Balance of power


Elvis (on left) and Tillie going for a ride

Adopting animals is one of the most rewarding things you can do. And sometimes challenging. Raising any animal from a youngster can be challenging, but there’s an extra layer of living with a creature whose past may be completely unknown.

If your animal has had an abusive or neglected past, or is traumatised by whatever caused their change in circumstance, you could have some issues to deal with, ranging from separation anxiety to bad toileting habits to aggression towards other animals or humans.

It takes a while to learn to read each other, you and your animal. And quite often there are other humans and animals sharing the household, so everyone has to get used to each other.

What can make it really interesting sometimes is the need for a balance of power.

Certain dogs, and especially certain breeds, are often keen to dominate in their ‘pack’, which in domesticated canines means everyone in their household, humans, dogs and other creatures alike. Tillie, our big dog, has that in spades – she’s possibly a German Shepherd cross Malamute or Mastiff. Whatever she is, she loves to dominate, which makes it hard to have her meet new dogs. And while she was obviously given some sort of training and love at her previous household, she still has some issues.

I’ll never forget having a stand-off with her a couple of years ago. We’d had Tillie & Elvis for a few months. This was at least the third time in their ten and eight-year-old lives that they’d been adopted or fostered out, so it’s not surprising they’d show some behavioural problems. Tillie had begun to turn on her mate Elvis, whom she had lived with for some six years; attacking him over food, and even jealousy over my husband playing with him at one point. Tillie is a big, strong dog as mentioned previously on this blog – and she’s capable of a death stare that would stop even Steve Irwin in his tracks. Elvis is pretty tough, but he’s about a third of her size, and was coming off worst in their brawls (and boy, did they brawl).

When she started growling at Elvis in our lounge room one day, he fled behind the couch faster than his namesake leaving the building. I foolishly jumped up from the couch to stand between them, and shouted at Tillie to get outside. Well, she stared at me with laser beam eyes that suddenly looked small, cold and downright dangerous. She stood stiff-legged and unmoving, with her ears cocked forward, all bad signs.

Finally I had the sense to stop yelling at her, and instead walked out of the room and called her after me in a high, pleasant tone, which broke the stand-off.  She followed me out and as we went to the back door together, she glanced up at me with a soft, almost conciliatory look on her face. I patted the top of her head, talked to her gently and then left her outside for some time-out (more for me than her, at that point!).

While I was shaken, and had to call our vet to check if I’d done the right thing, it was a break-through where at least she had listened to me after an initial stand-off. We had her checked over and found that her mild arthritis had increased severely following a spell of extremely hot weather. Once treated, she was instantly happier and playful, and better still, she and I had come to an understanding. We did had some smaller incidents after that, but we were learning to read each other.

I learned that yelling and fighting with such a dominating older dog was not going to work. Persuasion and avoiding situations was the key in her case. We also practised things like letting her be the leader of the ‘canine pack’ (feeding her just before Elvis, letting go the door before him, giving her a pat first) but making sure we humans were leaders of the ‘family pack’ (eating first, going through doorways first, having the furniture to ourselves).

Not too long after, she accepted me as leader, and we haven’t looked back since. Oddly, this has been helped by me doing things that she doesn’t necessarily like but accepts, presumably because she knows it’s helping her – cleaning her ears before they get infected, feeding her tablets that she’d prefer to spit out on the floor, and giving her the dreaded baths. I make up for it by giving liver treats as both temptation and reward, and doing things she loves, like rubbing her face with an old towel, especially following a walk where it gets itchy from wearing her Halti – this has probably been the strongest bonding process between us! Simple but effective.

(By the way, the ‘furniture’ rule has mostly gone out the door, but we still set some limits on what they can do…)

Now I hug her big hairy head to me and tease her mildly, but we know each others’ boundaries, although she hasn’t managed to stop drooling on me! The bond is lovely – perhaps not as strong as having her from a tiny pup to that last stage of adulthood, but it’s all the richer for having gone through a little power struggle along the way 🙂

Here’s a short video of the two dogs playing in our backyard, in their own power struggle. Elvis is forever striving to win ‘top dog’ position, but he’ll have to wait until Tillie’s gone, I think!

About carolynswriting

Author, Menagerie Manager, 9-5er. Love my writing, my family and other animals, my friends, and even my job :)
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10 Responses to Balance of power

  1. BunKaryudo says:

    I’m not sure I’d be brave enough to have a confrontation with a big dog like that. Maybe a Pekingese, or possibly a mid-size hamster.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. colinandray says:

    Very informative post, and particularly interesting as our Ray (at 75lbs) is very amiable most of time but does have his moments. We have not had a “stand-off” situation with him yet, but I can imagine it could well happen one day as he certainly is a bit of a free spirit! As for shouting at him? We consciously try to avoid that as he would see it as aggressive barking and could well respond accordingly:)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes. it was a gut reaction at a stressful time before we learnt from the vet that it doesn’t work – unfortunately we didn’t get any detailed training or info on what these dogs could or might do, when we took them on. Tillie at 48kg (105lbs?) definitely needs persuasion, not aggression! I like that your adoption place provided such good training, & wish we could have had similar but it was a different situation – I also think now that Tillie started this behaviour due to her arthritis increasing dramatically at the time (we’d had a spate of extreme hot weather), so she may not have displayed it previously to her fosterers. Hmm, yes, things you learn in hindsight! And thanks Colin for your posts too, they’ve been an interesting comparison, learning what’s provided elsewhere & what they taught you, it’s invaluable info 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. As I watch Roxie and ZuZu running around jumping on each other, I see many of the same behaviors in the cats as shown by Tillie and Elvis. Sometimes I have to break them up when the play gets too rough, but most of the time they’re just showing off for us.

    Liked by 1 person

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