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Harmony In The Kennel

by Beverley Saunders

          Part of enjoying a happy kennel and avoiding unnecessary fights can be the proper selection of roommates. Understanding the dynamics of pack hierarchy and male dominance related behaviors go a long way in achieving peace in your canine kingdom. Let’s review the very basics of pack hierarchy, commonly referred to as the “pecking order”.

          We have the Alphas (dominants), Subdominant pack, and the Omegas (below subdominant – often submissive). Because our Beagles are pack animals, we won’t see many of the problems encountered by owners of other breeds like the terriers, some spaniels and generally those that are solitary hunting types. Pack animals are very adept at sorting through and establishing their own ranking system. However, in spite of our best intentions, we sometimes create situations that can invite if not actually provoke discord I the kennel.  The key to choosing kennel mates, assuming you divide them into small groups, is to avoid pairing up those hounds that share a very close rank within the hierarchy. These will be predominantly your males. Where you choose to kennel or how you choose to transport your males can make or break the level of peace you have from day to day, and either discourage or encourage fighting.

          Over 80% of dominance related incidents involve males. The source of fighting in males can be attributed to several reasons. Those I will discuss in this article are two distinct forms of aggression:  dominance aggression, and inter-male aggression.  Please note that aggression is not necessarily synonymous with viciousness. In humans, the equivalent would be known as “assertion”. Some forms of aggression are based on uncontrolled viciousness, but this is rare among Beagles. The emerging aggression sometimes evident with physically pubescent males only plays a small part of discord in the kennel. It’s more of a nuisance than anything and generally passes as the hormone levels smooth out.

          The brain of the male puppy becomes masculinized just before birth by a rush of testosterone from the mother.  How masculinized he becomes at this time will determine how dominant he will be the rest of his life.  This is also the reason neutering will have little to no effect on changing the level of dominance in the dog. The benefit of neutering is discussed later on. Female puppies do not undergo a similar femininization.  This action is restricted to males. In fact, the testosterone is actually converted to an estrogen-like hormone before it is actually utilized in the brain.  This seems confusing, but you can easily distinguish the male pup that has a high level of masculinizing from the rest. He will be the bully, standing over his littermates, nipping on their scruffs, mounting and hip thrusting as early as five weeks of age. He will be the first to the best teat and the first to the food bowl.  His level of dominance will also determine his ability to secure his resources and opportunity to breed later on.  These are the pups that need extra reminding that you are the alpha during training.  If you don’t enforce this early on, you will always be faced with a battle of wills.

          At what I call physical puberty, that which has been forced to occur between six and nine months due to our breeding down through domestication, you may notice a slight increase in sexually aggressive behaviors from the renewed rush of testosterone.  This may manifest itself in excessive mounting, wandering, posturing or displays of boldness, but true inter-male aggression will not occur until much later on.  This is where castration can help in decreasing the unwanted sexual behaviors, i.e. wandering, mounting, etc.  Even so, you may notice that some of these behaviors linger for months even though circulating testosterone  leaves within hours of castration.  It will not undo the dominance factor that was set just before birth.

          Inter-male aggression will generally occur between the ages of 2-1/2 and 3 years of age (coincidently, this is the age at which wolves go through actual puberty).  I refer to this as a dog’s psychological puberty.  If your idea of fun is constantly running for the water hose or jabbing a garden rake between two fighting dogs, kennel or transport a couple of 2-1/2 year old males together.  They won’t disappoint you!  This is also the age you will see a young male try to “take on” your pack’s alpha male and generally get his tail whipped by the “old man”.  I rarely interrupt these incidents in my own pack unless it begins to look hopeless for one of them.  A torn ear and a bruised ego will not evoke enough sympathy from me to interrupt what they will resolve on their own.

          I have found it easier to kennel hounds that have little in common with one another.  That way no one feels challenged for his/her position of rank within the hierarchy.  Inasmuch as it requires close monitoring, kenneling a male with a female works best for me than any other arrangement. She will only have to “move out” for six weeks out of the year.  I will personally do anything to avoid kenneling or transporting males together.  Sometimes this can’t be avoided, so one must determine which two males pose the least threat to each other.  I have identified the alpha male in my pack and he kennels alone and gets fed first.  Occasionally, when we have canine guests and need the room, I will put a female in with him.  He transports alone or with females only.  Sometimes a pup under one year of age and a subdominant adult male will coexist peacefully as well as a grown submissive and a grown subdominant male.  The idea is to keep the social status as far apart as possible between males.  The reason I don’t put male puppies in with the alpha is that eventually the pup will go thru physical and then psychological puberty and can pay a dear price for it from an alpha male.  Currently I have 15 hounds spread out between 9 kennels.  The only discord I have at this time is an occasional altercation at feeding time in one kennel that holds a 10-month-old male and a 2-1/2 year old male.  Eventually I will move the youngest one out when he approaches the age of 2.  I also keep 2 doghouses per ground kennel.  Although the hounds nearly always sleep together, there are times when one may get a bit stingy about arranging and sharing new bedding and it provides the other hound an option to get out of the rain.

          Even though we won’t normally have the trouble of kenneling our Beagles as we would other breeds, I don’t want to downplay the need for recognizing and managing male aggression.  An incident was brought up recently on the Beagles Unlimited Bulletin Board where a fellow put 4 male hounds in a box and went to a field trial. When he arrived and opened the box, he found 1 dead Field Champion and 3 hounds covered in blood.  Was this a result of uncontrolled predatory or idiopathic aggression? Was it a case of mutiny? My response to the situation was as follows:

          “In the case of the 4 males in the box, I don't believe it was more than the two hounds involved. So sad, because had the two been out in the open instead of a confined box, the subdominant hound would have had the opportunity to retreat, cower, flee or otherwise concede to the aggressor - the natural way most conflicts are resolved. The very fact that he had to remain in the aggressor's personal space was probably interpreted as not backing down. Dog's have no concept of available square feet or cubic inches. The 2 other hounds were indeed probably bystanders urinating in the corners of that box. A good physical exam would have more than likely revealed which hound was the aggressor. Wolves are known to gang up to kill prey. They don't gang up in acts of dominance. The Alpha will remove unwanteds all on his own or he will be removed. Mutiny among wolves has been known to happen, but not often.”

          We may never know the reason this happened, but a few simple precautions taken with a better understanding of the dynamics of male interaction can certainly avert such a tragedy.  If you feel you have more fighting and discord in your kennel than you want, re-evaluate the hounds you have – primarily the males. Compare their ages, social status and level of dominance.  Try rearranging your kennel using some of the methods in this article and hopefully you and your hounds will enjoy a more peaceful and harmonious existence.

          Good Beagling To All!

Should you have a concern regarding the health of your Beagle(s), you should contact your veterinarian. All information on this site is presented solely for educational and informational purposes and should not, at any time, be considered a substitute for seeking or receiving veterinary care for your Beagle(s).