Saturday, September 06, 2008

Pecking Order

My husband and I consider each other equals in the family. There's really no reason for heirarchy, and it's nice. But we live in a canine-inhabited household, and, if you ever wonder where you really stand in your family in terms of rank, get a dog or two.

Just who is the alpha of the pack is pretty obvious in our home. When I come in the door by myself, the dogs rush me and shower me with happy, bouncing, wagging, slobbery greetings. When my husband and I come in the door together, the dogs first rush him with happy, bouncing, wagging slobbery greetings, THEN they come over and lavish me with more of the same. I guess somebody has to be first, and in the dogs' world, that would be alpha male.

This became distinctly more apparent when we were taking care of our friends' dog. Suddenly we had three canines in the house and the new dog immediately understood the order of things. It was as if there were some unwritten rule on the door: "To all canines: When you're here, the big guy with the deep voice is in charge. In his absence, try to mind #2, but just know she's a bit of a pushover. Hide behind her legs when in trouble."

I've read that one reason dogs make such great family companions is because they are pack animals with a strong sense of rank and order. When the humans in the family assume pack leadership and offer up consistent, well communicated rules, the dogs seem happier than ever because they know what's expected of them and where they stand.

Sometimes I look at Baxter when he's sitting there next to me on a hot day, panting, with that giant pink tongue draping loosely over his huge canine teeth and I realize this guy could rip my arm off if he wanted to. But instead he treats me with respect (most of the time) and sweetness and a devotion I often feel I don't deserve. When it's just the two of us, he knows I'm in charge.

But when my husband comes home, the pack order shifts...and my husband becomes the undisputed top dog. Some say dogs give men this position because they have deeper voices and, to a dog, a deep growl has much more authority, whereas a higher pitch -- like the female voice -- is associated with play and affection. I think that's probably some of it in our family. The dogs are much more deferential to him. And let's face it, no matter how low I try to make my voice, I just don't sound as scary when I'm upset about something.

Also, the dogs clearly see the driver's seat as the alpha position in the car. Or Baxter does, anyway. If he's ever left in the car without being behind the gate, he will ALWAYS go and sit behind the steering wheel, even though it's the seat with the least room for him to lay down. It's the power position. And I have to admit, when I get the chance, I defer to the alpha to do the driving. This is not because I'm old fashioned or because I think he's a better driver. I just like being the passenger better than being the driver.

But when it comes to alpha-ness, there's more to it than that. As much as I hate to admit it, my husband does a better job of consistently enforcing the rules. The fact that I sometimes slip up and don't make the dogs mind some rule we set for them means they see me as just a wee bit more of a pushover than the alpha male is. Fair enough.

There are some special advantages to being the cuddly pushover. For example, I always get to find out first when someone wants something. I'm usually the first one to get the unwavering stare, the pawing and, in Kirby's case, the earnest little growly yowling. If I don't respond, they move on to the big guy and work him over. I used to do something similar with my parents when I was a youth.

Even though Baxter and Kirby never get scraps from our dinner plates, and we've taught them not to beg, it hasn't escaped my attention that I'm usually the one they sit next to when we're eating. It's humbling to realize you have been identified as the weakest link. And when we add someone new to the mix, say my mother, the dogs immediately shift their attention to her, hoping that we might forget to tell the visitor about the rules of the house and some tidbit of dinner will make its way down off the plate.

A few years ago we had a guest for Thanksgiving who had two charming habits that Baxter simply adored. 1) She fed her own dogs table scraps as she was eating and had no qualms about maintaining the same practice with other peoples' dogs, and 2) she dropped a lot of crumbs by accident. Baxter didn't leave her side for four hours.

Between the two dogs, pecking order is a constant negotiation. But at least it's clear to them that my husband and I are the top two, and I can live with that.

1 comment:

Francesca said...