Canine Social Structure Explained

dreamstime_s_44670725When interacting with your dog, do you treat your pet as it if were a human? If so, you may be causing confusion for your pet, and frustration for yourself. Dogs communicate with their human and canine families by interacting as a pack with a defined hierarchy. Even though dogs have evolved alongside humans, they still carry a number of similarities to their wolf ancestors.

What is a Pack?
A pack is the social unit of a group of wolves or dogs. In the wild, packs can be as large as 15 or more canines, but domestically a pack can technically be as few as two dogs. When dogs live with humans, they consider their two-legged housemates to be part of this social unit.

What is the Alpha, Beta, and Omega?
If you have a dog, you have likely heard the term “alpha,” either during training or through research. In a true pack, there is always a dog that is most dominant, termed the alpha, followed by the “second in command,” which is the beta. The least dominant (or most submissive) dog is the omega. In wild wolf packs, there is always an alpha male and an alpha female, with the female being submissive to the male. In domestic packs, a female may be the overall alpha.

What Does Hierarchy Mean in a Pack?
Dogs determine pack hierarchy via displays of dominance. These can include humping, snarling, nipping, or even getting into fights. Once the alpha is established, each dog thereafter determines which animal is dominant or subordinate to one another. This order then determines which animal receives the choice share in meals, but also includes greater responsibility. For instance, the alpha makes all the pack decisions and provides protection.

How Can Humans Better Communicate with Dogs?
There are many misplaced ideas about the pack, alpha, and owner relationship. Humans often believe that the best way to communicate with a dog is to ask him or her to deny its nature and behave according to the rules and language of humans. On the other end of the spectrum, some humans believe that every action a dog displays is simply to prove dominance over the owner (i.e. your dog is likely on your bed because it’s the most comfortable spot in the house; not as a display of dominance over the household). However, asserting yourself as pack leader is crucial in order to have confident and well-behaved dogs. When canines are unsure of their position in the hierarchy, they can become confused and frustrated, leading to behavioral problems and general unease.

How Can a Dog Owner Assert His or Her Position as Alpha?
The best way to be alpha over your pack is to display confidence with your dog(s) while setting consistent rules and boundaries. Being alpha does not include using aggression as a means to control your pet, however. Instead, if your dog is sleeping on your pillow, you can show dominance by moving your dog from the comfortable spot instead of simply finding a new area to sleep.