Bullying has become an important topic in our schools and society. This unfortunate behavior occurs usually when an older or stronger person seeks to intimidate or reduce the significance of another. By doing so the bully tries to achieve an increase in status or sense of worth. Bullying can be quite harmful for the person being bullied and may lead to depression, anxiety and acting out.
Unfortunately I’ve witnessed similar behaviors in my beloved dogs. The shame of it all!
I’ll describe a few dog behaviors and compare to human bullying as strong similarities exist. Perhaps we may even learn from our canine friends.
I’ve noticed when one of my dogs crosses a cattle-guard that he will stop immediately on the other side, turn, and menace other dogs trying to cross. The dog attempting to cross must gingerly place paws on the metal pipe and concentrate on not falling through. The task requires rapt attention and during the crossing, the crossing dog is vulnerable to such menacing (bullying).
Similarly when one of my dogs goes through a door, he (Bella doesn’t do this) tends to crouch just outside in order to intimidate the following dog. Again the second dog is vulnerable. Why do this at all?
Whereas human bullying arises when the bully needs to establish dominance or elevate his/her often diminished self-esteem, I wonder if dogs are trying to improve their sense of worth or rank in the pack. In the picture below, Jack is trying to bite Buddy in the butt while Buddy is jumping into the pickup. This smacks of bullying if not outright sadism!
I’ve been pondering my observations. My first thought was that almost always a male dog bullies another male dog, and a female dog usually bullies another female dog. Gender plays a role here. Isn’t this gender specificity also true among humans?
When Little Jack or Buddy first cross the cattle-guard or first makes it through the door, the dog on the far side invariably will nip at the dog attempting to exit the house or cross the cattle-guard. By so doing the bully dog establishes primacy, elevating its status. While this may be viewed as dominance, is it not also a form of bullying?
Likewise, I’ve witnessed Bella engage in bullying toward visiting, female dogs. In these instances the visitors are off their usual turf and appear initially tentative. Bella greets them on arrival by standing aggressively over them and growling at them. She’s not the welcoming hostess at all. The visiting female dog becomes submissive and even may demonstrate submissive peeing. Perhaps this submissiveness provides Bella reassurance that she will not be displaced by the visiting female dog.
Once dominance has been established, Bella appears friendly enough and ceases her earlier bullying behaviors. At this stage the two dogs usually play nicely together. The dogs Bella bullies are typically smaller than she. Here size makes a difference.
Early on in their interactions, I suppose Bella is trying to put them in their subservient places. If on the other hand, a visiting dog is substantially larger and more powerful than Bella, then bullying by Bella never becomes an issue. Makes sense to me and is also what we observe with humans. Certainly relative size of the animal being bullied is another relevant characteristic.
A third observation relates to the age of the dog doing the bullying. While Buddy was a bully early in his life, now in his advanced years he usually acts as if he couldn’t be bothered (except for Little Jack who is trying to displace Buddy). When visiting male dogs come to the ranch, Buddy now pays them little mind. Earlier in his life he would growl at the visiting dogs and do his best to intimidate them. It has been my experience that older dogs, for whatever reason, seem not to bully other dogs to the degree that do younger dogs.
This age factor may coincide with unwillingness to expend energy. It simply may not worth the expenditure of effort. In humans and with advanced age, self-worth has long before become established and secured and may explain the drop off in bullying. Might something like this also be at work with dogs? So perhaps age, size, and within gender bullying are characteristics of my dogs. It seems to me these are also characteristics that usually apply to human bullying as well.
I suppose this means young males and females, be they dogs or humans, must learn to become comfortable with themselves regarding status and rank. Lacking this, the chances for bullying remain. As humans we might wish to elevate the self-worth of a bully in the hope this will reduce the risk for a vulnerable, smaller person. Likewise if a younger person is under great stress, say family problems or personal trauma, an older person might help by counseling him/her or providing other assistance to mitigate the ego-deflating nature of the trauma.
As it relates to dogs, their human friends might be left with expressions of support for and acknowledgement of the worth of the bully dog. A big juicy bone might do the trick but also might precipitate a scuffle! I typically resort to lots of compliments and stroking my dogs in an attempt to signal each is a valued pet.
Do others have ideas in this regard. Are we left with only anti-bullying policies in humans? How can we reduce bullying in both dogs and humans? Would love to hear your thoughts. Please share.