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® Pet Foods of any product or service. Opinions are those of the individual authors and not necessarily of CANIDAE® Pet Foods.

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  1. Twilightsraven says:

    Wolves hierarchy imprints on every system in the world. You may not realize it but it is all around it. Take time to realize that it exists and believe me me you will be amazed

  2. Grandma Jan says:

    I have three female chihuahuas. The oldest is our Alfa. The other two are assertive but they all get along. Now comes the 2 month old female Rottweiler that is showing Alfa with me. She is now just 9 weeks old. She is blocking my walk. Just me. This is my daughters dog for guarding the yard when “Fergie” gets older. I will not tolerate this behavior withFergie. What do I do? Thank you.

  3. Susan Nicol says:

    Great reading. My rescue dog is attempting to change hierarchy in our home with 10 year old brother. I could use help with this new issue.

  4. Mark Ellis says:

    With all due respect to those who have made anecdotal comments, all I can tell you is that the United States Military who trains thousands of military dogs accept the concept of the pack mentality. There is, however, always that dog, or pairing of dogs, that makes the rule by breaking the rule. Overall, however, this article is solid and the overwhelming experiencing of working dog handlers concur with the findings.

  5. Maria says:

    As Angie Madden has said, please look at up to date research. You will find that a number of the same people who originally studied captive wolves and initiated the “Pack/Alpha” theory have mostly backtracked and are now debunking the Pack theory (John Fisher and Ian Dunbar to name a couple). A fantastic and easy to read book is “Dominance in Dogs Fact or Fiction” by Barry Eaton another good read is “The 100 silliest Things People say about Dogs” by Alexandra Semyonova. Unfortunately, this kind of archaic study is not helpful in resolving behavioural problems.

    1. Comparitive Psychology PHD says:

      As with all things in life there is an order of hierarchy. Can you see our current president trying to “prove” that he is alpha. He isn’t alpha, or he wouldn’t have to try so hard to prove it. Alpha just is. If you doubt the hierarchy, chances are you are a disgruntled beta, or way out of your league Omega. Roles can change upon death of a member, bit hierarchy always exists, both with people and animals. Any study of psychology or comparitive psychology (animal) would show you that hierarchy always exists. Dunbar and Fisher disagree to “sell” their viewpoints, as a career choice. Eaton too, has commerce reasons in dichotomy with his schooling. My guess is they too are Betas or Omegas. Understanding hierarchy is almost always helpful to understand. If it frustrates you, figure out which Human is a true alpha, and ask them.

  6. shelby says:

    well i have two dogs and they act as equals

  7. June says:

    So what is it if one of the pack member bites the pack leader? I was always recognized by my pack as the alpha. The member of the pack that bit me always allows me to walk through a door first. He would come to my aid to assist me with correcting another member. He would go and bring them to me when I ordered him to get them. I was very perplexed by his actions and it necessitated me in selling him to a rancher as he was a blue heeler and probably needed a real job. It broke my heart to take that action because I loved him very much and had him since he was 6 weeks old

    1. John says:

      It seems to be that if he has bit you, he sees you as not as dominant as you think. I have six dogs, if one has ever shown aggression towards myself, or one of my other 4 human pack members, they will get a persuasive reminder that they are never allowed to do that! Our pack stands in a specific order. Humans first, then the hierarchy of the dogs. The alpha dogs will always back me in any situation by standing by me ready to also lay down a punishment, mostly by standing my guard, and low growling at the dog that did wrong. In certain instances they have taken action by putting the unobeidient member back to an understanding of where they stand in the pack.

  8. 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.

    1. Craig Marshall says:

      Which latest research are you referring to? For every piece that contradicts the Hierarchy / Dominance theory, you’ll find another that reinforces it. The jury is very much out on which should be believed, and I think will almost certainly always be. My personal opinion is that you need to tailor the training and handling of a dog like the education of a child, you provide the environment, reward, encouragement and discipline that is appropriate in the circumstances for that individual. Dogs are not human and function at a very much lower intellectual level, but are very socially aware. I have had, and been around gun-dogs all my life. Never known 2 the same when it came to training, some really flourished with firm discipline and others that flourished with higher than usual rewarding.

    2. Jim Boss says:

      I have two alpha female German Shepherds and I can tell you that social hierarchy is alive and well as an influencer of canine behavior. … but it depends on the dog. Bottom line is you have to know your dog(s) and realize their social behavior may change when family members come and go.

      1. shelby says:

        thats a great point

    3. John Smith says:

      Please, please, please realize that dogs are pack animals who are keenly aware of hierarchy. I have educated many people who didn’t recognize that their dogs have a hierarchy, resulting in their dogs injuring and even killing each other. Wolves live in family groups with a hierarchy. Dogs are domesticated wolves. This is a scientific fact. There is a lot garbage written to the contrary. Don’t believe it. The author correctly stated that physical correction should not be used. The problem is very few people truly understand the subtleties of wolf behavior in the wild. I study wolf behavior and I train dogs.

  9. 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!

  10. L Bonifacio says:

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

  11. 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.

    2. John Smith says:

      When everyone behaves, there is no need to correct. Sometimes doing nothing makes you a proper Alpha. It’s better than being a bully, which is not proper.

  12. 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?

    1. NONYOBIZNESS says:

      You do everything for that dog. Not your mom. If your mom does the feeding and watering for your dog guess what it will soon be following her too. You walk it, train it, feed it, take it to the vet…you do everything for it and it will bond to you. If you are not willing to do this then don’t bother because the only thing that will happen is your mom gets an addition to her pack.

  13. Estar says:

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

  14. kim harris says:

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

  15. 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.

    1. Ben says:

      Well said!

    2. Kim says:

      You make some excellent points and I do feel that the truth remains somewhere in the middle.
      My Experience;
      My German Shepard has four friends all the same age and we meet nearly every night for them to play. We have done this since they were 12wks old and now are 17months.

      These four are most certainly a pack. We have watched their status change among them many times. First greeting is like they haven’t seen each other in ten years and highly charged.

      One of the females will not let my boy play (flirt) with the other females. She can become overly dominant (does not hurt them, however) to the females he plays with. (This could be related to only the alpha pair mate).

      Other dogs they meet are greeted nicely – but not always included in their group playing. Those that are must abide by their rules or be told off. Males are told off by my boy, females by the dominant female (this never leads to a fight or any dog getting hurt – lots of noise and posturing).

      Despite two seemingly setting themselves up as the alpha pair, when a spat breaks out they listen to the humans immediately. Snarls and the showing of teeth stop the second they are told to cut it out and they seem to forget their annoyance and instantly go back to playing. (no need for a leash or physical intervention of any kind).

      All of the dogs sleep with their owners and eat at the same time we do. Yet we all do obedience, sent work and agility with the dogs.

      So I think the wolf theory is relevant to giving some understanding of dog to dog interactions but does not need to transfer into humans trying to be alpha over them.

      Far better you attain a relationship where your dog trusts and respects you.

    3. John Smith says:

      Wrong, feral dogs, especially large dogs often form packs.