This weekend I was hired to come into a home of 2 dogs and 5 cats and mediate a peace accord that would allow the 2 humans of the house to enjoy all their pets. The house had become a bit of a war zone, a sort of Palestine/West Bank situation, in which cats and dogs were opposed. Team Cat occasionally lobbed missiles in the form of silent (to humans) insults. Team Dog responded with aggressive barking, charging the gate that separated the (otherwise) happy home into a Cats Only zone upstairs and a Dogs Only zone downstairs. Whenever the barrier (baby gate) had been breached violence ensued. Both teams agreed on only one thing: They love and adore their humans.
Getting to the bottom of the issues underlying the conflict was long and involved. It took more than 1.5 hours and a great deal of understanding. In the end, however, there was a deeper level of understanding and respect between the teams, and indeed, the beginnings of a single team in a truly peaceful home. As with all conflicts this one was based primarily on misunderstandings and assumptions that were further convoluted by basic cultural differences. I shall summarize as concisely as possible with sidebar notes on cultural differences that I have learned over the years by working with animals of all kinds.
The problem for dogs was that Bear, a natural alpha male, was duly elected leader of Team Dog. But because Bear had a genetic disorder (hip dysplasia), his Mom had kindly decided to let him die as a puppy. Thus, Bear was not given the home training by his Mom that would have taught him leader protocol. (Yes! Dogs and cats learn this protocol and a great deal of important things from their Mom’s. If they lose out on time with their Mom, they have trouble getting along with others of their species. That is, unless a friend teaches them.) However, Sidney, a non-alpha neutral female, has been teaching Bear leader protocol in an offhand casual way that honors his rank as leader. In short, both Bear and Sidney agree that Bear is the best dog leader. But leadership among dogs (and cats) is NEVER a permanent, guaranteed position. Leadership must constantly be challenged and re-evaluated. Daily renegotiations are required and leadership is reinforced by a series of challenges.
Because Bear did not know protocol at first the cats had taken to calling him a big dummy. But Bear and Sidney had been working together as a very effective team to help Bear be the solid and respect-worthy leader he has become. Still, cat insults sting and can undermine confidence in the best of leaders.
The problem for the cats was that their acknowledged leader, Mr. B, is a non-alpha male who simply took charge and responsibility because a leader was needed. There are 3 natural alpha cats in the household. Two are young adolescents who are not interested in giving up the fun and frolic of childhood for the weighty responsibility of leadership. The third is a somewhat reclusive alpha female that the cats described as “like you”. ( I was a bit hurt by this reference at first but I was able to get over my bad self and understand the intricacies of cat culture and leadership. Details are outlined below in the sidebar called “Alphas and Non-Alphas “) In short this female is alpha but not authoritative.
Cat vs Dog
The problems between Team Cat and Team Dog were that:
1) Cats should naturally take charge over dogs (because the dogs are more afraid of cats AND because while cats can make a dogs life living hell, dogs can literally end a cat’s life, therefore only cat leadership can guarantee cat survival and preserve true peace.)
2) The alpha non-leader female cat, Mattie keeps mouthing off to the dogs and this undermines the cat leader’s attempts to make peace. But Mattie will not take the responsibility of leadership herself.
3) Both cats and dogs were adamant that one group had to be in charge and that group’s leader would have absolute authority over all interactions. (Their human and I disagree with this notion and I proposed the idea of each individual taking charge of themselves and all agreeing to a set of guidelines, such as Dogs get the floor and Cats get the furniture and high places. But both teams were insistent that one group must rule.)
Ultimately what came out of the discussion was the realization that the Dogs didn’t know Mr. B, the non-alpha male, was the true leader, not by choice or by dominance, but by his maturity and fairness and because he took responsibility to do the job when no one else would. Once Bear (dog leader) realized this, he actually lowered his head to his paws and said reverently, “He’s a good-dog!” Then things got significantly better.
I got them all to agree that dogs and cats could share the family room. Dogs would have the floor and cats would have the high places, such as furniture and shelves. The humans also agreed to installing more shelves and hammocks up high for the cats. Bear insisted “No cats can jump down on us from above, though!” sending an image of a cat, claws extended landing on a poor dog’s back. It was agreed.
It seemed to me that Mattie, the alpha non-dominant female, was only lobbing insults at the dogs because she loves Mr. B and was angry that the dogs had attacked him a year ago. She didn’t realize that because of her natural alpha status she was actually making more trouble for Mr. B with her insults. When Mattie confirmed my suspicion, I realized that she had not been taught proper protocol by her mother either. I explained the benefits and responsibilities of her rank. Though she wasn’t happy with the restrictions of being a natural alpha, it did explain why the other cats often antagonize her. She was now willing to adapt to proper cat culture.
One day later, Nikki, human pet lover extraordinaire, reports that the dogs, Bear and Sidney, are behaving better than ever which surprised and impressed everyone at doggie daycare! The cats are changing for the better too. Most notably, Mattie (who tends to hide) was out and about looking way more confident!
If you liked this blog, please send a copy to Netanyahu, Mahmoud Abbas, and President Obama. Peace is possible, but we have to be more humanistic and wise, like our pets.
Sidebar: Alpha & Non-Alpha
In both dog and cat society there are alphas (a.k.a. True Male & True Female) and there are Neutrals. There are many different categories/ranks of neutrals. These animals are truly gender neutral, even though humans may identify them as ‘male’ or ‘female’ based on their genitalia.
When cats and dogs speak to me psychically I can hear by their voices that they are neutral. To other dogs and cats they can identify the categories of one another by smell and by the spirit of each animal, which they can actually see. Neutrals have a lot more freedom and latitude in society than the alphas. While the scent of an alpha will trigger a specific reaction from other members, most neutrals are not so polarizing. Neutrals can befriend a wide variety of other categories in their species and most all others are eager to befriend them. They are truly peacekeepers.
Alpha scents trigger reactions in others. Much of this reaction is sexual. Others are drawn to them as a mate but they are also drawn to compete with the alphas. The alpha in any group is more-or-less required to take responsibility for leadership also. And leadership is often more of a burden than a privilege. Alphas can choose to mate with anyone, but they must choose wisely. Mating can imply equality and a non-alpha mate may become arrogant from the heady perfume of the alpha, if they have not earned the rank.
When there is no alpha in a group it falls to one of the high ranking neutrals to take leadership. This is a burden that most neutrals will eagerly give up whenever a good alpha arrives. However, if the alpha is a poor leader the neutral may continue to fight for the position to protect the other group members. When they are not the leaders, however, neutrals will only tussle or mate with others of similar rank. I often see two dogs meet and engage in continuous interaction, like a big ‘ol crush. When I ask why they excitedly report, “We’re the same!!”
By the Way – both cats and dogs report that humans can be alphas or neutrals just like they are. In any species the neutrals far out number the True Males or True Females. So, think about that.