A lot is spoken about dogs and the hierarchy and structure of the pack, and it is almost universally accepted that in a pack situation, there will be an alpha, or dominant party, and the structure goes down from there accordingly.
Within the pack that is formed of your family, both canine and human, a natural structure will also reveal itself, and the family adults should always fall above the dog or dogs in the alpha role, and other top roles. Something that is often asked of canine behaviourists, is “is it possible for dogs to share the alpha role?” This is a complex question, and covers both sharing the role with people and with another dog.
The alpha position doesn’t generally or even commonly involve overt dominance and pro-active control on a day to day basis, and many people who own more than one dog would be hard-pressed to name which of their dogs is the alpha in terms of the dogs’ relationships to each other.
In this article we will consider if it is possible for dogs to share the alpha role, both with other dogs and with people.
When we refer to the pack structure in terms of domestic dogs, we refer to both the canine and human members of the group or unit. Just as with any other cooperative or group of more than two parties, leadership and direction is required in order to settle differences, provide guidance, and keep everyone on an even keel. It is vitally important that all dogs live within a stable environment and understand the boundaries of their world as it relates to them, and this is particularly important within a domestic, family-oriented pack.
Because within the domestic home, the canine members do not bring home the meals or have to worry about where their next meal is coming from, do not compete for food and do not have to guard the weaker members of the pack, the leadership role should always be taken by the adults of the family. The adults will or should, in the dog’s eyes, always land above them within the pack structure.
It is not possible for a dog to share this alpha role with the adult or adults within the home, because control of the dog, appropriate canine behaviour and keeping both the dog and the other people that the dog meets safe falls down to the people. The same is true for the provision of food for the pack and the dogs, and dogs should not be placed in the alpha role or above any of the family adults within the structure.
In a multi-dog household too, dogs may get on excellently, never fight, and be highly cooperative, but this does not mean that both dogs are sharing an alpha role.
A male and a female dog together may be alpha dog and alpha bitch respectively, but one of them will still fall above the other, and this will usually be the male dog if both parties are either neutered or un-neutered, but will sometimes be the female if she is un-neutered but the male dog is neutered.
Size, age and breeding often have little to do with who is boss, and smaller dogs are often more dominant than laid back larger breeds!
The alpha or pack leader, be they human or canine, is responsible for not only ensuring that the needs of the rest of the pack are met, but also, for maintaining the order and the status quo of things.
Within an established pack, bids for dominance or dogs attempting to take the alpha role from another dog or person rarely occur, and packs usually rub along together without any overtly dominant behaviour from the alpha once the pack structure has become established.
Once the structure is established and normalised, it is highly unusual for one of the member dogs to try to raise themselves up in the pecking order above the alpha dog as long as the alpha is fit and healthy, as the existing alpha will recognise this behaviour very quickly, and soon nip it in the bud.
However, as people do not think like dogs, it is much more likely to see a dog trying to segue the alpha role from a person than from another dog.
While all dog owners know that training, management and control of the dog is vitally important, once the owner feels that the dog is well behaved, well trained and going along on an even keel, it is easy to let things slip! A dog that is not allowed into the bed, or made to wait to allow people to go through doorways first might try their luck now and then, and as their owners become complacent, your dog may begin to slide themselves into the alpha role before you even realise what is happening!
It is important to keep alert to this, as a dog that sees themselves as the alpha within the family pack may soon become unruly, bossy, or otherwise begin to behave inappropriately. It is fine for one dog to be the alpha over the other dog or dogs within the home, but when it comes down to dogs and people, the adults should always rank above the dog, and not share the alpha role.