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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 almost 40 years years as an adult 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 social 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.   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. 

Dogs are not wolves however, but they are related. Their rank order is there but more loose.  Like wolves they are also a family, and in my pack the loose rank order as mostly run in order of ages.   So in observing that I learned to be a benevolent but firm, fair leader, not a dictator or bully to my dogs.   I use management to set up behaviors and interactions I want to see, am very proactive.  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 while  pet dogs are not wolves, we should still understand how that works. But the main driving force for dogs is THEY WANT TO HAVE THEIR NEEDS MET.   They don't wake up in the morning wanting to dominate us, but they do want to get the things they want, which is often food, access to attention, fun, other resources they value.  We 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.  We don't need to use force or fear to be the "alpha" since even in wolves, that's not how it is done. 

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 (almost always just verbal) 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, or I may use my body to block access to something. 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-called 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 nearly 40 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 exactly like us, have all the same motivations and such, though we do share many of the same emotions and motivations such as joy, fear, sorry, contentment, affection.  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.

Also, check out the page on Calming Signals for more info on this fascinating topic.

Behavior Photo Examples

agonistic pucker Australian Shepherd Faithwalk

This is called an Agonistic Pucker.  It is a warning sign to give a dog. more space. It is related to fear based aggression and is a distance increasing behavior.

Raised Leg Urination RLU Aussie
Raised Leg Urination RLU mini Aussie

These are examples of Raised Leg Urination (RLU) in a female on the left, a male on the right.  It's territorial based  and is often seen in more confident animals. Sometimes a scrap will follow.

blue merle Mini Aussie scrape Faithwalk

This is a Scrape - something dogs often do after  urinating or defecating. It's like an exclamation point to the scent message. Some people mistakenly assume a dog does it to cover the scent but the opposite is true.  They also leave some scent from their feet, besides living a visual mark.

black tri Australian Shepherd bow
blue merle Miniature American Shepherds courtship

These are both examples of a bow or bowing.  In the top one with the black tri Aussies, other body language says it's an invitation to play.  The male that is bowing has an open mouth with relaxed corners and loose body language. 

In the bottom photo with the two merles, these two are just meeting. The male is leaning back and giving a tongue flick which is a calming signal, and the female is bowing and leaning back, ears back. Even without seeing her face you can tell there is some hesitance.  

The bow is a ready position and can be used in a number of contexts, including an invitation to play, hunting (wolves especially such as the photo below), and as a calming signal when a dog is feeling too much pressure.

wolves hunt bison
Australian Shepherd chin rest

This is a chin rest with a tongue flick from the dog on the right.  Both are females and this is a dominance interaction. A dog will chin rest when it's attempting to dominant another, and sometimes a male will do it during courtship of a female in estrus.

mini Aussie whiskers

This is what is called "lumpy whisker bed" in the Wolf Park ethogram I learned.  It happens when a wolf or dog is aggressively aroused, the are where it's whiskers are attach lumps to the front and the whiskers will also point forward.  It can be used while threatening another canine, or even to precede a bite.

At Wolf Park had a wolf named Chinook who would solicit attention from humans, but get over stimulated quickly, and at first didn't now to politely communicate that. He would snap at people. As Pat Goodmann noticed his whisker bed would lump first, we started to cue in on that and would stop petting him before he escalated to a snap. One time he also started to nibble groom himself, which we took as a cut off signal and stopped petting. As we learned his cues and the contexts he gave them, we could work much better with him and both sides had good trust of the other.

blue merle Mini Aussie greet Aussie Faithwalk

This is food begging which is also part of a submissive display. The puppy will lick and nip at the corners of an adult's mouth, often while whimpering and whining. This will trigger the adult to regurgitate food - going back to their wolf ancestors. Some of my mom dogs will feed their pups this way too!  Even though they are dogs, their primal instincts remain strong.  

black tri blue merle Australian Shepherds ball

This one is a pretty obvious example of claiming something. The blue merle had the ball and the black tri wanted it, so was using her paw to take it.  They were half sisters and friends so it was not a tense interaction.

blue merle black tri Aussies mount

This one is a little silly since it's color coded and two sets of females showing mounting behavior.  So many people think it's mostly sexual, or mostly about dominance, but most experts agree that is' more to do with over excitement or arousal, such as a group of rowdy young dogs at a park.   It can lead to fighting so owners should pay attention to the context and the body language of all the dogs.

blue merle red tri Australian Shepherds
blue merle red tri Australian Shepherds
blue merle Australian Shepherds Faithwalk

There is a lot going on in this series of three photos. The first two are of a young blue merle female and young red tri male. They both wanted to claim the tether tug toy.  The female is trying to put herself over it to guard, but the raised paw signals some hesitancy. The male is growling and showing some teeth, not wanting to back down.  

In the second photo, the female turns away to see a mature blue merle female approach and the male is doing some
displacement behavior - sniffing the pole.

In the third photo, the adult female is standing over the male and the young female is displaying a little deference with her ears back and expression softer.


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

Matthew 6:33


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