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Is your poodle a wolf in disguise?

Mary Ann Nester & Daz backstage at Olympia 1999Mary Ann Nester wanted to learn the truth about her Miniature Poodle. Was he a wolf in a lion's clip? She contacted lupine lover, Ian Redman who runs Wolf Help (Helping Education for Lobo Preservation) and he agreed to travel to Essex and give an illustrated lecture for Aslan DT that would answer her questions on wolf society, behaviour and habitats.

Using a video presentation and up to 100 slides of 'National Geographic' quality, Ian set about demystifying the wolf and, hence, her poodle. He explained how many societies, such as the Cree Indian, revered the world and wrapped him in legend as a spirit guide for warriors. As time marched on and agricultural lifestyles advanced, the wolf and man came into conflict. The wolf was reviled as a killer of cattle and subject to mass extermination. Today, the balance is being redressed and wolf preservation is a worthy conservation project.

The Poodle has never faced extinction although the breed's popularity has waxed and waned. It may be found either luxuriating in the lap of Prince Regents or pulling sleds over 1,100 miles of snow and ice in the Iditaroil Race. John Suter's Poodles have made the journey from Anchorage to Nome in only 14 days and that means there must be some wolf lurking under those curly coats. Suter says the psychological well-being of the team is a training priority, and if there was ever an animal that was a team player it is the wolf.

The close bond of a wolf pack is copied in the behaviour of a family pet dog with its owners. It only takes two to tango or make a pack - that's you and your dog. And most of us have a full set: a puppy getting ready to debut on the circuit, the working dog who knows why there are contacts on the A-frame and the geriatric who is now retired from competition.

Hands up those who have too many dogs to list by name on the Christmas card and have resorted to adding 'and the dogs' after their signature? Typically an agility person has a multi-dog household and the larger the pack, the more complex the social structure. The modern technology of wolf research methods, such as radio collars, has produced a better understanding of the wolf and a better understanding of it close ancestor the domestic dog.

How close is the wolf pack to an agility pack?
The wolf pack generally consists of about ten members: an Alpha leader, a Beta Lieutenant and an Omega who fits into the bottom slot. The top pair of adults will normally be the only couple to produce puppies each season. The pack is a wolf's strength and its size will be dependent on the prey/predator ration of the area. The depends on co-operation for survival - in hunting and in raising offspring.

I can identify hierarchy and ranking in my own domestic bunch - the Poodles rule, OK. My pack operates as a single unit easily characterised when compared to other packs met at a show. Their motto is 'eat all before you and prosper.'

Agility people, by carefully choosing their dogs, have created a great deal of artificiality in their domestic packs. Some people have a preference for keeping bitches or dogs. My own pack is male (three castrated and one entire.) How abnormal is a single sex pack? You know the rumours about single sex schools! I feel my next dog should be a bitch to boss the boys around a bit. Some packs consist totally of juvenile delinquents and others are positively geriatric. But am I thinking of expanding my pack because there are rich prey-pickings in my area or because the ratio of class entry to rosette has fallen?

Maintaining control and ascendancy over a large pack of dogs is not easy, especially when most of us have other things to do like going to work or picking up kids from school. Our priorities are not those of a wolf or dog - hunting and breeding.

In the domestic pack, dogs are more bark than bite. On the other hand, wolves will act together to kill any member of their kind who trespasses into their territory and threatens their food supply. A pack of Miniature Poodles is not a very frightening sight but together they can intimidate a German Shepherd into relinquishing a favourite toy in the exercise field. It is easy to control one or two dogs, but a five-a-side match needs more than the ordinary referee. At every agility show, small, medium and large packs of dogs are meeting and mixing, usually without incident. Instead of patrolling miles of hunting grounds by foot like wolves, agility dogs guard the tent awning and travel by van all over Britain to distribute their scent markings.Brenda Tenten's pack

Pecking order
The Agility pack is quite different from the wolf pack. We determine when the pack is enlarged and base this decision, not on the prey/predator ratio, but on whether we need a new competition dog. Some of us plan ahead and get a puppy, and others get an older rescue dog so that training can commence right away.

A new-comer will either fit into the pack right away or become the pack's scapegoat. In the wolf pack, the scapegoat is picked on by everyone until life is so unbearable that striking off for pastures new is the only sensible solution. The wolf will either die trying to sustain itself in new territory or will become a founding member of a new pack. Is your rescue dog ostraised by his new pack? Does it appear that he can never do anything right as far as your dogs are concerned. Is he looking for exit signs above the doors?

Viewing our domestic dogs through the eyes of a wolf can certainly be enlightening. I was happy to learn that there has been no recorded attack by a healthy wolf on any adult in North America. My Poodles are only guilty of mental cruelty. Wolves are at the top of the food chain. By attacking and killing weak individuals from herds of caribou or moose, they are helping to maintain a healthy ecosystem. In my house, I am the top predator. We make little contribution to the national good or world economy, but we do have lots of fun together doing agility!

Ian Redman would be happy to supply a full profile on wolf lectures on request. He is available to talk to interested groups of people who want to learn about The Secret World of the Wolf. For more information, call 01606-77120.

About the author...
Mary Ann Nester
(left) is a member of APDT. Born in the USA, she came to Britain in 1972 as a student. She has pursued a mixed career - fruit picker, gymnastic coach, keep-fit instructor and academic librarian. In 1997 she set up Aslan Enterprises, a dog-training school named after her first agility dog.

Running Aslan, a lurcher dog, at agility competitions got Mary Ann hooked on the sport and Bounty, a German Shepherd Dog, and Tam, the Border Collie were soon added to the household.

Mary Ann's most successful dog to date has been Brillo Pad, a Miniature Poodle who took her to Olympia and Crufts. Brillo also competed in the Draw Challenge on National Lottery Live!, winning Mary Ann the privilege of pushing the button that released the evening's lottery balls in front of millions of television viewers.

Daz, another miniature poodle and most recent addition, was bought for competition in the Mini ring, but grew too tall! He has proved that size doesn't matter. He entertained the crowds at Olympia as one of the 'fun dogs' and has strut his stuff in the ABC competition (Any Breed but Collie) at Crufts.