Top Dog: What Pack Structure Is and Isn't

Updated: Sep 12

I hear this often, from pros and owners alike. Don't I have to be Alpha to my dog? Doesn't my leadership have to go unquestioned? Should my dogs never be allowed out before me or to sleep in my bed if they're to know I'm top dog? All these questions and so many more derive from a study done in the 30's and 40's by a Swiss scientist by the name of Rudolph Schenkel. Thanks to wolf.org we have a link to the English translation of that study you can read: www.wolf.org/wolves/learn/scientific/mech_pdfs/267alphastatus_english.pdf To sum it up, he concluded that wolves are in a constant battle for status within their pack and it is only by the vigilance of the two at the top at the time that keep them in their position, lest a wolf from beneath them come to steal it. The first major flaw in this study is that he was observing captive wolves, not in and of itself a bad thing to do, however he extrapolated this to wild wolves and then it attached itself to domesticated dogs. The facts about captive wolves is they are almost never from the same pack. A wild wolf pack is a breeding pair (the "Alphas") and their off spring. As the young grow, they branch out and start their own packs or stay on to help care for future generations. There is no jockeying for positions within a wolf pack in the wild, the parents are the leaders and that is how it is. They do not aggressively guard over food leaving the others to fight for scraps in the wild. These are their children, often times they actually eat first. So no, you don't have to make your dog watch as you eat first out of their bowl to prove you are above them (yes, there are actual celebrity trainers on television who have told clients to do this) Resting places are resting places, there is no whomever is higher is more dominant. If the Alphas are up higher it is simply to keep a look out while other pack members rest. So no, you don't have to kick your dog off the sofa or bed to prove you're the leader. Also in the wild, the Alphas actually tend to travel in the back of the pack, not making sure they are ahead of everyone else. Why? Because most attacks come from the back where the weakest members usually are, so once again they are protecting their offspring. So no, your dog going out the door before you is not them being dominant, it's simply them being rude to you. Studying captive wolf packs definitely has its merits, but in terms of comparing it to wild wolves, not to say this is also how wild wolves interact. The other thing is folks, dogs are not wolves. Yes, descendants, but they are not wolves anymore than we are monkies (well, some people are I suppose). They know we are not dogs as well, give them some credit!


Ok so true dominance theory isn't sounding so great. Does that mean dogs are not pack animals? Not quite. Just go to a dog park or daycare center and observe the groups of dogs. You will see them form small packs within their larger play group. You would also notice in those groups a main couple dogs playing, and others skirting them trying to get in on the fun. Pack dynamics are not about aggression. Aggression is reserved for threats from outsiders, not our friends or family. I will give you the example of my pack to explain. The dog I've owned the longest is Bailey, my almost 10 year old GSP. She has been with me since 8 weeks old, moved to 3 other states and back with me, seen me through the birth of my daughter, a divorce, a new relationship, new careers; everything. In my others dog's eyes, she is "Alpha". Not because she has shown aggression and forced them to submit to her. One she's the oldest and was here when they got here, but also by her being fair and being both kind and firm when she needs to be. She plays with all our dogs in some way or another, but if they get too rough for her or out of hand she lets them know with her body language. A quick change of her facial expressions can tell them to back off, and they do, and then its over. She doesn't chase them off for good measure. She doesn't bully them off the couch or bed. As all dogs do (and in my opinion have a right to), she will defend her food bowl from other dogs but once she is done eating she does not dive into other dog's bowls who are still eating (though everyone has to check at the end that no one missed a kibble). My point is, through canine communication she has imparted to every new member of our pack that as far as the dogs are concerned she is the leader. In the last year or so we have added 4 dogs to our group, little by little. Each new dog brings a new dynamic to the group. And each addition brings a small amount of testing to see who is boss, because remember dogs are NOT wolves. This all being said, Bailey and everyone else know's in the full pack picture I am actually top boss, but how did I get it that way and how do I know they feel that way?


I started with Bailey, obviously. I gave her fair, firm guidance from the moment I got her home. There were parts of our house she had to earn the right to be in through good behavior. She was crated when we left to not get into trouble. I let her be herself, a dog, but guided her to the behaviors I wanted through rewards and consequences. In short, I was fair. I didn't nag at her for expressing what is in her nature to express (a bird dog sure notices a lot about the world that we don't) however certain things like going potty in the house were taught to be unacceptable. Also, consistency. If something was not ok, it was never ok. Dogs get very confused when we allow something one day because we're too tired to care and not another when we're more on it. Now that's not to say you can't add a cue, so if they are cued they can do it and if not they can't, this way they still have a sense of if I didn't hear "couch" (as an example) I can't get on the couch, ever. That is where most of our troubles with out canine friends begin. Humans have a horrible time being consistent! One day we have a crappy day at work so our dogs get away with murder because we can't be bothered to enforce our normal rules, and the next we have company over so our dog has to be perfect. This is horrible for our dogs. Imagine going to work and some days you're expected to do a ton of really strict work and another its pizza party day. For starters, which day are going to head to work hoping it is every day? How will you feel to find out it's tough work day, especially if it happens less than Pizza day? Of course we're humans and yes work days fluctuate, but you get my point. Dog's are living beings, they are not trying to usurp your thrown at every turn, they are simply testing to see if they can talk you into a pizza day. It is your job to walk the middle ground, expecting a certain level of good behavior in exchange for some sort of reward. I don't mean just food, this can be praise, toys, a trip to the park, you name it. How do I know they understand that I'm the leader? In short, because they listen to me. I can call any of my dogs off of anything, even the ones I adopted from other owners. When we're out playing off leash, they come check in with me either because I asked them to or just because. All I have to say is "Hey!" and all my dogs stop what they're doing and look. I've taken the time to build a bond with each dog as an individual, and so as a group we work well together. If you dog is constantly blowing off your commands and literally walking all over you, you do no have a clear definition of roles in your household.


Dog's are not born knowing how to navigate human society, they are born knowing how to be a dog. It is unfair to expect them to understand what you're wanting if it has not been taught under the 3 D's of training; Distance, Distraction, and Duration. Only then can you get a little tougher on them for not listening. " io amo il mio cane", know what that means? Unless you've studied Italian, you wouldn't and should not be expected to. However if you did take Italian lessons you could learn this means "I love my dog". Showing you something you don't have any experience with expecting you know it is unfair and unrealistic, but through teaching you can learn it and then be tested on your knowledge of it. This is something to keep in mind with your dogs, who don't speak English. We are teaching them another language and anyone who has tried to do that knows it's difficult, but not impossible. Through fair guidance your dog will learn that you are the one in charge and they will accept that. The more dogs you add to your pack the more consistent and fair you need to be or you will quickly be out numbered. Also worth noting, because dogs are living beings, not every new dog is going to fit into the pack. You can not expect every dog to accept every dog, that is unfair and unrealistic. So do your homework and really know your dog before adding to the group. Do not fall into the trap that bringing in a puppy instead of an older dog will go perfectly. Bailey for example is not all that fond of puppies as an old lady, so it took extra work when we brought baby Stella Luna home. As always, if you need help learning how to balance or add to your pack we are here to help. Be a leader to your dogs, not a dictator.


For the Dogs,

Christina, DTFC



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