Dominance & Pack Behavior in Dogs: Is Being the Alpha Fact or Myth?

Before they were domesticated, dogs lived in packs with a clear hierarchy. Packs of wolves, African wild dogs, and feral mutts still adhere to strict social order, but that behavior also endures in the average family pet. So, how does pack behavior work, and why do you need to know about it?

In this article, we look at how the social hierarchy within a dog pack works. We also discuss how to tell if your dog regards you as his inferior and what you can do to redress that balance.

Overview

All domestic dogs are descended from wolves.  Within a pack of wolves, each individual has its place in the social pecking order. Without a recognized leader, the pack would become unstable, conflicts would break out, and there would be no structure to essential activities such as hunting, caring for, and teaching youngsters, etc.

Wolf pack hierarchy consists of one alpha male and one alpha female. Next in the pecking order are the beta male and female. All other animals in the group are the omega, which is the lowest ranking.

Identifying the Leader

The alpha male is the wolf who leads the pack and makes all the critical decisions around pack activities. For example, the alpha male decides when and where a hunt should take place, and the alpha female assists him. After a successful hunt, the alpha male eats first, followed by the alpha female, etc.

To ensure that only the most robust stock are produced to secure the future of the pack, the alpha male is the only wolf who mates with the alpha female.

Subservient animals who disrespect the hierarchy of the pack or challenge either of the alphas are usually driven out of the group.

Domestic Alphas

In a domestic situation, you can observe similar hierarchical behavior. That’s because all dogs are born with the same pack instincts as their wild wolf cousins.

For example, watch a litter of puppies with their mother, and you will observe that Mom keeps her babies in line with gentle nips and nudges. These behaviors tell the pups that Mom is the alpha and helps to build a strong and lasting bond between the dogs.

Watch a litter of puppies playing together, and you’ll quickly see their personalities begin to emerge. Some of the pups will be more submissive to their siblings than others.

In a multi-dog household, you will see the same scenario; there will be one dog who is more dominant than the others.

So, how do you know when your dog thinks he’s the alpha in your household?

Problem Signs

In a domestic situation, there are TWELVE clear signals that your dog thinks he’s the alpha in your household.

Your dog wakes you up:

You should be the one to wake your dog up, not the other way round! If your four-legged friend tries his best to wake you, you must ignore him. When he eventually stops pestering you, reward him with your attention.

That clearly tells your dog that you are the one who dictates when it’s time to sleep, not him.

Your dog eats before you do:

In a wolf pack, the alpha always eats first. The subordinate animals wait until the alpha has satisfied his appetite before they feed. Beta and omega wolves know this by instinct.  So, in a domestic situation, if you feed your dog first, you’re effectively telling him that he’s the alpha. Also, food scraps should not be fed to the dog from the table while you’re eating a meal.

You can’t take your dog’s food or toys away from him:

If your dog shows aggression when you try to remove his food bowl or take a favorite toy away from him, he clearly thinks he’s in charge.

Train your dog from puppyhood to allow you to take his things away from him whenever you want to. In the wild, the alpha wolf can deprive other pack members of food without fear of reprisal, and it should be the same in your home “pack.”

Your dog exits or enters the room before you do:

As with eating, dogs know by instinct that the alpha always takes the lead. Beta and omega wolves never walk in front of the alpha. So, you must always be the one to walk in front of your dog when you’re moving around your home.

Your dog jumps up on you:

In a pack of wild dogs, jumping is regarded as a dominance behavior. Subservient animals are put in their place by more dominant ones. So, if you allow your dog to jump all over you, you’re telling him that he’s superior in pack authority to you.

You need to teach your dog that jumping up is not okay and he should show you respect as his pack alpha.

Your dog has the run of the house:

If your dog is allowed the run of your house, including sleeping on your bed, sitting on your sofa, and hurtling up to the front door whenever someone calls to your home, you need to set some boundaries! By allowing your dog free rein to behave as he likes, you’re letting him know that he’s in charge.

Your dog controls your home territory:

Does your dog lay in the middle of the hallway and have you walk around him to get by? Does your dog take your chair in front of the fire so that you have to choose another? If these scenarios sound familiar, your dog is trying to exert himself as the alpha in the house.

Your dog should move out of the way for you, every time. You can do this by using a gentle nudge with your foot. That should be all it takes to get the message across. If your dog still refuses to move, step over him so that you take the higher ground.

Your dog ignores your commands:

Your dog should learn obedience to your commands from a young age. If your dog ignores your basic instructions and behaves as he likes, your pet is telling you that he thinks he’s in charge.

Sometimes, attending puppy training or obedience classes can help to redress the balance between you and your pet. When giving dog commands to your dog, don’t lose your temper or raise your voice. Keep your tone level, calm, and assertive.

Your dog pulls on his leash when you walk him:

Again, pulling on his lead when you and your dog are out walking is another dominance behavior. In fact, pulling you along is the ultimate signal that you are the subservient one in your relationship with your dog.

Your dog always wins play games:

Playtime is great for building a rapport with your dog, but never allow him to win! For example, if you’re playing tug-of-war, it’s crucial that you win the game. If you continually concede to your dog, he’ll naturally assume that he’s more powerful and stronger than you are.

Also, you must be the one to decide when the game is over. Place the toy out of reach of your dog and ignore any attempts that your pet makes to get the game started again.

Your dog expects you to fetch:

Lots of dogs love a game of fetch, and that’s great, but you must set some rules.

  1. The dog must bring the ball or toy to your feet
  2. Your dog needs to wait for you to start the game
  3. You must not have to step forward to reach the ball.
  4. If your dog doesn’t bring you the ball, don’t play with him.

That behavior tells your dog that he must give the ball or toy to you, making it clear that you are the one in charge.

Your dog demands your affection:

By all means, give your dog lots of love and affection, but remember that, as the alpha, you should be the one to decide when the attention ends. If your dog is pushy and continually demanding attention and affection, refuse and ignore him.

Dealing With Pack Imbalance

So, if you have a dog who thinks he’s the alpha, what action can you take?

Neuter:

Entire dogs naturally produce more testosterone than neutered animals. If your dog is bossy, sometimes having him neutered can make a world of difference to his attitude.

Touch his belly:

Alpha wolves have access to their subordinates’ bellies. The dog’s stomach is his vulnerable spot, and his making the area available to you is a clear act of submission. Make it a daily routine to give your dog belly rubs with the dog laying on his back, belly up.

Groom your dog:

Dominant dogs sometimes object to being touched in certain places such as their ears and feet. Groom your dog every day, straddling him as you do so to assert your dominance over him.

When grooming a dominant dog, take your time and be very aware of his body language. If the dog appears unhappy, growls, or curls his upper lip back, stop. Allow the dog to settle, and then try again tomorrow.

If you find that you’re struggling to groom your dog, ask an obedience trainer to work with your pet.

Teach your dog the “down” command:

Alpha wolves will often make subordinates in the pack lay down so that the alpha can assert his or her dominance. Teach your dog the “down” command and practice long down stays daily. That’s a very effective way of reinforcing your position as alpha in the household in a language that your dog will understand.

Keep your cool:

Never lose your temper with your dog, even if he’s challenging your authority. Don’t be tempted to hit your dog. That creates the feeling of being trapped and cornered, and the dog is very likely to strike out at you.

Don’t send mixed messages:

Alphas enforce their rules simply and immediately. Remember that the dog is a pretty simple creature with little sense of rationale and reasoning.

So, if you call your dog to come to you and he ignores you, you punish him when he eventually does condescend to come to you. Right? Wrong! To the dog, he’s just been punished for coming to you!

Be consistent in everything you do and in every command you give. Dogs thrive on routine and familiarity. In all your dealings with your dog, keep things black and white, rather than in shades of gray.

Keep yourself above your dog:

Never roll around on the floor when you’re playing with your dog. Alpha wolves don’t ever allow themselves to be in a position where they are lower than a subordinate.

Be the one to greet visitors to your home:

Make sure that you are the one who greets visitors to your home, not your dog. The dog should be the last person to get attention. In the wild, the alpha always approaches newcomers first, letting the remainder of the pack know when it’s safe to greet the newcomer.

Maintain eye contact:

A dominant dog views eye contact with another as a challenge. Whoever looks away first loses. Try not to have staring contests with your dog! If you have to look away before your dog does, that will reinforce his dominance and will quickly convince your pet that he is top dog!

No biting!

Make it a cardinal rule in your household that your dog is never allowed to bite or mouth you or anyone else, even in play.

Never leave your dog unsupervised with your children or with anyone who cannot assert themselves over the dog.

Final Thoughts

Some dogs are convinced that they are the boss! However, in your household, you must be top dog.

Follow our advice to establish yourself as the alpha in your household and always seek professional advice from a qualified, experienced dog behavior expert if your dog continues to be dominant.

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