Sunday, October 11, 2009

Who’s the Boss? The Complexity of Relationships in Multi-dog Households.

Here is a scenario for you to ponder:

Three dogs live in a multi-dog household:

• Dog A is a 1.5 year old female
• Dog B is a 10 year old female
• Dog C is a 12 year old male

Each of the dogs exhibits the following behaviors.

Dog B – claims the sofa and that is where she sleeps. The other dogs never disturb her nor do they ever try to take her spot. She sometimes sleeps in the bedroom. Dog B usually sleeps at a higher elevation from the other dogs.

Dog C – claims the bedroom where the owner sleeps almost every night. Dog B will also sleep in the bedroom on occasion.

Dog A - sleeps in the kitchen most nights but will sometimes sleep in the bedroom if Dog C or Dog B do not get there first.

Dog A – usually tries to muscle her way out of doorways and hallways first. However, none of the dogs will attempt to walk over or around another dog if a dog is blocking a hallway or doorway.

Dog A will claim the chew toys such as deer antlers and nylabones. Sometimes Dog C will take it from her and successfully keep it away from Dog A. Dog B will not steal chew toys from Dog A. Dog A will take chew toys from Dog B.

Dog B can stare down Dog C, until he drops whatever food he has in his mouth. She will then take the food that was in his mouth.

Dog A will try to take toys from Dog B. Dog B will drop toys and allow Dog A to have them.

Dog A is the most likely to initiate physical skirmishes, Dog B rarely initiates physical fights. Dog C never initiates fights.

Dog B receives the most face-licking from the other dogs, followed by Dog A. Dog C initiates most face-licking and even licks the cat’s face. Dog B rarely licks the faces of the other dogs.

All dogs initiate play with each other. Dog A initiates the most rounds of play followed by Dog C.

Which dog do you think is the “alpha”?


The scenario above depicts the real-life group dynamics of my three dogs. Dog A is my 70 pound female Akita, Dog B is my 25 pound female Shiba Inu and Dog C is my 90 pound male Akita. Does knowing these size differences change your analysis of the scenario? Does it surprise you that a 25 pound shiba can stare down an 90 pound male Akita to the point where he will drop the food already in his mouth?

Dominance in the animal behavior world is typically defined as a relationship between individual animals to determine who has priority access to resources such as food, preferred resting spots, and mates. So the term applies to the dynamics between two animals rather than an attribute or trait of a single animal. And, these mostly ritualized interactions determine access to resources whether it be food, space or even proximity to the owner. Often, the relationship between two animals can vary depending on context and degree of motivation as seen in the scenario above. For example, a younger dog may be more motivated to possess toys than a senior dog. Moreover relationships between the dogs in the same household can sometimes be quite complex as context, age, size and gender can factor into how dogs interact with each other.

So where did all this alpha stuff come from?

The alpha dog concept has its roots in early captive wolf studies. These studies focused on the interactions of unrelated, captive wolf packs. From these studies developed the notion that since dogs were descended from wolves and that wolves had an alpha-male and alpha-female pack leaders, domesticated dogs operated the same way. Based on this theory of canine social dynamics developed training techniques such as the “alpha-roll,” pinning the dog on the ground, and scruff-shaking, which were supposed to mimic what a dominant wolf did to a subordinate wolf. Other notions such as walking ahead of your dog through doorways, not letting your dog on the bed and eating before your dog can be traced to early perceptions of how wolf packs operated. Recent studies have shown that the basis for adopting such practices is flawed and physical corrections such as scruff shaking and alpha rolls can have detrimental effects. See my previous post regarding the risks of punishment for reactive dogs.

Canid researchers have debunked the alpha theory on several grounds. First, David Mech, a respected authority of wolf behavior, noted that the term “alpha” is outdated. Mech points out that the terminology is based on older studies of captive wolf populations. More recent studies have shown that wild wolf populations consist of family units with the parents acting as the breeding pair. (1) Thus, the “alpha pair” being the parents and the “subordinates” are the offspring.

Moreover, studies of feral dog populations suggest that dog pack dynamics are fluid and less rigid than wild wolf populations.(2) Scientists believe that dogs have been domesticated as long as 12,000 to 14,000 years based on fossil evidence(3) and perhaps as long as 100,000 years based on genetic comparisons between wolves and dogs.(4) Given that mammalian social structures can be strongly affected by the external environment, it is not surprising that the social dynamics of dogs have diverged from their wolf ancestors. Living with humans has had a profound influence on the evolution of canine social systems. Canine expert Raymond Coppinger theorizes that early dogs adapted to a scavenging lifestyle by living off the food scraps and waste left near human settlements. (5) The evolutionary pressure to be a large, highly organized group hunter became less significant and the two species diverged into two separate niches. The AVSAB position statement highlights other aspects of dominance theory which are not supported by observations of canine or wolf social dynamics. See AVSAB Statement.

For these reasons, characterizing an individual dog as an “alpha dog” is not scientifically accurate nor is it very productive. For example, in situations where dogs are fighting in a household, there is a line of thought that the owner should support the “alpha or “dominant” dog. However, in a multi-dog household, relationships between dogs are not always a simple, linear hierarchy. Such approaches can result in a misinterpretation of who is the dominant dog and inadvertently reward inappropriate behavior. For example, in the scenario above, supporting Dog A during skirmishes could easily result in an adolescent dog being rewarded for her bullying behavior which could translate to other undesirable behaviors outside of the home.

Therefore, when dealing with inter-dog dynamics within a household, caution should be exercised and owners should consult professional trainers who are well-versed in animal learning theory and behavior modification techniques relying mainly on reward-based approaches to animal training.


1) Mech, L.D. 2008. What every happened to the term alpha wolf? International Wolf.

2) Van Kerkhove, Wendy , A Fresh Look at the Wolf-Pack Theory of Companion-Animal Dog Social Behavior, JOURNAL OF APPLIED ANIMAL WELFARE SCIENCE, Volume 7, Issue 4 January 2004 , pages 279 – 285.

3) Lindsay, Steven, Applied Dog Behavior and Training, Volume 1, pgs. 4-5, Blackwell Publishing (2000).

4) Vila, Carles, Savolainen, Peter, Maldonado, Jesus E., Amorim, Isabel, Multiple and Ancient Origins of the Domestic Dog, SCIENCE, Vol. 276, No. 5319: 1687-1689 (13 June 1997).

5) Coppinger, Raymond and Coppiner, Lorna, Dogs: A New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior and Evolution. University of Chicago Press (2001) pgs. 58-67.