Understanding Dog Pack Hierarchy, and Why it Matters

June 26, 2009

By Linda Cole

Dogs are social animals with a well defined pack hierarchy. Like the wolf pack, each individual in the pack has its own place in that social order. Without a leader and parameters, a dog pack is confused, unstable and in constant conflict. Whether you are a pack of one dog or multiple canines, it’s important to understand the structure of the pack in order to maintain your role as leader.

As pack leader, it’s up to you to set rules and limitations for your dog. They are looking to their human alpha leader for consistent guidance and behavior you deem appropriate. A stable relationship is created when your dog understands what you expect from them.

A wolf pack hierarchy is made up of one alpha male and an alpha female. Next in line is the beta, and the omega is the lowest member of the pack. The other pack members fall in between the alpha and omega. The alpha male is the only one who leads and makes all the decisions that the entire pack follows, such as when and where to hunt, and when the rest of the pack can eat. He takes the best sleeping spots and is the only one allowed to mate with the alpha female. Any individual member who fails to obey the rules will be dealt with in a swift and appropriate manner. Those who refuse to follow pack laws are sometimes driven out in order to maintain stability.

Our dogs operate under the same hierarchy. They are born with an instinctive sense of pack mentality. Observe any litter of pups as they grow and mature. Dominant and submissive personalities begin to show as they play and interact with their litter mates. Mom keeps them in line with little nudges and nips around their neck and ears. These gentle reminders and punishments learned as pups will remain with them throughout their lives.

To establish yourself as top dog in the pack hierarchy, you have to first know which animal in your pack is the alpha. A female can be recognized by the pack as their alpha leader. Observe your dogs to see which one shows dominate behavior over the other dogs or yourself. Dominant behavior will include bumping, blocking, moving in between you and other dogs, standing alert with their tail held high (a sign of confidence), low growling whenever another dog comes near or making eye contact and holding it. Control the alpha, and you control the rest of the pack.

Never yell, hit, kick or spank any dog. It is not something they understand and will only create a more aggressive or fearful dog in the long run. You will certainly not gain any respect or trust. Respect can’t be forced; you have to earn it by controlling your pack on their terms. You become the alpha by making all the decisions for the pack. You eat first, go through a doorway first, determine which dog gets attention and when it’s given, win the tug of war game, sit and sleep in the prime spots, “move” a pack member out of your way instead of walking around or stepping over them. In other words, you establish yourself in the pack hierarchy as the alpha by controlling their basic needs and desires.

Dogs want to please us and be our protectors and companions. We create and allow unwanted behavior each time a member of our pack is allowed to misbehave with no consequences from the boss. A true alpha leader in the social order of the pack hierarchy would never allow misdeeds to go unpunished. This causes confusion and a breakdown in their social order which in turn creates an unstable pack.

The best way to show our pets just how much they mean to us is to treat them as rightful members in the pack hierarchy. Each one knows their place in the pack and you, as their alpha leader, have set the parameters and rules they will abide by. Stay calm, cool and assertive when you need to remind a rule breaker who the top dog is by administering appropriate and fair discipline. By learning how to lead, you are creating stable dogs who know their place and obey the wishes of the one who controls the pack.

Read more articles by Linda Cole

The personal opinions and/or use of trade, corporate or brand names, is for information and convenience only. Such use does not constitute an endorsement by CANIDAE® All Natural Pet Foods of any product or service. Opinions are those of the individual authors and not necessarily of CANIDAE® All Natural Pet Foods.

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  1. Angie Madden says:

    Please take the time to read the latest research. Wolves do not have hierarchies unless they are placed in a pack (non-related) by humans. Wild wolf packs consist of family members. Beyond that, dogs have evolved so far away from wolves that using one to describe the other is not very helpful. Despite continuous research to the contrary, the dominance hierarchy continues to pervade the public consciousness. Please, please, please take a look at some recent literature on social structures of dogs and help to educate the public.

  2. Eileen Hughes says:

    I have always had multiple dogs and in varying ages and their order was obvious, even to the newcomer. Due to the loss of our 15 yr old Alpha female, adding a female pup when she was 6 wks old (who was obviously an Alpha), then losing our 10 yr old, we added an 8wk old male. The female (now 14 months) and the male (now 13 months). Although they have been a tremendous amount of work (think twins), it has been only recent (within the last week to 10 days) that my males behaviour is changing. He eats only ‘after’ our female eats, he won’t get into the bed (yes, I know) until after the female is settled…I knew that he was not a challenge to her role, but it is the recent observations that I find interesting. We’ve never had two puppies at the same time before. Is this something that, although already inherent within ‘their’ pack, that these changes are because the male is maturing? I was hoping to find these answers on this page. Very informative reading overall!

  3. L Bonifacio says:

    Funny – I came upon this article seeking answers for pack mentality at work. This is why I love animals.

  4. Emily Majors says:

    GREAT INFORMATION, but I have still have a question, I have 3 dogs and they do not have the pack mentality. They are all well behaved, no fighting, nothing. Just all around good dogs. I’m curious as to what might be going on. They do not clean each other, they do not cuddle, or even really play to often. How can I create a better pack?

    1. Doug Elerath says:

      Don’t believe the Alpha mythology presented above! My alpha (5 dog pack) is clearly the leader, but never exhibits dominance behavior. For example, if I don’t feed them on time, she barks, only once or twice, to remind me to do my job, then she waits patiently until the others are eating before starting – like a good leader should. The other dogs always defer to her with no effort on her part, but she never takes advantage of this by acting dominant. She is the true leader.

      I try to follow her example, always asking, never demanding, and the dogs respond very well. They respect a leader, not a boss.

  5. Anonymous says:

    I am wanting a new dog. My dad is considering it. He told me I have to teach it not to follow the other dogs ,that are my mom’s, pack mentality. Our dogs follow my mother and are always near her. How do I keep the new dog from following their behavior?

  6. Estar says:

    Many thanx for helpful info.-this is all very helpful for my dog psychology coursework!

  7. kim harris says:

    Enjoyed reading this article, very interesting and relative to any dog & dog owner.

  8. Anonymous says:

    It would be nice to see some references, because in feral dogs no strict hierarchic pack behaviour has been documented. Feral dogs form loose associations when needed and then go on their separate ways. Wild wolfs on the other hand form a pack that has the parents (male and female) and their offspring. Not so much hierarchic as functional: parents are respected because they are better hunters, they provide protection and knowledge. The offspring leave when ready and move on to form their own packs. Only in captivity do wolfs form strict hierarchic packs, and it’s questionable to compare that to a “pack” not first of all formed of wolves, but of two different species altogether.