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Is Dominance, Pack, Alpha and Hierarchy Terminology Relevant in Canine Behaviour?

Dominance, Pack, Alpha and Hierarchy Terminology Discussion

Following a noted increase of these mentioned terms in the media, on television shows, social media and still on dog trainers/behaviourists business pages and websites I have decided to rewrite a discussion piece written for dog professionals. Sadly, the title dog trainer and dog behaviourist are not protected and the industry is unregulated. This becomes a minefield for dog owners seeking support for themselves and their canine companions. Please visit my page 'What is a Training Consultation?' where I discuss red flags when looking for a dog trainer.

Dominance theory and alpha dog definitions have long been disproved, but originated from the works of Rudolph Schenkel and then in the continued work of David Mech observing captive wolves. Through further study of wild wolves and noting family structures not a hierarchical system and disputing his own work, (Mech, D) debunking old research, we have come a long way in understanding wolf behaviour. It is so important to keep up to date with science and research, which dog professionals should do through further studies to help educate, improve animal welfare and train using modern scientific and ethical methods. Below is a pdf link to Mech discussing how his initial theories were incorrect following further study. Unfortunately, these ideas filtered down into canine behaviour and training, despite being outdated.

"We can understand the social behaviour of dogs without reference to social dominance by making use of the principles of learning and behaviour." (O'Heare, J, 2008; p76 from Dominance Theory and Dogs) I believe this is key to understanding our canine companions, by looking at their learning history, identifying emotions driving behaviour, function of behaviour, health and much more.

Dominance is not a character trait, hence we avoid describing a dog as dominant, but instead a fluid part of communication through body language, which is where the confusion and misconception occurs. Domestic dogs are social animals not pack animals. Context is key and obviously with any behavioural concerns firstly professionals should always recommend a vet check to rule out possible underlying health concerns. Working alongside veterinary professionals is important for diagnosis and continual support.

Dogs are domestic animals, domesticated over thousands of years, diverged from an extinct wolf species. Scientists are still unsure of grey wolves and dogs evolutionary past, though tracing genetic mutations and gathering data continues to still build information. A study in 2016 showed evidence that suggested domestic dogs have a dual origin. Results discussed within the study suggest that dogs may have been domesticated independently in Eastern and Western Eurasia from distinct wolf populations. In 2017, a study discussed that domestication occurred longer ago, looking at 40,000 years, suggesting there perhaps was only one domestication event. Findings in the study revealed a history of domestic dogs as intricate as that of the people they lived alongside, which means comparing canine behaviour to distant wolf species will cause further inaccuracy and misunderstanding.

Research focussing on the human and dog domestication and communication process, shows how dogs have evolved alongside us, using clues from humans with a genetic disorder that makes them unusually friendly. A research team from a 2017 study found variations in several genes that make dogs more affable than wolves and some dogs friendlier than others, however more research is needed within this topic of study. A 2015 research report, also showed that when our canine companions look into our eyes while interacting, they activate the same hormonal response that bonds us to human infants. This is the first to show a hormonal bonding effect between humans and another species and helps to explain how dogs became our companions thousands of years ago. This behaviour is very different to that of wolves, which interpret this action as hostile.

Comparing our dogs however, to a distant species does our incredible canine companions a disservice and confuses us as owners and professionals too. Dogs and wolves are distantly related as discussed. Instead we need to observe dogs body language, stress signals, look at socialisation and development, learning history, health status, apply learning theory and emotional context to help us understand their behaviour and language.

So are dogs pack animals? And why should we avoid using the term?

For the answer we need to look at the definition of 'pack'. "A group of wild animals living and hunting together." Wild wolves strategy is to stay together in family groups and hunt large prey for the best chance of survival. Requiring family members, including a breeding pair, to maintain social communication with one another. This relies non-confrontational body language and skills within the family group, coordinating and cooperating to benefit the whole family and raising offspring.

Now, the word pack has a fun feel about it in utilising for a group of dogs, however it is a term most qualified behaviourists and trainers avoid for a number of reasons. Sadly, as above, the term makes the inaccurate comparison to wolves, which again is misconstrued and continues to be in the media and online. Domestic dog are social animals and much like us choose who they have social bonds with, and are not pack animals based on family structure, or from debunked hierarchical structures. Dogs are facultative carnivores, not omnivores, meaning they thrive from a meat based diet, but can eat plant based food. Domesticated dogs do not hunt, they will scavenge and forage for food individually and independently. However, they still retain predatory patterns and sequences.

Can we as owners/trainers be pack leaders or alphas?

Again, this is answered in the above. How can we, humans, become a leader/alpha/parent of an entirely different species that has a unique language that we cannot speak? Once again, let us look at the accurate definition of a wolf pack as observed by researchers, a family structure, consisting of a breeding pair and offspring. (The alpha definition was used whilst describing unrelated captive wolves, grouped together by humans. However, with wild wolves you could see the alpha pair instead as the parents, a mother and father.) The answer is no, to this question. Instead, we need to see dogs as sentient beings with complex behaviour and emotions, like us.

Dominance is a human trait, which domestic dogs do not share. We do not see dominant and submissive behaviour in dogs as these are human traits. Instead we see canine body language and complex signals, stress signals, appeasement, displacement behaviour and emotions such as fear, happiness and anger. According to Panksepp, there are 7 basic animal emotions, or as noted within research, 7 emotional systems, based on specific neural systems that have been identified: Seeking, Rage, Fear, Lust, Care, Panic and Play.

My conclusion is how our incredible canine best friends are social animals, but often will choose who they communicate and form social bonds with well. Meaning many individual dogs struggle with large groups of dogs, becoming quickly overwhelmed, overstimulated, stressed, and over threshold. This can result in trigger stacking, whereby a number of events occur which can be positive and negative without time for the dog, likewise us, to relax, process and stress to leave the body. As dogs move from puppy to adolescent dog, through to adult dog they become less tolerant, it is important to observe and learn when your dog is asking for space, distance and when they consent to interaction with other dogs and happy through canine body language. The same in regard to other stimuli and environments to prevent 'flooding'. Consented and mirrored play behaviour is what we look for, along with brief relaxed interactions on a loose lead.

This is something for all dog professionals as well as owners to be aware of. Emotion, health status, learning history, genetics, pain, early critical development and more impacts behaviour. Learning about body language from qualified sources is key, as this will help us understand how our dogs communicate. But we as their carers and owners do not need to use force or dominance to make dogs comply and submit. Instead, we need to create partnerships based on trust and understanding.

A good dog professional never stops learning, so always look for ongoing membership assessments and CPD.

A husky dog is in a field of long grass, the husky has recalled to their handler and gazing at the them.
Husky in a field, gazing at owner.


Trigger Stacking: is where a number of events occur before your dog has had time to process information and their stress hormone(cortisol)/level has not returned to normal. One event and the rest of the walk stress free will result in a relaxed dog on return. If your dog however experiences a number of stressful events, this can then lead to what we term as ‘trigger stacked.’ A few signs of stress are; yawning, tongue flicks, dry panting, frantic sniffing, refusing to go forward. (Stewart. G., 2016; p74-76)

Stress Signals: A few signs of stress are; yawning, tongue flicks, dry panting, frantic sniffing, refusing to go forward. (Stewart. G., 2016; p74-76) Tail wagging is often misinterpreted; however, position and motion tells us a lot about how a dog is feeling so try to observe and make notes re position and movement which you can then interpret into body language. A relaxed tail will be loose and gently wag, whereas a stiff or frantic wagging tail may show the dog is over aroused, a tucked tail may mean your dog is fearful.

Desensitisation is the process of exposing an animal to a stimulus beginning at a very low intensity. Gradually exposing to the new/fearful stimulus, starting at a very low level and building up very slowly. It should be systematic, which means we have to create a plan to build up gradually. Every time we change the level as we progress, your dog needs to be happy and comfortable. Hence, we have to note body language and stress signs.

Flooding: This means prolonged exposure to a stimulus until the puppy/dog eventually stops reacting. This is the opposite of the approach taken in desensitisation (exposing a dog slowly to a stimulus at a low level/distance). It causes increased stress (cortisol) and will cause further behaviour problems and an animal to shut down (Seligman. M. 1972). The most common problem is increased fear.

Dominance/Alpha/Pack Terminology: dominance theory has long been disproved but originated from the works of Rudolph Schenkel and then in the continued work of David Mech observing captive wolves. Through further study of wild wolves and noting family structures not a hierarchical system and disputing his own work, (Mech, D) debunking old research, we have come a long way in understanding behaviour. Dominance is not a character trait but a fluid part of communication through body language, which is where the confusion and misconception occurs. Domestic dogs are social animals not pack animals.


Botigué, L., Song, S., Scheu, A. et al. Ancient European dog genomes reveal continuity since the Early Neolithic. Nat Commun8, 16082 (2017).

Laurent A. F. Frantz et al. Genomic and archaeological evidence suggest a dual origin of domestic dogs.Science352,1228-1231(2016).DOI:10.1126/science.aaf3161

Miho Nagasawa et al. Oxytocin-gaze positive loop and the coevolution of human-dog bonds.Science348,333-336(2015).DOI:10.1126/science.1261022

Panksepp J. Affective neuroscience of the emotional BrainMind: evolutionary perspectives and implications for understanding depression. Dialogues Clin Neurosci. 2010;12(4):533-45. doi: 10.31887/DCNS.2010.12.4/jpanksepp. PMID: 21319497; PMCID: PMC3181986

Stewart, Grisha. Behavior Adjustment Training 2.0. Dogwise Publishing (26 Mar. 2012)

Bridgett M. vonHoldt et al. Structural variants in genes associated with human Williams-Beuren syndrome underlie stereotypical hypersociability in domestic dogs.Sci. Adv.3,e1700398(2017).DOI:10.1126/sciadv.1700398


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