While we were at Dinner Plain, J booked us a half hour slot at the tennis courts that function as an off-lead park in the winter time. It was lovely to see all four dogs playing together, with my brother, because they've spent a lot of time separated lately. Since Ishka's ACL surgery, she's been unable to manage the stairs down from the back deck to the back yard. This means that, during the day, she's been spending time in the enclosed part of our deck. Initially, we left her in there on her own, with soft toys, bones and chew toys with stuffed with cheese. But she spent a lot of time howling mournfully, even when the three boys down in the back dog run didn't answer her. We became worried that our neighbours might be disturbed by her noise, especially when I was away for a week and J had to put her out prior to going to work at 5.30am. So we moved Frankie in with her, which immediately stopped the howling. However, it left Bolo and Czar as a pair in the big dog pen. And increasingly, the four dogs have become two separate packs. So it was lovely to see the four of them hooning around the tennis courts together.
There's been a lot of stuff written about pack dynamics in dogs.
Research on packs was initially based on wolf packs that formed in captivity. These packs seemed to be based on a breeding pair (alpha male and female) and others. When I was studying dingos at uni, one pack was described as being so under the dominance of the alpha female that not only did she interfere with and prevent mating between junior members of the packs, but she also harrassed the one junior female that did get pregnant until she miscarried. However, how much of the pack dynamic was influenced by the limited space available to the pack in their captivity? If the pack hadn't been confined, would the junior members have stayed with the alpha pair, or moved off to form their own pack?
In domestic packs, dogs are usually in small groups - pairs or threes - and desexed. How much does this change the pack dynamics? Certainly, I know that in our group of dogs, one behaviour related to mating is rarely seen - mounting. Amongst the dogs owned by breeder friends, females who go into heat can inspire mounting, and full sexual arousal, even in elderly, desexed dogs. Amongst our dogs, the only time we see mounting is when a new dog is introduced to the group, and then there is rarely sexual arousal. Does this mean that they are mounting to establish dominance over the new dog? Is it a form of play?
Introducing a new dog to a a group is one of the times when dog communication and body language is most keenly watched, and humans are quick to recognise the greetings and introductions that dogs go through. Sniffing, play bows, holding the ears and head upright, wagging, are all behaviours that I am pleased to watch when we go to the dog park (mounting seems to be largely reserved for a new dog coming into our own yard). They are easy to recognise, clear gestures. When dogs spend more time together, it is much harder to see clear gestures, presumably because as they become more subtle with familiarity. Bolo and Czar will move in identical gestures, without apparently looking at each other. Their communication is invisible. (I recommend Joanna Kimball's blog Ruffly Speaking for some great photo studies of dog interactions - her rapid fire photos capture tiny, subtle gestures that she interprets with great skill.)
Between our two new packs, we haven't seen any greeting gestures. However, we have seen signs of increased competition and even aggressiveness. We've had to take pains to watch the dogs carefully, and deliver extra mental and physical stimulation to decrease what looks like jealousy. Am I putting human emotions into doggy minds? Either way, it was nice to have an opportunity to allow all four dogs to run around and lovely to see them enjoying it. Maybe they particularly enjoyed playing with my brother? They certainly loved the snow balls!