Many pet parents attribute their dogs’ behavior problems to “being dominant.” Some believe that common canine habits like rushing out doors, pulling on leash, begging for food, mounting other dogs, urine marking and even licking people on the face are dominant behaviors. Aggressive behavior directed toward pet parents is often classified as a dominance problem, too. But not all animal behavior experts agree that dogs are constantly making a play to become “leader of the pack.”
When a trainer deems a dog dominant, pet parents are usually told they must assume the “alpha” role to fix behavior problems. Unfortunately, training plans that are intended to assert a pet parent’s superiority are usually harsh and adversarial in nature. Techniques like alpha rolls, scruff shakes and other violent maneuvers frighten many dogs and can trigger defensive aggression. These techniques aren’t just unpleasant for dogs and dangerous for pet parents to administer. They’re also irrelevant to most behavior problems, and they can erode the bond between dog and pet parent.
So what can you do if you suspect your dog has a dominance problem? How can you tell whether bad behavior stems from your dog’s desire to be the boss? Should you worry that your best friend yearns to achieve “top dog” status? Read on to find out.
What Is “Dominance?”
In scientific circles, the concept of dominance is used to explain how animals organize themselves within social groups. Group members compete for everything: food, resting sites, personal space, grooming companions and mating partners. It’s necessary to have some sort of nonviolent system for determining how these things get divvied up. Fighting is energetically costly, and, for large predators like hyenas, lions and wolves, it’s downright dangerous. Combatants could be seriously injured or even killed. A hierarchical organization based on dominant/subordinate relationships is one way to solve this problem. Dominant animals usually have priority access over subordinates, so there’s no need for fighting.
According to one school of thought, animals establish relationships by sizing each other up and assessing physical power. This is usually accomplished through play, posturing or minor sparring. However, dominance is usually based on more than just strength. It can be a function of many factors, including sex, age, size, personality and the status of close relatives. Once a relationship between two individuals is established, the subordinate animal defers to the dominant animal, and the dominant animal may, in turn, rule over the subordinate. In wolves and dogs, these relationships are reinforced through a sophisticated language of highly ritualized postures and gestures. (Please read our article on Canine Body Language to learn more.) Although dominance relationships are normally stable, certain events, such as the death or departure of a group member, the addition of a new member or the sexual maturation of a young animal, can trigger upheaval and restructuring of the hierarchy.
Relationships with Other Dogs
In a linear hierarchy, or pecking order, Animal A is always dominant over Animal B, Animal B is always dominant over Animal C, and so forth. Many people believe that dogs organize themselves according to this kind of ranking system. However, social canids, such as wolves and African wild dogs, appear to have more complex relationships.
The idea that dogs always form linear hierarchies is based on three common misconceptions. The first is that wolf packs are organized this way, with an “alpha,” a “beta,” and so on, down to the “omega” at the bottom of the totem pole. Another misconception is that dominance is all about aggression—that high-ranking wolves attain their social status through dramatic aggressive displays and must constantly fend off challenges by lower-ranking wolves. This is rarely, if ever, the case. A third misconception is that dogs are basically tame wolves and adopt the same social system as wolves. We address each of these myths below.
When scientists first studied wolf behavior, they observed captive groups of unrelated adult animals. These captive packs appeared to be organized according to a linear dominance hierarchy, but there was still a great deal of posturing and fighting among group members. The scientists assumed this was how things worked with wolves—the strongest and most violent individual became the “alpha wolf.”
Once scientists observed wolves more extensively in the wild, they realized that wolf social organization is much more flexible than they’d thought. We now know that wolves don’t organize themselves in a linear hierarchy based on strength and aggressiveness. According to Dr. David Mech, one of the world’s leading experts in wolf behavior, “most wolf packs are merely family groups formed exactly the same way as human families are formed.”1 In these small, related groups, rank is based primarily on age. Wolf parents hold the top positions, and older offspring have authority over younger brothers and sisters. Some packs are more like large extended families, with all the complex relationships that characterize a close-knit group of grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and in-laws.
Under stressful conditions, such as limited food availability or the wrong mix of personalities, even the tightest family unit can be fraught with hostility. But when times are good and there’s plenty to eat, wild wolf packs are usually extremely peaceful. Few, if any, signs of dominance conflicts are seen.
Are Dogs Just Tame Wolves?
It’s well established that domestic dogs evolved from wolves. However, according to archaeological records, dogs have existed as a subspecies distinct from wolves for somewhere between 10,000 and 14,000 years. Many changes have taken place in that time, resulting in big differences between wolves and dogs:
- Dogs have a strong desire to bond with people, a reduction in problem-solving ability compared to wolves and more puppy-like attributes, like playfulness and a decreased fear of new things.
- Most free-ranging and feral dogs do not form stable family packs as wolves do. Instead, dogs tend to group together in loose, variable associations of unrelated individuals.
- Wolves hunt cooperatively. Feral dogs rarely hunt successfully and never coordinate their efforts. In most parts of the world, feral dogs survive by scavenging human refuse and waste.
- Wolves form relatively monogamous pair bonds. The senior male and female (the “alpha” pair) in a group are typically the only ones to breed and raise pups. In contrast, feral dogs are usually promiscuous. Females sometimes mate with multiple males during one estrous cycle.
- Feral dogs don’t cooperate to raise puppies, as wolves do. All the members of a wolf pack, including the sire, work together to protect and nurture a single litter of pups. Feral female dogs are on their own when raising a litter—there is no communal or paternal care.
So the answer is “No.” Although it’s true that wolves are dogs’ ancestors, the appearance, behavior and social lives of domestic dogs are very different.
Dominance in Pet Dog “Packs”
The tendency for multiple dogs living in a household to form dominance hierarchies is variable. Some seem to do it, and others don’t. Experts aren’t sure why. As we’ve reduced dogs’ aggressiveness through domestication and breed refinement, we might have reduced their need and ability to establish dominance relationships among themselves.
In some pet dog packs, there is a clear rank order, with one “top dog” and the rest falling in line like rungs on a ladder. In other packs, the order of the dogs depends on the resource. For instance, one dog is the boss when it comes to food, and another is the boss when it comes to toys. In still other packs, there appears to be no ranking of the individuals at all. They follow more of a “finders keepers” rule for determining who gets what. Finally, some dog packs just seem to share things without strife.
Who’s the Boss?
If dogs in a household do form a hierarchy, it can be difficult to figure out which dog, if any, is the “alpha.” There are many potential clues to note—everything from who grooms whom to who hangs out with whom—but there are often more exceptions than rules. Even the popular notion that one dog mounting another is a sign of dominance can be misleading. Mounting can be a dominance display, but it can also be part of play or sexual behavior (even if a dog is a neutered male or spayed female).
Anecdotally, dominance among dogs seems to be a function of age, size, reproductive ability, status history and motivation.
- Older dogs are often more likely to dominate younger dogs.
- Sexually intact dogs are more likely to be dominant over altered dogs, especially if they’re males.
- The status quo can have a major impact on who’s dominant. A dog who has held the top position for some time may keep it, even as he ages and his physical abilities deteriorate. Prestige sometimes carries more weight than power.
It sometimes helps to look at situations in which the dogs compete for something. If a tidbit falls on the kitchen floor, is one dog more likely to get it than another? If there’s only one bowl of water for two thirsty dogs, which dog drinks first? If one dog is resting in a comfortable spot and another dog comes near, does the first dog get up and move away? Is one dog more likely to get and keep the toy during games of fetch? Can one dog push the other out of way to gain access to your lap or your attention? These are all circumstances in which one dog might reliably out-compete another. However, it’s important to keep in mind that speed and motivation can play huge roles in how competitive situations play out. The young dog in a pack might be far more able and determined to get the toy than the older dog—even though the younger dog defers to the older one in most other scenarios.
Canine body language can sometimes provide clues, too. You can look at whether dogs in a family posture to each other, particularly during greetings. If they do, does one dog consistently stand erect and appear more intimidating while the other dog deliberately looks away or assumes a smaller, more submissive posture? If so, the more confident-looking dog might hold a higher rank.
Do I Have an “Alpha Dog?”
When scientists use terms like “dominant” and “subordinate,” they’re referring to a relationship between individuals. But when people use labels like “dominant” and “alpha” in casual conversation, they’re usually referring to an individual dog’s characteristics or attributes, such as confidence, fearlessness, assertiveness or aggressiveness. These characteristics often have nothing to do with whether the dog would be dominant in a canine social group. In wolf packs, the alpha is rarely the most aggressive animal. In dogs, we simply don’t know what personality attributes make one dog more likely to be dominant over another.
Using the term “alpha” to describe a dog’s personality isn’t only inaccurate—it can give the dog a bad name. Dogs labeled as “alphas” are often pegged as troublemakers, even before a problem emerges. Whether or not a dog possesses strong personality characteristics has little bearing on whether he’ll develop behavior problems or make a good pet. In fact, some people actively look for confidence in a dog. When choosing a competition obedience, agility or flyball dog, dog sport enthusiasts often opt for spunk. They want a bold, assertive dog—a fearless, enthusiastic partner who’s unlikely to become stressed under pressure. This kind of dog might not be for everyone—but that doesn’t mean that such a dog must be kept in check lest he take over the household!
Relationships with People
So far, we’ve only discussed whether dogs form dominance hierarchies amongst themselves. But there’s another important question: Do dogs also see humans as pack members?
Commonly Held Beliefs about Dominance and Dogs
Traditionally, behaviorists and trainers assumed that dogs do integrate people into their hierarchies, and this assumption led to a number of beliefs:
- Because dogs consider us their social peers, some see themselves as dominant over their pet parents. This situation leads to a variety of behavior problems.
- Dominance problems arise when a pet parent isn’t powerful enough to stave off her dog’s challenges for alpha status. Dogs need “a firm hand.”
- If a pet parent doesn’t step up and take on the alpha role, her dog will feel forced to do so, even if he doesn’t actually want to be dominant.
- If a pet parent isn’t confident and assertive with her dog, he might feel uncertain about his place in the pack. This will lead to misbehavior as he attempts to figure out his social status.
Today, many dog behavior experts feel that these beliefs aren’t true and can damage the relationship between dog and pet parent.
Those who subscribe to the idea that a dog might perceive himself as dominant over his pet parent often believe that aggression problems arise when the pet parent behaves inappropriately and oversteps her bounds as the subordinate in the relationship. “Dominance aggression” is thought to underlie a collection of aggressive responses elicited by these types of situations:
- Coming too close when a dog has food, toys or stolen objects—or trying to take those valued items away from the dog
- Standing over or staring directly at a dog
- Handling a dog in certain ways (grooming particular areas of the body, grabbing the collar, toweling the paws, rolling the dog over on his back, patting the dog on top of the head, etc.)
- Picking up, holding or hugging a dog
- Disturbing a dog while he’s resting or sleeping
- Stepping over a dog
- Scolding or punishing a dog
Are These Beliefs Valid?
So do dogs misbehave because of a desire to be dominant? Because experts don’t agree, the answer depends on whom you ask. Truly, we can’t know how dogs think of us. It’s certainly possible that your dog plans to overthrow the family power structure. However, there is scant evidence to support the idea that dogs compete with us for social status—and there is no evidence that “a firm hand” or forceful, assertive leadership is necessary to ensure a dog’s good behavior.
Are These Beliefs Useful?
A good deal of traditional dog behavior literature has stressed the importance of pet parents’ asserting their dominant status in the pack. A variety of methods designed to achieve this end have been recommended.
- The indirect approach Some procedures are designed to indirectly lower a dog’s status. The dog must defer to his pet parent by refraining from moving through doors first, staying off the furniture, following behind the pet parent on walks, eating last and complying with commands to lie down or sit. Sometimes the recommendations are downright silly. According to some, a pet parent should assert authority by lying down on her dog’s bed or spitting on her dog’s food before giving it to him!
- The direct approach More direct methods focus on the application of various techniques that rely on physical force, intimidation or punishment.
Do these strategies work? While we cannot state with certainty that dogs do or do not compete with humans for social status, we do know that explaining misbehavior in terms of dominance usually isn’t helpful. If a training plan includes learning obedience skills, the indirect approach might produce a better-behaved dog, but it usually doesn’t change the dog’s response to situations that trigger aggression. Training plans that take the direct approach aren’t only ineffective—they’re often dangerous. The average pet parent can’t use the recommended procedures without terrifying or aggravating her dog and risking getting bitten. More often than not, a dog becomes more aggressive as a result of this type of intervention. Dominance should never be equated with domination, intimidation and coercion.
If It’s Not Dominance, What Is It?
Why are the interventions discussed above misguided? Most conflicts between dogs and their pet parents are not based on canine power plays but on fear and mistrust. Dogs who show aggression in the situations described above typically don’t act “dominant,” and they don’t exhibit “dominant” postures. They often appear to be in conflict. They’re apprehensive and fearful, but they’re also willing to defend themselves. Some dogs learn very quickly that aggression works to make people back off. So instead of saying a dog is asserting his dominance over his pet parent, it makes more sense to assume that the dog is uncomfortable with what’s happening to him, and he’s trying to avoid the situation using the most effective strategy he can.
When to Get Help
Because most aggressive behavior involves fear or anxiety of some kind, training designed to resolve the discomfort underlying aggression work far better than domination and power plays. Techniques like desensitization and counterconditioning are particularly effective. To learn more, please see our article on Desensitization and Counterconditioning.
If your dog has an aggression problem, it’s best to get professional help. Aggression in dogs is complex. Attempting to modify aggressive behavior on your own can be tricky at best and dangerous at worst. A behaviorist or trainer can come to your home to evaluate your dog’s behavior and help you decide on the best plan. If you and the professional you hire feel it’s appropriate to work on your dog’s problem, the behaviorist or trainer will develop a safe, effective treatment plan customized to your dog’s temperament and your family’s unique situation, coach you through its implementation, monitor your dog’s progress and make changes to the plan as required. Please see our article on Finding Professional Help to locate a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB or Associate CAAB), a board-certified veterinary behaviorist (Dip ACVB) or a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT-KA) in your area. Make sure that any expert you hire is qualified to help you. He or she should have experience successfully treating your dog’s particular behavior problem.
If you can’t find a behaviorist or trainer in your area, consider long-distance assistance. Some behaviorists offer consultations via telephone or fax. If this option isn’t possible for you either, it may be safest to simply focus on management strategies. If you decide to attempt behavior modification without professional help, proceed with extreme caution.
1 Mech, L.D. Whatever happened to the term alpha wolf? International Wolf, Winter 2008.