Pack hierarchy: why dogs aren’t interested in being the boss

doggie relationships

You’d have thought after my wordiness about ‘dominance’ last week that people might be a little afraid to use that word in my presence this week. No. Someone contacted me for a dog earlier in the week and told me their dog was dominant.

“What do you mean exactly?” I asked. I didn’t say “What horseshit!” like I thought I might say.

Turns out that the dog doesn’t particularly like unruly, socially over-the-top dogs who haven’t been well socialised. That description is much more helpful to me than ‘dominance’. That I can work with. Good introductions and chances are, things will be fine. Thankfully, we didn’t have to have a discussion about why dogs don’t want to take over the world and the solution is a lot easier than “putting the dog in its place” or “letting them fight it out” in order to decide some kind of hierarchy within the family of dogs.

What we know about pack hierarchy in dogs is, guess what, based on what we know about pack hierarchy in constructed packs of captive wolves.  As senior scientist and wolf expert L. David Mech says, trying to use those studies to learn about dogs is as useful as studying humans in refugee camps as a basis for learning about families. Oh, yes, and we’ve also constructed that pack hierarchy theory based on some bright spark saying that chickens have a pecking order. Bit of a leap to dogs having a fixed-rank hierarchy, but hey. That’s not to say that our own constructed packs of captive dogs (which is essentially what our ‘families’ of dogs are) behave the same or different than captive wolves or domesticated chickens. So why are we grasping at what little we know about other animals? Sadly, there are very few studies at all of dog-dog relationships. With all the bluff and chat about dominant dogs, the absolute conviction with which some trainers and TV personalities preach about dominance and pack hierarchy, you’d think it was based on years of accumulated scientific evidence. And actually, it’s based on the same misguided interpretations of captive wolves as all the other ‘findings’ about dominance.

But that doesn’t stop the ‘dominance’ experts talking about dog-dog dominance as if they have years of science and evidence behind them. No. You can even buy books on what dominant behaviour looks like. That’s like the people who make money out of books about alien probes.

So what do the ‘experts’ in dominance mythology suggest are dominant behaviours? Mounting other dogs, stealing other dogs’ stuff, resource guarding, pushing their way to the front when with other dogs (like going through doorways first) OR the opposite: making other dogs wait for them (I’m not clear on what that means… is that like when Ralf started investigating a hole on a walk and made us all wait for him to catch up because he was too big and old to run?) Licking dogs’ mouths can be seen as submissive, so they never lick other dogs’ mouths. And the dominant dog will apparently always win at tug-of-war, staring at other dogs, standing at 90° to other dogs with their heads over the other dog’s back.

On the flipside, ‘submissive dogs’ will roll on their back, lick other dogs mouths and let other dogs access resources.

But what DOES the little evidence we have suggest about doggie relationships?

Those few studies of dog relationships, based on free-roaming packs of village dogs, suggest a fluid or flexible hierarchy that is based around resources and territory: sleeping spaces, food, water and sex. Often, it boils down very simply to decisions dogs make about how much they want something and how much they are prepared to fight for it. There is also evidence to suggest that dogs make the decision to fight or give in based on how much the other dog appears to want the resource.

This is very evident in my own pack. With two intact males, one of four years old and one of fourteen, one castrated male and one sterilised female, typical wisdom would put the four year old ‘breeding Alpha’ as the pack leader. That would be Heston. And it’s true – when he has been tackled in fights by the other two males, he has certainly come out on top. You’d expect that. He is young, strong, fit and 5kg heavier than his nearest rival. His ‘submission’ to Tilly would no doubt be written down to history: he arrived when she was 7 and he was six weeks old. That said, he will happily let my fourteen-year-old male wander around with all of his toys and never challenge him for them.

This fits with the evidence that suggests that dogs generally don’t find fighting productive. Even very small dogs can fatally injure a larger dog and despite the fact that many dogs live in very close proximity, there are very few fights to the death. Surprisingly few, if dogs are really driven by the need to best each other. I never really see it in my own dogs, which is one reason why I find dominance theory so hard to stomach: it just doesn’t support what I see in my own dogs and those I work with every day.

When we talk about doggie relationships, dog trainer and mentor Jean Donaldson’s books, Mine! and Fight! are very helpful in identifying doggie behaviours that are often called ‘dominance’. My own ‘constructed’ pack of dogs, along with my fosters and the shelter dogs at Mornac, are often the subject of my study simply because of a lack of really good animal studies on either side of the argument. Nothing like in-situ impromptu ethology to fill in the blanks! But I shall use them here to discuss Donaldson’s theories in the real world and provide explanations for their behaviour that I think fit them better than a fixed hierarchy of dogs struggling for superiority and rank. Her theories also give me approaches to overcome the behaviours I don’t like, theories that have been much more useful and helpful than simply telling my dog to get off the couch, or eating before my dogs eat.

As Donaldson says, “Not one theorist has framed his or her hypothesis [about dominance] into a falsifiable question and then proceeded to test it.”. And, she continues, it is taught “to the general public as though it [dominance theory] is the theory of gravity.” This is another reason why I’m not sold on dominance theory, and it’s why I study my dogs and my foster dogs very closely. Given there’s no evidence either way, I’m having to rely on my own experiences.

It’s not to say that ‘dominance’ doesn’t exist. Science shows that behaviours we might call dominance start to emerge early on. The notion of ‘dominance’ can even be seen in the kittens I have at the moment. It’s been noticed that puppies, like the kittens here, will favour one nipple from about two weeks of age, and will push and fight to get there. That’s the first aspect of what we often think of as dominance: resources and how much we want them. You’ll notice that in the description of a dominant dog that I gave before, resource guarding is listed as a dominant trait. It’s not. It’s a genetic trait that we have encouraged in dogs through selective breeding and even the most ‘submissive’ dogs can show resource guarding behaviours. Instead of thinking they are dominant, it’s more helpful in this situation to think of them as resource-guarders or territorially possessive, then to address those as issues.

The description of dominant dogs also implies a degree of aggressivity and a willingness to fight. But most dogs don’t often fight. Not as much as a rank hierarchy would demand and not as much as you’d expect.

Dogs often do engage in ritualised fights. By this, I don’t mean play. I have photos of my dogs playing in ways that would be quite frightening to non-doggie people. I don’t take photos of ritualised fights because they’re quite real and very frightening for the onlooker. That’d be me. Donaldson describes ritualised fights as the dog equivalent of boxing matches. They have rules and a lot of sound and fury and they are a real fight rather than play or pantomime, but it’s not often that anyone gets really, really hurt. In the four dog fights that have happened in my house in the last three years, these ritualised fights are the only things I’ve seen. Noisy, snappy fights which are definitely not play but end with a result that is by-and-large what you’d expect. There’s a lot of growling. Teeth may come in contact with fur or skin. There’s a lot of snapping. It’s impossible to separate the dogs – fur may literally fly. There may be superficial wounds or lacerations. In general, the dogs split themselves up or people manage to split them up, and then it’s business as usual. Within two minutes, the dogs are back to normal. The ritual has been effective and the dogs have resolved their issues without any bloodshed (or very much). This is certainly the case with my dogs.

What didn’t happen were any of the other behaviours you might expect. Heston was the clear winner of that fight, yet he lets Tobby pee over his scent, follow him into the garden snapping and trying to “school” him, sleep in his bed moments after he’s vacated it and never “puts him in his place”. Heston never takes Tobby’s toys. But then he doesn’t let him approach him to lick his head either.

And why is that? He could do as he pleased. He easily could ‘master’ him. But he just doesn’t.

Is it perhaps because Heston doesn’t value those toys as much as Tobby does, and even though he could take them, it is not worth a confrontation? Those resource guarding tendancies have never surfaced in him in this situation.

What I am told to expect in dominance theory is that Heston, the ranking Alpha male, would take all opportunities to remind Tobby that he is no longer an Alpha if that is what Tobby once was before he arrived here. The fixed rank I should be expecting (especially given that I don’t run my household like I should according to the dominance ‘experts’) doesn’t exist in my house between the two males who are capable of being the ‘Alpha’ breeding male, the doggie equivalent of the Silverback.

26kg intact fourteen-year-old male Tobby would appear to some people to have been a top dog at some point. He sometimes exhibits a kind of ritualised harassment of younger dogs, following them about and attempting to mount them. That said, he is terrified of Tilly and won’t go near her to lick her face unless she allows him to. He constantly air-snaps at Heston and when he races into the garden after Heston, he is fixated on Heston, not on what Heston is chasing. Tobby often wanders around with a toy in his mouth and never has any challengers, even if it is the only toy available. Perhaps he’s my top dog? He overpees Heston’s scent and Tilly’s scent. Yet on the odd occasion that he gets in Heston’s space and provokes a growl, he backs off submissively. He always “gives in” to Heston in sleeping spot choices (although he’ll go and sleep right in that spot the moment that Heston vacates it.) He also licks other dogs all the time. He definitely doesn’t fit the pack hierarchy stereotype.

And then there’s Heston. 32kg and four years old. He could fight any of my dogs and win. Sometimes he humps my foster dogs unless I intervene. He has a lot of flagging tails and stiff postures. He doesn’t permit any dog to approach his bowl, unless it’s Tilly. No other dogs challenge him for his toys, but he never takes toys from other dogs. If he is lying down and another dog approaches him, he’ll growl and the other dog backs off. But he never overmarks territory, he never pins other dogs outside of the three ritualised fights he has been in. He never has to show his teeth. He lets Tobby airsnap him.

So do I have another pack leader if it’s not my two big boys?

12kg eleven-year-old sterilised female Tilly will hold her own if there is a bone, a treat or ‘her’ bed involved. She is the only dog who will attempt to eat from others’ bowls before they have finished. She doesn’t value toys or other sleeping spots and won’t put up a fight over them. She will defer to others in door exits or exciting situations and she often roles on her back to let the other dogs smell her. She will even wee on her back if a dog sniffs her right. I couldn’t tell you honestly if she’s submissive or dominant. Sometimes she rules the pack – such as if a dog sleeps in ‘her’ spot – and other times she doesn’t – if a dog is running about excited, she won’t “school” them as Tobby does. Tilly sits on the back of the couch – which is ‘dominant’ as she can lord it over everyone else. Then she gets off and lies on the floor. That’s submissive isn’t it? Plus she never goes first through the door. Tobby licks her mouth, but she never licks any other dogs’ mouths. That’s kind of dominant isn’t it? Also she never listens to me when there’s a cowpat about. That must be dominant too. So what’s Tilly? Submissive because she rolls on her back and she pees, or dominant because she guards and she growls at anyone in her space?

So if Tilly, my tiny sterilised female doesn’t rule the roost, there’s only Meegie left…

19kg sterilised eight-year-old male Amigo would appear to be bottom of the pack. He lost fights to Heston. He lets Tobby lick his head (and isn’t licking a sign of submission?!) but he is absolutely not the boss of Tobby. I never see any ‘dominant’ posturing from Amigo. He generally takes the spot where other dogs aren’t lying and is the last to choose a spot once all the other dogs have chosen. He always exits doors after Tobby and Heston and never overmarks their scents. But if he has a Kong, none of my dogs will take it from him. He would certainly fight any dog who tried. What’s that about? That also doesn’t fit conventional pack hierarchy ‘wisdom’.


These behaviours seemed not to conform at all to a strict linear hierarchy. In fact, it’s very changeable. It always has been in all my various families of dogs and every time I introduce a new foster dog. I might be able to agree at a push that dominance might be a relationship issue rather than a personality issue, looking at my four odd bods, but even so, I can’t see this linear hierarchy at all and it bothers me a great deal that we talk about dog relationships based on an assumption of a fixed rank pattern. I don’t even want to say that it’s a relationship thing and the most I’ll concede is there could possibly be a very, very flexible hierarchy at points. Perhaps.

When I read Mine! and Fight! I found patterns that fitted better in so many ways. Firstly, Mine! gives us ideas about resource-guarding and how this changes depending on the dog, the moment and the resource. Thus, at some times, Tobby’s toy is his obsession and other times not. Sometimes Tilly will harass another dog to give up a bone and other times she doesn’t care less. The only dog of mine that seems to have a regular sleeping spot is Tilly, who sleeps nearest to the kitchen. So when we mention dominant resource guarding, quite often what we mean is that our dog has found something of value in that instance and is prepared, for whatever reason, to fight for it if necessary. Or it means that a 5kg dog will happily take on all comers if a piece of pizza is at stake.

Fight! gives us also a very interesting insight into behaviours that might be considered dominance. Often, when I hear people talking about dominant dogs, they mean dogs who are aggressive in particular circumstances. Donaldson outlines six types of dog and this pattern seems to fit very well with many of the dogs I encounter on a daily basis.

The first are dogs that she calls “Tarzan”. These dogs are over-excited and come on too strong in initial meetings. They have unrefined social skills and have often been inadequately socialised, so they are not good at reading other doggie body language. I have one of these. Heston is exactly this though he’s less Tarzany as time passes. He was fairly well socialised at the beginning but then when we encountered nothing but understimulated fence runners trapped in gardens protecting their territory on most of our daily walks, he quickly learned that growling and barking is what dogs do to greet each other. So I did what many people do because it was easier. We had walks where we didn’t meet other dogs. Luckily, he is adequately socialised beyond that, so get past the initial 30 seconds and he’s very good at doggie body language. He loves other dogs in fact. He is also very respectful of them. Take last night, when I brought Florette home. He ran out like ten men, all “what you doing in my garden, dog?!” and then was all, “oh, hello… I’m Heston,” if a bit stiff and posturey for about two minutes. 12 hours later and she’s just another dog to him. In fact, ten minutes later and she was just another dog to him. Luckily Heston has a good play history, great bite inhibition and just needs to meet lots more bullet-proof dogs. Donaldson’s programme to overcome Tarzan-like behaviour is working for Heston. It shouldn’t work if dominance is a real thing. Keeping him off the sofa, punishing him instead of rewarding him, and eating from his bowl would be the things a dominance theorist would expect to work, not desensitisation around other dogs and counter-conditioning. Heston is one reason I bring well-socialised rescue dogs home with me to foster – it allows me to continue his education that not all dogs are running along fence lines growling, barking and posturing. Heston fits exactly the description of “Tarzan” dogs and is responding well to Donaldson’s methods to change his behaviour.

In fact, I don’t just see this at home. Many of the times that a refuge pairing doesn’t work is because one dog comes on too strong. Call them dominant or call them clueless at reading doggie body language, the result is the same: they piss other dogs off. But calling them ‘dominant’ implies a personality defect that is hard to overcome. Calling them clueless at reading doggie body language and there is a solution in there somewhere.

The second type of aggressivity she sees in dogs, she writes about are “proximity-sensitive dogs”. These dogs may seem well-socialised, a model dog around others perhaps… until… one gets too close, is a bit too bouncy, is a bit sniffy, then BOOM! It’s all “BACK OFF, TARZAN!” This is my Amigo. Imagine trying to pair an over-zealous dog who isn’t good at reading doggie “BACK OFF” signs and a dog who seems to be okay, until they are absolutely not… Proximity-sensitive dogs are also under-socialised, but they don’t have the same display or zealousness of a Tarzan. We often call them ‘unpredictable’ and we’re all shocked when they lash out, yet they are dogs who are just a bit cool in greetings with others and because they’re not all shouty we assume they are okay. This can be a thing from lack of socialisation or it can develop over time. It’s kind of Grumpy Old Dog syndrome. They get less and less tolerant of crude social behaviours although they remain fine with dogs who are respectful of distance and don’t make inappropriate social overtures. This is why I think Amigo would be happiest in a one-dog house. He is not at all interested in other dogs. Not the bomb-proof dog I thought I was getting, but a ticking time-bomb with a firm line in the sand. Desensitisation and counter-conditioning work well here too.

Donaldson’s third type of aggressivity is in dogs who are “bullies”. At some point, bullying another dog has become highly reinforcing and enjoyable. She says these dogs show a “roughness and harassment of non-consenting dogs” and that they have “designated target dogs.” That’s to say, they have specific dogs that they target. It is pleasurable to target that dog and they do it more and more. I saw this in Tobby when he harassed a young intact male I had here. He has met over twenty dogs in my household for foster, and he had never, (and has never since) harassed another dog. But with Loupi, he stalked him, licked him constantly and tried constantly to hump him. If you have a dog in your household who makes a beeline for one particular dog and exhibits all the behaviours we think of as ‘dominant’ – standing over them, pinning them underneath them, swatting them, licking them obsessively, humping only them, it’s likely your dog is finding bullying a very pleasurable experience indeed.

The fourth kind of aggressivity we might see from time to time that may be considered ‘dominance’ is those dogs with play skills deficits: dogs who erupt from play to fight. Everything seems to be going well. They aren’t particularly Tarzany, they don’t have shy boy tendancies and they aren’t targeting one particular dog: they just end up getting in scraps. To understand this, we have to understand that dog play is a bit like capoeira, the Brazilian martial art. In this, the ‘dance’ is based on mutual understanding and body language, as well as atmospheric clues like music. Sometimes one person will be the ‘aggressor’ or ‘attacker’, launching all the kicks and elbow strikes. Sometimes the other person is the ‘defender’, dodging and feinting to escape attack. Then the roles change. If you have watched capoeira, the changes can be mesmerising and you may have the suspicion that they are choreographed. If you have played capoeira, you will know that it is instinctive and relies on mutual cooperation: after a rally, roles change without any verbal cues or a given signal. Dog play is the same: roles change and dogs switch from being the aggressor to being the defender. For dogs with play skills deficits, they seem unable to make the switch, or to understand give and take. They will make continual play bows when the other dog is tiring, they will keep bouncing, will keep raising paws and never ‘break’. If roles don’t reverse often enough, fights can easily erupt. Play always starts well and then breaks down. I saw this with a terrier I fostered, Lucky: he was unable to interpret signs that play was over and it led to a very tense atmosphere. He was just over-exuberant and hadn’t learned that you can’t always be the aggressor.

Donaldson also classes resource-guarding as part of her six types of aggressivity in dogs, which she expands upon in Mine! In this situation, a dog has a “coveted object” like food, a bed or even an owner, and this can be directed at humans as well as other dogs. Resource-guarding, contrary to Dominance myths, is an equal-opportunities kind of thing: it is as likely to affect a small or less confident dog as it is to affect a large, powerful or more confident dog. This is adaptive and circumstantial.

Her final category is the compulsive fighter. These are often breeds who have been selected for pugnaciousness, tenaciousness and general gameness for a fight. They may have a genetic disposition that makes it harder for them to read doggie body language too. She says you can see these dogs as puppies as they are scrappy and constantly fighting. Ironically, they are often only aggressive with other dogs: what use would a dog be in a dog fight if you couldn’t break them up without risking them turning on you? Sadly, I don’t have to direct you to a list of dog breeds that had been traditionally used in dog fighting… they are the victims of many a hate campaign and legal sanctions on their breeding and adoption.

I just think this model of dog-dog aggressivity and “types” better explains why dogs may sometimes fall out, and it’s more in tune with the many dogs I see on a daily basis than the theory that every single negative behaviour is in fact a bid for superiority. Plus, these models have a positive and gentle method of rehabilitation that does not call for us to treat our dogs badly in order to make them know their place. When we see dominance as a personality trait, and packs as fixed-rank hierarchies, there is no easy solution. Knowing our dog is an undersocialised Tarzan or that he doesn’t like undersocialised Tarzans can make all the difference in how they meet and how they conduct each other initially. Knowing that dogs can or can’t play (I’ve got four dogs who cannot play together without it ending in tension, because I have two who are impoverished in play – who intepret play as a fight and something to be worried about!) and that I have a few issues with resource-guarding is also something I can work on, rather than tacitly accepting “it’s their place in the pack” or that “this one is bidding for superiority” or “that one is reminding the others that he’s the pack leader”.

Ultimately, I see the role of my pack leader as I see the role of leadership among humans: to facilitate growth, security and comfort in others. Here you can see Heston doing exactly that as he teaches a one-year-old Newfie to play. Not so Tarzan here, is he? You can see how he takes Chops from tentative play to confident play (and also how I have to pull Amigo out because he doesn’t read play so well and he either interprets it as a fight or doesn’t know what to do with himself…) and just because he’s running away, or when Chops paws him, even tries to mount him from behind a little, Chops certainly is not the one leading the play. I love this video – the body language between them is fantastic. I’m sure some wise owl will tell me that one is dominating the other, but all I see in my hours of video are dogs whose supposed fixed-rank pack hierarchy is very fluid, if it exists at all. In filming hours of dog play between different dogs, it seems very difficult indeed to see how any theory about captive wolves or henpecked chickens relates to the dogs we know and love.  I love this video too because it shows great hope for Tarzan dogs who have had an impoverished socialisation, and for shy boys like Chops who have never played with another dog since their siblings in the puppy family. No dominance was involved in the making of this video.

Next week… what I’d rather you said instead of “I’ve got a dominant dog”. And no, you can’t tell me that your dog isn’t submissive, either.