Contrary to popular belief, the most dominant dog in any given pack is rarely the first one you notice.
Like any dictator, an alpha dog may be either benevolent or tyrannical, but unlike many human dictators, alpha dogs are never emotionally fragile, touchy, needy, or exceptionally demonstrative. They just don’t generally stick out unless something has gone seriously awry.
As just about anyone who knows me–or who is my facebook friend by accident or foolishness–knows, I recently became the owner of a puppy. Her name is Sydney. Full name: Sydney Wooloomaloo Didgeridoo Palapala. She is an Australian Shepherd/Australian Cattle Dog (Blue Heeler) mix. She is–in case you hadn’t heard–omifuckingod so fucking cute.
I don’t want people preemptively calling CPS on me, but I’m not gonna lie. My human baby will face some stiff–and by then, considerably more obedient–competition.
We call her Syd for short. Or Syd Vicious. Or Syd the Kid. Or Schmoo. Or Mooshy-moo-moo-moopsie-woo-loo-loo.
I’m the only one who calls her that last one.
I love dogs.
I love them. Even ugly ones and naughty ones and dirty, jumping-up ones.
I mean, Jesus. Look at her face.
I love dogs more than is probably normal. Definitely more than I love most people. They’re certainly easier to understand than people.
Or they were until I recently, really truly, started looking at people as if they were dogs.
At 4.5 months old, Sydney is a bit young to have her tendency towards either submission or dominance set in stone, but I know that her breed mix is likely to result in an independent, headstrong, and self-possessed temperament and an intellect that will require a great deal of stimulation. These are wonderful traits in a dog. Like their human equivalents, stupid, needy dogs are tedious and unpleasant. But if there is not sufficient consistency and structure around him or her, a smart, independent dog can quickly become unmanageable and anti-social–a proper pain in the ass.
It is likely that, regardless of her personal preference for dominance or submission, if I don’t give her a good deal of fair, cool-headed structure, she will test my limits and gradually go about setting the rules herself. She could easily become dominant and unruly.
I’m very adamant in general about people training their dogs. I say terrible, hateful, and intolerant things about people who don’t. With a baby on the way, I made it especially clear to my husband that this dog, like no other dog before, is going to be a goose-stepping, good little soldier in the Palapala army. A future Sargeant Major. The most valiant and noble of plebes.
While she is still a family pet and a puppy, she is a puppy with a purpose. I need a dog that I can reliably recall to me from a 1/2 mile away, through a field of small animals, a pool filled with yummy rotten hamburger, horse shit, and sundry garbage stuffs, a pack of 50 other dogs with squeaky balls, and a crowd of 80 toddlers all carrying half-melted ice cream cones. During a fireworks show.
I need her not to chew on my baby. Because that can end only in sadness. No one wants to have to re-home a baby.
Domestication, both mine and hers, is going to look a lot like a battlefield. The taming of the Schmoo.
As a result, it has been important for me to understand as much about canine dominance and obedience as possible. If Sydney ends up in charge, everyone–including Sydney–will be miserable.
One of the few forms of communication that dogs and humans have in common is the no-touch, non-verbal physical negotiation of power dynamics. Using things like personal space to set boundaries and assert oneself.
I was taught when I was 11 or so years old how to get a horse to move away from me without touching it or making a sound. How to make myself “feel big” from a distance. How to puff up and “project” my 70 lb., 11 year-old frame and personal space and use it to push against a 1500 lb. animal’s personal space in such a way that s/he would simply feel compelled to move away. Or how NOT to push on a horse from a distance. Like if it had gotten loose and we were trying to catch it.
I sometimes, mostly for my own amusement, use a similar maneuver to back people off when they stand too close to me in coffee shop and bank teller lines. It works pretty well.
Subtle intimidation. Harmless, non-violent manipulation of others’ behaviors through invasion of personal space, posture, gestures, eye contact, and body language. The other person moves away subconsciously. No confrontation necessary. All things humans have in common with both dogs and horses as a means by which to assert confidence, dominance.
It’s not just a coffee shop queue pastime. It can be totally unintentional and often is totally unintentional as we take part in it every day.
Power would seem to be a natural commodity for bartering among living creatures–it is the fundamental unit from which social order is created in a largely chaotic, uncertain, and generally unfair & indifferent universe. MUST it be this way? I don’t know. I tend to think so.
Historically and philosophically, humans are torn between their reasonable need to feel in tune with and a part of the rest of the natural world in such a way that humanity’s existence makes sense and the inescapable, probably justified suspicion that we are oh so very different from the rest of the natural world.
Politics are insufficient to explain it.
Ask a certain type of very conservative christian and the notion that we are mere beasts–as evolution would suggest–is an abomination, but ask him if there are or aren’t also human behaviors like violence, lust, greed, and so on that are uniformly “natural” in living things and to be accepted as a matter of course, and s/he is likely to agree as is convenient for his/her politics.
To a more humanist liberal the notion that humans are animals like any animal in the evolutionary sense is simply a matter of fact. Yet we are meant to be more virtuous and kind and equitable and generally better than or above them all in more ways than I can count on all my fingers, opposable thumbs, and useless toes combined. Which selective humanist virtues are emphasized generally depends on what is immediately convenient for a given individual’s argument.
Both factions will negotiate for a pass on their hypocrisy, assuring us that, for various reasons, their philosophy ought to be declared the consistent–or even just the more consistent–one, but in the grand theoretical picture, degrees of rectitude are nothing but numbing unguents for a chronic existential rash. Maybe practical or even necessary, but even if treated topically, the paradox remains. It’s the great white elephant in that room where Vain Humanity stands–and has stood for thousands of years–preening himself in a mirror.
Vain Humanity prefers a neck-up view, which saves him from having to confront his rashy, hairy, mammalian ass.
But the more one understands about the social machinations of animals, the harder it is to maintain an elitist view of human social habits and capabilities.
The most dominant dog, among dogs, takes what it wants with a look, gets what it wants without exception or fuss, keeps order with confidence enough to have no real need of open emotional agitation–joy, anger, anxiety or otherwise–and in many cases, s/he may go largely unnoticed. While other dogs maul visitors with open displays of affection or fear–wagging, excessive licking, peeing involuntarily, cowering, barking obsessively, biting, jumping–a dominant dog can generally be found bringing up the rear, making its way to greet owners and visitors at a casual trot or lope, in an affable enough but dignified way, getting there in his/her own good time, letting out a matter-of-fact woof or two if caught by surprise.
We all know people like this. Of all these types. They are at work, at home, and even here. At TNB.
Having this puppy and paying more attention to power dynamics in humans has highlighted interesting things about my household, too. I’ve discovered that there is no real alpha dog. There are two mid-level dogs, one of whom has reluctantly accepted a leadership role out of simple necessity. Though I am strong in my way, and even silent in my way, neither is an effective or accurate way to describe my overall state of being. I am certainly not one who is, by nature, a stable, leading, or calming force. It is possible–but an exhausting amount of mental and emotional work–for me to be that individual.
But someone has to be that individual.
I’ve tried to coax my husband into taking on the leadership role, but he, wisely, has flailed and resisted, largely by deftly, strategically, failing minor quests & tasks. Nothing that would put us in serious jeopardy, but just enough so that whatever dominant tendencies I have simply cannot risk giving him control. Even if I am not a dominant dog per se, on a continuum, I am historically more dominant than my husband and there is just no way this isn’t going to fall to me first.
But what kind of leader to be? If I have to learn it, I should be able to choose what leader I learn.
Contrary to what most mean when they begin talking about alpha humans, the proverbial strong, silent type–not the cocky, aggressive, muscle-flexing, Aryan football captain–is the human equivalent of the canine alpha male or female.
They’re the yogis and senseis and mentors. In storytelling, these are the Mr. Miyagis, the Bills, the Professor Keatings, and the Yodas. Calm, wise, never petty, difficult to provoke but decisive and decisive winners when forced to fight. This is not me. For sure not the calm and difficult to provoke part.
The obvious enticement to riot here is that all of the examples I’ve given are of males. Many alpha dog traits as they are generally described are roughly equivalent to “masculine” human attributes within a generally patriarchal value system: Unemotionalism, detached assertiveness, decisiveness in “battle,” “strong and silent.”
I’ll just casually leave that there for the political and philosophical picking. I highly recommend Gloria Harrison’s “Does the Seed of All Knowledge Lie in the Labia?” as a companion piece for discussion, if people are so inclined.
For my part, I’m most comfortable with non-traditional role models, and gender is of secondary or tertiary concern to me, if it is a concern at all. Additionally, most of my life, the people I’ve admired have been lone wolves, not leaders.
So although he is a man, I take heart in knowing that Hannibal Lecter falls into the alpha dog/mentor archetype category, however barely. Maybe this is my variant. Maybe he is someone I can look up to. Maybe there is something in this leadership gig that will suit me after all.
He appears as necessary to lead, coerce, encourage, and relay orders, then vanishes.
Mr. Fuzzy Monkey once tried to test me, Sydney. I ate his squeaker with some fava beans and a nice chianti.
Hannibal Lecter likes puppies, right?
But not, like, for dinner.