One might think that the biggest dog or cat would be the "alpha" (I understand that this term as applied to wolves is controversial and observers did not at the time understand that the alphas were simply the parents of the other dogs and so naturally were dominant -- there had been no fighting or whatever to establish this.) in a household but people who have had multiple dogs have told me that a small and much older dog was the "boss" whatever that meant, maybe it ate first or something.

I have seen with cats that size makes no difference (maybe): a larger cat very much was submissive, would be chased away by the smaller cat who frankly was the favorite of the humans in the house. However, somehow between the two of them they had worked out a process for eating where indeed the larger cat ate first with the smaller (and BTW younger; she had come to the house months after the first cat, a dumb idea -- I think adopt two cats at once, maybe siblings -- the first cat very much understood the implications of the new cat, they just never liked each other although occasionally for warmth maybe would sleep together) cat waiting a meter or so away, in the same spot as far as I could see each time.

I don't know if this was a compromise where the small cat had gotten the rights to sit with humans and the large cat, who liked eating, got the right to eat first. I don't believe they ever actually discussed this (but who knows?) but they seemed to have an agreement that they both observed -- the larger cat would still try to sit on human laps but could easily be chased away, she would not fight back even after being bitten in a subtle maneuver that began with grooming.

Funny creatures, cats.

But it is hard for me to believe that at least sometimes the hierarchy is not settled via fighting in which case size would probably matter -- perhaps more so with, say, a group of "outside" dogs.

2 Answers 2


I cannot say much about cats, but this is my experience with dogs:

The main problem here is that "hierarchy" means a very different thing for dogs than it means for humans. The "dominant" dog in our traditional human understanding - the dog who always eats the best bits first, hoards all the best toys and bites others if they don't follow his command - is actually a bully and tyrant. The real pack leader is the dog with the most social skills and understanding of the world.

A pack of feral or wild dogs usually consist of 4 - 7 individuals who all have different strengths and weaknesses. The strongest, most aggressive dog who always runs towards danger first is not the pack leader. The leader observes the scene from the center of his pack, assesses threats and guides his pack members by nonverbal clues. However, the pack leader doesn't have total control about all pack members and one bite-happy dog can also guide the whole pack into an attack without being the leader.

In this scenario size doesn't matter. Dominance is asserted by body posture and certain gestures and most of those gestures can be done by small dogs as well as big dogs. The exception is towering over another dog as a display of dominance, but there are enough gestures that a smaller dog can assert their dominance without it.

The actual task of the pack leader is keeping its pack safe by its life experience. Where can food and water be found reliably? Is this approaching car or human a threat or a friend? Does a certain sound mean there's danger nearby? Does this particular danger mean we should run away or attack? The biggest and strongest dog could bully its pack members into submission, but if it lacks life experience, it cannot keep its pack safe.

Looking at wolf packs, the dominant animals are the parents and the rest of the pack members are their children. We see again that the ones with the most life experience are the leaders. Even if a cup grows bigger than their parents, it doesn't automatically become the leader. Contrary to popular belief, there is no ingrained desire in wolves to fight your way to the top of the hierarchy because there is no need for that. Wolves are social creatures and the social competence of the pack leaders means that everyone is cared for and knows their place in life. Only when the leader dies will the other members fight for a new hierarchy.

In our pet dogs we often (but not always) see a similar pattern. The older dog teaches the younger one(s) how to live in this human-dog-pack and is treated with respect by the younger one(s). We interpret that as being higher in the hierarchy.

If a pet dog uses its body height to intimidate or dominate other dogs at the dog park, it is usually a bully. That happens a lot with pet dogs because we humans take the puppies from their family and many dogs have no opportunity to learn social interactions with other dogs in a pack. It's like living a foreign country where you neither understand the spoken language, nor the full meaning of the many gestures people make while talking to you.


There is no definitive answer to this question as dogs seem to vary in their understanding of physical size in their hierarchy. Some dogs may appear to understand that physical size is a factor in their hierarchy, while others may not seem to pay attention to it at all. Ultimately, it is up to the individual dog to decide how much importance they place on physical size in their hierarchy.

  • Same here. Source please :) Oct 15, 2022 at 18:53

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