Tuesday, November 01, 2005

An unprecedented show of cooperation

Our dogs have a carefully crafted power balance, which we don't fully understand. The old stereotype that a dog is either dominant or submissive is an oversimplification of canine social structure, of that I am sure. Nelly and Toby's relationship can basically be summarized like this: Nelly is the boss, but only because Toby is too easy-going to want to re-hash that conversation Every.Single.Day, and everyone knows that when push comes to shove he can kick her butt, so he'll take second-dog status - so long as she doesn't bully too much or mess with anything really important, like, his food.

Because they are both what's termed "status-seeking" dogs - i.e. neither one just rolls over to any old dog that wants to be the boss - we have to be extremely careful with toys, bones and food. A dogfight is a bone-jarring thing, all deafening noise and bared teeth. In a wild canine pack, it's to the pack's advantage to resolve disputes without any actual injuries, because an injured member weakens the pack. So the idea of a dog fight is to get the other party to back down through intimidation if at all possible - not to cause actual harm. Occasionally one of our dogs gets a nicked ear or jowl in a fight, but we're pretty sure it's an accident. And yes, after seven years together, they do still sometimes fight. It doesn't happen often, but I've seen a fight erupt over a dropped cheese-puff on the floor.

However, when we go out, they are capable of astonishing displays of cooperation in the interest of making mischief. Toby is lanky enough to not only reach the kitchen counter, but to fish things up and out of the kitchen sink. Nelly, being a stout little teapot, is not. Every now and then - usually when they're pissed off that we've left them alone - we will come home to find dishes or food snagged from the kitchen or dining room, and the spoils of plunder evenly divided between their two dog beds. A spoon on one, a knife on the other. A tupperware tub for Toby, the lid for Nelly.

I'm dying to know what goes on in those moments. Is Nelly standing there, egging Toby on? "What do you see up there? Anything good? Is there anything with some butter left on it, 'cause I love butter!" Why is there no fight to the death over these prizes in our absence? How do they arrive at the precise division of spoils? Does Toby get special privilege because he's the one doing the work, or does Nelly's higher status entitle her to first pick?

All in all, it just confirms for me that these guys are playing us like a fiddle, each and every day.

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