Morning With The Dogfather(s)

Dogs are weird.

Of course, from their own point of view, they are eminently sane and perfectly reasonable. Humans, on the other hand, are a whole jar of crazysauce dumped on a batshit sandwich.

The social norms that govern canine behavior are like and yet unlike human norms, and they exist in the context of millennia of shared canine/human culture. Dogs are wolfish, but they are not wolves. They do not exist in a state of nature — theirs is a civilized existence, albeit one fenced ’round with human ideas and structures and spaces.

It is tempting, as a human observer, to explain what dogs do among themselves in terms that humans can make sense of. The whole alpha dog thing, for example (now widely discredited and known to be inaccurate, but still a popular way to talk about things) is enormously convenient. It allows us to organize our understanding of canine social systems in terms of (often gendered) power dynamics. It lets humans imagine that their job, relative to managing canine social systems, is to make themselves “alpha”. Of course, this isn’t really possible — humans simply aren’t built to communicate the way dogs do, and our sensibilities about certain behaviors are only analogous to dog sensibilities, not identical. When we act as “alpha,” using power to manage relationships, we can only do it imperfectly. The dog does not understand what we are doing in precisely the same way in which we understand it (and vice-versa), so it’s always a bit muddled.

Power management is popular, of course, because it works for certain practical purposes in the human/canine relationship. It allows humans who may not otherwise be particularly astute at reading canine behavior to live with their dogs in something like harmony. Learning to do it well (as Cesar Milan has most profitably discovered) can also require human beings to do the work of actually becoming better at reading those behaviors in ways that make a dog comprehensible and predictable and manageable.

The thing we lose, sometimes, is something that an anthropological (for lack of a more species-appropriate word) cannot give us: an acute sensitivity to the unique and ineluctable otherness of the dog as a distinct being. We do not imagine that dogs have a culture (or several). We reduce their social interactions to a story of learned behaviors and power systems, and we lose the nuances of their lives together (and their lives with us). The opposite extreme — treating dogs as small, furry, mentally underdeveloped humans, misses the mark just as badly (if not more so).

Yesterday, I added a foster dog to my household, a youngster (1.5 yrs). His elders (5 yrs and 12 yrs), both male, have always had a cranky sort of relationship, one in which signals are sent that I can only recognize by their results. If I described their relationship only in the language of power dynamics, I would say that Eddie (the eldest) is the “alpha” of their little pack, the “dominant” male. Henry ranks beneath him, and defers to him. All of the toys/beds/etc. are his, and Henry has access to them on his sufferance (actually, they’re all MINE, but the dogs have their own rules for these things among themselves). Of course, Henry’s deference is not sweet or biddable deference — it is grouchy, growly, resentful deference. Yet they do not often fight, and Henry’s apparent resentment (my word — I cannot know precisely what he feels) is all noises and posturing. If they were human, I would imagine them as a dorky, socially awkward young man who happens to live with his cranky, feisty uncle. Sometimes they seem happy together. Other times, they are not. I cannot always see or understand what causes the change.

To both of them, I am God. :) Yet my power is expressed in basically nonviolent and subtle ways — more a matter of small reminders than anything else. We have a way to live together that is friendly and fun. They appear to trust me and to enjoy being in my company, and I enjoy hanging around with them.

The new kid, Buddy, is currently intact (the older guys are neutered), although he’ll be fixed later this week. He’s never really spent a lot of time living indoors with people, although he is friendly and curious and seems to be adjusting pretty well so far. When they all first met yesterday, it was a gang rush, and poor Buddy got mugged. I had to break it up to keep anyone from getting hurt. Today, as they started to interact more comfortably, the older dogs went hump-crazy on Buddy. From a human point of view, this is intolerable, and it looks like the sort of thing one ought to break up. I didn’t, though, unless things got out of hand. Instead, I watched — and Buddy, instead of shutting down from stress, came into some confidence. He started figuring out how to handle Eddie and Henry, and Eddie and Henry seemed to appreciate that fact that he was responding instead of hiding or fighting, so what looked like “dominance” became play for all of them, with Buddy turning the tables on the old guys. There were subtle, odd little communications going on among them (even amid the humpy running around) that started to make sense to them all. I can’t even begin to understand it — it’s entirely possible that there were signs involved that I just don’t have the right sensory apparatus to notice. In any case, they seem to be having fun.

None of which makes it any less awkward to be standing in the kitchen and staring at a canine gestural play-gang-bang, mind you. AWKWARD.




About L. M. Bernhardt

For a good long while (15 years or so), I taught philosophy at a little private university in northwest IA, and occasionally branched out into playing music, dabbling in photography, experimenting with food, and writing nonsense on my blog. The philosophy teaching part ended in 2017 (program elimination via prioritization), but never fear! I've just finished my MLIS at San Jose State University, and I'm currently on the market looking for new adventures in either philosophy or LIS. For now, I labor at a fairly interesting administrative job in order to support my dogs in the lavish manner to which they've become accustomed.
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