Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Do Dogs Seek Status?

I’m sure y’all occasionally get the pack structure question, yeah?

“Which one is the dominant one?”
“Which one is in charge?”
“Which one is the Top Dog?”

Normally, this question comes from non-dog people. Or, perhaps, regular ol’ pet owners who are not members of the Crazy Dog Person club.

Usually, my initial obnoxious answer is “me.” Sometimes followed by, “they may be bitches, but I’m THE bitch, if you get what I’m sayin’.” :-)

Recently, though, I have been asked this question by 3 or 4 actual CDP club members.

  I thought we didn’t think like this anymore, no?

I don’t see our little pack structure as this rigid linear thing. We do not have clearly defined ranks like the military. It’s not like..

General Pia
Sargent Bella
PFC Kate

I see it more like a family structure. The parent(s) are in in charge and the kids are just the kids.

Bella – Kate

And before you start frowning, I am not comparing raising kids to raising dogs, nor do I think of my dogs as replacement kids. Just talking family layout here.

I usually explain that neither of the dogs have any interest in being in charge of anything as they are both chicken-shits by nature and I also tend to think of their relationship more in terms of levels of confidence, than dominance. Bella is, overall, the more confident of the two. There are, however, certain situations where Kate takes that roll.

I also think that most behavior that people refer to as dominant behavior is really just a dog being a pain in the ass. It is more likely due to any number of the following:
being young
not trained
lacking confidence
being fearful
being encouraged to behave that way
having a generally obnoxious personality, perhaps a bully (or an Aussie…haha)
trying to initiate play
trying to gain a resource
experiencing some pain

So, all that got me thinking about status-seeking behavior. I am not someone who believes that a rigid pack structure exists. I have, however, referred to things as status-seeking behavior. If dogs don’t live in a rigid structure why are they doing things to gain “status?” What do they think they are gaining?

I’m not even sure that dogs are capable of thinking about status in the same way we do. I don’t think that they think long term like that. I don’t think that a dog will sit around his house thinking…”well, I stole Fluffy’s bone today, that knocked her down a peg or two. I’ll do it again tomorrow and she’ll be on the bottom. Next week, I’ll start on Rex. In a few months, it’ll all be mine!!!”
I think they are more in the moment. Like…

I want that bed NOW.
I want that bone NOW.
I want to pester you so you play with me NOW.

I don’t know that a dog that steals a bone from another dog is thinking about status or dominance. I think they just want the damn bone! I could be totally off here. Maybe it’s just my dogs. The perpetual 2 year olds who just want their wants taken care of right now, thankyouverymuch.

Kate and Myka have this thing where they switch bones. They will both be chewing and one will get up. The other will take that ones’ bone and the one that got up will take the other one. They do this frequently. It’s like they are on a schedule. Fifteen minute chewing rotations. Shift work. When there is this voluntary swapping, we let it happen. We do not, however, allow one dog to take something from another dog just because they feel like it. It’s fine in play, but if they are not playing it is not allowed. Are we interfering with “structure?” I don’t think so. I think we are managing a four-bitch household to do everything we can to avoid any possibility of a fight now or in the future. Sure, Bella may let Kate take that bone from her right now, but what about tomorrow? It’s not good for house harmony to allow behavior that could potentially escalate. Yes?

Maybe it’s the language that I have a hard time wrapping my head around? “Status seeking” and “dominant” when used in relation to people usually means….”jerk.”

  I don’t like thinking of my dogs as jerks.

Other people's, sure.  Just not mine.

So, what are your thoughts on the whole “status seeking” thing? What are the relationships like at your house for you multi-dog folks?

And, the funniest thing about these recent conversations is that ALL of the people thought Kate was the dominant of the two! That makes me wonder if people, even CDP members, are just really shitty at reading dogs or I have absolutely no clue who’s living in my house!

This is running the show?!
I think not!


  1. Easy, I am woman, I am boss
    Lily (& Benny)

  2. The biggest problem is that the whole dominance myth all stems from a study done in the 70s (ish, I think) on wolves. Dogs are not wolves. And if they were, even the scientists who were involved in the study have said that their conclusions have evolved since then.
    It's crazy how many people pin their poor pooches to the ground in the name of a study that even the creators admit is flawed...

  3. Interesting!! I've got one dog who is a rescue of sorts- she was raised in a low human contact home for two years where the dogs were left mostly to their own devices and had a legit dogpack. This dog now recognizes that I'm the boss but she is CERTAIN she is #2 and obsesses over 'ranks' and frequently acts in ways that make me think she wants to enforce her 'status.' (Unfortunately she gets a bit jerky sometimes...) My baby dog, on the other hand, came in without any of those notions and is completely communal. She has no understanding of status or pack and I always felt like she looked at it like 'family'- we're all equal, we share, 'mom' knows best, etc.

  4. Kate just has you trained so well that you don't know she's in charge. It worked for me.

  5. At my house the one with opposable thumbs is the one in charge!

    I don't believe in the whole dominant dog theory. I believe dogs that illustrate those types of behaviors are insecure and do not know of any other way to behave.

  6. In my house, Celeste is dominant in the things she wants to dominate, and Porter can be dominant in all the rest of the stuff. He's not competetive at all, so her dominance is kinda wasted on him. He just wants to play and she wants to own stuff he doesn't care about.

  7. This is a great post! I completely agree with you - I think dogs think in the 'now' and the value of the resource to them combined with their confidence level in that situation dictates how they react. If Abby barges through a door before I've released her it's not because she is trying to 'dominate the pack' - it's because there is more value outside to her in that instant than inside. Everything can be explained in terms of higher value and lower value..but people still seem to like their pack theory for some reason.

  8. Totally agree, especially as someone whose worked with 50+ dog groups in dog daycares, I know for a fact that there is not ridged pack structure.

    my belief is the ultimate mind set of a dog is to do what is MOst rewarding at the time.

    You and others may find this link interesting, its a little wordy but she gets the point across I believe. :)

    Myths about Dogs Origin and Nature

  9. Our dogs are more like your family structure picture. The humans are Mama and Daddy and the dogs are like our children, and act as siblings to each other.

    Thor is the 'younger brother'. Agnes is the 'big sister' (she's ten years, he's almost one). He adores her and follows her everywhere. He bugs her to play and sometimes she obliges and sometimes she shuts him out. She is overall very mellow so if he wants a toy or bone she generally lets him have it.

    Certain high-value items have elicited a growl or snap from her and he immediately backed down.

    But they regularly curl up together side by side. He whines if she is out and he is in or vice-versa.

    The dominance/hierarchy thing has been around for so long it is going to take a while to talk people out of it's validity.

  10. There is no real pack structure among the border collies, but it is clear that they all bow down to the cocker spaniel. Whether it is due to her age or her attitude, I don't know, but no other dog questions her authority, even rescues that are with us temporarily. Don't get me wrong, she isn't mean, doesn't bite or growl. But she will slowly walk over to another dog and they will just move out of her way or give her their toy with no squabbles. And now that she is 17 and getting older, they will even walk alongside her outside in the dark and make sure that she gets back in safely.
    Clearly, there is some secret society order going on that humans don't understand.

  11. My two dogs unfortunately seek status :)). I have an English Bulldog and a Zwergpinscher and Tika, the small one always steals the toys and all of the other accessories I purchased for Billy, my other dog. And they are only suited for Billy if Tika has used them first.

  12. I belive my dog are the boss at home even when i say no they still go ahead and do it

  13. My dog is always take care of thief.

  14. funny!! My dog always thinks she's the boss. We go to the dog park and she's the bossiest pooch there.

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  16. Hi, could you please vote for my dog. She is participating in a competition in Canada. She looks beautiful even after being attacked by a dog much larger than her, when she was just a puppy.
    Every vote, the sponsor, Fido, will donate one dollar for an institution that helps dogs.

    The link is

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  17. Great thoughts. I think it's a matter of different dogs are different personalities. My pup is very fearful around people and sometimes other dogs, but in the house he's always trying to be the Alpha-male. He wants to be in charge of the women. We're still the boss, but always trying to put him back in his place.

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