Let’s talk about how dogs live together in families. I mean groups of dogs within a home. I will not call it a pack because that is inaccurate and causes people to say and do some odd things.
According to the dictionary, a pack of animals refers to a “group of wild animals, especially wolves, hunting and living together.” And since domestic dogs in our homes are not wild, don’t hunt to live, and have no choice about the matter of living together, and since even street dogs live individually with highly fluid relationships with no specific or cooperative roles, it’s just non applicable. For example, street dogs aren’t going to find some tasty morsels and bring them back to another dog who has taken care of their puppies in exchange for dinner. Or at least I’ve never heard of such or thing, or seen anything even remotely like that in my house.
But by virtue of sharing their home with other dogs, dogs DO live in social groups and they DO form relationships with these other dogs – interacting differently depending on who the “other” happens to be. In other words, dogs have friends and enemies and relationships! Some like each other and others? Not so much.
I haven’t found much discussion of this topic outside of the “dogs are pack animals and therefore require a strong alpha leader” thinkers, and that is not what I am talking about – that mindset does not make sense to me because dogs don’t have a pack structure, which presumes cooperative and defined roles.
However, people who live with dogs certainly observe power relationships within their households – in the same sense that there are power relationships within human social groups. What do I mean by that?
It means that some canine members of the household are more ASSERTIVE (use the word dominant if you prefer) vis a vis another. They have more “force of personality” and get their way more often when they care about the resource in question. The obvious resources are things like food, toys, preferred resting places, access to preferred humans, breeding opportunities, etc. However, it is perfectly common for a given (assertive) dog not to want a specific resource, and then another (less assertive) dog is welcome to it. Which has nothing to do with assertiveness and everything to do with lack of interest – the question of who gets it only comes up if both want the same thing. Then – who gets it, assuming no outside interference?
One also needs to consider the context of the specific resource in question. For example, maybe one dog has puppies. Even a very non-assertive female with a litter of puppies can become extremely assertive about protecting them. Other dogs, even highly assertive dogs, are wise to listen to the opinion of a female with her own litter.
My experience is that some dogs are extremely assertive and others are extremely passive as a quality of temperament but always within the context of the relative players – who else does the dog live with and what is their level of natural assertiveness?
As a separate quality, there are dogs who care about a whole lot of stuff and others who care about relatively little. That’s not really about assertiveness as much as their level of “want”.
So if you have an assertive temperament who cares about only two things and a passive dog who cares about everything – then the assertive dog will always get the two things and the passive dog can have the rest – but not those two things.
And if you have a passive dog who wants everything, yet they live with an assertive dog who also wants everything, then the passive dog is about to lead a deprived life, getting very little, unless there is some sort of outside interference, like a human.
So you’ve got a few things going on. You have assertiveness as a temperament trait (willingness to contest another, which does not mean violence – assertiveness is complex and willingness to use physical force is only one component), you have strength of desire for various resources, and you have the issue of relativity – who does the dog live with and what are their characteristics? And when both players have access to the same thing, how strong is that want in each player – from “not at all” to “I will get this or give up my life”?
Oh! And let’s throw in clever intelligence, since passive dogs with strong levels of desire can get all sorts of things simply by being more clever than the more naturally assertive member of the household.
Now let’s go back to the dictionary.
Dominance is defined as: “power and influence over others.”
By that definition there is no question that some dogs are dominant over others. It is often predictable in my house what will happen under a variety of circumstances because I know who has greater (or lesser) force of personality (assertiveness), who cares about what resources and how much they care, and I have a good sense of how far each will go if they want a resource and what options they have at their disposal if it is contested. I know who’s a bully and who is benevolent – I find that to be a factor as well when a dog is the more assertive one. A bully will literally take a toy out of another dog’s unwilling mouth. A benevolent dog will allow another to keep what they have, even if that would not have been an option before anyone had it. (Bullies and benevolent leaders; how’s that for anthropomorphizing?)
Now all of this discussion is both relative to the others in the home AND changes over time as the group or specific qualities of the group change.
Example: When Raika was young and fit, she took what she wanted. Her “things” were personal space, access to her preferred human, and toys. Lyra and Brito respected her authority. She was more assertive/dominant than they were.
As she got older, Lyra started testing, pushing actively into Raika’s personal space, taking attention from preferred humans that she would never have dared touch before, and literally taking toys out from under Raika’s nose. Raika allowed these changes – presumably as a function of her loss of physical strength and ability. She was getting old. Once I saw Lyra literally take a toy out of Raika’s mouth – a toy that Raika wanted (If you’re curious, I chose to intercede). It was a subtle process that took place over time – and it was real.
As Raika’s power declined, Lyra showed herself to be something of a bully. She began taking things from the other dogs that she wanted, guarding things that she had (food and toys) and pushing others out of the way when she wanted human attention. None of these things happened when she was fully under Raika’s (benevolent) thumb. Benevolent in the sense that Raika only protected those things mentioned above and did not take things from Lyra directly – she respected the reality of possession as 9/10’s of the law and she truly didn’t care about what she didn’t care about – which meant there was plenty left over for the more passive members of the household.
How about “hierarchy”? Do they have a hierarchical structure?
The definition of hierarchy is: a system or organization in which people or groups are ranked one above the other according to status or authority.
Using that definition, this one is harder to consider because you need to watch the behavior of larger numbers of individuals and account for both their individual levels of assertiveness and their interest in having specific resources via a via all of the other players – and that’s a lot for the casual human brain to keep track of. Having said that, in terms of raw assertiveness there probably is a hierarchy but it’s not all that relevant without considering the individual player’s interest in specific resources. Really, it’s irrelevant how assertive a dog is by temperament if they don’t actually care to have a thing that anyone else wants.
Now – what about me, the human? Frankly, I have no idea what the dogs think about me. I get my way by virtue of controlling ALL of the resources – and being smart in general. I’m useful to them and they cede authority to me – it makes life easier for them so they go along willingly enough and I have proven myself as useful – I take care of them under difficult or uncertain circumstances. By the dictionary definition, that makes me dominant – I have power and influence over them. By my choice, I am benevolent – I’m not prone to violence and I get my status by being useful, not powerful.
Am I alpha? That makes no sense – dogs are not in a pack, and even if they were, what is the role of a human in such a relationship? There is none. But if we mean alpha as in slang for dominant then yes, I’m alpha. The problem is that some people take that literally – as if the dogs see me as some part of their social pack structure – and that’s kind of weird. I mean, which resources am I trying to get for myself that a dog wants? I don’t want their food and I sure as hell don’t want their toys. We’re on different playing fields. And in common language, the only time I hear a human referred to as alpha is when the speaker is either literally or figuratively rolling their eyes – that’s not a common language word and with good reason – it belongs outside of human (and canine) social structure and is primarily used to designate an individual who acts like a not-to-bright jerk.
Remember how I mentioned above that a dog with a relatively passive temperament can get all sorts of things simply by being smarter? By barking at a window to get another dog to run over and see, and then take that opportunity to finish the dog’s dinner that got left behind? Well yeah. The most passive human in the world can always get their way against the most assertive dog ever – we have opposable thumbs and control all of the resources. Not much more is required. Where things get interesting is those dogs that will literally take what they want from another (quite possibly a human) with a human who is so passive that they either cannot or will not change that reality. In other words, a possibly fearful human vis-a-vis a dog comfortable using physical force to remove a desired thing from another. And while this exists, it’s not terribly common. The more common dog bite scenario is a dog trying to stop a human from doing something, not an attempt to get a resource from the person.
Because the word “dominant” has been tainted by its association with pack structure I’m perfectly happy to go to the word “assertive” – that’s fine. But if you refer to the dictionary, either word can be in play and be absolutely relevant and appropriate when speaking about dogs and relationships – just disappear the pack part and you’re good.
We might want to be careful not to remove the idea of “one who is more likely to get one’s way” from communication altogether because words make it easy for us to talk to each other and to be understood. Regardless of the lack of existence of a pack structure for dogs, concepts such as hierarchy, assertive/dominant, and passive/subordinate are still relevant, and deserve open discussion without fear of being perceived as a proponent of pack or dominance theory – a totally different thing altogether. For example, if someone says, “this dog is generally assertive in nature and would probably fit better in a household with more passive dogs” I can accept that as a useful piece of information if the speaker has a good sense of what is more or less assertive relative to average dogs. There is no reason to talk about packs, alpha positions or the need to dominate another at all.
On another note, TODAY is the last day to register for classes at FDSA – get to it! Here’s the schedule.
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I *LOVE* this article. It puts into real words what I’ve been trying to say about “dominance” for a very long time. Thank you for writing this!
It still takes a lot of work to convince people and dog owners that the “wolfpack” and dominance theories are incorrect.
Hopefully as more people discuss and write about this, the facts will spread and people will stop basing their understanding of dags and how to train them, on these debunked ideas.
Perhaps many of the new theories have their own unique flaws, maybe even more significant flaws than the old theories that they are attempting to replace.
Love this article
I love this one! My father’s labradors demonstrate this one perfectly: the 8-year-old (kind and passive) will let the 4-year-old (assertive and cheeky) steal his toy all the time, but come lick-the-dinner-plate-time, the 8-year-old dominates every one.