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Dogs have very complex social rules and hierarchies, the full extent of which are often missed by us humans who communicate differently and that don’t instinctively understand the full meaning of all of the subtle cues and signals that dogs use between each other and with us too.
Most of us know that dogs are very social creatures that enjoy and need the company of their own kind in order to thrive, and both wild dogs and their domesticated counterparts form packs and groups together, which can be transient and fluid within a domestic environment.
A group of dogs playing in the dog park constitutes a pack, as do dogs that live together or otherwise spend a lot of time together, and in any group of dogs, one of them will take the role of the leader – or dominant dog, or alpha, depending on which term you’re more familiar with.
Many people assume that the largest dog will be the alpha in any group situation, but this is not always the case; and a lot of people automatically assume that the alpha dog is always a male dog too.
So, can a female dog be the alpha dog in any group situation, or is the pack leader or alpha dog always male by design? Read on to find out.
An alpha dog is essentially the top dog, boss dog or leader in any given situation. Technically the term is used most commonly to describe the head of a pack of dogs, and in many people’s minds, when they think of an alpha they imagine a pack of wild dogs or wolves headed up by a leader.
However, there is an alpha, leader, or dominant dog in every group of dogs – even if there are only two dogs present, one will be dominant to the other. This does not have to mean pushy or aggressive, and rarely does when their roles are established, and constitutes a natural hierarchy in which all of the dogs have a role that they feel secure within.
As mentioned, an alpha is essentially the most dominant dog, which translates in group situations to being the boss, leader, peacemaker and most responsible party; the alpha doesn’t simply gain all of the benefits of being in charge, but they are also responsible for the rest of the pack to a great extent too, particularly in the wild.
So to answer “can a female dog be the alpha” you first have to ask “can a female dog be dominant?” or “can a bitch be the most dominant dog in any collective of two or more dogs?”
The answer to this is yes – some female dogs are very dominant. So, let’s look next at whether or not this means a female dog can be an alpha dog.
Imagine you’ve got a group of all-female dogs, such as might happen now and then in the dog park randomly when only three or four dogs are present; one of those female dogs will be the most dominant one and so, in that situation, is the alpha dog.
What happens, though, if a male dog enters the dog park? Will the dominant female automatically yield the alpha role, or the male automatically try to take it from her? Can a female dog be alpha over males?
Dog parks and other domesticated dog situations have one key difference from wild dog packs and the type of packs and groupings that arise in the wild – which is that most dogs (male and female) in the UK are neutered or de-sexed. This not only removes their ability to reproduce, but also reduces the level of a number of key hormones connected to reproduction, which in turn, changes the behaviour of dogs to an extent too.
Neutered dogs and bitches tend to be calmer, more laid back, more responsive and obedient and of course, not driven by the urge to mate and all that mating entails, such as potentially fighting off other suiters and roaming to find a mate.
The key personalities of dogs don’t change with neutering, however, but neutering does place male and female dogs on a more even footing when it comes to dominance, as the reduction in testosterone levels in neutered males takes the edge off the dominant side of their personality.
This means that female dogs can be, and quite commonly are, alpha over neutered males, whether the female in question is herself neutered or not.
A female dog can also be an alpha over an unneutered male too, although this would be less common, and would usually occur only if the female had a reasonable size advantage over the male.
In wild dog packs, there is both an alpha female and an alpha male; the male being the general leader, but the respective alpha male and female roles aren’t in competition with each other; rather, they’re so very different as to be symbiotic and complementary.
Being alpha isn’t just about putting other dogs in their place and asserting authority, but also ensuring the safety of the pack, getting resources, keeping all of the dogs safe and vitally, mating, reproduction, and ensuring the survival of the pack in perpetuity too, in the wild.
Most of us think of the alpha role itself as being the dominant role, but the role of the head female dog in a pack is an alpha role too, albeit with slightly different responsibilities and applications!
There is one situation in which a female dog might challenge, fight, and beat or even kill an alpha male dog, even in the wild – and that is if said alpha male threatens her pups.
A dam caring for her litter is highly protective of them and will generally defend them at all costs, even that of her own survival.
This is a defensive trait rather than a manifestation of alpha dominance, but still a situation in which a female dog might take on and potentially beat an alpha male!
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