MESSING UP A PACK
The article, "Developing a Stable Pack," addressed the factors and conditions to build and achieve a stable pack (any combination of humans and dogs). Keeping the stability and thus peace and harmony within a pack is a dynamic process. Add human interference to the natural ebb and flow within a pack and stability is lost. People do not consciously nor make decisions to de-stabilize or create problems within the pack – indeed most of it is done unconsciously and through lack of knowledge. In short, we people have the innate ability to mess up our own packs.
A basic life truth is that we cannot change within ourselves what we do not acknowledge. In collaboration with three friends and long time Malamute owners, various factors of de-stabilization of packs were identified. All of us have, at one time or another applied any number of these factors to our own home/pack life and then have had to deal with the consequences. These factors are not meant to point a finger but to help identify potential areas of discord; once these are identified, then they can be adjusted.
1. Unpredictable Leadership
The leader (i.e. human) must be predictable in maintaining the pack/house rules. Unpredictability of reactions of the leader increases the dog(s) insecurity. Insecurity escalates instability.
The pack/house rules that each pack/family develops is unique to that household. The important thing is that whatever the rules are, every pack member (humans included) must know and abide by the same set of rules. This is equally important for all children as for any visitor to the home to respect and follow the rules. Inconsistency in maintaining the pack rules leads to confusion in the dog(s) which contributes to instability in the pack.
3. Lack of protection
In "Developing a Stable Pack", I outlined the functions of a leader for the pack’s physical well-being. I, however, did not mention an important function of a leader. This function comes into play when a pack member is in public and is confronted by another dog. This function is protection. In our education of our dogs, we consciously strive to decrease any displays of "aggression" in our dogs. Such displays could be the dog’s first line of defense to an approaching potentially unfriendly dog. So, if we don’t want our dogs to display undesired behavior, we must physically show and reassure our dog that we will protect him from others if necessary. Such methods are picking up small dogs/pups, physically getting between our dog and the approaching one, and using voice or other deterrent aids to stop the advancing dog. While not providing protection to our dogs when in public may not seem like it is related to pack dynamics, it is, however, very important for the leader’s status. A leader who cannot protect the pack members is seen as weak and ineffective. Conflict then arises in the pack members between their education (i.e. no aggressive/defensive stances etc.) and vulnerability when they are approached by a threatening dog. If the leader does not protect the pack members, then the dog will, out of self-preservation, and do what it must.
4. No respect for the leader
Dogs are touted as "Man’s best friend" and indeed, they are wonderful companions. Some people want to be "loved" and "liked" by their dog to the point that they totally anthropomorphize the dog into something the dog is not nor ever can be. Yes, there is real and deep affection and bonds that develop between dogs and humans. But those relationships have a strong foundation of respect between the individuals. Pathologically "wanting to be loved" by one’s dog and treating it like a spoiled furry child totally negates any opportunity for the all important mutual respect to build. Dogs are not furry children. They see the world differently than humans. Our primitive Malamutes have little respect for the inconsistent, coddling, all-giving, or no-rules type of human. Lack of respect for the leader quickly de-stabilizes a pack. In the dog’s eyes, there is no leader.
5. Little or no respect for other humans within or visiting the pack
As with the pack leader, other humans in or visiting the pack must, to some extent, earn the respect of the pack. All humans around the pack must follow the pack rules. Many of us have heard stories of normally well-behaved dogs "misbehaving" when the leader is not at home. These stories just illustrate the lack of respect the dogs have for the other humans in the pack. Respect must be earned by all the humans who are in contact with the pack. A stable pack with respected human members transfers respect to most visiting adults as they have learned that humans are consistent, fair, and trustworthy.
6. Playing favorites
When a person chooses to have more than one dog, they must make the conscious effort to give every dog in the household the same care and attention. It is not uncommon for one or more dogs to bond extremely tightly with the leader. This happens. But all the pack members deserve the same tender loving care and probably the ones who are not as close to our hearts need more consciously given attention. Playing favorites increases stress within the individuals in the pack. Increased stress leads to instability.
7. Not learning how to "talk canine"
Canine communication is a very rich language of vocalizations, facial expressions, body language, and movement. Fortunately in recent years there have been many articles and books on how to understand dog communication. By not understanding our dog’s communication directed to us or to another dog can only create misunderstandings which lead to pack instability. By learning how dogs communicate with each other can only increase the pack’s stability as the humans will then be able, through observation, to listen in on the canine communication between dogs.
8. Not allowing our dogs to communicate to each other
People get in the way or increase tension between dogs who are communicating with each other. Some of these "conversations" may seem confrontational to our eyes. People show tension through tight leads (if the dogs are on a lead), body language, body movement, voice, and their own energy fields. Dogs are highly aware of increased tension or any changes in the humans around them. This really escalates any minor show of behavior into a complete fight. If people use a calming signal that the dogs know and use such as turning or walking away from the dogs, behavior escalation can be diffused.
9. Interfering with pack order
We humans are not as clever as we think we are about understanding canine communication and what the pack order is. Combining this lack of understanding with a desire to elevate our personal favorite can be disastrous. Interfering with the dogs sorting out their own order to satisfy our own desires does not work. If the pack had evolved slowly, there should be little sorting out to be done. When the highest ranking individual dies, there is some shifting; but it is usually finished quickly and quietly.
10. Being unaware of shifting status seeking times
Status seeking when applied to an event or object simply means that the event or object is more important to one dog (the status seeker) than another. Here is an illustration. Two of my boys, Geoffrey and Dorje, are kenneled together. The "alpha" or most respected male in my pack is Geoffrey and the lowest ranking male is Dorje. When it is feeding time, getting out of the kennel run first is considerably more important to Dorje. Geoffrey enjoys his meals, make no mistake about that, however it is not as important for him to be first out of the run. Geoffrey also routinely gives various calming signals to Dorje en route to his crate to diffuse any confrontations. Yet, when cookies are given out, Geoffrey is always given his first while Dorje patiently waits for his. Status seeking when applied to an object or event does shift both in time and with the individuals. Being aware of the pack dynamics is important for the leader to maintain the calmness within the pack.
11. Not dealing with items of contention
If two dogs are beginning to argue over the "ownership" of a particular object such as a toy with little sign of backing down from either individual, then the leader must step in and remove the object from both dogs. Having duplicates of toys can prevent these occurrences to start with. In a stable pack, toys are shared. Occasionally a particular toy is very special to one dog and, in a stable pack, that is respected by the other pack members. For example, Maia has one toy that is dear to her. She will claim it – without problems – from any other housegirl’s personal space. In addition, no other housegirl will even think about touching her toy. But I will emphasize that all my pack members know the rule of no disagreements over toys and the consequence of that disagreement (toys disappearing.)
12. Mixed messages
While giving mixed messages do fall under the inconsistent category, in this point I’m referring to the unspoken and probably unacknowledged communication the leader is projecting. Dogs are highly intuitive. When in doubt, they will listen and react to the unspoken communication of body language, energy, and psychic communication they are receiving. Many people cannot perceive that they are sending a mixed message to their dog. For example: During a thunderstorm, a dog is upset; the person talks in soothing tones to the dog and pets the dog; yet their own body is tense while they try to hide their own discomfort and fears about the storm. The dog will ignore the vocal cues and take his information directly from the unspoken communication and become more upset. Add a second (or more) dog to this scenario and the entire pack is upset.
13. High stress in the home
A highly charged emotional environment – particularly a negative one – will quickly unsettle the pack. All the dogs in the pack will be affected. (The same is true for any children in a similar situation.) I can attest to the validity of this statement having lived through such situations with my dogs. Once in a calm and safe environment, we all settled emotionally, physically, and spiritually, and were able to heal. A calm environment clearly leads to a calm pack – and vice versa.
When a pack member has been away from the pack, there is always a re-integration into the pack. The dogs must be allowed to reacquaint themselves with their pack in their own way with little or no human interference. In my own pack, I re-integrate the dog with a couple of dogs at a time until the pack is together. While they do their own re-integration, I am observing closely with a spray bottle in hand just in case.
15. Poor management of fights
Many fights between dogs can be traced to a person related reason. Such triggers are favoritism, treats, feeding times, any exciting time, interfering with dog: dog communication, and people interference with the pack order. It is extremely important to figure out why the fight occurred and how to prevent future fights. Occasionally a health issue may be a trigger; this refers to the pack’s need to keep the pack strong by eliminating the sick/infirm/elderly members. Whatever the trigger, it is imperative that the humans figure out what triggered that particular fight and how to prevent it in the future.
Most fights are usually triggered by an event or object. These fights I strive to end as quickly as possible using a liberally sprayed vinegar solution. In a male: male or male: female fights that are clearly for pack order, I usually observe as to interfere will only create another fight in the very near future. All fighting is disruptive and upsets the entire pack for a few hours. It is as equally important to re-establish the pack calmness by example and expectation as it is to determine the trigger of the fight.
16. Keeping dogs apart after a fight
In "Developing a Stable Pack," I explained how to stop a fight and what to do afterwards. The pack must learn that fighting is not tolerated. The pack must re-integrate after a fight within 1 to 2 hours. This is important as it reinforces the fighting is not tolerated rule. (On a personal note, I begin the reintegration with loud verbal reminders of "I don’t like fighting" with vinegar occasionally sprayed in the air. It is also made very clear that everyone must be on their very best behavior – no exceptions. I have zero tolerance of any disobedience.)
17. Using physical means to try to control/lead a pack
Let’s be really clear here. Physical intimidation or physical control does not work. Malamutes are large dogs. They have strong jaws, teeth, and can "take hard knocks" and not even blink. (Watch a couple of mature Malamutes play roughly together.) Add to this their speed and strong wills and trying to "control" them with any type of fear based/negative reinforcement punishment methodology does not work. This highly intelligent social dog must be reached mentally. Isolating a Malamute in a crate in a room after a fight is more effective than any physical punishment given for the same offense. To relate this to their cousin, the wolf, consider the hard life (and possibly a shortened one) that a lone wolf has compared to living with the pack. Isolation is not good for the survival of a pack orientated being. Isolating a Malamute for an hour or so gets the same message across. I must emphasize that isolating the Malamute without reinforcing the discipline for the infraction (even a vocal temper tantrum) does no good. They must know why they are not tolerated in the leader’s presence. A wise leader who uses the tools of fairness and consistency of actions earns the respect of the pack members. Dogs love to be around such a leader. To be banished from the leader’s presence gets through to the Malamute’s mind, emotions, and spirit.
18. No expectations
Every member of the pack from the leader to the lowest ranking member has expectations of behavior and roles within the pack. If the leader has not set any expectations of a pack member (let alone of their own behavior), then chaos will ensue. Pack members want and need rules that the leader makes. If the leader has high expectations of behavior (eg. behaving like a proper lady or gentleman) then it will happen. In turn, the pack has high expectation of the leader in terms of keeping them safe, fed, watered, loved, and doing activities.
Happy dogs are "doing dogs". If their brains and bodies are neither stimulated nor exercised then their spirit will sour. Sourness leads to discontent. Discontent of an individual spreads to other pack members. Alaskan Malamutes are working dogs with wonderful intelligence, sense of humor, and ability. They love to work at anything and the more activities the better. They are perfectly capable of learning and competing successfully in a variety of activities. Even Mals who will never see a competitive event of any kind can learn basic obedience skills and simple tricks.
20. Giving in to the Actor
Malamutes are actors and become total stars if their antics pay off. Wiggling, crying, complaining when they are restrained must be ignored. Many a dog has trained their owner to never clip their nails nor comb them because "they don’t like it." This also applies to bath etiquette as well. One friend told me about taking his mature male to a "do it yourself dog wash shop" and seeing owners struggling with short coated wiggling, fighting, and complaining dogs being bathed. He wasn’t very popular when he put the steps to the tub, asked his boy to get in the tub, and proceeded to wash him thoroughly without even a wiggle, shake or need to secure him in the tub. Another friend told me about her boy that needed to have a few hairs cut – and what a drama that was! She laughed about it as the carrying on as it had no effect on her. I’ll bet that this boy will quickly learn that his acting behavior doesn’t work. Giving in to the actor in our Malamutes only reinforces the ineffectiveness of the leader. An ineffective leader creates, by their inconsistency and lack of backbone, an unstable pack.
21. Giving attention to unwanted behaviors
One very effective tool in behavior modification is ‘extinction.’ If an undesired behavior is ignored, then the behavior will naturally extinguish itself. This is because the unwanted behavior gets no reinforcement of any kind – positive or negative. There was absolutely no payoff to the dog for doing the behavior! Using extinction must be done with conscious effort. It can be challenging but is well worth the work.
22. No safe place for a stressed dog
When the home environment becomes incredibly busy, stressful, or filled with negativity the dogs will become stressed. Stressed dogs – particularly when they get to the fight/flight instinctive mode – can become unpredictable. One stressed dog easily "infects" others in the pack and quickly de-stabilizes an environment. Giving the stressed dog(s) a safe place to retreat to willingly is considerably better than risking the dog reacting with a seemingly "unprovoked" bite. Keeping the dog’s crate easily available for the dog to seek out at any time is such a safe place. The crate should always be left open and a houserule be made that if the dog is in the crate, he is to be left alone. The only time that I believe that rule should be not followed is if there is a medical emergency with the crated dog. One friend has educated her Malamutes to either go to their crates or to ask to be let outside into their kennel run when it is chaotic inside and the dogs are feeling overwhelmed. This is such a simple thing - have a crate available - but it is very powerful and effective.
23. Being unaware of "blocking" space
Patricia McConnell has been teaching the skill of "blocking space" in her various works and lectures. This behavior is classically seen with herding dogs when they prevent the sheep (or whatever they are working) from moving in one direction. The herding dog "owns" the space and prevents the sheep from moving into it. This can be applied nicely to our Malamutes with us acting like the herding dog and "owning" the space that the Mal wants to get into. When blocking space, it is important to not use our arms/hands but just our body. If the arms/hands are used to push the dog off/away, the dogs may interpret this as an invitation to play instead of a non-verbal communication of dominance. Many of us have been using this technique for years – stepping between two dogs who are "eyeing each other." Using the blocking space technique can defuse a potential confrontation between two dogs.
Living with one or more dogs should be a stress free and enjoyable part of our lives. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, a stable pack can easily evolve through consistent, fair, and intelligent leadership coupled with reasonable house/pack rules that are followed by all members of the household/pack. Learning to live with another being is a dynamic learning process. Learning to live with another sentient being who views the world differently and has a different communication style requires that the humans learn about their fellow beings – the dogs they have chosen to add to their lives. With continual self-education, learning from mentors/ others who have more experience, then the possibility of any dog owner to mess up their own pack will be lessened and possibly eliminated.
The various methods listed in this article seem to be the most common mistakes dog owners do. As stated in the beginning, when we acknowledge something that needs to be changed, then we are able to change. Perhaps addressing one or more of the items may be enough to increase harmony in your home. If so, then a messed up pack can evolve into a stable – and thoroughly enjoyable – pack.