Was there ever a time when I wasn’t writing a book? 😉
Woke this morning worrying that pushing on with the book was not going to be easy (Chapter Eight) but then surprised myself by getting into some sort of groove and in a couple of hours had 1,300 words under my belt by 2pm.
Thus trying to find any connection between mood, fears and creativity doesn’t seem possible – thank goodness!
One other aspect that is coming through is seeing that some of the earlier completed chapters need some adjusting to better link the story to later chapters. So, I have to admit to a little editing going on, amendments that haven’t been applied to the drafts that have been published on Learning from Dogs.
Thus I’m showing my weakness to want to go back and fiddle with earlier passages against the advice of the professionals in focusing on only one thing: writing!
Ah well, only another 18 days to go!
Learning from Dogs
Angela took a deep breath. “I guess we need to go back a very long way to get to the start of the story of dogs. Dogs are part of the Canidae species, the species that includes wolves, coyotes and foxes. It’s a species that scientists believe evolved millions of years ago. The evidence of when dogs and man came together is unclear, as you might expect from something so long ago. But the evidence is pretty clear that when the forerunners of modern man left Africa and started to expand out across Northern Europe and elsewhere, somewhere along that journey we see the first signs of the dog.”
Philip listened, utterly enthralled by Angela’s opening remarks. As much because Angela’s cosy, easy-on-the-soul personality belied her obvious depth of knowledge of dogs.
She continued, “My understanding, and I’m no scientist, is that our forerunners out of Africa were smarter than the Neanderthals, used language, developed tools and benefitted as hunters enormously because of their relationship with dogs.”
“In fact, I have a fascinating article from a real scientist, an American, George Johnson, who has done a lot of research into the evolution of the domestic dog. I’ll give you a copy before you leave.”
Philip took a long drink of the tea. Gracious it went down well.
“Angela, this is utterly fascinating and, yes, would love to read that research article by that American scientist. But, surely, that can’t have any bearing on today’s dogs?”
“Well, yes and no,” was her reply, going on to say, “Despite dogs these days having no awareness of the natural pack size and dynamics of their doggie ancestors they still carry the genetic imprint, for want of a better description, of the structure, the hierarchies, as it were, of those ancient times.”
Philip had a question come to mind. “What about feral dogs? Surely in some countries the number of feral dogs is huge, don’t they adopt pack behaviours of the early days?”
“That’s a good point, Philip, but even if feral dogs pack together, and they do for hunting and food-seeking purposes, feral dogs are such a mixture of breeds and temperaments that there isn’t a chance of a cohesive group coming together in the way that dogs did way back in earlier times when all those dogs would have been one doggie community.”
“Guess that makes sense,” Philip reflected.
Angela continued, “We are pretty sure that in the early days of dogs evolving from the grey wolf, they maintained a similar social order. George Johnson covers that well in his article. That is in a pack size of around fifty animals the group was guided by just three social differentiations.”
She finished her tea and went on to explain, “There were just three dogs who had a social role, a social status, in the pack. The first role was that of alpha dog, almost predominantly a female dog. Then there was the beta dog, this time usually a male. Finally, the omega dog that could be of either gender. That’s what was believed for years.”
Philip reflected how in common parlance the term alpha tended to be associated to the phrase alpha male.
Angela continued. “Recently, however, it’s become clear that these alpha, beta, omega terms and descriptions are a long way from being accurate. The more appropriate description is to see those roles under the general heading of teaching dogs with the additional sub-division of mentor, nannie and minder.”
“Are you following this?”
Philip immediately replied, “Oh yes, this is absolutely fascinating. I had no idea at all.”
Angela’s responded, “Well, I’ll finish off for this morning by briefly describing those differences within teaching dogs.
Let’s start with the mentor. This is a dog that is normally assertive by nature; quietly so. Not dogs that play much, unless flirting with the opposite sex. However, they do build the strongest bonds with other high ranking dogs of the same sex. In their position as a teaching dog they are dominant but in a way that trainers would describe as passively dominant. So they would always meet a dog with assertiveness but never with hostility. Mentor dogs relax other dogs less with the use of body language as such but more often because their presence just has a calming effect on most other dogs.”
Angela paused, “Philip, can I make you another tea?”
“No, I’m fine. Far too engrossed with what you are saying to want your flow interrupted by another brew-up!” Angela smiled.
“So, let me finish off describing mentor dogs. Often the mentor dog, when working in a group of dogs, will watch from the sidelines and only become involved if absolutely necessary. And, of course, that necessity is the mentor’s evaluation; almost impossible for us humans to interpret. As I like to say, dogs speak dog so much better than us humans speak dog!”
Almost as though he were listening and approved Angela’s last observation, at that moment there was a quiet moan of contentment from Pharaoh curled up, as he still was, on the cushion. Philip, with a bit of a shock, realised that he had forgotten that Pharaoh was even in the caravan with them. Not only in the caravan but sleeping on the cushion just four feet away. Angela’s words were captivating him.
She had paused on the sound of Pharaoh’s little moan and now continued.
“Mentors can be quite lazy! They have a very interesting and, to a great degree, a rather complex view of other dogs that they come in contact with. It’s a certain bet that we don’t know the half of it when it comes to understanding the mentor teaching dog. For example, they will support other teaching dogs where needed, showing, for instance, what to do in difficult situations if that other teaching dog is not coping. But the mental analysis and language used by the mentor dog in these circumstances is way beyond the comprehension of us humans, even those who have spent a lifetime studying dogs.
The last aspect of mentors, I should say, is that there is a varied reaction from other dogs to a mentor dog. Some dogs take great confidence in a mentor and whilst not necessarily submissive towards them, they are very respectful. But others find a mentor intimidating and will avoid making contact with them.”
Philip was blown away, to use the modern vernacular term. Once again, he was dumbfounded that there was so much more to the dog world than he could have ever imagined.
“Want me to carry on with the other teaching dog roles?”
Philip didn’t hesitate for a moment with his reply. “I could listen to this all day. It’s stupendously interesting.”
“OK, then we have to look at the two other teaching dog roles that we know exist in today’s dogs.”
Angela kept going, “The minder is totally different to the mentor dog. In the sense of being different in the way they interact with the dogs they are teaching. When a minder meets another dog, they approach with the active intention of interacting with them. The minder dog is naturally assertive, often strongly assertive as your Pharaoh is, but ultimately not as strong as the mentor dog. When the minder dog meets another dog, in a teaching situation, they assess the new dog as it approaches and use appropriate body language in accordance to the other dog’s reaction to them. That makes them frequently more demonstrative than a mentor, and the minder dog will actively seek interaction within a few minutes of meeting a new dog. That interaction does not necessarily mean an invitation to play, far from it. If the minder feels the other dog is not ready for that level of interaction, they will converse with them, dog to dog, in a more subtle manner.”
Angela paused. “When I think about of all the teaching roles, the minder dog is the one role that is incredibly interesting, with so many different levels of communication going on.”
She continued, “For example, if the other dog is worried but shows signs of being ready to rush at the minder, the minder will stand firmly with their head side on to the dog. Eye contact is made intermittently as the minder determines whether the new dog is calming down or intending to rush at the minder.
The minder can stand firm and openly display assertiveness if they need to. Once the situation is under control, from the minder’s perspective, the minder will generally initiate status type activities from the other dog. Such as by marking then walking away allowing the other dog to investigate the minder’s scent. Or the minder may invite the other dog into a status game, often instigating a chase.”
Angela paused to sweep some grey hairs to behind her left ear.
“Then again, if the other dog shows signs at trying to drive the minder away, the minder will turn their head towards them and eye contact becomes stronger. They do not reposition any other part of their body. If the other dog shows signs of moving away, the minder will totally drop their body language and move away. The minder will then reassess the other dog from a distance, before approaching again.
Finally, and this is what makes the minder such a fabulous teaching dog, the minder will monitor other dogs closely and interrupt any unsociable or unruly behaviour. Unacceptable behaviour is stopped by the minder dog physically placing themselves between the dogs in question and remaining there until the tension has reduced. Once calm has returned the minder will usually walk away and monitor the dogs from a distance. In effect, the minder is policing a group of dogs, for the greater benefit of the whole group. Most dogs recognise a minder as a strong dog and usually respect them. Sometimes polite status games may be played when they first meet. Yet what is fascinating is that the minder dog, while a strong dog, does not naturally command respect in the way a mentor dog does. So you can have a situation where some dogs who have limited canine communication skills or are adolescent can challenge the minder.”
“Bingo!” Philip exclaimed. “Now I know what happened at that class at South Brent. I sensed that the Pit Bull had an unruly personality and Pharaoh’s reaction, I presume, was to signal to the Pit Bull that he was not welcome.”
“That would have been my guess,” Angela confirmed, then continuing, “So let’s look at the last of the three teaching roles, that of the nanny dog.
In many ways, the nanny is the most amazing of all the teaching dogs. Uniquely amongst the three teaching roles, a strong nanny can temporarily take on the role of a minder or even a mentor if needed. They are extremely generous dogs and are at their happiest when everyone else is happy, including other teaching dogs. What is amazing, considering that they can be of the same breed, within the same pack, yet they function so very differently to the mentor and minder teaching dogs.”
Angela scratched an itch on the side of her head, continuing, “The nanny dog not only relaxes a dog who is uncomfortable or anti-social but also extends to helping relax a mentor or minder belonging to the group. Mentors rarely get overly stressed in teaching situations but minders often take their role quite seriously and consequently can become tense when working. If a nanny dog sees another teaching dog, most often a minder, showing stress the nanny will consciously use their body language to reduce the tension of fellow teaching dogs as well. That’s why the nanny dog has been called by some as the clown dog. Not in the sense of clowning around but offering happiness to their fellow group members. It’s fair to say that of all the teaching dogs the nanny dog is more likely to be happy in most situations.”
Philip was in one of those rare emotional places, that of fully and comprehensively embracing the meaning of an aspect of his life. For evermore, a dog would not be some cute, cuddly pet but the modern, living embodiment of a species that not only has been with man for, literally, thousands of years, but has been instrumental in man’s development for the last ten or fifteen thousand years, most probably many more years before that.
“Angela, I’m practically speechless and, trust me, that doesn’t happen too often.” There was a wry smile on Philip’s face that connected with Angela.
With the corners of Angela’s mouth turned up in harmony with Philip’s mood, she said, “I’m so pleased. Despite having seen hundreds of dog owners over my years, I was always puzzled by how few were motivated to understand, thoroughly, what makes the dog the animal that it is.”
Pharaoh sensed some ending coming along and shuffled up from his prone position on the settee cushion to sitting on his haunches. He was looking alertly towards Angela.
She continued, “So let’s call it a day at this point. I’ll tell you what I think your plan should be.”
Angela stood up, stretched her arms and stifled a yawn with her right hand.
“Whoops, apologies, don’t know where that came from! Been talking too much, I suspect.”
Going on to say, “For a few weeks, why don’t you bring Pharaoh up here once a week, twice a week if you can make it, and we’ll reinforce the owner-dog relationship between the two of you. It will also give me a chance to get to know Pharaoh better, see how he reacts to some of the poor souls that I see here.”
She added, more as an afterthought, “But have to say that there is very little doubt in my mind that Pharaoh is a beautiful example of a teaching dog; a minder. I have no doubt that he would be fantastic in that role.”
Philip turned that over for a few moments. “Angela, you need to tell me what the cost of his training would be?”
“Well, normally,” she replied, “I charge fifteen pounds for a training lesson. But in this instance, let’s just run an open account for a while. Because, if you are happy for Pharaoh to be a teaching dog in helping sort out the dysfunctional dogs that come to me, then I would be paying you. Won’t be a lot, I’m here to tell you, but it’s all grist to the mill isn’t it.”
There was a pause before Philip went on to ask. “Angela, what’s your view about walking Pharaoh in public places, such as Totnes High Street, for example?” Going on to add, “I just want to avoid any conflict between Pharaoh and another dog, or, more importantly another person.”
“Good point, Philip. Of all the teaching dogs, the minder is the one dog that can make instant intuitive judgments of other dogs and other people. Totally beyond us humans to be in mental harmony with both the speed of a minder dog’s judgmental process and what that dog has instinctively cottoned on to. So rather than be less than perfectly relaxed when you are out and about with Pharaoh, get Pharaoh comfortable in wearing a full muzzle. They don’t bother them once they associate wearing a muzzle with being out in interesting places. Don’t leave it on Pharaoh at home or in the car, just put it on when you are going to be amongst people and dogs where there might be the slightest chance of aggravation.”
Angela added, “Mole Valley Farmers over at their store near Newton Abbot have a good selection.”
Philip was, indeed, a very happy man now.
“Oh, hang on a moment, let me get you a copy of that article about the history of the family dog, the article by Dr. George Johnson.”
A few minutes later Philip was swinging the car out of Angela’s yard and starting the return journey to Harberton.
Finding the source of the River Dart would have to wait once again.
2,700 words. Copyright © 2013 Paul Handover