Pack dynamics

It's such a delicate balance.

Maia is two years older than Meadow. When I brought Meadow home over six years ago, at eight weeks of age, Maia quickly accepted her, played with her, and trained her in all things Malamute. Maia was alpha dog to Meadow, and remained so. I enforced this pack hierarchy by always treating Maia as top dog - Maia got her food dish first, got her treat first, jumped into the car first, was lead dog on trails. Meadow would often try to assert some dominance by rushing through a doorway ahead of Maia, so I'd make Meadow wait and allow Maia to go first. As ultimate alpha in our small pack, it's my job to maintain order.

I quickly noticed, however, that Maia wouldn't be pushy about her status. Just wasn't her nature. If Meadow did try to rush a door, Maia would let her go through, stepping back, rather than confront her. So I was the primary enforcer of pack order between them. I knew enough about dog behavior to realize that life in this household would be difficult if I didn't maintain the hierarchy, especially as Meadow grew to be the sturdier and physically stronger dog.

As time passed, the two of them continued to play in their Malamute style - lots of wrestling and chewing on necks with growling from Meadow. Maia, for whatever reason, never growls while playing. To the uninitiated, it appears they're dueling to the death. (Back in Seattle, people at off leash parks, seeing this, would stop and stare in horror until I assured them, "They're just playing.") After a brief chase, Meadow always allows Maia to grab her by the neck and push her to the ground, rolling onto her back in submission as Maia keeps Meadow's neck ruff in her mouth, shaking her head back and forth, imitating a kill-in-the-wild situation, eventually releasing Meadow. Then, Meadow bounds up and runs, enticing Maia to chase her down to wrestle some more and start the routine all over again. Meadow still plays this way, at age six. Over time, though, I noticed that Maia would sometimes push Meadow to the point that Meadow would react - her growl would escalate and she would keep pursuing Maia even when Maia showed with body language she was ready to stop. I quickly taught them the word "Chill!" and they both instantly stop wrestling. Eventually, Maia - ever so smart - wouldn't even start play wrestling with Meadow unless I was available to supervise, but if I was there, would push Meadow's buttons. Just like human siblings. I rarely had to intervene, but I could tell Maia wanted and needed the insurance I provided.

So I've kept a close eye on their interactions, wondering how it would play out as Maia aged. Always in the back of my mind was the admonition I received from Meadow's breeder, who very reluctantly allowed me to acquire one of her females since I already had a female: "Two females in the same house will eventually kill each other." Oh puhleeze, I thought at the time; you don't know my Maia. And truly, Maia - while a dominant female toward all other dogs, in true Malamute fashion - is not a fighter and doesn't initiate or encourage altercations. She's actually a wimp.

The only truly negative interactions Maia and Meadow have had over the years involved bones. There have only been three.

The first time, about four years ago, I had given each a bone a day before, and all the meat and marrow had been removed by them. In the middle of the night I heard what sounded like a neighborhood dog crying in fear. It took me a minute to realize it was one of my dogs. I ran out to the yard half naked to see Maia straddling Meadow, who was laying on her back, totally submissive and afraid to move. I had expected the opposite, so while I was unhappy they'd gotten into a disagreement, and I disciplined them both, I was secretly pleased that Maia maintained her dominance.

I was sad for days, though; my girls had fought, even if only briefly. I didn't give them bones for months.

Luckily for me, Maia has little interest in toys and certainly isn't territorial over them, so the girls don't fight over indoor stuff. Meadow has her teddy bear, and jealously guards it from Maia (if Maia even walks near it, Meadow swoops in and takes it in her mouth). Maia couldn't care less.

Shortly after moving to Idaho, and long after I'd forgotten the first bone incident, they had another fight. Over a bone. I quickly intervened, and this time, Meadow was not being submissive to Maia so the altercation was more intense. They have never hurt each other, and they make up almost immediately (why can't we humans do that?), but I HATE fights as I'm the one left with all the negative energy. This time, I was truly sad that Maia wasn't the immediate victor. I started to notice Meadow being more pushy toward Maia. Maia never seemed to want to play anymore, even when I was there to encourage and supervise. Maia gave up her lead position on trail runs, letting Meadow boss her around. It was awful to watch, especially since Maia was just seven years old.

Eventually I took Maia to the vet for a general check up, asking for blood work. To my surprise, she had very low thyroid. Within a week of giving her thyroid meds, she was back to her assertive self, reclaiming her position as lead dog on the trail and alpha dog at home. Meadow seemed to accept that her brief reign was over. I can't even describe my sense of relief.

As for bones, I continue to give them some on occasion, knowing they help keep their teeth clean. They'd each munch on their own, stripping it of all the good stuff. In the past year, though, I've watched Maia - after finishing with her own bone - walk up to Meadow and carefully and gently take her bone away from her. Meadow would let her. Interesting. I watched this several times, and always praise Meadow extravagantly for letting Maia steal her bone. Meadow accepts the praise, gets a drink of water, then goes and take Maia's bone. Peace and tranquility prevails.

Until last night. I'd given each their bone and gone into the house to play the piano. I heard a noise, listened, realized it was them fighting, and rushed outside yelling "Chill!" at the top of my lungs (I'm sure the neighbors wondered, what the hell...?). I found them in equal dominance position but with Meadow unwilling to give up while trying to hoard her bone by covering it with her torso. Uh oh.

I growled and scolded angrily, and quickly put them both into a down stay. Meadow complied totally, but Maia resisted me. I forced her. They were now about six feet apart. Meadow seemed the most chagrined. I think Maia figured I was just coming out to prove to Meadow that she, Maia, was entitled to that bone.Neither seemed angry at the other. I threw both bones over the fence and into the field. Gone. I hunted for the rest of the yard bones and tossed them, too. All gone.

Of course, the girls quickly forgot about each other, but not the bones. As soon as I released them from their stay, both sniffed around the yard, searching for bones. They sniffed separately, together, nearly nose to nose; it amazes me how quickly they put behind them such disagreements.

Early this morning they were both sleeping on my bed with me. Back to normal. All forgotten. No grudges.

I'm the only one affected long term by the argument. I worry - that Meadow is picking up on Maia's aging, and starting to assert dominance again. A friend recently wrote to me about the passing of her older dog, Loki, a gorgeous and incredibly well-tempered German Shepherd whom all people and all dogs loved. This friend also has a younger German Shepherd, and she noted that toward the end of Loki's life, the younger girl took advantage and bullied him. Perhaps an older, weakening dog gives off a smell, or a chemical, that signals the younger dog that a window of opportunity has opened. I don't know. I know it's life in the canine world, that pack dynamics change as various pack members age and new ones, ultimately stronger ones, are born and integrated into the group.

I don't have to enjoy witnessing such changes in my own pack.

(Photos: taken by Mark Ryan during our recent visit to Rolling Dog Ranch Animal Sanctuary; more on that in the next blog entry.)