I have owned three dogs, L, R, and C. Here is their development in chronological order.

L is our first, male, neutered dog; born in 2000, we've had him since 2002 and he is still alive as of this posting. He shivers a lot, and was nervous coming out of his crate for weeks after we first got him. He loved to live under the bed. Eventually, he lives on top of the bed and buries himself, but he also makes his way down, eats, goes outside, and sometimes relaxes. He is very attached to my wife, going so far as to want to be in the shower with her; we used to have to lock the bathroom door to prevent wet dog every morning, until we got a shower with a sliding door. He seems to have wised up about these things and simply lays down on the rug and waits. L does not play with toys unless no one is looking. L would not eat unless no one was looking. L acts very submissive to my wife, flipping over for her and somewhat friendly (but also very vocal with barks) when she is home, but is a different, quiet dog when she is not around.

R is our second, male, neutered dog; born in 2001, we got him in 2003 or 2004 as a companion to L to help get L out of his shell. He passed away 3 years ago. R was a foodie and would eat until he burst if we let him (he had Cushing's Disease). R could be very aggressive in play, and loved to tug on rope and chase and catch frisbees. R would try to steal L's food (and our food). L would growl and chase R away from his food. Sometimes R didn't care what L thought, but other times he deferred to L. To get L to eat, instead of waiting for night time, we would bring R into the room, then L would gobble his food down. L and R played together a lot and relaxed against each other at times. It was rare, but occasionally L and R would fight, mostly over treats (which R would steal from L and hoard; we chalked that up to his hunger disease), and they each had nips in their ears from the other having bitten down. R was a larger sized dog than L. R was extremely attached to me and would follow my every command; he acted depressed when I was not around, but would still participate in play. He came when I called for him and tried to be with me whenever he could.

C is our third, female, spayed dog and is also alive at this time. We suspect she was born in 2008, and we got her in 2012 as a companion to L after R passed. She grooms L on the face constantly, and L licks her mouth at times and sniffs her. There has been a rare mounting attempts from L. They lay down next to each other and sleep together in a basket, not unlike how L and R would. She is the same size as R was. Now that L is older, he eats his food without prompting; something he learned during the his time with R. L will now try to steal C's food. If C sees L stealing her food, she rushes over, shoves L out of the way with a growl, and eats her food. She occasionally takes from L's bowl, but only when he isn't around. Like R, C is attached to me and waits at the door for me to come home; she dances like crazy when I arrive. She seems mopey when I am not home, in the same fashion that L is mopey when my wife is not home. She comes when I call for her and tries to be with me whenever she can.

Is (was) there an alpha dog here, and what could be used to identify the alpha? Is it L or C? Was R an alpha? Perhaps myself or my wife?

  • I will provide additional information on request. – JoshDM Feb 10 '14 at 21:09

This is probably not a direct answer to your question, although I hope it will provide some elements. I try to first give some info about the "dominance theory", and then try to answer your question more precisely.


The "dominance" theory is overused in the canine literature and, in fact quite misused. The theory derives from observations of wolves 30 years ago. From these observations it was concluded that wolves have social structures based on dominant individuals (the alpha male and the alpha female) ruling over the group with frequent aggressions. On the other hand "submissive" individuals were trying to avoid conflicts with the alphas and they display submissive behaviours.

That theory was, at first, not contested and immediately applied to dogs.

Now, in 2014, that theory has been disputed for 30 years, discussed at length in the literature, and a majority of behaviourists now consider it as useless, at best, or even as plain wrong (references to follow).

Trying to summarise what I read from different sources, here are the key arguments:

  • dogs are not wolves. Wolves are their primary ancestor. However, both had plenty of time (> 10 000 years based on the more conservative sources) to evolve separately. Additionally, dogs interacted socially with humans and these skills were "selected"

  • the observations of captive wolves led to many conclusions that are different if one observes wild packs of wolves, where individuals are free to leave the group (which is a key factor why the aggressive behaviours are less frequent in wild packs)

  • more recent observations of wild wolves' packs tell another story about the structure of the pack: usually a breeding pair raising puppies, with the litters from the previous year(s) sticking with the group

  • the theory was extended to cover dog-human interactions. The observations of wolves should not play any role here

  • one could learn much more on dogs by observing actual dogs in appropriate social groups (e.g. many dogs' households, "pack" of feral dogs, village dogs, etc.)

  • dogs are often neutered. Reproductive behaviours are key elements in packs of wild wolves

If this evidence shakes the foundations of the usual "dominance"/"alpha male" theory, then what kind of social construct can we use to describe the behaviours of our dogs when they interact together?

I mention here three key elements, mainly from Ref. 3:

  • Resource Holding Potential (RHP): it doesn't require a previous hierarchy to be established, the outcome of an interaction is based on the subjective value that each dog assign to a given resource, for example in territorial disputes. Of course this will vary between dogs and doesn't predict a linear hierarchy to be established.

    • The idea of subjective/perceived value of a resource seems to apply particularly well to domestic dogs. From that we could say "this dog is dominant over food": the dog puts a large value to the "food resource" and another dog can recognise that and show appeasement behaviours to stop the escalation of the encounter

    • Associative learning: dogs learn at each encounter what is successful and what is not so the following responses are also based on that. Additionally the physical and emotional context in which the first encounter was made strongly influences the next ones.


  1. Dog sense: how the new science of Dog Behavior Can Make You A Better Friend to Your Pet (book)
  2. Dominance in Dogs: Fact or Fiction? (book)
  3. Dominance in domestic dogs—useful construct or bad habit? (paper) and references therein. I don't link directly to a PDF version, but it is easy enough to find.

Application to L, R and C

I won't comment the dog-human interactions, but on the dog-dog interactions.

From your description of L, and based on what I wrote above, there is no point trying to say that he was dominant or submissive. First thing is that you apparently had him when he was 2 years old. That means that some of his behaviour was actually learned from his previous experience. Especially the "eat only when alone" part.

Your description of R seems to indicate that he really values food, while L might not value it as much. That can explain the behaviour around stealing food, growling, etc. If you consider the "dominance in resources" based on the subjective value that each of them give to the food, you explain the outcome of the initial interactions around food. Then the dogs are both learning what works and what doesn't. You can reach a steady state where both dogs are OK with the interaction because it meets their expectations to get their food and they learned not to escalate too much. So the fights would not be an attempt to set a new hierarchy but rather occasional mismatches between the expectations of the two dogs. One would want the treats more than what the other one expected from previous interactions, and they could start a fight.

In your description of C you actually mention the learned behaviour of L around food.

So you seem to have pretty well0balanced dogs (from the interactions they have with you), it is pointless to try to identify an alpha (see the discussion on dominance), as the interactions between your dogs is regulated by the subjective values they assign to resources and learned behaviour.

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  • I think "pack leader" is accepted whereas "dominance/alpha" is no longer a valid theory. I don't see the word "leader" anywhere in this answer. Was it simply not needed here, or do you think it is just the same old dominance theory in new clothes? – Esa Paulasto Feb 25 '14 at 22:31
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    For wolves, the breeding pair is actually leading a pack, so we could say they're the pack leaders. However for dogs the packs are more like "groups": feral dogs group structure is much more lose than the one of a pack of wolves. It is not based on a single breeding pair, they are not hunting cooperatively as much as wolves (far from it). And don't think there is much to "lead". For a small group of pet dogs, one could indeed appear to lead some activities, but that's not a real hierarchical status/rank. Either it can be based on the age differences, or as a learned habit. – Cedric H. Feb 26 '14 at 8:33
  • I'm not claiming I'm a real expert on the subject, this is just the way I picture this thing. – Cedric H. Feb 26 '14 at 8:34
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    If you look at interaction between two dogs in a family you can possibly identify one as initiating play or other activities. It could be said that this dog is the leader in some sense, but not in the sense of seeking higher hierarchical status. "Be the pack leader" is in my view even worse than the usual dominance theory. In addition to all the misconceptions mentioned above, it additionally apply the dominance theory to interspecific dominance (dominance things in a human-dog relationship). This is not supported by any scientific data. – Cedric H. Feb 26 '14 at 11:18
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    So of course you want to be able to lead in the interactions that you have with your dog, that makes perfect sense. But this is not about the dog trying to overrule you. It is about training the dog to follow your guidance and to refrain from its opportunistic "instincts": if he sees the food bowl it makes sense to him to rush towards it. However I trained my dog to sit and wait until I give him access to the food. – Cedric H. Feb 26 '14 at 11:20

I have an alpha Laika male which was with an alpha Laika female who gave birth to 7 dogs, 4 males and 3 females, among them only one alpha male and no alpha females.

First I do believe that the concept of alpha is relative, I dont think this is a well-defined concept. Nevertheless on my opinion this even does not make sense to speak about alpha dogs when dogs have been neutered, castrated or spayed and also it makes sense only in the context of a pack.

How can I say among the 7 kids which were alpha and which weren't?

Of the 4 males, which were all superbs and healthy , one was bigger than the others and after a few months he was starting to act as a competitor for the father and they would have probably have killed each others if I had not sold him. That is what I call alpha dogs. The rest of the pack was obedient to the father and the mother.

I also think that does not make much sense to speak about alpha dogs that are ill, or which live in urban environment and also I think alpha dogs makes sense only for some breeds. Dogs that have no breed cannot behave like alphas and for small breeds like chihuaha for example it even doesn't make sense.

I think concept of alpha makes really sense for breeds that are still closed to the wolf like indeed all laika breeds (european laikas, siberian laikas), Huskies, yakoutian dogs , all halves-wolfs breeds etc... In my opinion it doesn't make sense for other breeds, including mastiffs, shepperd dogs etc... and it doesn't make sense especially for castrated dogs.

Dogs from different breeds - also including dogs with no breed at all - that are together I would not really call that a pack. Let me give you an example:

In the place where I live there are a lot of dogs that have been either abandoned by their owners or who were born in the streets... they do form most of the time heterogeneous group of dogs and sometimes there is a leader or a dog that seems to lead that group of dogs. These dogs group themselves because indeed they still have a primitive instinct in some way that they need to group themselves to get food and to survive. Now are they a pack? Is the leader an alpha dog? I don't think so, because they are effectively unable to survive, they don't form a structured organisation with rules and tactics to get food, or if they are , this is a degenerated form of pack and so a degenerated form of alphas. I would rather call them a group of rogue dogs because that's what they are or what they become.

So I would think there can be no alpha dogs among your dogs if:

1) the dogs are not from the same breed ( or from very similar breeds )


2) the dogs are not from a breed closed to wolves


3) dogs are castrated, spayed , neutered


4) dogs are not in good health.

Again it is my conception and personal experience of 'alpha dogs'.

Putting different dogs together doesn't create a pack, this just create a group of dogs ( with probably a far, very far remembrance of what is a pack ) and if some dogs show some attitude of dominance or leadership ( again probably a far,very far remembrance of alpha behaviour ) in that group of dogs that doesn't make this dog an alpha-dog.

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