Dogs love structure in their lives, whether it's counting on a reliable mealtime, maintaining a bathroom break schedule or following consistent commands. Another aspect of a dog's love of consistency and order is the structure of a pack. When multiple dogs live together, they are in a pack, and one of them must be the pack leader. Also known as the dominant dog or the alpha dog, the pack leader generally is the strongest and best-suited to represent and protect the pack. In the case of domestic dogs, the pack leader might not be a dog at all.
Importance of Leadership
Dogs don't share the dominant role -- they need a strong leader. The pack lifestyle is deeply ingrained in a dog's instincts. When they are establishing the pack leader, it may look as though the dogs are fighting, but actually, dogs that share a pack are deeply loyal to each other. This is why it is so important for only one of them to have the dominant role. Once the pecking order is established, they won't feel like they have to compete with each other. Instead, they can coexist as a united group.
Establishing and Maintaining
When dogs establish who is their pack leader, or who has the dominant role, it may seem as though they aren't getting along. They may squabble with each other, show signs of being territorial, or even engage in physical altercations. These fights aren't necessarily serious, though. They simply are exercises to determine who is the dominant animal. Think of it like animal arm wrestling -- a short, mostly harmless physical contest to determine who is stronger.
Becoming Pack Leader
The dominant role between dogs doesn't have to be filled by a four-legged creature -- it can be filled by a human. Because domestic dogs generally are dependent on human care, it is natural for you to assume the dominant role and become pack leader to your dogs. You give commands, provide a structured schedule, and distribute food and water to the pack. You make every decision for your dogs. The balance and structure that your dogs experience when you take on a dominant role, instead of letting them rule the house, provides comfort in their lives.
When you are pack leader, it's crucial to maintain order among your dogs -- and don't let them threaten your leadership role. Because most dog owners feel affection for their animals, they can let their love overpower their dominance. That is, they let the dogs do whatever they want. This leads to disorder among the pack. Even if you have structure in the home, seemingly innocuous behaviors can confuse your dogs' sense of who is pack leader. For example, if you play a game of tug-of-war that ends with your dog "winning" the toy, the dog may sense that he has dominance over you. Always maintain the upper hand, and you'll maintain your dominant role.
Tom Ryan is a freelance writer, editor and English tutor. He graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with a degree in English writing, and has also worked as an arts and entertainment reporter with "The Pitt News" and a public relations and advertising copywriter with the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.