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The Social Lives of Dogs

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(Excerpted from Training Your Dog for Life by Sheila Webster Boneham, Ph.D.)

Dogs Playing

The Social Canine

Dogs are social animals. They need companionship to lead emotionally and mentally healthy lives. They certainly need shelter, food, health care, and exercise, but most importantly, they need to love and be loved. Dogs are not meant to live solitary lives.

Most dogs enjoy the company of other dogs. They form friendships. They play together. Some dogs sleep cuddled up together or side by side. They touch one another in various ways that show dominance, submission, concern, affection, and love. Anyone who doesn’t think that dogs live a rich emotional life hasn’t carefully watched the interaction among dogs or between dogs and other animals.

Your dog relies on you not just for his basic needs but also for some, if not all, of his emotional needs. And if you have other pets, they help to satisfy your dog’s need for social interaction. If your dog is the only nonhuman member of your household, then you are his pack—his family. Isolating him in a kennel or on a chain, or ignoring him, is cruel—it’s the canine equivalent of solitary confinement. What’s the point of having a dog if he isn’t part of your life?

On the other hand, your dog is not a little person in a furry coat. No question, he was born with a genetic heritage forged over thousands of years to make us want to love him and live with him. His looks, his abilities, and the friendship he willingly gives us help him connect with us. But your dog’s heritage also includes physical and mental traits that make him supremely canine. If we pretend that he’s human, we not only demean what it is to be a dog, but we miss out on the rewards of seeing a member of another species for what he really is. It’s unfair to your dog and to you, and it limits communication and understanding between the two of you.

Learning to Play Well With Others

Like all social animals, dogs must learn how to behave around others of their own kind, and in modern society, other kinds as well. Puppies are born with the ability to learn to communicate with and understand others and to exhibit good manners, but they do have to learn these skills. In a normal situation, a pup learns from his dam (mother) and siblings during his first few weeks. But that’s just the beginning. The process of learning to get along socially with others is called socialization, a critical part of your dog’s development. Nature provided your dog with the inclination to play well with others. It’s up to you to give nature a hand.

The Social Hierarchy

When multiple dogs live together, they normally organize themselves into a dominance hierarchy in which each individual ranks higher or lower in relation to each other animal. The socially dominant “top dog” in the hierarchy is the alpha; in mixed-sex packs there is usually an alpha dog (male) and an alpha bitch (female). Social status is acquired primarily by force of personality, not gender, age (among adults), or even size and strength. I grew up with a “pack” that included a male Irish Wolfhound, female Scottish Deerhound, female mixed breed, and two Chihuahuas, one of each sex. It was quite a sight when the big guys kowtowed to the Chihuahua bitch, who was the undisputed alpha animal.

The Alpha’s Role

In theory, the alpha controls the resources. In the wild, the alpha (or alpha pair) eats first and takes the best parts of a kill. He sleeps in the best spot. He may play with the other pack members, but there is a line of respect that his subordinates cross at their own peril.

The domesticated alpha has similar rights, although he should defer to human authority. He “owns” the toys, although he may let the other dog play with them. He sleeps on the “best” dog bed or the couch (if you allow him to), while the others sleep in less desirable spots. He has the right to lead the way through doors and gates and to be in front on walks. Again, though, all this is theoretical, and if status is well defined, the alpha may be pretty relaxed about these “rules.” Status is often fluid as well, with one dog more dominant in the house and another more dominant outdoors. Individual rankings can also change over time as dogs age or their health changes, and when a new dog arrives or a dog leaves, there will nearly always be some reorganization.

Characteristics of the Alpha

A true alpha is a benevolent overseer, confident, with no need to throw his weight around. Alpha wannabes, on the other hand, are often insecure about their status and prone to bullying and quarreling. (In that respect, dogs are not unlike people!) Although the possibility of a fight always exists when two living creatures are together, dominance among dogs is usually established through ritualized behaviors, not combat. Staring is dominant, averting the eyes is submissive. Mounting outside of mating is dominant, being mounted is submissive. Placing one or both front paws on another dog’s neck or shoulder is dominant, allowing one’s neck or shoulder to be pawed is submissive. Submission is also signaled by lying down, rolling belly up, urinating, and looking away from a stare.

Left to their own devices, dogs of equal dominance may fight for a higher position in the pack, but ultimately one of them must either give in (at least for a while) or leave. In a human-controlled environment, however, voluntary departure isn’t usually an option, and if two equally matched and ambitious canines are forced to live together, they may fight.

Can Alphas Be “Appointed”?

You can’t “appoint” an alpha for your pack. Even if you think that Bertha the Big Dog should be alpha and Bingo the Little Dog should be subordinate to her, Bertha and Bingo may have different ideas. Dogs aren’t democratic, and they don’t vote for alpha. They establish their relative ranking through ongoing interaction. Each dog’s breed traits and individual personality will play a part. In some breeds, most dogs get along well with other dogs, and establishing pack order is a relatively uneventful process. In other breeds, members of the same sex may not do well together, and establishing and maintaining the pack order may be more difficult.

A few breeds are generally antisocial with other dogs of either sex. Unfortunately, people often create or increase tension among their dogs by expecting them to live by human ideals of equality and “fairness” or by imposing human ideas about which one should be top dog. Your human children may insist on having equal shares of all the goodies, but dogs live by a hierarchical system in which the higher-ranking member of the pack gets the best and the biggest, and the lower-ranking members accept whatever is left. The dogs themselves will determine their relative ranks, no matter what you think.

Your Role in the Hierarchy: Reinforce Pack Harmony

You can reinforce harmony among multiple dogs by paying attention to their interaction and accepting their hierarchy. Observe your dogs together. Does one dog seem to have the right-of-way when others are in his way? Does one take bones and toys away from the other but not vice versa? The clues can be quite subtle when dogs get along well, but if you are observant, you should have an idea of which dog goes first, controls resources, and in general seems to dominate in dog-to-dog interactions. That is your alpha. If you have more than two dogs, each will occupy a specific position relative to each other dog, and no two dogs will hold precisely equal status. The distinctions can be very subtle, though, especially if the individuals have no “political” aspirations and prefer to simply live and let live.

Once you figure out who outranks whom, you can reinforce pack harmony through little everyday actions. Feed the alpha first, then the other(s). (I don’t mean let the alpha finish before feeding the others, just feed in that order.) If you’re handing out treats, give the alpha his first. If there’s only enough for one, give it to the alpha. If you buy a new toy, give it to the alpha. If the alpha wants to be petted, he gets priority. Does that mean that only your dominant dog should get cookies and toys? Of course not. You are the ultimate alpha (more about that in a moment), so you make the final decision. Just remember that insisting that your dogs take turns being first, or share and share alike, can demean the alpha animal in the eyes of the other pack members and encourage wannabes to challenge him. The resulting tension will make it more difficult for your dogs to focus on what you want them to do and may escalate enough to result in fighting among them.

That said, here’s the most important point to remember: To live happily, whether with one dog or five, people need to hold higher status in the pack than all the dogs from the canine perspective. You know, of course, that you outrank your dog (at least I hope you do). But your dog may not be so sure. For instance, what do you do if your dog stares at you, barks, and points his moist little nose at the biscuit box? Do you hop up and get him a goody? What if he’s blocking your path? Do you go around him? What if he’s snuggled up in your favorite chair? Do you let him stay there while you sit on the floor? If you answered yes one or more times, your pooch  may think he’s the household alpha or at least has a chance to move up the ladder.

It’s relatively easy to reassert your status in most cases, and you can and should do so without getting excited or “tough.” Remember—the alpha is a benevolent dictator. Dog wants a biscuit? Have him do something you want him to do—lie down, roll over, sit, whatever. Then, if you want to give him a biscuit, make it your idea and treat it as a reward. If your dog has already filled his calorie quota for the day, reward him for obedience with a belly rub or a quick game of fetch the toy instead. If he’s in your path, tell him to move and keep walking the way you want to go. He needs to move for you. Same deal with your chair—the alpha gets the prime real estate, so he needs to move for you, not the other way around. (Of course if he’s old, sick, or just not a challenging type, you can choose to allow him to stay put—as long as it’s your choice and not his.

Excerpted from Training Your Dog for Life by Sheila Webster Boneham, Ph.D. © 2008  T.F.H. Publications Inc. Used by Permission. Website: http://www.petbookexpress.com\

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