Canine Social Behavior


      This page is going to be a work in progress for some time.  There is so much to say on this subject.  I have spent well over 25 years studying all aspects of canine social behavior, pack dynamics and such.  It's a very complex subject.  I have lived with and worked hands on with packs of pure wolves as well as dogs of various breeds, and have had a passion to understand all aspects of this subject since I was very young.  I had the unique opportunity to live with wolf packs at a licensed wolf facility, at the same time keeping a pack of sled dogs as my own pets and working sled dogs.  I could go back and forth each day, observing the differences and similarities in pure wolves and domestic dogs, both in how they related to each other and to people.   I have also worked hands with wolfdogs of various ancestry, giving me some fun insight into these canines who are somewhere in between wild and domestic canids.

     What I will work on first is just some basics of canine pack dynamics, as that is something that can help dog owners understand their pets better, both in how they relate to other dogs in the home and in public, as well as how dogs relate to people.

   The most very basic fact about canines is they are pack animals.  In the wild, a wolf pack is usually a family consisting of the parents (usually the alpha male and alpha female), and their offspring of various ages.   There is a rank order that is linear, like the rungs of a ladder, and this is in each sexes.  There is a dominant or alpha male, a #2 male, a #3 male and so on down the line, and the same is true of females.   While there is some amount of dominance interaction between the sexes, most dominance interactions will between canines of the same sex and similar rank. In other words, the #1 or alpha male will dominate the #2 male, and the #2 male will dominate the #3 male, more often than the #1 male will dominate the #3 male.  That is not to say it never happens though, or that a male won't dominate a female or vice versa.  And, unlike some force based trainers would like you to think, lower ranking canines are more likely to offer submissive behavior to their leaders than the leaders demand it.  (See my note below in the quiz area, in orange.)  A good canine leader does not go around beating up all his packmates.  Ones that do are usually insecure bullies.   A lot of time, if things are relaxed, an observer would have a hard time telling the rank orders of pack mates.  It is usually only when things are more active (such as feeding time or breeding season) that you will see more dominance interactions and can tell by behaviors where each animal fits in it's pack.  So in observing that I learned to be a firm, fair leader, not a dictator or bully to my dogs.  I also treat each as an individual, tailoring my handling and training methods to best suit each dog.

   All this is to say that even in pet dogs, they have a rank order among themselves and within their human families.  In a good situation, ALL the people in the house are dominant over the dogs.  Again, this doesn't have to mean the people are cruel, overly firm or harsh with the dogs.  But they can control the dog(s) without using a lot of force or fear.   They can be the leaders simply by controlling all the good stuff like food, toys, access to fun things like walks or social outings, and so on.  A puppy is naturally wired to follow a leader, starting with it's mother, and if we raise and train our puppies right, they will continue to naturally defer to us even when they are adults.  I find that positive and reward based training, with some well timed corrections that match the deed work well to raise balanced, healthy puppies.  By this I mean we normally use praise, food or other rewards and only correct once the dog knows what we want and chooses not to do it.  We don't use overly harsh methods (usually a firm word is all that is needed to correct.)  And we don't over punish the "deed".  By that I mean you don't alpha roll a puppy who just won't sit when you tell him to. (In fact, I don't even use the so-call alpha roll, as I don't HAVE to since my dogs already defer to me as leader.  Even wolves very, very seldom use a forceful roll and if they do, it's only in the most dire of situations.)   I want my dogs to trust me, and to think of "training" as fun, more of a game than a drill.  In doing that, I find the dogs are more eager to learn.  In the older style force based training, dogs were often more afraid of correction and while they appeared well behaved, it was more from fear of correction than actually wanting to work for their human trainer.  That is not the kind of relationship I want with my dogs. And it's not based on good canine behavior principles either.  My dogs respect me and they still trust me.  They are far more eager to do as I ask as they know good stuff happens when they do.  Dogs who are trained with force are not likely to offer behaviors in a training setting, but do them to avoid a punishment. It's been proven time and time again that no creature learns well in this kind of atmosphere (fear.)  Many dogs appear robotic or shut down, and if you watch them, they will often offer quite a number of calming signals such as yawning, licking lips, turning their heads away, and if they can, many will leave the training area.  These are all signs of stress and if your dog shows these while you are training, it is time to reassess your methods.  


                      The Language of the Dog

  I have spent countless hours over 25 plus years watching how puppies relate to their elders, and base my handling and training on that, at least in part.  I don't try to act like a wolf or adult dog, but I do use what I have seen to set up training and interactions that make sense to the puppy.  I strive to understand how they think and what motivates them, and in what context.   By doing that, what I try to communicate makes more sense to the dog.  Dogs are not human, nor do they think like us, have all the same motivations and such.  It's not to say they don't feel emotion, but they see the world through distinctly canine eyes.  By understanding that we can more fully relate to them in a way they understand, and that is a beautiful thing!    I often joke that our poor dogs must put up with our bumbling attempts at communication until we learn how they relate to each other, and that can open up a whole new world for us both.

   As I have time, I will add photos of interactions between dogs and explain what is going on.   I find so many people misinterpret so much of what their dogs do, and I want to help them learn all I can about canine behavior.


                    Calming Signals

   Another really interesting topic is that of calming signals. I will add a link to some good info on these.  Understanding how canines use them will help you be a much better owner, trainer and able to discern all areas of canine behavior.  I had the privilege to meet the "mother" of this area of behavior, Turid Rugaas, when she was developing her ideas.  It was many years ago when I lived at Wolf Park (the early 1990s).  She came to study the wolves there and shared her ideas with us. 

   Here is a link to her site: 

    I highly recommend reading all you can on this fascinating topic.  Calming signals include yawning, lip licking or tongue flicking, head turning, walking in a curve instead of directly toward, raising a paw, and other behaviors a canine may use to calm itself or others in a situation.  When you understand these behaviors and how they are used, it will open a whole new world of communication between you and your dogs.

   If you only read one article on this topic, make it this one:

   I have also made a separate page on this site for more info, as well as photos, of canine calming signals.


   Part of this page will be photos of various common interactions among canines, with a caption explaining what is going on. I want to make it sort of a quiz where you will try to figure out what is going on, and can check below to see if you were right.  All the photos were taken by me so I saw the whole interaction as well as the context in which it occurred, and I know the dogs involved, including their sexes, ages and personalities.  If you want to have fun, get a piece of paper and write down what you think is happening in each photo.  Then check your assessments against the captions below.  Have fun learning how to read canine body language!



      Image #1

In this picture, the red merle on the left is an older male, and the black tri female on the right is submitting to him.  While the old guy may look very dangerous, he is just grumping at her and it's all "ritualized" aggression, meaning it may look showy but no one gets hurt.  Interestingly, the other black tri, a young male, is trying to take advantage of the submitting young adult female.  It is actually very common for canines to do this.  In this case nothing came of it, but in other situations it could lead to a fight if the dogs involved are more serious.  Also, since it's a young male trying to take advantage of the female, he can't gain in rank by dominating her, but he can practice the behavior.


Image #2

     This is a fun one.  You may see these faces at the dog park or other places where dogs meet.  A lot of people are very upset when they see these faces.  The dogs are both young females, almost the same age and rank. The merle is showing some defensive and aggressive behavior, with ears back, eyes wide and mouth open showing teeth.  Since the ears are back you can tell she's not simply trying to dominate the tri.  That shows the defensive component. The tri on the right also has ears back and while she's actually the aggressor here, it's only mild.  You can see the corners of her mouth pulled back and somewhat relaxed, where the corners on the merle are forward. It's almost like she's just tweaking the merle who is taking it seriously.  The  merle is likely to snap at the tri if the tri pushes it.  The merle is telling her quite clearly that she is not happy with the situation and wants the tri to back off.  The merle is also showing facial expressions often seen in resource guarding (food, toys, etc.)

  Sometimes owners will punish or correct their dogs in this situation, but that can just escalate the problem or make it worse next time.  This is still appropriate behavior, though if the tri persists and bullies, it would be good to remove her so she doesn't continue to practice that behavior.  In this case the two resolved it on their own with no intervention. It was actually over a toy that is out of the frame of the picture.  The merle had it and the tri wanted it and was trying to use her assertiveness to take it just by putting her body over it as it lay on the ground.  The dogs were known to each other so this wasn't an interaction between strange dogs.  The tri really did seem to be trying to see how far she push the merle's  and while the tri seemed to be having fun with it, the merle was being quite grumpy about the whole thing.





Image #3

     In this photo the young adult tri male is showing some appeasement toward a mature merle male on the left.  (There is a young female merle too, who was mostly just watching the interaction, but still showing some appeasement toward the tri.)   The tri has the corners of his mouth pulled back, his whiskers forward, his ears back and he is leaning back on his haunches and making himself smaller.   He is starting to raise his right front leg which is also an appeasement gesture.  He is also in a partial bow, so may be thinking of darting away if his appeasing behavior doesn't diffuse the situation.  It did.



Image #4

    Here is a classic dominance interaction among young adult females.  The tri on top is the older sister to the one below.  She is standing over her, with her body almost holding the younger one down, but not quite.  She is giving a hard stare, flicking her tongue (she was also softly growling).  The younger tri is showing her teeth but the corners of her mouth are back in a classic defensive position. Her eyes are wide but not showing the hard stare of the dominant dog.  The merle female on the left is showing some appeasement even though she is somewhat dominant over both the other girls.  She has her ears back and the corners of her mouth back too.  Rather than join in she appeared to be trying to diffuse the situation.

   While this all looks pretty intense, it's common in a dynamic dog pack and nothing bad came of it.  It is what is called "ritualized aggression" meaning there is a lot of body language but no one gets hurt.  I tend not to intervene in such cases if the dogs know each other and especially live together, unless the particular dogs have a tendency to take it too far.  In this case, the younger of the two girls has been testing her boundaries quite a bit, and the older tri has been working hard to not let her take over.  It should be noted that at no point did the older sister do anything like an "alpha roll" but just used her presence and not much physical force to put the younger sister on the ground. 





Image #5

  Here is another in the series of the two sisters.  The one on top is the older sister, and she's showing a classic dominant pose.  Note that she's just using a hard stare but isn't even growling or showing teeth. The younger sister is being submissive, folding her paws up and averting her gaze, and even offering a calming signal by flicking her tongue.  These dogs are both showing appropriate behavior.  In the image above (#4) the sister on the ground is being more intense, where here she is relaxed and giving in.

  Note to all you "alpha roll" fans.  Most of the time the dominant dog or wolf in a pack can completely rule their pack without ever using a so-called "alpha roll."  They use other body language but little or no actual force to convey their rank order.  This whole interaction I photographed took place with no biting and no extreme use of force.  The younger female was being quite pushy before this took place, but she is now showing proper deference to her elder.  From all my years of studying canine social behavior, I found that only insecure animals regularly use a lot of force.  That's something to consider the next time you want to use that move on your dog in the name of "training."  A leader leads and a bully regularly uses force.

   I came up with a saying about this, and it goes like this:  "A true leader can whisper with more power than a 'wannabe' can shout."

(A wannabe = a want-to-be leader who is not really qualified.)





Image #6

     Awwww, what a cute picture.  That is probably the first thing everyone will think.   What is going on here is pretty common.  The younger tri puppy is greeting and submitting to the older puppy.  The tri has her paw raised in a classic appeasement gesture.   Both dogs are relaxed and have pleasant expressions.  Do notice the eye contact, as both pups are looking directly at each other but in a non-challenging manner.





Image #7

    This is a fun one.  It's not as overt as some of the more "toothy" interactions but this is a dominance interaction too.  The dogs are both maturing young females who are similar in rank.  The one on the left is younger, but is the one showing dominance in the photo. she's giving a hard stare, her ears are forward (hard to tell in the photo), the corners of her mouth are forward and she's standing tall. The merle on the right is lowering her body and head, has her ears back and her body sideways to the one on the left.  These are all submissive gestures and even calming signals (approaching from the side.)  She is also not locking eyes with the one on the left, but is averting her gaze. 

  This is a mild interaction but one that dogs may do often.  It is nice to recognize these behaviors as you may see them when two strange dogs meet.  The one to watch is the one on the left, to make sure she doesn't try to escalate the interaction, especially if these are two dogs meeting for the first time. 



Image #8

    Another "awwww" picture!   This is a tri puppy greeting an adult merle male.  She could also be "food begging" by licking at the corners of his mouth. In a wolf pack, wolf puppies do this to stimulate the adults to regurgitate food for them.  (An adult may eat from a kill miles away from the den site, so can carry food back to the pups and regurgitate it for them.) 

   Much of what we see in our dogs' behavior goes back to their ancestor the wolf.  Even if the puppy doesn't consciously think she's food begging, it's an instinctive way of greeting an adult dog.  She also has one paw raised in an appeasement gesture.



Image #9

    Here is a rather complicated interaction.  I'll start with the tri female who is chin resting over the merle female.  Both are young adult females and this is a dominance interaction. There was some tension between the two that day and chin resting is one cue.  By doing that, she's assessing the merle's reaction to being mounted which is also a sign of dominance between same sex canines. 

   The merle on the left is showing some dominant behaviors, including barking at the others and standing tall.  He is the top dog in this group and is a mature male.  

  The tri male on the right is showing some appeasement by lowering himself, pinning his ears back and flicking his tongue (which is also a calming signal.)  It looks like the tri female is giving him a hard stare, both by the look of the side of her face and his reaction.  When you get good at understanding body language, you can tell by a dog's reaction what another dog may be doing, even if you can't see that dog's face.  That's really fun when you get to that level!

  The other tri on the right is the young adult female who has been testing her limits.  She appears to be sizing up the situation and deciding what to do.  This is a classic case where an interaction could lead to a fight, though in this case it didn't.  If these were strange dogs, especially with the females, it could have lead to a fight.  All these interactions may only take a few seconds from start to finish, which is why really watching your dogs is fun.  I also enjoy taking pictures and looking at them in more detail.  You may see things you missed in person because they did happen so fast.




Image #10    

     This is a puppy and an adult male having a good time.  The male is doing a bow (sometimes called a play bow, though it is used in situations that aren't play, such as hunting).  He is inviting the puppy to chase him and she is starting to bow back and offer the same invitation.  Right after I shot this photo they raced off in a happy game of chase. 





Image #11

     This is another fun one.  You may see something like this at the dog park, several dogs with a toy.  Sometimes that leads to a scuffle, sometimes not.  How can you tell the difference, or predict when things may get nasty?   Just watch the postures and expressions of the dogs.   In this case, the merle on the left is lowering her head and inviting the others to chase her for the toy.  The tri in the middle also has his head lowered, with a pleasant expression even though you see his teeth.  He is about to take the merle female up on her offer. The tri female on the right is less sure about what she wants to do. Her paw is raised in a hesitant manner, and her face is a little more serious and tense (her ear is flipped back from running.)  Her mouth is open and corners are somewhat forward.  She is standing a bit taller with her head raised and tail up.  She would be the only one I'd watch here, to see if she joined in the fun or decided to get a little too serious. 

   The good news was right after I shot this, she too joined in the fun.





Image #12

    Most people who have more than one dog have probably seen this one.  One dog has something the other dog wants. In this case, it's the adult male on the left who has a stick that the young female on the right wants.  The dog who wants the item may lower itself, paw at or whine, or do other various "playful" gestures to try to entice the owner of the item to give it up.  Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't, but it is often quite amusing to see what the begging dog will try.


Image #13


   This is a common scene at the dog park.   A group of dogs is playing and suddenly one feels overwhelmed or threatened.  In this picture it's the young adult tri female on the left. She's leaning back a bit, has her ears back, and is showing her teeth.  She is clearly telling the other two dogs to back off. The merle female is circling around while the tri male is crouched like he's ready to pounce.  This could have been a game that got a little too intense, or could be two dogs attempting to bully or dominate a new dog.  In this case the dogs all knew each other and were just getting a little too intense.  When one gives such a cue the others do back off, which is what happened right after I took the photo.


Image #14

   This is a picture of two dogs trying to chin rest on each other.  It is often used in an attempt to dominate, though is also seen if two dogs are courting before breeding.  In this case, it's a young adult male and female and they were being pushy with each other, both trying to dominate.  It wasn't serious, and since neither can really gain each others' rank, it wouldn't have had lasting effects in a real pack setting. However, if you see this when two new dogs meet, it may be a signal to separate the dogs.   If it happens between two dogs who know each other and who tend to get along, it may be no big deal at all.  It is one of those times when you have to assess the context of the behavior.



Image #15


   In this picture, two girls are mounting two other girls.  This is such a common behavior in dominance interactions, as mounting IS about dominance more than about reproduction.  The black tri female on the right who is facing the camera the alpha female of the bunch, but the young girls are all pushing the limits and testing to see what they are getting away with.  Females who are coming in heat may mount even more often than others, but the behavior is still quite common in spayed females.  






    Images #16 and 17


     In these pictures a female is raising her leg to mark with urine.  Most people think only males raise a leg to mark, but females do it often enough too.  It's called a Raised Leg Urination or RLU.  Like in many packs, in my pack we have "pee wars" where one dog urinates and a parade of others in both sexes overmarks with their own urine.  In a wolf pack usually only the alpha pair will do RLUs but in dog packs many will do it.  It is as much associated with confidence as high rank.  I have seen young, confident middle ranking wolves do it but not as often as the alpha pair.  In my pack at least 3 of the girls do it, the 3 top ranking ones.  Neutered males and spayed females may do it too, it's not just intact dogs who may exhibit this behavior.  They may also scrape after they are done, which is like adding an exclamation point to the scent message they just left.  (It is not an attempt to cover up their scent, but to draw attention to it!)


     "But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you."

       Matthew 6:33