Gazette Vet: Living with Dogs

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Living with Wolves Dogs

John Andersen, DVM

If you have read my columns much over the years, you’ll notice that I really love comparing our domestic dogs to their ultimate ancestor, the grey wolf.  Wolves are such amazing creatures. They have complex social behavior, they are important to an entire ecosystem, and of course, they have a likeness to our own domestic dogs.

I recently had the pleasure of watching “Living with Wolves,” a captivating documentary about a couple who spent six years living with a pack of wolves in the Idaho wilderness. Jim and Jamie Dutcher fully submersed themselves in the world of wolves by living in a yurt in the middle of a large section of wilderness in which they helped to raise and maintain a wolf pack named the Sawtooth pack.

The Dutchers received a permit to fence off a large section of wilderness in order to start their study of the pack.  They released some adults and raised some pups to add to the pack and after a few years had a self-sustaining wolf pack.  Because of their full immersion into the lives and environment of the Sawtooth pack, the Dutchers were able to document and film intimate details of the wolves’ behaviors on a daily basis. I highly recommend this documentary for fellow dog and wolf lovers out there.

Particularly impressive in the film is seeing up close just how intricate the social hierarchy in the pack is, from the alpha wolf down to the omega wolf. The wolves’ adult personalities mostly seemed to be ingrained by the time they were very young, like 3-4 months old. Some wolves were just born leaders, while others were born much more submissive. But it was the combination of all these differing personalities that allowed the pack to function best.

The film made clear just how much the wolves engage in play, and how much the pack loved it when new puppies were added to the mix. Frequently, regardless of season or weather, wolves would engage each other in play that looked just like dogs at a dog park, including chase, play bowing, and keep-away. When new pups were born, the entire pack became energized and right away several members took over key babysitting and teaching roles for these new pack members.

About two months ago, we introduced a new puppy into our pack, “Hank.” We offered to raise this 8-week old Labrador puppy for my brother who had to be away on business during that time. Our “pack” already consists of a four-year-old male lab named Boone, and another two-year-old female lab named Ruby. A pretty amazing transformation took place when young Hank entered the small Andersen pack.

Having just one male and one female dog, there is really not any sort of power struggle in our little pack. Boone, though very laid back, seems the natural leader in the house. This really shows when outside in the woods, where he becomes a confident leader but always keeps an eye on the well-being of Ruby and his human pack members. Ruby is clearly the young dog and still has a lot of young dog energy and play in her. She just wants to be with everyone, rubbing up against everyone, as if she’s a natural peacekeeper or entertainer.

When Hank rolled into our lives, Boone and Ruby transformed into puppy raisers just like members of the Sawtooth pack did when their new pups arrived.

First, the house was filled with excitement. And Hank was not timid–he right away began jumping up on our dogs, biting their faces, and playing tug with their favorite toys. After the first day of adjustment, you could easily tell that Boone and Ruby now felt they had a job to do–teach Hank the ways of the world.

Boone patiently allowed Hank to bite and hang on his jowls or ear, but was quick to give Hank a reprimand when he started getting carried away. Boone would go from stern or indifferent one moment, to lying on his back the next, allowing Hank to stand over him and attack him with the energy only a young pup has.

Ruby had energy to go with Hank all day and night.  She too would roll on her back and allow Hank to step over her and bite her jowls, but she also had her limits. She would reprimand with a yelp or a growl when Hank became too much.

With the other activities of the Andersen pack, eating meals, going outside, using the bathroom, and in-house play, Hank learned everything he needed by just watching the older dogs. What great role models they were! Gentle when they needed to be, and firm when it was necessary, they did their job well.

Sadly, the day came when Hank went off to live with my brother in his forever home in northern Virginia, and our pack has been slowly returning to normal. The constant energy and excitement has left the house, not necessarily in a bad way, but our pack does seem a little down or bored without Hank around to give them something to do constantly.

I always find it amazing to see the personalities our dogs are born with, and how those are shaped in the environment they’re in. In the end, one of the biggest differences between domestic dogs and wolves is that our dogs need us humans in their pack. They are inextricably tied to us for their survival, and clearly dependent on us for their social needs. If we allow ourselves to be taken into the pack, soon enough we become dependent on them for reciprocal needs.

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