How Dogs Establish Hierarchy

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Your dog lives in luxury compared to his wild brethren, but he still hears the call of the wild when it comes to a desire for dominance. Domesticated pups create and maintain a social hierarchy with their family—humans and other pets—just like wolves and feral dogs.


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NOTE: "Dominance Theory" is a widely debated topic among dog behaviorists, but we at Cuteness like to give voice to writers on both sides of the debate. For an opposing view, please see our article Social Heirarchy Among Dogs.

Canine Social Structure

All dogs crave social structure. It is a survival mechanism that allows them to function as a single unit when they are hunting and fighting enemies. Each pack, or household, has an alpha male and alpha female. These two positions are the most concrete. Alphas are sensitive to challenges to their authority and it takes a lot of work to establish yourself as an alpha if your dog has already assumed the role. The remaining pack members follow a roughly linear hierarchy below the alphas, so beta pack members may emerge as a solid second place in the pecking order.



Positioning and posture are a big part of dominant behavior. Standing above a dog is a show of dominance. This is why dogs roll over on their backs to show humility or surrender during a brawl. When dogs confront one another, they attempt to get above each other by tilting their heads upwards and standing up on their back feet. They also seek elevation, like a chair or table. Picking your dog up off the ground can really get on your other dogs' nerves because they see their rival in a higher position, which they interpret as an attempt to challenge their authority.


Threatening Behavior

When posturing isn't enough to make a rival back down, dogs resort to more direct tactics to enforce their dominance. Prolonged eye contact is a thinly veiled threat among dogs. Canines seeking to establish themselves as alpha have staring contests with their rivals. If the rival doesn't look away or show submissive behavior, then the wannabe alpha may use force to secure his position. Rivals also nip at each other, a habit you will certainly find annoying, and bite at their rival's mouths. Dogs growl at each other and lift their lips upward to display their teeth when they feel their position is jeopardized. This is strong threat and may lead to violence if the situation isn't resolved at this stage.



Dogfights aren't as common as you might think in the wild. In fact, combat is a last resort. After all, it wouldn't do to have half the pack bleeding and weakened by infighting. When dogs fight for dominance, they are not usually going for the kill. However, breeds like bullmastiffs are particularly likely to kill pack members in a dominance fight, according to the American Kennel Club. Physical altercations can get pretty nasty, even in less violent breeds. Dogs tend to target the face, so eye and lip damage are common. The fight ends when one dog retreats or surrenders by rolling over.


By Quentin Coleman


The American Kennel Club: In-Home Multiple Dog Management
Shandael Alaskan Malamutes: Establishing Dominance
Chesapeake Bay Retriever Relief and Rescue: Establishing Yourself as Pack Leader
Northern Virginia Community College: Canine Behavior and Reproduction

About the Author
Quentin Coleman has written for various publications, including All Pet News and Safe to Work Australia. He spent more tan 10 years nursing kittens, treating sick animals and domesticating semi-feral cats for a local animal shelter. He graduated from the University of Delaware with a bachelor's degree in journalism.