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The Canine Social Structure

Defining the Pack Structure

The basic unit of canine social structure is the pack, it is something that is not easy to study in a domestic situation. However, we can look at what we do know about dogs and wild dogs to understand how stable packs are maintained.

Our domestic dogs do well in group-living situations much like in the wild, the typical number of wild dogs or wolves varies between eight and eighteen, although the largest pack ever recorded was 36 members. The social group usually is normally a selection of related males and related females.


The females are normally unrelated to the males. The order between them is maintained by means of a hierarchical relationship, an unwritten understanding or arrangement. This is known as a dominance hierarchy meaning that there are leaders and followers. The more dominant the individuals the more they control the resources; subordinates must defer or face the consequences. In most cases the subordinates will comply due to earlier fights or threats with the dominant ones have resulted in losing position within the structure.

The Dominant hierarchy comprises of two independent orders based on gender. The top of the Male hierarchy is the Alpha male and Alpha Female. Next in line to the Alpha male is the beta male and in the female ranks it is the same with the beta female. The least dominant male and females are called the omega.

The whole structure of the wild pack revolves around survival so the Dominant dogs eat first. They get the best resting areas, and get the first choice of mates. However with this privilege come great responsibilities. They are responsible for pack activities, physically leading the others when it is time to move.

They have to warn and defending the pack against any dangers. However the truth is that the alpha male and female in the wild suffer the least stress, the reason for this is that they are in charge of their own destinies and control the all the resources. This becomes more apparent when the pack is static meaning staying in one area for a period of time.

At the bottom of the order the omega’s experience the most stress and frustration which can sometimes lead to them eventually leaving the pack or even being chased off. These subordinates will come into their own when the pack is moving. They seem to be at their best when the environment is changing.

This is maybe because they have had to be more flexible and responsive to challenges presented to them by the more dominant ones within the pack.

The Domestic Pack

I am often asked the question does a dog see their human family as members of the pack. I truly believe the answer is yes they do. However I don’t think that dogs look at us and think we are other dogs though. My true believe is that all interactions between dogs and their owners should be based around how the dog see’s life and the environment it lives in and stick within the law of the pack.


There has been massive disagreement over the years about how much we can learn about basic communication systems and culture by studying the social behaviour of wild dogs and wolves. Some argue that our domestic dogs are not descended from Wolves and have no inherent behaviours that relate to wild dogs or Wolves. My argument to that is he dog is a species and has an origin which is that they are part of the Canid Species they same as the Wolf and the Wild Dogs. To argue otherwise is to argue that the most isolated wild tribes of South America, New Guinea and across the globe are not part of the Human Species because they have not evolved into a domesticated lifestyle like us. They have chosen to keep hidden and live untouched by the outside society and influence as they have for thousands of years.

That doesn’t make them any less human than us. So in the same way the domestic Dog is no more or less a Wolf, it is just the Wolf has decided to keep its identity as a wild animal. It lives life as it has done for thousands of years. Unlike the domestic dog that is slowly losing its identity and has been selectively bred from those early tamed wolves to become the way we want them, both in terms of behaviour and appearance.

We have increased their sociability and playfulness while decreasing their fear and intelligence. Scientists, like Dr. Ray Coppinger of the University of New Hampshire, say that we have “neotenized” them, making them more juvenile in looks and behaviour than their feral ancestors.

The Domestic Pack Theory

Dominance-related aggression when dogs acted aggressively toward their families over resources or certain physical interventions has been for years blamed on unstable or disordered relationships within the home. This is currently being debated and some point out that in wolf packs there is little aggression a truly dominant wolf does not need to be aggressive. These people say that aggression of domestic dogs toward their owners is more correctly described as fear by pointing out that also other fear-based behaviours are common in such dogs.

Although it is common that dominant aggressive dogs seem to be more nervous and anxious, my believe is that the problem may still come from the confusion over the pack hierarchy within the home. As I see it dogs that show aggression to the human in typical dominance-type situations like food, toys, resting area, interventions or physical or verbal threats are a little confused about the family order, which in turn can cause the dog to become anxious. A true Alpha will not feel anxious in these situations as he does not see the human intervention as a challenge, but a beta will tend to be aggressive to subordinates if certain limits are exceeded, as they then see it as a struggle to maintain their position.

They are what I call dominant types, the ones that have a dominant streak but are not a natural Alpha (Leader). This in my mind would more correctly describe the situation within the home when a dominant type becomes aggressive to the human. Dominance aggression in the beta dog is the most common aggression and we can continue to move towards those believes that dogs showing this type of aggression are fearful because they do not have a high level of confidence.

In turn approach the aggression in a way that confuses the dog even more or worse puts them above the human in the pack hierarchy (family order). Or we can see it how it is and help these dogs in a more natural way to become settled in their position within the home, pack hierarchy or family order.

Dogs need strong though not aggressive leaders. More willful dogs need stronger leaders. The only problem with the domestic pack is that we humans often do not know the correct ways to respond to our dogs’ demands and inadvertently destabilize the hierarchy. Then there can be trouble in the form of aggression and general confusion in the ranks. This must be avoided at all costs.