How dogs view their human pack leaders, and the role of you and your family within your dog’s pack
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How dogs view their human pack leaders, and the role of you and your family within your dog’s pack

Both dogs and humans are very social species, and we get great pleasure from living together side by side and sharing companionship. Historically, dogs and humans came together as species to enhance the odds of both of our species of surviving; and the way in which both people and dogs have evolved since then has been irrevocably shaped as a result of this.

We are so used to living in close quarters to dogs today that the very natures and behaviours of dogs have changed significantly in order to reflect this and accommodate us, and the traits and behaviours of domestic dogs very much reflect the influence of our shared lives, with humans as the leaders.

Most wild dog and wolf species are pack animals, which form packs in order to better their chances of holding a territory, getting enough resources, and defending against threats; and domestic dogs remain highly social and keen to form bonds and collectives with other dogs (and people) albeit these are social packs, rather than functional ones.

However, this still means that the social structures that dogs develop and the norms that they live within are based on a key pack structure, but with the very unique additional trait that humans are involved in those packs too.

In this article we’ll outline how humans fit into their dogs’ pack structures, what the role of your family is within your dog’s pack, and how your dog sees the place of humans within their pack itself. Read on to learn more.

Dogs and canine alphas

A dog that lives alone will see their pack as consisting of themselves plus the human family, whilst two or more dogs plus their people will see their pack as a mixture of both.

Two or more dogs will have a hierarchy of their own in terms of which is more senior to the other, but regardless of the number of dogs involved, one or more dogs assign automatic pack roles to the people that they live with too.

If one person tends to be the one that always feeds them, that’s the resource gatherer, a position of great authority and respect, as you might imagine given how highly motivated dogs are around food! However, any time there are two or more dogs within a family, one will be the alpha or boss dog, regardless of the relative roles of the humans.

Dogs should defer to their owners, including the alpha dog

Assuming that your dog or dogs are properly socialised, trained and well managed, regardless of how many dogs you have or how dominant the boss dog is, they should all defer to the adult humans as higher in the pecking order than all of the dogs.

This is not always the case in practice, and in all too many households, one or more of the dogs has the upper hand and is pushy or dominant to people, or perhaps to one person who doesn’t command their respect.

However, this should always be corrected, and all dogs within a human family should see the adults of the family as higher in the pecking order.

Dogs place their human owners in their own pecking order!

Whilst your dog or dogs should see all of the adult family members as higher in the pecking order than themselves, they will also naturally place the human family members into a seniority order, whether you realise this or not!

Your dogs will see one of the adults as the ultimate alpha, and will see one as the top of the tree, and the other humans below them as well. You might notice this if there is ever a situation in which two human family members give conflicting commands or signals – or fall out – the dogs will look to, congregate with, or even take a defensive stance in favour of one of them in particular, as that is to them the human alpha.

This may be the person the dog or dogs spend the most time with and/or are fed by, but this is not always the case! Your dogs might also follow commands first time with the person they view as the alpha human, but be a little less responsive to the others!

Your dogs might see your children as below them in the pecking order

If you have children, particularly very young ones or ones that joined the family later than the dog did, your dog might see the kids as below them in the pecking order.

This is unavoidable in certain situations, such as if said children are very young or immature. This is something you should monitor and supervise, as your dog should never push your children around, threaten them, or take their resources (like food). But assuming that your dog is properly supervised and trained and that vitally, you don’t allow your child to disrespect your dog, a dog that sees the children as below them in the pecking order will not necessarily take advantage of them.

A dog that sees themselves as senior to your children is more likely to be very protective over them than they are to be poorly mannered with them, with the exception being potentially if your child disrespects your dog unwittingly or deliberately, in which case said dog will likely put them in their place, or even growl or snap, like they would with a puppy.

However, oftentimes dogs that have known the child from an early age will give them a lot of leeway in this respect, as they also would a puppy; but you should never rely upon this, however good natured your dog is.

Aggression or displays of dominance towards your child from the dog is something you should never permit to happen, so always supervise interactions and ensure that the dog looks to you for direction and to moderate their behaviour, and that you teach your child about appropriate behaviour with the dog from an early age.

As soon as your child is old enough to begin to learn to read canine body language, and issue commands appropriately, you should begin working with them and your dog together to establish your now-older child as above the dog in the pecking order too!

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