Dogs that live together in a “pack” — or, in our case, under the same roof in the same family — form a hierarchy, and what the top dog says goes. The trick for the human living in the pack is to be top dog. For me, it is a constant struggle because my Brittany dog Sassy thinks she is better qualified.
I understand where she’s coming from, but I don’t agree with her conclusions.
Sassy used to boss around my younger female Brittany, Thistle (2011-2018). But independent-thinking Thistle had her own visions of grandeur and would test Sassy’s right to rule every now and again. There were no physical fights; their exchange was very subtle in body language and silent in voice but screamed volumes in meaning.
Gentle pushing, posturing and eye movements all communicated their intentions to be in charge, but Thistle didn’t want to be chief badly enough and always backed down — especially when I would step between them and remind them neither could be top dog because that is my job.
My unwillingness to step aside still forces Sassy to try to work around me or do something to get my attention — like steal some of my possessions.
Sassy, short for Sassafras, has turned thievery into an art form. Even in her old age, she can have the contents of my coat pocket safely tucked into her crate before I can blink. She then uses some of it to try to trade for something else she wants — like whatever I am eating.
It’s a brilliant system, trading my stuff for my own stuff, executed with real Sassafras style.
Just as in a family, pack dynamics change all the time. After Thistle’s death last September, the pack was unsettled and it took the dogs a little while to transition into their new places.
Sassy stayed in charge of my two middle-of-the-pack male dogs, but 10-year-old Bullet moved up and took on new duties, including sounding the alarm when there is an unusual noise or a vehicle enters the driveway. That was always Thistle’s role.
Quincy backs up Bullet with his barking, which is new also. Quincy is more vocal when we are not at home. Sometimes I know it is sheer excitement for our next adventure. Mostly, I know he’s reacting to unfamiliar sounds and I find it plain annoying. We’re working on that one.
The only time I hear Sassy use a loud voice is when Quincy is nagging her to play and she decides to correct him with a sharp yip yip.
Bullet also is in charge of security when all of the dogs are outside. He watches from a high spot of ground in the fenced area where he can observe the surroundings and the activities of the rest of the pack. He often is last to come into the house.
Lately I’ve noticed that Quincy and Bullet are watching out for Sassy, who at 12½, has some age issues. Whenever Sassy goes outside alone, I just have to say “Sassy’s going out,” and suddenly at least one of the male dogs appears at the door to be let out with her.
If Sassy has been outside unattended for a while, Quincy will keep checking at the back door to see if she is there. And he is not shy about letting me know I should be as concerned as he is. He pesters me until I put on footgear and go look for her — and of course he comes with me.
But there is a reward in it for Quincy. When Sassy is having a good health day and feels frisky, she will play with him.
In true family fashion, Bullet spends a lot of time with Quincy. I often find father and son curled up together sleeping, or sharing a toy with a soft tug of war. I watch the father-son interactions carefully, just waiting for the day nearly 5-year-old Quincy might decide to challenge Bullet for seniority.
But maybe the male dogs accept that I am top dog better than Sassy does and it will never be an issue.
My ultimate goal is for my pack to be well-balanced and stable. That will enable it to absorb guest dogs with little issue, and can be guests in other packs. They can compete and hunt well with other dogs, too.
My pack is part of my family. Its members all have a one-on-one relationship with me, which is essential for me to train, hunt and do dog sports with them. It also is essential for their individual well-being, and mine.
Come talk with me this weekend at the 81st Eastern Maine Sportsmen’s Show: 4-8 p.m. Friday, 9 a.m.-8 p.m. Saturday, 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Sunday at University of Maine field house in Orono. I will be there with my colleagues from BDN Outdoors. Admission is $8 for age 12 and older or $12 for weekend pass.
Julie Murchison Harris is community editor at Bangor Daily News. She is widowed and shares her life with three Brittanys: Sassy, 12, Bullet, 10, and Quincy, 4 — in an old farmhouse in Hermon.