How Dogs Establish Hierarchy

by Quentin Coleman
Dogs may feel threatened by children, so don't leave them unattended.

Dogs may feel threatened by children, so don't leave them unattended.

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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.

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.

Posturing

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.

Combat

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.

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About the Author

Quentin Coleman has written for several news publications as well as the University of Delaware's public relations department. He also spent more than 10 years working with a local animal shelter to help nurse kittens, treat sick cats and domesticate feral animals. Coleman graduated from the University of Delaware with a bachelor's degree in journalism.

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