Dogs' Social Hierarchy & Pack Behavior

You've heard the popular jargon - alpha dog, pack leader, dominant. It's the in-thing to treat dogs as if they are wolves in dogs' clothing - trying to take over; dominating. But they're not! Not only does this attitude damage our relationships with our dogs, it's based on flawed beliefs.

First, dogs are not wolves. Dogs are dogs. Secondly, many popular perceptions about wolf behavior are erroneous and misleading. Even if you buy into the idea that a dog's behavior is just like a wolf's, wolves don't behave the way we've been led to think. Wolves are not naturally dominant. They aren't trying to take over either.

Here's the problem: Wolf behavior studies are largely based on captive populations, not on natural wolf behavior in the wild. Are they different? Absolutely. Does it matter to our understanding of canine behavior? You bet!

In the wild, a wolf pack is usually a family consisting of a breeding pair and their offspring of the previous one to three years. Much like a human family, as youngsters reach maturity, they leave the parental pack and form their own. A pack with several adult males and females of the same age would rarely, if ever, be found in the wild. But this is the make-up of a captive population, from which many dog trainers and behaviorists derive theories of dog dominance. These theories are as unnatural as the wolves' surroundings.

As biologist David Mech writes, "Attempting to apply information about the behavior of assemblages of unrelated captive wolves to the familial structure of natural packs has resulted in considerable confusion. Such an approach is analogous to trying to draw inferences about human family dynamics by studying humans in refugee camps. The concept of the alpha wolf as 'top dog' ruling a group of similar-aged compatriots is particularly misleading."

So the idea that the adult dog is continuously vying for control of the family unit - that all interactions are calculated to maintain or achieve higher status - is incorrect. The problem? Simply this: Dominance theories interfere with our enjoyment of our dogs and damage our relationship with them.

If you're convinced your dog is looking for the slightest chink in your leadership armor, can you ever relax with him? Can you take pleasure from a dog that you believe is constantly watching for the slightest opportunity to overthrow you? Is this a recipe for a trusting relationship? We don't think so either. So let's look at some truths about dominance.

The social hierarchy

Isn't there such a thing as a "dominant" dog? Sure there is. A social hierarchy can exist between dogs. But it is not relevant to our relationship with our dogs. Social dominance does not exist between two species. We're not dogs, and our dogs know it. Dogs get along fine with humans because we're not in competition for social status. Why should we be?

What's in it for your dog to dominate you? What could he gain that he doesn't already have? You feed him; house him; groom him; and care for him. You take her places; provide toys, beds, and all the comforts of home. You walk her on demand and pet her when she asks for it. What's missing? Does your dog want to bring home the bacon (or Bison)? Does she want control of the car keys? Of course not.

But I've been told my dog is dominant!

Most likely your dog is pushy - and you've reinforced pushiness. Dogs are opportunists, and your dog is an opportunist that has learned how to get what he wants. It's easy to turn this behavior around - non-adversarially without confrontation and without dominating him, with our program Earn Life.

The rules of the pack

But wait, there's more. The family unit, or pack, does have rules of behavior. And these rules apply to everyone, regardless of species. Dogs learn these rules early on - at just a few weeks of age from littermates, mom and other adult dogs. And one of the rules is that when a rule is broken, there's a consequence. This is a good rule. It enables us to teach our dogs right and wrong. The downside is that our dogs expect us to understand right and wrong from their perspective, too. It is this rule that often causes misunderstandings between dogs and people.

The dog believes that everyone understands and follows the same rules - from the smallest child to the oldest dog. Secure in this belief, when someone breaks the rules - even if they didn't know the rule exists - the dog reacts like . . . well, a dog. Often interpreted by humans as dominant behavior, he's just being a dog.

Consider this scenario from the dog's point of view: Arguably the most problematic imperative is the "resource possession" rule. It says 'if it's in or near my mouth it's mine.' Is it any wonder, then, that when a dog is eating dinner and someone tries to muscle in or repeatedly take his dish away, he grumbles?

Violating the rule of possession might earn a growl, snarl, snap, or even a bite. Misinterpreted as dominance, or even viciousness, the dog is simply enforcing the rule - the rule the intruder violated. His snarl is the consequence for breaking a rule. By appreciating the rules that govern a dog's social behavior, you will better understand your dog's interaction with your family. (This doesn't mean you can't ever touch your dog's food dish or take something from him. Understanding the rules means you behave correctly, too. )

To learn more about normal dog behavior, check out our suggestions for reading & viewing, enroll in one of our classes, or if you're having issues with your dog -- whether someone called it "dominance" or not -- contact us for a behavior consultation.