Dog on the Couch

Hi Susan, how can I tell which of my dogs is the pack leader? My little Yorkshire Terrier seems to me to act more like the alpha than my Boxers do. She always rushes ahead when we get ready to go out. Should I be a stronger pack leader?


Hi Terry,

Pack-theorists would advise you to demonstrate your “alpha position” by always making a point of being the first to eat, never allowing the dog through a doorway ahead of you, disallowing the dog on beds or furniture, and generally asserting yourself in a dominant role. They believe that domestic dogs spend much of their time plotting the overthrow of both canine and human hierarchies.

This misunderstood theory, known to have been based on false premises, is unfortunately still being perpetuated in the popular press. It was first popularised by the Monks of New Skett in the seventies. Then in 1975 Erik Zimen collected wolves of various origins, studied them in captivity and found that there was a strong need among them to compete and fight for this highly prized alpha position.

In the sixties it was thought that domestic dogs and wolves were the same species and would behave identically. David Mech studied wolves in captivity and published his opinion that wolves were pack animals who fight for leadership. As wolves and dogs were considered to be the same species, it was thought that these findings would apply equally well to the latter. (See The Wolf Ecology and Behaviour of an Endangered Species.) After further work exposed flaws in studying wild animals in captivity, and in further studies studying wolves in the wild Mech revoked his earlier findings in 1999 in his book Alpha, Status, Dominance and Division of Labour in Wolf Packs.

In 2008 Mech found that conflicts within family groups of wolves were rare and that all the members would achieve alpha status when they produced their own offspring and left their parents to form their own family groups. When not in captivity wolves live cohesively and cooperatively. A parent and older sibling guide and care for the younger offspring.

As we are concerned with the dog, we should turn to more appropriate authoritative studies, of which there are many. Dr Frank Beache spent 30 years studying dogs and found that the small minority of alpha dogs, who gained position by bullying and force, soon where thrown out of the group - their behaviour was unacceptable.

The majority of alpha dogs were benevolent and confident leaders who had no need of bullying tactics. If they did squabble for dominance, their rank would actually be reduced to one in which the insecure reside.

Many alpha-ranking dogs are too small or frail to dominate one another, but they are awarded a right to control a certain resource. Each individual determines which resource is of value and earns his right. A more alpha dog may simply concede to another dog the right to something of lesser importance and award himself a privilege he regards as of greater value. A human simile could be a brother and sister relationship in which one child monopolises the computer and the other the telephone.

The parent supplies the resources and so has the ultimate say, whereby the less pushy of the two will be given the advantage if tensions otherwise rise too high. Your little Yorkie has been awarded privileges by your benevolent Boxers who seem to be sorting out a peaceful compromise.

- Susan Henderson© (accredited
animal behaviour consultant) info@dog

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