It’s important to understand dog pack behavior because in the wild and in our homes, any group of dogs needs to get along in order to stay together. A pack of dogs normally consists of a leader (alpha) dog and one or more other dogs of lesser (beta) rank. In the home, the pack usually consists of not only the dogs, but also includes the humans in the house.
Dogs communicate their status in the pack to other dogs using posture, behavior and voice. Some communications are distinctly obvious, and some are so subtle that they are difficult for the untrained eye to notice. Obvious movements such as lowering or increasing body height, raising or lowering of the head, growling, and tail movement or lack of movement are hard to miss. Discreet movements such as hair standing on end, and tongue, eye, and ear movements are not so easily noticed by us humans, and it takes a little practice and time to be able to notice them and react appropriately.
It is these behaviors that dictate which dog is alpha and gains access to particular resources. A resource to a dog can be anything of perceived value to that particular pack member. This can be a juicy bone; an old sock; the daily meal; a specific resting place or vantage point; access to a particular person or access to breeding rights. For dogs, the primary focus in life is gaining and keeping resources. His level of assertiveness will determine where that dog sits in the pack structure, and therefore what resources he has access to. The pack leader is the dog that has most access to resources, the most rights and privileges and who is able to hold his/her rank using understood pack behavior.
It is rare for the leader of a canine pack to increase their level of assertiveness to the level of a physical fight. It is usually beta members of the pack that resort to physical fights in order to secure their resources and establish their position in the pack. Some people believe that most fights occur between the number 2 and number 3 placed dogs, as they attempt to alter their status and move up the pack hierarchy.
Many people speak about dominance between members of the dog pack. It is important to understand what dominance is. It is basically aggression that was submitted to. Aggression could lead to a physical fight if the other dog does not submit. It is not possible to have dominance if the other dog does not submit. Submission is a very clever tactic in dog pack behaviour. It ensures inclusion and survival within the pack.
For a human to be a pack leader, you need to be assertive but not overly aggressive. All the previously mentioned behaviors can be copied by humans, allowing us to express our dominance over an individual dog in the pack. We are basically communicating with our dogs using a body language they understand.
Having each member of the pack know and accept their position in the hierarchy leads to a peaceful household, and reduces the risk of dog aggression, either to other dogs or to people.