Animal Information

How is the “Top Dog” or “Alpha Male” Chosen in a Dog Pack?

Dog Pack Leaders, a.k.a. the alpha dog

Pride of the pack

Dogs are pack animals and whether they are in the wild with a group of dogs or they are in your family, they see those around them as their pack. They have an innate, natural instinct telling them to establish their position in the hierarchy of the pack. Just like kids on recess in middle school, there is the playground politics, where the players determine who is who and what is what. Who is open for friendship and who is the “mean girl” or “tough boy” to be feared.

In a pack as well as a playground, there is a well-defined social structure where every member knows their role and position. This basically means, from the pack leader down through the followers, every member knows who they take orders from and who they give orders to. Once again, this stresses the animal-human connection and how more alike than different we are.

How the top dog is chosen

When you see two dogs meeting for the first time, they size each other up to see which one is more dominant or the top dog and subsequently the submissive one will adopt a submissive posture such as lying down or showing their belly to the top dog.

If the two dogs consider themselves equals, there is usually a little tussle until one comes out on top by remaining firm in the stance. After the other dog backs down or leaves the immediate area the outcome of the tussle will determine all of their future meetings. If you own more than one dog you must respect this hierarchy between the dogs or regular fighting may occur.

This generally means, once the dogs have established which of the two are dominant, you should feed them first and you will find your dogs do not fight anymore because the top or dominant one does not feel they have to put the other one in its place.

How Does A Top or Dominant Dog Behave?

If the dominance of the senior dog is challenge, it will perform a threat display in an attempt to subdue the upstart without having to resort to force. Essentially the threat display does two things. It will make the dominant animal appear larger and strong and it demonstrate the animal’s eagerness to plunge straight into an attack should an attack be necessary. This is usually enough to scare off any rival.

What is a threat display?

The threat display is made up of ten characteristic elements, each of which contributes its special signal to the enemy:

  1. The teeth are bared by pulling the upper lip up and the lower lip down. This exposes the canines and the incisors and indicates that the threatening animal is ready to sink its fangs into the enemy.
  2. The mouth is open, showing that the dog is ready to clamp down with its jaws.
  3. The mouth-corners are drawn forward. This is the opposite of the friendly, playful and submissive facial expressions, in all of which the mouth-corners are pulled back toward the ears. The element of the threat display makes it clear that the dog is neither friendly, nor playful, nor submissive.
  4. The ears are erect and forward-pointing. Even on flop-eared breeds there is a brave attempt to assume this position, which tells the enemy that the dog is fully alert and listening intently for one tell-tale sound of fear or aggression. It also demonstrates that the aggressor is as confident that it feels no need to protect the ears by flattening them.
  5. The tail is held high, in contrast to the submissive tail-between-the-legs posture. This tail-up posture exposes the anal region with its special odors. These scents identify the dog (while the tail-down dog tries to hide its identity). This lets the weaker animal know precisely who it is dealing with.
  6. At the same time, legs are fully stretched and the whole body suddenly seems awesomely more massive and powerful.
  7. The effect is heightened by an intense, unwavering stare.
  8. A deep rumbling growl is uttered.
  9. The body is so tense that the tail trembles, in its bolt-upright position.

This fearsome sigh is enough to make most rivals cringe and slink away. It is used in confrontations where the dominant animal feels there is a real challenge to its high status. At other times, when the mood is more relaxed, a dominant dog may offer occasional reminders of its power, using other types of display. One is the broadside ritual in which it deliberately pushes itself up against a weaker dog, which may be standing or lying down.

The top dog positions itself the subordinate, so if trying to block its path, and stiffly remains there long enough to give the message ‘I control your movements.’ Alternatively, it may perform the mounting ritual, in which it rears up and places its front legs on the lesser animal’s back or shoulders. This is the first move toward mounting for copulation, but it is used here in a totally non-sexual context.

Amazing Animal Information

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Judy Helm Wright is a certified Pet Grief Coach and wise intuitive woman who has authored over 20 books and hundreds of articles about life lessons.  Want to see some of the books?  Of course you do…go to

PS:  We consider you a “Top Dog” in our pack, so join us today in a community of kind, thoughtful people who want respect for all creatures.  It is a Win-Win-Win  When you join, you win by hanging with some of the greatest people in the world, NOKILL shelters win because we donate $1 for each subscriber and We win by building a relationship with like-minded people, like you.

PSS:  Thanks for loving animals and pets. You do an important work in the world.

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