Pack mentality

This morning on the way to Obedience, I looked out the back window at Ishka and Czar, travelling in the back of our ute. I could see the silhouette of Czar's head and ears, lying in the exact middle of the back, facing out the back window. Ishka was standing to one side, looking slightly hunched, and towards the back window of the cab. It sparked a conversation J and I have from time to time about the relationships between our dogs. 

When people ask who the alpha of the pack is, we always reply that its us. Its important with a breed like Siberian huskies that have a strong pack mentality and a strong sense of independence that they recognise humans as the leaders of the pack, because they will quickly establish a pack of their own otherwise. This is just one of the reasons they don't sleep on the bed. (Another is that we don't all FIT!) But, apart from us we have tended to see Ishka as the alpha of the dogs. This is something that I question from time to time, as I learn more about what characterises an alpha dog or bitch.

One traditional theory is that an alpha will be highly dominant and even aggressive. Ishka has a number of habits that match this theory, such as barking at the boys as soon as they are let inside the house. But more recently, it has been pointed out that many older interpretations of dog behaviour are based on studies of captive wolves. 

"Such an approach is analogous to trying to draw inferences about human family dynamics by studying humans in refugee camps." The Whole Dog Journal

One of the new theories is that the alpha is often the most calm and confident dog in the pack. A true alpha doesn't need to constantly remind the other dogs of their superiority. 

"...in my own pack–Clue, who is the dominant bitch, very rarely does any kind of food guarding or resource guarding. She simply owns the food, and rarely gets into any squabbles. Ditto with locations and toys. You may therefore be tempted to think that she’s not dominant, but not so. It’s just that if she has something, nobody approaches her to take it. Clue has an extremely healthy dominance, one that rarely requires any kind of action and is basically very happy and calm." Joanna Kimball Ruffly Speaking

We don't give our the dogs opportunities to fight over food or toys, so I rarely observe the kind of behaviour that Joanna is describing. But here was Czar, occupying the majority of the back, without a whisper of protest from Ishka. We discussed the different ideas, without a definite conclusion. I think I can sum up my position on this question as "confused".

When we got to the dog park, I left J and Ishka to go find some breakfast, and took Czar into the off lead area. He checked in with Jaspar, the local husky who "owns" the off lead park, and quickly realised there weren't many dogs around, so early in the morning. Normally, Czar is happy to spend a good 20 minutes in the off lead area, visiting with the various people and dogs present. This time, he started heading for the gate at the far end, eager to get up to the training area, where many people and dogs were assembling. But, instead of just running off in classic husky fashion, he checked in with me several times as we headed to the far gate. My pictures below show him just after a couple of those check-ins. (Sorry, I'm slow on the shooting sometimes!)

C'mon mum!

Let's go! Let's go!

We headed up to class and started our first full lesson in Class Two. Czar was really distracted in the first third of the lesson; walking on a loose lead was a complete bust, and started swinging around in front for the sits. After a little while he settled and started doing some better work. At this stage, Czar knows all the commands, and performs them very well in the quiet evenings at home. In class, he is more distracted, and will usually do as he's asked up to the point where I deliver the treat, but then jumps up and looks around at all the other dogs and people. I spent a lot of time resetting him in the proper position, but he was gradually improving in his stays. 

When we got to the last third of the class, the instructor was really putting the pressure on with some massive distractions - imagine 20 odd people standing in a circle, all marching towards the middle, forming a giant traffic jam of dogs and people, and then walking their straight lines through to the other side! Czar has done a great job with these sorts of challenges, but today he was off his game. We got through the traffic jam, but as we approached the club house in the middle of the dog park, Czar threw a bit of a tantrum. 

Sitting "in heel" 
Ishka and J look pretty calm and quiet in Class One.

Czar's howl is a particularly unusual one, sounding more like a lady screaming "ay ay ay!" than a husky "woo hoo". Suddenly he was lunging at the end of the lead and screaming full blast at the club house. He was inconsolable, totally distracted. I gave up trying to listen to the instructor with a ball of disobedient fluff flinging itself around at the end of the lead, and took him over to the clubhouse.

I couldn't hear or see any sign of J and Ishka, who were on the far side of the clubhouse, but apparently, at the time Czar was going nuts, Ishka was barking at another dog. J was waiting for his class to start, chatting with a group of husky people, and Ishka had gotten pretty excited. Was that what upset Czar? Was he trying to defend her? Or was he just wanting to join in playing with everyone else?

Either way, I found it impossible to get him to return to work, so when an instructor suggested we call it a day, we left. It was a little like having a three year old throw a tantrum in a supermarket. I actually found myself asking him "what do you want?" with a sense of increasing frustration. I guess everyone wishes their dog could tell them things like that!!