All About Marie

Animal Files columnist of the Orange County Register from 1992-2016; Emmy Award winning producer of Educational Television Programming; Host of "The Pet Place Radio Show" heard world-wide at; click the player below to listen. Producer/Director/Editor/Co-host of "The Pet Place TV Show" during the 19 years it ran on KDOC TV in Los Angeles and Orange Counties; Wife, Mother of five kids, Grandmother of two baby boys and one baby girl, and pet parent of two cats, one dog, many fish, and a cockatoo.

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Monday, March 24, 2014

Harmony Lost Due To Owner's Ignorance

Dear Marie,
When I was growing up, we had 2 dogs. Candy was the mom and Snoopy had been her offspring. We kept them in an enclosure that ran alongside our house, and they had a very spacious doghouse with plenty of room for the both of them to live comfortably. They were doing just fine, and both got along really well. They each had their own separate feeding bowls so that they received the same amount of food, and the entire family treated both equally. As Candy advanced in years, Snoopy started to exhibit a real aggressive, and nasty behavior towards Candy. She would, to put it bluntly, start attacking Candy for no reason. It started first, with the doghouse...Snoopy would attack Candy to the point where she wouldn't allow Candy to sleep in the doghouse anymore. Then, Snoopy would attack her while she tried to eat, thus leaving Candy with no food; Snoopy would eat her food, then Candy's. With Candy being old, and unable to defend herself, we would have to "stagger" their meal times. First, we'd feed Snoopy, and then we would feed Candy. We would have to stand sentry while she ate, to ensure Snoopy didn't attack her. We'd thought about getting another doghouse but we could have a million doghouses, and it wouldn't matter. Snoopy would just go into the other one and run Candy out of it too. There were times when I felt so sorry for Candy; I would actually go out and forcibly run Snoopy out of the doghouse just so Candy was afforded the opportunity to go in. On
cold and rainy days, I'd see Candy bunched up in one corner of the enclosure, shivering from the cold or afraid of being attacked, or both. Why, after all the years they spent together, would Snoopy suddenly turn against Candy?

Unlike people, dogs have no concept of sharing. Instead, they organize themselves in a hierarchical fashion, with a dominant dog and subordinates. This is a very strong instinct that comes directly from the domesticated dog’s wolf heritage. A dominant individual has control over food and territory, the two most important things for ensuring individual survival. In the wild, an Alpha wolf eats first and as much as he
wants. When he is finished, the next in line is allowed to consume his share, and so on. Dominant canines also sleep in more comfortable areas than the rest of the pack.

Unfortunately, Candy and Snoopy were a pack of just two and consequently, only one could be top dog.  I use the word "unfortunately," because they should have been a pack with your entire family.  As such, neither would have been forced into the role of alpha dog.  Instead, they would have looked to their people for leadership, and as people, you would never deprive either dog of anything they needed.  But since your letter was written in the past tense, I fear it's to late to help Candy.

While Candy, being the mother, was most likely the alpha dog during the first four or five years of Snoopy’s life, she probably felt no real desire to claim territory or food with respect to her puppy. As a result, you saw a parent-offspring relationship that seemed to be fairly harmonious.

However, as Snoopy became a strong, young adult dog, her mother began to show signs of aging. This triggered a very natural response in Snoopy, who behaved the way her genetic code mandated. It was time for her to replace her mother as the dominant dog.

You and your family further aggravated the problem by chasing Snoopy out of the doghouse, or reprimanding her for her seemingly selfish ways. Each time you undid what Snoopy was trying to establish, she had to double or triple her efforts to guarantee that Candy understood her new place in the pack during the (no doubt) significant amount of time she was unsupervised.  People who leave their dogs in runs 24-7 are generally "absentee guardians" for the most part, living their own lives in comfort and freedom.

Based on your letter, it appears that Candy spent the rest of her life dealing with Snoopy’s estimation (and frustrations) that her role as Alpha was not truly established. Compounding the problem was the fact that Candy could not leave the outdoor enclosure. Outside “dog-runs” in most urban communities never provide adequate social room. Consequently, Candy could never give Snoopy enough distance to demonstrate she
accepted her secondary position. This only led to more conflicts, as Snoopy perceived Candy’s proximity as a challenge rather than what it truly was—a lack of space.

For the most part, dogs that are allowed to live indoors do not exhibit as much (or any) dominant/subordinate behaviors, since they regard their humans as the pack Alphas, while their own canine social positions are very low. Further, with many rooms to retreat to, dogs can easily locate a resting place that is out of sight and out of mind of a dominant dog living under the same roof.

It breaks my heart to read that Candy shivered in the cold, sleeping on a hard, wet, concrete dog run during her sunset years.  This is no life for any dog.  They are companion animals, and as such, they should live the life of a companion, not a jail inmate.  I firmly believe that if you bring a highly intelligent, social, dependent being into your family, then you need to treat that living being with the same kindness and compassion that everyone else in the household is afforded.  If that's not something you want to do, then don't bring a companion animal into your home and sentence it to a life in prison.

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