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The Wolf In Your Backyard

by Beverley Saunders

          Have you ever wondered about some of your hounds' strange or unexplained behaviors. Have you ever thought, 'why does my dog do that?'. Most of the time we attribute certain behaviors as simply dog traits and ignore it. Sometimes we try to change it. What I want to share with you may seem a bit bizarre or far-fetched, but it really isn't.

          The Beagles in your backyard is 100% wolf - genetically identical and psychologically wolf-prevailing. The origin of all dogs today can be traced back to the wolf (canis lupus). Careful, selective breeding over thousands of years have resulted in approximately 400 recognized breeds of today's domesticated dogs. Although we have successfully bred for a certain look, size, coat and task, we have been unable to remove the wolf in its entirety. One can take a DNA sample from a Chihuahua, Dalmatian and a wolf, and scientists cannot tell you which one came from the wolf. Because of our purposeful breeding to maintain hunt, scenting and "packability" in our Beagles, we have also managed to maintain them psychologically closer to their wolf ancestry than many other breeds.

          As many of you are aware, wolves are highly social pack animals (sound familiar?) and have a strict order of hierarchy within the pack which has been crucial to its survival. A normal wolf pack will consist of approximately 6 - 16 dogs. Larger packs have been recorded, and sometimes there are as few as 2 members. If you keep a pack of dogs for any length of time, don't be surprised if you see a social order or hierarchy begin to develop. You may already have noticed this. Wolf/dog packs will have as minimum an Alpha Male and an Alpha female. The Alphas make all large decisions concerning the pack and hold dominance over all members. You may also see a Beta female (second in command) and a Beta male. They in turn, will hold dominance over all pack members below them. The lowest rank in wolf/dog hierarchy is the Omegas. These are usually the puppies and/or newest members to the pack. Once in a while you may notice a dog that appears to have no rank in the hierarchy, but the majority of the pack defers to or respects this dog. It may be male, female, young or old. As Doc S. once remarked about his own pack - it seems to be left out of the loop yet coexists peacefully within the "clearing" or pack domain. This dog is referred to as simply a "Pack". Its sole purpose is for the betterment and well-being of the pack as a whole. It may act as sentry, babysitter, arbitrator, etc.. The Pack may one day assume a position of rank within the hierarchy if an appropriate one becomes available.

          All dogs and wolves are much happier and well-adjusted if they know where they are in the pecking order, be it the top, middle or lowest position. The dog who doesn't know where in the order he stands will invariably be insecure and may exhibit bizarre, anti-social behaviors, often leaving the pack to join or start another one. Dogs will establish their own natural pecking order and we must not interfere or try to override this. The one thing we MUST do, however is establish quickly and consistently that we, and all other humans are Alpha Supreme.

          You may recognize your Alpha male by some of the following traits: doesn't kennel well with other males - gets nasty with other pack members within sight of his bowl during feeding times (even if a fence separates them) - will hold tail at 12:00 o'clock, head and ears erect when other members approach them - will sometimes be playful with younger members but normally goes about his own business when allowed to mingle freely with the pack - fiercely loyal to you, Alpha Supreme, and may not allow others to approach you if you are giving him attention at the time.

          Your Alpha female may be a little more difficult to identify as she is quite often accompanied by a rather bossy Beta female. This Beta female is securing her seat in the event of a tragedy or loss of the current Alpha female and if necessary, can resume the raising of an orphaned litter. In the wild, it is easy to identify the Alpha female. The Alphas are the only ones allowed to breed, although all pack members assist in the rearing of the young. Recognize your Alpha female by using the same body language criteria as the Alpha male. Many times you will see her stand at 90 degree angles to another dog with her head placed over the shoulder/back area. This is a dominant stance.

          Now that you may have identified who's who in your own pack, let's examine just a few common behaviors that relate directly to their wolf ancestry.

          Do you have a dog that always goes to the food bowl, takes one piece of food, goes to another area to eat it and then returns to the food bowl again repeating this behavior throughout at least the first half if not all of the meal? This dog is generally a submissive, or lower ranking member. In the wild, only Alpha males can stand at the carcass to eat. The others must wait until he is finished or may take a piece and leave if he so allows. Occasionally he may allow the Alpha female or Beta male to eat with him.

          Why does your dog scratch the ground after toileting? This is not to clean the feet but to enlarge or spread out the marked area.

          Why does your dog howl at sirens? Contrary to popular belief, sirens do not hurt a dog's ears. In fact, sirens and other rising/falling sounds are interpreted as a rivaling pack howl. Your dog(s) will answer this "howl" in unison but each member will howl to a different pitch and cadence so that their individual identities and head count can be recognized within the pack. What results is that beautiful choir of voices that can annoy non-Beaglers and neighbors at times.

          In the months to follow, I would like to cover body language, different forms of aggression, why some dogs cannot be deer-broken, different running styles of Beagles and other topics relating to our hunting and trialing endeavors. As we go along you may find yourself applying some of this knowledge to your own pack, or deciding to intervene less often in their normal interactions. This can create a more peaceful, harmonious kennel and you may find your hounds to handle a little easier in the field as well as at home.

          I hope you enjoyed this first article and those to follow. Perhaps with interest and observation you will begin to recognize the wolf in your backyard.

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).