- From left to right: Brigadoon, Jiminy, Baby (up top), Dingo, Tater Tot, Jumper
It was the year 2000, and, after having spent a few years in Vermont, I came back home with five dogs, the five in the photo who are basically brown or golden colored. Soon after my homecoming, my then-vet’s office asked if I could take Baby, the little cream-colored cutie who’s next to my head, and I did. Baby had been living in a cage at the vet’s office for over two weeks. She had been owned by an elderly couple who had Alzheimer’s. The lawyer in charge of their estate had placed Baby at the vet’s when the couple was moved into a care facility. I remember how happy she was to get out. I took all six to the park that day, and we hiked a long way up to the top of a quarry where you can see for miles, and she just ran and ran. She fit in immediately, provoking no resistance from any of the other dogs, which in hindsight I find very interesting. More about that…
Just very recently, an interesting hypothesis about dog packs popped into my head. I’d been thinking of Cesar Millan and the whole alpha beta blah blah pack mentality thing, of how it’s hotly debated, and of how I myself have observed it in action at times, but have seen much more of a different organizational system. And suddenly I thought, it’s very likely that how the pack functions just depends on the dogs in the pack! Just like one office or one orchestra will have a very different feeling from another, so will any pack. It seemed so obvious, in fact, that I was kind of embarrassed I’d never thought of it before. And yet, I’ve never seen it in print, although it’s probably out there somewhere.
I’ve seen so many dog people citing the ‘alpha’ thing. Recently I saw that a woman had written advice to someone else on Facebook about how to introduce a new dog to her existing dog–the process wasn’t going smoothly. The woman giving advice told the one who was having trouble that the dog who was there first was the alpha–that whoever was there first would always be the alpha–and that, when the two dogs ‘argued’, she needed to support the alpha dog in its dominant role. That last concept I have always found very interesting. It goes strongly against how I’d prefer to act, but I have indeed observed it to be true and so try to implement it. But about the first part of her advice, I think she was dead wrong. Case in point–my six pack.
Brigadoon, a male Cairn Terrier, came first. He was my one and only dog, when I started out, as I told you, as a one-dog person. Then came, in this order, Tater Tot, a male, Jumper (within one week), Dingo and Jiminy, both males, and Baby. Jumper, from the instant she came into the house, was the clear ‘alpha female’, if there is such a thing. She remained the dominant dog presence in my home until her death at age 14, although she had diabetes for the last seven or eight years of her life and, during the last year or so, was almost blind from cataracts, despite having had the corrective surgery a few years before. Jumper barely needed to enforce her alpha role; in fact, I saw her do it only a handful of times. She was a very friendly dog, and highly intelligent, the most intelligent dog I’ve had to date, in fact. She was the perfect embodiment of Cesar’s ‘calm dominant’.
And, looking back, I wonder if she was so secure in her role that she just didn’t mind when Baby, a still unspayed female, came home with me. Baby was also ‘calm dominant’, I’d say, a spunky little dog with a lovely disposition, and at least two of my dogs appeared to be smitten with her. I’m not anthropomorphizing too much when I write that (also, my take on that is, ‘what’s so wrong with anthropomorphizing?–every living being views the others through a filter of its own experience’). This is how it played out, and from it I learned something I’d had no clue of until then, something which the dog friends I’ve told the story to haven’t known, either.
Pre-Baby and post-Baby, all of my pets were/are spayed or neutered, so I had no knowledge at all about the ‘birds and bees’ of pet ownership. I put off Baby’s spay for a little while because she came to me not in the best of health and also because (and this is hard to admit, although I always knew in my heart that I wouldn’t make the wrong decision) I loved her so much, and she had such an amazing disposition, that I actually considered letting her have pups once. BAD IDEA! I know it. The only excuse I can make for myself is that, back then, I had not the slightest idea that this country was killing thousands of dogs per hour. I find it mind boggling even now, actually. I still have a lot to learn, but back then, there was even more I didn’t know.
Anyway, just as I decided to have her spayed, she went into heat, and we had to wait for the surgery. It was by then apparent that Tater Tot and Jiminy ‘liked’ her. Neither dog was trying to mount her or anything, but the body language they used towards her, and which she used towards them, had the appearance of flirtation. One day in the summer I was in the house and I heard from the yard an urgent, continuous crying. The dogs had the use of a dog door and could come and go as they pleased (the yard, of course, was fully fenced). It sounded like Jiminy, and it sounded like he had hurt himself pretty badly, and I ran, expecting the worst. I was amazed–and relieved–to find that he and Baby had mated, and were stuck together still. Poor Jim! Baby appeared not the least bothered. I carried them both into the house, still locked, and comforted them until separation happened, just a couple of minutes later. Wow, who knew that a neutered male dog still has a sex drive? Maybe lots of people know, but, as I said, I’ve talked to a number of dog people who thought like I did, that once the surgery happens, the drive fades and eventually disappears.
I thought that was the end of the story. But darned if it didn’t happen again! Jim hadn’t been so frightened, apparently, that he didn’t want to try it again. But after this second mating, there began to be a change in Baby’s behavior towards Jim. When he came prancing around her, she sometimes wouldn’t play up to him. And then I noticed that she was encouraging Tater Tot in his attentions to her, and even initiating the flirtation. For several days, both dogs seemed to be vying for Baby’s affection, and then it looked for all the world like Tater was winning, and Jim was a little crestfallen. And then Baby and Tater mated, just once, and soon thereafter that chapter ended. Jim’s disappointment and reluctance to approach Baby faded, Baby was spayed, and until Baby’s death, all three dogs remained good friends and playmates.
Tater was an extremely easygoing dog, and the ‘easiest’ dog I’ve had to date. He was a bundle of energy, a very fast little runner and herder even as an old dog. The morning of his death, last year at age 17, he ate a lovely breakfast, went for his usual play and run with our Border Collie neighbor, and was perfectly healthy until his heart suddenly gave out that night. He died in my arms, with no fuss, and that was perfectly in keeping with how he had lived. He was wonderful, and he had no trouble relating to anyone in his life, canine, feline, or human, except for Dingo. And it’s when I think of what happened with those two that I think I can’t discount Cesar Millan and his theories quite as easily as I’d like to.
When I first introduced Dingo, and, as I remember it, for a period of a few weeks, there was no indication that there was going to be trouble. The circumstances of the introduction were odd, come to think of it–unique, in my experience. Because Dingo belonged to a man I was dating, who would later become my husband (and who then became my ex-husband, the reason for my return from Vermont). And as I think about this to write it for you, maybe THAT is the reason Tater tried to oust Dingo. Dingo’s owner, whom I’ll refer to as my fiance to simplify things, would come every evening to cook dinner with me and hang out. And at first, he would take Dingo home each night, too. One evening, my fiance and I were sitting on two different sofas in the living room, watching TV or talking or reading–I can’t remember. One of the dogs was next to me, and one was next to him–I think Dingo was next to me and Tater was next to him–and the other dogs were on the sofas, too. Suddenly, I became aware of tension, coming from I knew not where, and I think my fiance did, too. We just had time to notice that Dingo and Tater were staring intently at each other, absolutely frozen, and then the two dogs were down on the floor in the center of the room, snarling and pouncing and generally behaving in a very alarming manner. They meant it, too, although no damage was done. Now I know that that means there was no intent to cause damage. At the time, we probably thought that our speed in separating the dogs prevented their injuring one another.
This was the start of a period of weeks when, occasionally, Tater and Dingo would repeat this. Now we knew the signs, and could watch for it. Eventually, it just stopped, with no clear ‘victory’, and I wish, now that I know a little more, that I could remember the sequence of events. Because something else also happened–Dingo began to make it very clear that he didn’t want to leave with my fiance at the end of the evening, but wanted to stay with me.
Dingo had had a special feeling for me from the moment we’d met. Just before Christmas, one of those years in the mid-to-late 1990s, I’d received a call from a rescue group in our city, asking if I could foster a Chihuahua mix over the holidays so that he wouldn’t have to live in a cage. I was inclined to agree to that, and my fiance was looking for a dog to adopt for his mother, which gave us added incentive. My fiance had had a ‘family dog’ as a child, but he hadn’t realized the closeness of the bond it was possible to have with a dog until we began dating. I can remember like it happened yesterday the time, early in our dating days, when he came to visit and was greeted by one of my dogs, and then rushed into the kitchen where I was cooking, with his eyes all lit up, and said, “Hey, she recognizes me!” I’d had no idea, until then, that there were people who didn’t know things like that. It was a heartwarming event for both of us, and life-changing. He grew to become an excellent dog, cat, and bird ‘parent’, and I took great pleasure in helping him and watching his discoveries.
So the idea was, when we went to meet Dingo, that Dingo would live with him, until he took Dingo home to his mother as a Christmas gift–NOT a surprise; we weren’t stupid in that way. But he fell in love with Dingo, and decided to keep him. And so began Dingo’s evening visits to my house, and the struggles with Tater. And, as I say, I’d thought until I began to write this that those struggles had to do with ranking in the pack. But, looking back, I can see that Tater may have thought that Dingo was an interloper, an unwelcome guest, a dog Mommy did not want, because she sent him home every night. If that’s what was going on, and somehow it feels more right to me than the pack ranking theory, than I wonder why the job of booting Dingo fell to Tater, and not Jumper. I’ll have to think about that. There is no end to the interesting things to learn about dogs…they are so fascinating that I can’t understand why there are people who don’t have even one. I really can’t.
In any case, we went to meet Dingo. He came out of the back room at the grooming area of the vet’s office where the rescue group was keeping him, a fearful, skinny little guy. The rescue woman told us that it had taken them ten days to coax or trap him in–he’d been on a busy street in a bad neighborhood. I began to talk to him, and she said that he was showing the most response she’d seen him give. It was just a tiny wag, because he was so afraid, but I could see that he’d be willing to hear more from me, and so it proved. He just liked me, and I loved him. I loved him a lot, and he was, honestly, my favorite dog, until his death in 2008 at age 13 or 14. I miss him. He’s on my short list.
So he’d come to visit every night and go home with my fiance, but with more reluctance each week, until he actually began to hide, as the usual time for departure approached. For a while we would hunt for him, and my fiance would take him, but none of the three of us liked it (maybe Tater did, though), and after a few days of it, we decided that Dingo would stay with me at night, spending time with my fiance during the day if it wasn’t a day he had to be away for work. Dingo was very happy with that arrangement–we all were. At some point, I remember we joked that now we’d have to get married, and because that’s just what happened, everything worked out beautifully.
During our time in Vermont, Jiminy, a shelter dog who was a stray from the streets of Burlington, joined our family. He was a ‘dog of the week’ in the local paper, and on a day when I was away from home, my now-husband saw his picture, felt he’d be perfect for us, and called me to see what I thought. By the time he got to the shelter, it was closed for lunch, but he left a note with our number. Later, the shelter called to say that Jiminy had already been adopted. My husband was more disappointed than I’d had any idea he’d be. It wasn’t like we didn’t have plenty of dogs already. But I couldn’t really console him; he had felt that it was meant to be, that Jim should come to us.
And damned if that’s not what happened, a couple of months later! I was home alone and got a call from the shelter, who, very cleverly, had kept my husband’s note with our number. Jiminy had bit the kids at the home where he’d been adopted, and he’d been returned. Were we still interested? I called my husband, delighted to be the bearer of such news, and went right down to the shelter. I took a walk with Jim, for form’s sake (I knew he’d be going home with me), and then picked him up and carried him into the shelter to fill out the paperwork. As I set Jiminy down, he ‘bit’ me, not a true bite, just a quick warning motion. Almost thirteen years later, he’ll still do that, if I’m not careful. 🙂 He’s lying not three feet from me, aged 14 or 15, and he and I have loved each other for so long now that we can comfortably take each other slightly for granted. He has been the bridge for me between the six pack and our present family, and I am grateful for his company, every day, every hour.
When my husband and I ended our marriage, we felt that the pack should stay together, and we agreed that it should stay with me. And so I came home to where I’d started from, with the five dogs who soon became six, the dogs who taught me my first baby steps in dog rescue.
Tomorrow’s post: a piece I wrote years ago, featuring Brigadoon, the first dog of the six pack, a huge personality in a small body