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March 08, 2012

Pecking Order of Dogs

By: Brenda Rynders

Do you live in a household that contains multiple dogs? If so, you have probably witnessed one or more of your cuddly canines displaying what is known as “pack mentality”. Singular dog owners might also witness pack mentality, only instead of displaying dominance over another dog, the alpha attempts to prove dominance over the owner. Pack mentality in the dog world is identical to that of a wolf pack. In the standard dog pack, various ranks exist that determine who ranks “top-dog” and who sits lowest on the totem pole.

The first rank of the dog pack is the alpha. The alpha dog is a natural-born leader who does not need to prove his rank to any other dog in the pack. Alice Applin, experienced instructor of competition-level and basic obedience training at Greater Racine Kennel Club, defines an alpha dog as “a leader by nature. It has no doubt that it is the best and most important and has complete confidence in its status.” The incredible confidence held by alpha dogs deters their need to have to fight for their position, Applin says. They do not need petty fights to show they are on top. True alpha dogs carry an air about them that shows the rest of the pack that they are in charge. 

The second rank of the dog pack is the beta. The dog that is classified as the beta conveys confidence but clearly not as much as the alpha. Beta dogs are typically more aggressive and tend to display signs of dominance over other members of the pack. In a wolf pack, they are second in command to the alpha. In a human household however, the beta dog has the tendency to fight for alpha status.

The final rank of the dog pack is the omega. The omega is viewed by the rest of the pack as the weakest link. Omega dogs lack the confidence necessary to excel to the higher rank of alpha. They can be very shy and typically try to avoid confrontation but are often harassed and picked on by dogs of higher rank.

Pack mentality can be common in any household and should not be tolerated for any reason. Dogs of all breeds are capable of showing signs of aggression and dominance often seen in wolf packs. Some warning signs to look for are biting, bearing teeth, growling, being “pushy” around other dogs and owners, marking territory and mounting.

According to Applin, dog owners whose dogs are displaying signs of aggression or dominance should undergo a “nothing in life is free” obedience approach. This kind of approach implements basic commands such as “sit” and  “lay” and asks the dog to perform these commands for everyday tasks such as eating or going outside.

 “A solid regimen of routines will confirm with the dog that a human is higher in the pack order,” she said. “If the dog is showing aggressive tendencies, services from a quality private instructor or behaviorist are in order. This can be a serious relationship problem if not handled properly and can be an enjoyable one with the right approach.”

Chas Rooney, lead obedience trainer of Dog’s Best Friend Premier Dog Training in West Allis, stated proper dog  training should eliminate the presence of pack mentality altogether.

“In an instinctive dog pack, the order of hierarchy is determined by aggression and violence,” he said. “The alpha dogs are willing to let their own children starve if there is not a sufficient food source to feed the entire pack. This is not how we, as humans, should conduct ourselves and therefore we should not allow ourselves to fall into the trap of viewing or allowing our canine companions to resort to this instinctive behavior.  We need to understand the instincts, but proper training dictates that we should not allow these instincts to nurture or grow.”

Editors Note:  In recent years, the alpha dog concept has been discussed as possibly not being as prominent as once believed.  There are many different viewpoints on so many things related to our dogs.  Everyone is allowed to have their own perspective.  Respect for everyone’s viewpoint is expected and encouraged.

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