When a social group is composed of several members, some form of hierarchy is needed so to help maintain order. This is true for both humans and canines, however dogs don't elect presidents (or "alphas" as it were) and there are no protocols or standard operation procedures set in stone. Interestingly, Fido's social system in many aspects is much more lenient and less rigid than our society.
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 How Dogs Establish Hierarchy.
Purpose of Social Order
In the wild, one of the many purposes of forming a social group was to collaborate in hunting. A group of canines had better chances of taking down a large animal using a cooperative approach rather than relying on a one-on-one approach. Nowadays, domesticated dogs are fed kibble, wear collars studded with diamonds and sleep on comfy beds. Clearly, they no longer need to hunt and fend for themselves; yet, when dogs live together within a household, inevitably some form of social hierarchy is formed to help maintain order and avoid conflict.
In 1947, animal behaviorist Robert Shenkel theorized the social structure of captive wolf packs included an authoritarian figure known as the "alpha wolf." Further studies conducted by American biologist and wolf behavior expert David Mech concluded that in free-ranging wolves, the "pack" was more of a family led by a male and female alpha pair. Nowadays, a better understanding of the social behavior among domesticated dogs reveals that dogs behave differently than wolves and form a different type of hierarchy.
The Domesticated "Alpha" Myth
Contrary to longstanding belief, domesticated dogs don't have an alpha figure that maintains order through aggressively enforced dominance. Rather, social hierarchies in dogs are maintained by deference, according to the Merck Veterinary Manual. Conflicts and confrontations are avoided by using social body language. If you look at the interactions among a group of dogs, you'll see that dog A may defer to dog B and dog B may defer to dog C. In this case, the term ''subordinance hierarchy'' is accurate for the social structure of dogs according to veterinarian, animal behaviorist and dog trainer Ian Dunbar.
There are no rules set in stone when it comes to a dog's social group. Scruffy may choose to be assertive in one encounter, and then defer in the next one. It all boils down to what’s at stake, and how strongly the dog may feels about the final outcome, according to Pat Miller, owner and trainer of Peaceable Paws. Social hierarchies among dogs aren't linear with clear-cut, black-and-white rules; rather, they appear to be most likely contextual and fluid, with some shades of gray.
Petplace.com: Understanding Hunting & Predatory Behavior in Dogs
Whole Dog Journal: De-Bunking the "Alpha Dog" Theory
Merck Veterinary Manual: Social Behavior
Dog Star Daily: The Macho Myth
Dave Mech: Captivity Observations by R. Shenkel [PDF]
4 Paws University: Whatever Happened to the Term AL Wolf? H
About the Author
Adrienne Farricelli has been writing for magazines, books and online publications since 2005. She specializes in canine topics, previously working for the American Animal Hospital Association and receiving certification from the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers. Her articles have appeared in "USA Today," "The APDT Chronicle of the Dog" and "Every Dog Magazine." She also contributed a chapter in the book " Puppy Socialization - An Insider's Guide to Dog Behavioral Fitness" by Caryl Wolff.