While positive-reinforcement training has skyrocketed in popularity recently, many pet guardians continue to follow the dominance theory of animal training. Advocated by fans of Cesar Milan, this theory believes that dogs operate on a rigid system of alphas, betas, and omegas. Formerly validated by a single study in the 1940s, this idea of dog-eat-dog behavior has been pawed full of holes. Let’s take a look at some facts and myths about inter-dog politics and explore a few rules of dog-on-dog interactions.
Wild Wolf Packs vs. Dog Packs
Today’s dogs share over 99.8 percent of their DNA with Middle Eastern grey wolves. Therefore, people thought that dogs also shared 99.8 percent of their ancestor’s behaviors. While this isn’t true, we can glean some interesting information by comparing the two.
These majestic canines live in close-knit family groups typically composed of a mated couple and a few sets of offspring. As they are the eldest, the parents naturally assume the alpha roles within the group. The pups then take a rank equivalent to their size, birth order, or play-hunting rank. Once the pups reach a certain age, they wander off to start packs of their own. While outsiders may be accepted into the pack, this is a relatively rare occurrence.
Here are a few other facts about wolves and their packs:
- Scientists have found little evidence of rebellion within wild wolves. Subordinate wolves rarely try to usurp their leaders.
- When food is scarce, the leaders allow the young and the sickly to have the first bite.
- Unlike previously thought, alpha wolves’ rule with little to no aggression. They rarely pin or physically attack their pack mates.
- Wolves will sacrifice themselves to preserve their family unit.
- Wolves typically mate for life and exhibit little to no sexism.
- While dogs tend to submit, wolves often opt for cooperative solutions.
- All the wolves in a pack help feed and care for the pups.
These facts, along with recent research, make it easy to see that wolf packs are less oligarchy and more well-oiled family unit. Though modern studies of wolves can give us some insight into our dogs’ behaviors, there are some key differences between the two.
While many us will never see a wild dog pack, we’ve all watched our fur babies on playdates. After the butt-sniffing comes to an end, one of our pups will settle into a leadership role. In that role, they assume control of the pack’s actions and direction. However, unlike wolves, dogs tend to have a relatively fluid pack structure. While one dog may get to eat first, another may be in charge of toys. Flexible or not, all dogs in a pack are expected to follow the same set of carefully-scripted rules. Failure to do so in the wild could endanger the rest of the pack.
Fives Rules of Dog-to-Dog Politics
Just like our kids, dogs learn good manners from their parents. And, when they step out of line, mom or dad punishes them. By the time Rufus is three or four months old, he should be well-acquainted with these five tenets of doggy politics:
Thou Shalt Not Sniff Another Dog’s Butt Improperly. Dogs meeting for the first time should approach one another with caution. Initial greetings start in an arc-like fashion to ensure neither dog feels ill-at-ease. If another dog’s greeting is too pushy, the offended dog should offer a head shake or turn away from the encounter. If the dogs find themselves incompatible, they should go their separate ways.
Thou Shall Not Steal. While dogs have no real concept of property, they can become possessive over food, territory, and toys. The alpha dog often gets the first pick when it comes to these three things. A lower-ranking dog that tries to cut in line will receive a nip, growl, or icy stare. As dogs have an innate sense of fairness, this rule is enforced across the pack.
Thou Shall Admit When Thou is Wrong. When a dog acts out of line, the pack expects them to apologize for it. If they bit a play partner too hard, for example, the aggressor must ask for forgiveness via a bow. Unlike humans, dogs don’t tend to hold grudges, so forgiveness is almost always given. If the inappropriate behavior continues, the offender may be kicked out of the pack.
Thou Shall Communicate Clearly. Any well-socialized dog is expected to know the proper way to tell the pack their intentions. A dog should not initiate mating behaviors when they wish to play, for example. And, as long as the messages are clear, other dogs are expected to abide by them. If a dog shows clear signs of being frightened, it’s rude for another dog to rush up to them to initiate play. Deceitful communication is frowned upon and dealt with harshly by the pack leader.
Thou Shall Acknowledge Thy Rank. Children are expected to respect their elders. Puppies are expected to obey their parents. In a pack setting, this means that subordinate dogs should respect the wishes of those higher in rank. When approached by a higher-ranking dog, for example, they should kowtow appropriately. By acting in accordance with their current status, well-socialized dogs ensure the stability of the pack.
Doggy pack politics are pretty complicated. They’re made all the more complicated when humans choose to intervene. To ensure our pooches play nicely, we need to make sure they are properly socialized and well-acquainted with canine body language. If we feel that our dog isn’t speaking the same tongue as their counterparts, it might be time to enroll them in doggy daycare or a specialized socialization program. In a later article, we’ll explore other ways to help dogs who have a hard time reading canine social cues.
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