What Does a "Pecking Order" in Dogs Mean?

Everyone has a place in the pecking order.
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If a child behaved in a similar manner, his teacher might write, “Doesn’t play well with others,” on his report card. In a dog’s world, however, establishing a hierarchy comes with the territory. Dogs naturally develop a pecking order that includes humans and other pets.

The Pack

The term “pecking order” started in the chicken yard, where the strongest hens and roosters asserted dominance by pecking the weaker members. The same thing occurs in the canine world when two or more dogs live in a pack. Without human intervention, dogs naturally decide who gets to be the lead dog and who must play a subordinate role. When you bring Woofstock home, the way you interact with him will let him know that you’re the top dog in this pack.

The Leader of the Pack

Every pack has a leader, or an “alpha,” who ranks the highest. In the wild, the leader of the dog pack gets to eat first and gets preferential treatment from the rest of the pack. The leader usually establishes his position through challenges to and from other dogs in the pack. The pecking order doesn’t end there. All dogs in a pack see one another as either higher or lower on the totem pole.

People as Pack Leaders

Dogs have been the trusted and loyal companions of humans for centuries, but a dog must realize that a human is his pack leader. When a dog challenges his human family for the position of alpha, trouble ensues. Cesar Millan, of "Dog Whisperer" fame, teaches dog owners to establish themselves at the top of the pack by setting rules and boundaries. Some of his techniques include making the dog perform a task before being allowed to eat and remaining calm but assertive so your dog sees you as an authority figure.

Posturing and Body Language

You can tell a lot about dogs by observing their body language. When a dog stares directly at another dog's face, he could be challenging that dog for a leadership position. If the other dog looks away, it signals submission. Dominant dogs puff up their chests and stand tall when they meet other dogs, while submissive dogs hunch down and sometimes roll onto their backs, exposing their tummies. Establishing a pecking order is second nature to dogs, and after two dogs meet and mutually decide who’s the boss, their attention can quickly turn to playing and romping and they can enjoy each other’s company.