Monday, April 5, 2010

Is three only one more than two?

I hang out on an email list for people who show dogs, and another member of the list is in turns hilarious, wise, thoughtful, knowledgeable and just a generally all around nice person. She's also a really good writer, so she's a pleasure to read. You should check out her super blog on dogs here:

The other day, she was asked by a family what breeds might fit in well with their existing two dogs - an easygoing Doberman and another somewhat dominant dog. She said in her post to the email list we frequent that she thought the ability to fit into a pack was really more about the individual dog than the breed, and wondered what others thought.

Like the kid in class who FINALLY knows the answer, I hopped up and down (virtually) and waved my arms back and forth and then shouted out my answer. It comes out of a number of years of involvement with both my own Bassets and with multiple fosters/adopted Bassets. And it's also informed by my experience in a purebred dog rescue organization for many years, where I get to talk to people rescuing other breeds on a regular basis.

Note: this was posted to a list of people who are "in dogs" - they train, show, raise, breed, and otherwise arrange their lives around their dogs. Unless their dogs are female, at which point they train, show, raise, breed and otherwise arrange their dogs around their bitches. It's just a term - like a cow is female and a bull is male. You'll see it here from time to time...

There are definitely breeds that are going to live more comfortably in a pack - and three dogs is going to qualify as a pack. Many of the hound breeds, and in particular the scent hounds, were bred to live in quite large packs and can do so quite successfully if their owners are observant of the individual differences and uses some caution about who to house and exercise together. Contrast this with a breed developed to guard livestock, or as castle-guardians, and you're *usually* going to have an easier time integrating a pack-oriented dog into the household described.

However, "usually" is the key. There are certainly, within even "pack" breeds, great varieties of personality. Some are more dominant, others more laid back, and even within those personalities there are differences.

In my Bassets, I have a very dominant bitch (10 years old, on the left in the picture) who rarely lifts her lip. She does it all with a look. God, she's good ;)

Another dominant bitch in the pack (who will probably take over top-spot when my top bitch "retires") is developing her skills. When she first arrived, she would often pick fights. However, she appears to be learning from her elder, and is more likely to use blocking, looks/stares and low growls now if she wants to make a point. I hope she continues to refine her approach as she ages (she's 2 1/2)

However, my top bitch's "enforcer" (this is a third bitch in the pack, 8 years old, on the right in the picture), will physically put another dog in their place in a nano-second if she takes offense at something they are doing, but would *never* challenge the top bitch. So to the casual observer, if she and the top bitch were alone in the home, she would seem "very accepting", but in a pack, she certainly stirs the pot!

So I would say that both individual dog and state of their maturity/development does trump breed to some extent.

Add to this two other factors that are important for the family who originally sought advice...

1. They are seeking a rescue dog. Which I think is great. But it has an effect when adding a dog to an existing pack. The level of knowledge of the foster home, not only about the individual dog, but about pack dynamics, is going to be important. Assume that the rescue starts with very limited information. Even if they have been given information about the dog, in most cases owners relinquishing will either downplay problem personality traits, or exagerrate them, depending on the situation at the time the dog is given to rescue. If it was a stray, all bets are off in terms of background of the dog.

If the rescue/foster home is savvy, and the rescue dog has been with them a while, they may be able to advise on whether it's got the potential to be a good match or not. But by "with them a while", I mean about 2-3 months. Less than that, and you still don't have a good idea of the dog's personality, because everyone is still on "guest manners". If the foster home is not experienced, or if they choose to go directly to a shelter, it could be very iffy. If they go the rescue route, they should make SURE that they have an agreement that if the placement is not working out they can return the dog, no questions asked, no resistance.

2. They are adding dog three into the pack. The existing pack dynamics will almost certainly shift, and they can't be sure of how.... The "very accepting" five year old Doberman may be very accepting of the current dominant dog, but might end up being that dog's 2nd in command in relation to the newcomer. On the other hand, that Doberman might decide to be Omega to the new dog. If the new dog also wants to be the Omega, it may not lead to fights, but can lead to two really miserable dogs. I did have a foster once who wanted to be at the bottom of the pack order. Problem was, I already had a resident Omega dog. She was completely thrown by having a foster dog come in who wanted to submit to her - it had never happened before, and I could tell throughout that foster's stay how miserable it was for my existing bottom girl....It was actually fairly amusing to watch, because they could not bring themselves to fight, but there were all sorts of maneuvers they tried to keep themselves where they wanted to be....

Adding dog number three is not just a linear progression. It's really a leap into new territory in living with dogs for most folks. The wonder of living with a pack is watching it all unfold. There is so much to learn there, so much to enjoy. But we have so much less control, I believe, than we like to think we have. Except to keep everyone safe, and if needed, make sometimes hard decisions about who needs to stay/go for the greater good if they can't work it out.

PS. Someone else posted to the list later, pointing out that sex can also make a big difference. And they are right. In many, if not most, breeds, dogs are easier to keep in a pack than bitches. They settle things between themselves more easily and usually pretty quickly, while bitches who take a dislike to each other will often keep a grudge and keep coming back to the conflict. With less experienced owners, I usually recommend two dogs as the easiest to keep together, followed by a dog and a bitch, and finally two bitches together if the family is up for a challenge!

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