothers help with the four week (and older) pups. This benefits the pups as they are also socialized early with other mature dogs. Add to this, the father (and other trusted males) and the pups are raised in a community.
I thoroughly enjoy watching eight dogs (males and females) play together in my large yard. Their play, interactions, and communication tell me so much about each individual dog. I’m almost certain they have more overall fun than my "pack of two" who can only tolerate each other and none of the other dogs.
I have lived with a pack since 1975. Yes, it can be challenging, discouraging, and frustrating at times, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. My life has been greatly enriched living in close contact with these sentient beings – my Malamute pack.
A PACK OF BITCHES
by Ruth I. Kellogg