That Time You Were the Omega Dog -- What humans can learn from pack mentality

05/29/20



So it seems that when the world says, “We’re shutting down indefinitely and everything you’re used to doing over the summer is cancelled,” my response is, “Let’s get a puppy!”


In a few days, we will be adding Buddy, a soft, sleepy, and clumsy little fur creature to our madhouse. Thus, our madcap mayhem will total three kids, three dogs, one grandmother, a dad, a mom, a consistently scavenged pantry, and a mountain range of laundry. Some say slow down and enjoy the break a pandemic brings. Apparently, I say fill the break with even more chaos. We’re all a bit mad, and I guess my lot in life is to be among the maddest.


Buddy has been a long time coming. Middle Man, my middle child and rascally son, has been asking, begging, and pleading for a Golden Retriever for two years. My answer had always been a firm no or a change of subject. The time was never right, the shelter never had Goldies, or Middle Man just didn’t show enough maturity to handle the grueling task of training a large breed, but hey, let’s get you on the track team instead. Then a friend tipped us off about their friend in the country whose Goldie was having puppies. Then I was screwed. I drove four hours to a town whose bustling downtown consisted of three lone trailers, one with a US postal service box, one with a single gas pump, and another with a sign that read, “Curb Your Pig.” Holy hell! Was someone named Pappy gonna hand me this dog through the window of a pickup truck?


But there was no Pappy and as soon as I held the damn thing, I forgot all the reasons why we weren’t ready for a puppy. In fact, I thought of all the reasons why it just made more sense to have three dogs instead of two.


“Katie’s getting older. A puppy will put a newfound pep in her step.”


Katie’s our shepherd mix. She’s fifteen and has only ever tolerated our other dog.


“Training a puppy might right the mistakes we made with Nibbles.”


Nibbles is our ridiculous dachshund, shih tzu mix. Nibbles is wound tighter than a bull’s ass at fly time and barks at anything that comes within ten feet of our property, including the wind. Nibbles is an adorable lost cause, one fourth the size of a Goldie, but when she looks in a mirror, she sees a wolf.


And speaking of wolves…


“Getting a puppy will make the dogs feel like they are part of a pack. Dogs like packs.”


And in the past three days since I not only caved to the puppy, but cried when I told it goodbye, I have said the word, pack, approximately two-hundred and thirty-six times — give or take.


“Dogs like to walk in packs, you know.” “Dogs like to sleep in packs, too.” “Watch the dogs when the food is put out. They eat in pack hierarchy.”


Then…


“Mom, which dog do you think will be the Omega dog in our pack?”


The what dog?


Middle Man was looking up at me expecting my pack expertise to continue to flow with certainty from my tongue, but what in Sam Hill was he talking about? I’d heard of the alpha dog, the dominant dog of the pack, the dog or wolf who decides when and where to hunt and eat. But apparently, there’s more to a pack than a dominant leader.


*****

Middle Man enlightened me...


An alpha dog has beta dogs, natural born followers out of a healthy fear, who require direction from the alpha, but also who, if given the opportunity, will jump at the chance of assuming leadership should the alpha give the slightest inch. Beta dogs need to be kept in line. Those who fail to obey the rules are dealt with swiftly and in appropriate manner by the alpha. But don’t feel sorry for the beta dogs, because some genuinely like being followers, and at least they aren’t the omega dog.


Think of the omega dog as the resident fool of the pack. If the omega was all, “hey guys, I think we should go hunt over there,” the rest of the pack would mock the omega’s suggestion. “Sure, let’s listen to that loser,” they’d all laugh. The omega dog is the dweeb-in-chief, taunted by the others. All pack ranks, alpha and beta, can help themselves to a nip here and a snarl there at the omega’s expense. In middle school terms, the omega is picked last for kickball and the rest of the pack are the bullies who steal its lunch. Apparently, Middle Man had had his nose in numerous wolf and dog websites over the last three days (nerd alert!) and I, the apparent ignorant, was left with one single thought: “Dogs are assholes!”


“Well, I can tell you one thing,” I said to Middle Man. “Buddy will not be the omega dog in our pack.”


After I was one-upped by my kid, I did some canine probing of my own. And while I still believed dogs might be jerks, I had to admit the omega ranking had strings of familiarity to it.


It seems the omega dog is as important to a pack as the alpha. A pack could survive without some of its betas, but the omega is vital because though the omega might build up the egos of the other members and willfully assume the role of scapegoat, the omega is actually more of a court jester than anything. The omega is the instigator of play time, the pack member most likely to be all, “hey guys! Wanna play chase?” The omega is the stress reliever of the group and sacrifices rank to keep spirits up, making the omega beloved by the others. When the omega gets hurt in a game of chase, the alpha runs to its rescue. So maybe wolves and dogs aren’t assholes after all. Maybe they’re more like the rest of us?


*****


In preparation for our Buddy, my little human pack gathered on the couch to watch Air Bud, the family movie about the basketball playing Goldie. The child hero in the movie is a new kid in town, Josh Framm, who is the brunt of a bully’s locker room antics.


“That kid’s the omega dog in their pack,” Middle Man said.


“Yeah, but that kid [the bully] is not a good alpha male,” my husband chimed in. “You can learn a lot about a leader by how they treat the omega in a group.”


Like it or not, bullies are leaders -- alphas. They always have betas and an omega. Following the alpha’s example, the betas pick on the omega. The bully is undoubtedly a complete asshole, as are the betas for following, but nevertheless, the bully is still a leader. And this pack mentality is not exclusive to wolves and middle school. You are part of a pack, as am I. You may be the alpha at home and a beta with your girlfriends. You may be the beta at work and the alpha elsewhere. You may even be the omega, and after too many wolf and dog websites and dogs-playing-sports movies in a three-day period to count, I’m left wondering, why do we assume the ranks we hold within our packs? And if we’re the omega, why haven’t we pummeled the alphas yet and assumed the throne?


Some of us are natural born leaders. We take to leadership because our ego expects nothing less. We give direction better than we follow, because we believe ourselves to be an authority. Most of us are betas, gravitating to one person’s doctrine and ideas. We may follow someone because we lack confidence to lead, because they give us the confidence we lack, or because we’re just not interested in leading. Sometimes we take a lesser rank because we believe we are weaker, unskilled, or lacking charisma. But unlike wolves, we humans volley our ranks because we humans travel in several packs.


“Who's the omega in our pack?” Middle Man asked.


Poor kid. He stepped right into his own cow patty. Instinctively, we all started laughing, even The Girl, who is two years his younger. Soon Middle Man laughed -- at himself -- because he knew the answer. Without a doubt, Middle Man is our prized omega. He is the brunt of many jokes, the willing scapegoat in times of stress, and an overall comic relief the vast majority of the time. He is the jester of our court and like wolves, we would be lost without him and the endless entertainment his mishaps and buffoonery bring. However, at school he’s a definite alpha -- not a bully, but a natural leader among his friends and teammates. I’ve mentioned countless times in this blog that he was born cooler than I’ll ever be. And yet within his home pack, those with whom he is most comfortable, he chooses to be the omega?


So, why would the cool kid willingly be the dork?


Perhaps just as a natural born leader requires confidence to voice their ideas and guide those ideas into fruition, some people also have a natural born spirit to be joy makers, bringing relief to others through such a solid sense of self that they can laugh at themselves.


Maybe omegas aren’t losers? Maybe wolves and dogs aren’t assholes after all? In reality, maybe the omegas are cooler than the rest of the pack, high on the pride of knowing that their sacrifice on the totem pole is so vital to the group’s welfare. A wolf pack is unproductive without hierarchy. And our packs, though prone to human emotions, need the same certain spirit of an omega wolf to bring levity when life gets too serious. It takes someone with tremendous strength and tremendous self-worth to be the brunt of good-humored jokes. And it takes someone with even more self-esteem to know when jokes go too far. Omegas aren’t wimps. They may take the brunt, but they don’t take themselves down with it. And the best human omegas, like my middle man, know they have the same power within themselves as any alpha -- perhaps even more. My middle man knows his pitfalls are just as dynamic as his moments of triumph because, combined, they make him into the relatable leader he truly is – an alpha male, unapologetically himself with an inner sense of self no pack mentality can penetrate.


*****


I know enough to know that I may be an idiot for adding a third dog to my house. I may be the brunt of many jokes as I try to maneuver three dogs into a groomer at once. I may look sheepishly at my neighbors as yet another dog of mine breaks the silence of a beautiful sunset with its barking. Buddy may fail puppy kindergarten. This whole thing may be a complete disaster and I may be pinning myself into a series of mishaps that peg me as the fool. But you know what? Let them laugh -- not just at the dog pack I’m accumulating, but at everything. At some point, I settled into being a beta pack member, one who breathes a sigh of relief when someone else’s hand raises first to chair the fair or choose the restaurant for dinner. I’m the alpha at home, but outside, I can’t remember the last time I led a team. Years maybe? And as this blog’s resident screw up, I’m also the omega...a lot! I’m as foolish as they come, trying to appreciate my misdemeanors as any proud omega should. I may never be as dynamic as leading authors in my genre. My house may never compare to the polish of others. My body may never look magazine ready, and I may never be so rich that I don’t hold my breath when an American Express bill arrives. So what? I guess I’m unapologetically Annie -- so comfortable in my skin that your laughter becomes part of my charm.


Good followers are just as important as exceptional leadership. We could all learn a few things about humility, pride, and self-worth, if we shift our eyes from the leader and onto those whom we often take for granted. Are they happy, surrounded by laughter? Or do they need more respect? Safety even? A good wolf pack protects the omega like a prized, precious gift, something they couldn’t live without -- like a funny, eleven-year-old kid.


Or a puppy.


Our Buddy and our prized omega kid.

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