Dog Myths About Rank and Dominance

Three myths about dog rank, and where they come from.

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA
5-minute read
Episode #116

If you want him to walk more or less next to you and keep the leash slack, by all means teach him that! Check out my tips on the subject and take a reward-based manners class. Just don’t waste your energy worrying that your authority is being undermined every time Dogalini speeds up to reach the next fire hydrant.

Myth #2 -- You Should Assert Your Rank by Eating First

Just picture the wolf pack around the kill, with the alpha male hitting the sirloin while Wolves Beta, Delta, Gamma, and Omega hang around all humble and hungry-like. Alas for this invigorating image, a normal, free-living wolf pack is not a war of all against all. It’s usually a family, with Mama and Papa Wolf taking care of the kids. If we take wolf behavior as a model for how we live with dogs, then we could assert our status by teaching our dogs that when they lick our faces, we regurgitate food for them. After all, that’s what Alpha Mama and Papa do.

Dogs, on the other hand, mostly scavenge. Animals’ mode of food-getting affects their social structure, so free-living scavenger dogs don’t generally form stable family groups or packs. Rank among dogs who do live in groups is poorly understood but seems to have something to do with affiliation. The more friendly encounters an animal has, the more likely the other dogs are to travel in the same direction as he does and spend time near him. And whoever finds the chicken carcass eats it, without troubling herself about her rank.

Teach your dog to wait patiently while you prepare and deliver her meal. Use food as a training reward. And don’t worry about how the dynamics of foraging at the garbage dump translate into “We’re going out for dinner now. Here’s your food-dispensing chew toy, and have a nice time.”

Myth #3 -- Alpha Roll Your Dog to Assert Your Dominance

This is another of those Wolves at War ideas. On closer observation, it turns out that what’s going on in an “alpha roll” is that one wolf offers deference to the other. He drops onto his side and exposes his neck and groin. The wolf who’s being deferred to sniffs the deferring wolf and walks away. If you’ve ever seen your dog roll onto his back when you approach, it’s basically the same behavior – still socially useful to dogs even though their lives are so different from those of their wolf ancestors.


About the Author

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA

Jolanta holds professional certifications in both training and behavior counseling and belongs to the Association of Professional Dog Trainers and the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. She also volunteered with Pet Help Partners, a program of the Humane Society of the United States that works to prevent pet relinquishment. Her approach is generally behaviorist (Pavlovian, Skinnerian and post-Skinnerian learning theory) with a big helping of ethology (animal behavior as observed in non-experimental settings).