Understanding Dog Packs - The Trupanion Blog
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Understanding Dog Packs

With dogs racing around the office and playing all day, it’s far from boring at the Trupanion office. But that doesn’t mean that all the dogs are best friends 100% of the time. Though they typically get along like best buddies, there was a recent scuffle between two of the dogs which inspired some further research into dog pack formation and dominance. Below is a discussion about some common questions and knowledge about multiple-dog groups and dog packs.

What is a pack? When there are three or more dogs in the same house or space, they typically form what is called dominance hierarchy, or a pack. Between them, they establish a social structure which includes ranking, and which dog is the alpha or leader. This hierarchy creates a balanced structure between all pack members and, in turn, reduces conflict and encourages cooperation between all members of the pack.

Introducing a new dog. Every time a new dog is added, ranking is reestablished to learn where the new dog fits into the pack. Dog fights can often happen when a new member is being introduced to the pack because two dogs see themselves as similar ranking, so they are fighting for a certain rank. When new dogs are introduced, this should be done in a neutral area so that none of them feels as though their territory is being intruded.

Same sex dogs are more likely to get into scuffles than a male and a female, and female-female fights are usually the most vicious.

Resources. Dogs see treats, attention, territory, food, toys and any other positive stimuli as valuable resources. Rarer items have higher value, and thus more motivation to guard whatever it may be. Interest in a scarce resource between two dogs can and will often lead to fights. The best way to avoid these issues are to take away all toys, treats, food, etc. that might be of “higher value” to the dogs. Subsequently, you may provide plenty of toys or treats so that the dogs do not feel the need to hoard and protect their properties.

Sibling rivalry. One aspect of dog packs that is often misunderstood by pet owners is sibling rivalry. This occurs when two dogs living in the same house have not established who the leader is. Pet parents commonly treat their pets as equals and have difficulty understanding that dogs do not have a sense of equality and must establish ranking. Pet owners may exacerbate sibling rivalry by fueling alliance aggression.

Alliance aggression is a very common issue of owner interference that is often overlooked and misunderstood by pet parents. This occurs when humans get in the way of dominance struggles between dogs and wrongfully help the underdog during a struggle. The reason it is wrong to help the underdog is because “rescuing” the underdog increases its status. Subsequently, punishing the dominant dog lowers that dog’s status. These actions serve to maintain the dogs’ similar status levels and prevents dominance from being fully established which perpetuates fighting between the dogs. The proper way to handle these situations is to reinforce rankings by first attending to the dominant dog after a fight. Only after dominance is fully established will the fights cease.

While severe cases should be handled by a professional, dogs should be examined by a veterinarian and tested for any underlying medical problems that may cause aggression. It may also be helpful to neuter male dogs as this reduces aggression-related hormones.

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