I read this short article today about a lone wild dog in Mombo. The subject of the article, the wild dog, was living alone, which is odd for a wild dog as they usually live in small “packs”. This wild dog had “befriended” some Jackal and even a few Hyena. The article tells of them feeding on a Giraffe carcass together. While this feeding wasn’t without some resource guarding, it was relatively peaceful and all the animals were able to eat (sharing the same meal).

This makes me wonder, with all these animals (different species) eating off the same carcass in the wild, why are people so surprised that our domesticated dogs get along here at our house so well?

Feeding time for us is not without some resource guarding too, but it is relatively peaceful. We have never actually had a fight among our dogs during feeding, whether we allow them to eat out freely or separate them in crates. I wonder….

If animals can coexist in the wild and share a meal without conflict, how/why do so many people struggle to have their pet get along at home (with or without food present)?

To me, its clear that, if resources are plentiful, the need for competition decreases, and so the need for aggression and defensive behavior decreases as well. This story is an example of that, the kill was large, plenty for the Hyenas, way more than the little Jackals would ever need, and even enough for the wild dog to join in. There was clearly enough food to go around, and so the animals didn’t need to fight over it, and so they shared a meal together.

With our dogs, there is always plenty of food to go around, plenty of other resources too (toys, bones, etc.), so our dogs don’t often fight over these things. If one of our dogs is really enjoying a particular item they may resource guard it (growl at the other dogs, for example) – this basically tells the other dogs “hey, I like this thing, I don’t want to give it up”, and with that, 90% of the time the other dog respects their wishes and find a different toy or waits politely for theirs.

It is only when a new resource emerges that we see any real conflict over resources among ours dog, and usually its more due to the novelty of that item and not so much a survival instinct. An example of this is when one of the dogs catches a lizard, the dogs argue over it, but they don’t eat it. Usually, the dog that ends up with the lizard will play with it for a minute or so and then leave it. clearly the lizard itself is not that valuable, its the novelty of this new item that defined its value among the dogs.

So, if its that easy, why then are there so many families with dogs that don’t get along? Perhaps the issue with some owners is that their management style creates competition, or inadvertently reinforces it?

I am not a fan of the alpha/dominance social hierarchy concepts in dogs, I don’t agree that they follow a rigid social hierarchy (“pecking order”). I do not like Koehler method for training either, I see no reason to use aversive methods in training dogs. I like reward-based training methods, I prefer to follow the “LIMA” philosophy (least invasive, minimally aversive) and so I am not a fan of many of the TV dog training programs that promote physical violence and alpha/dominance techniques for managing and training your canine companion.

The thing is, with these alpha/dominance techniques I tend to harp on the negative effects they have on your relationship with your dog and the physical and mental harm that can do to your dog. But maybe there is another aspect of the side-effects of these methods…

Perhaps a real danger with these methods is in how they alter your dog’s value system! If you are always treating your dog as if you are the “pack leader”, and they the “subordinate”, you are forcing your dog into a “yes man” role, one where he is not allowed to share resources with you – instead he must constantly beg for them (by doing what the “pack leader” “commands” him to do). This must alter his value system and create competition from his perspective.

Add another dog to the mix. Now you have a situation where the owner is forcing their dogs to follow a strict social code, one that is not formed around fairness but instead formed around a hierarchy that forces an unnatural value-system on the dogs, a value-system that promotes – or teaches – competition for resources. The competition may leads to constant friction and tension in the family (or “pack” if you must), which leads to fights – causing a volatile and unpredictable living situation for the dogs and their owner. All this simply because the owner forces a “pecking order”. I mean, its not hard to see how this could happen in a forced rigid hierarchy – look at corporate America, businesses are filled with employee-employee conflict due to the rigid hierarchy (think “titles” and pay scale) put in place by their employers – the conflict is usually due to competition among employees.

This may seem odd, but I look at dog management similarly to the way I view aquarium husbandry. In aquarium husbandry you have complete control of the inhabitant’s resources, and it is your sole responsibility to make sure your aquarium inhabitants are receiving the resources they need to coexist and survive. If you withhold resources from them, like in dogs, you run the risk of forcing competition for resources, or even starving the inhabitants. On the other hand, if your aquarium inhabitants are well fed and have plenty of hiding places (important for stress reduction) – all of which are resources – then your aquarium is a relatively peaceful place. Often, by properly managing resources in the aquarium, a skilled aquarium keeper can house many aggressive fish, or tight predator/prey relationships, in one aquarium with little issues.

I feel the management of our dogs takes on a very similar model – the proper management of resources and a clear understanding of what each dog views as a resource (because, just like humans, no 2 dogs have the exact same value-system).

In summary, I think the alpha/dominance concepts do more than just hurt dog-owner relations, I think they may actually prevent dogs from learning some very basic social concepts (like sharing). It would be interesting to do a study and see if dog-dog behavior issues have gone up since the popularization of the TV shows that push these destructive alpha/dominance concepts.