Dog Culture

Here are some basics you need to know about dog culture:

The most important concept to grasp, is that dogs do not understand, care about, nor can you teach them the concept of fairness.  It’s lacking in their social system.

By this, I am referring mostly to equality, sharing, taking turns, and all the other good things we learn in kindergarten.

You see, dogs, just like their wild cousins, are born understanding how hierarchical social structures work. In a hierarchy, there are no equals. Two dogs must determine how they relate to one another in order to interact normally. Who is higher ranking? Who is calling the shots in a relationship between two dogs?

To keep it simple, dogs need to know this, so they can determine mostly two main things:

Who has the right to initiate?

Who has the right to unclaimed resources?

These are the rights of the higher-ranking dog and are meant to prevent unnecessary fights.

Initiate – who initiates and sets the rules for play, grooming, and most other activities.

Unclaimed resources – who has the right to something desirable, that no one yet possesses.

Besides the interactions between individual dogs that are all unique in how they relate to each other, you will sometimes have an “alpha” in a group of dogs. The alpha (highest ranking of the group) also initiates group activities such as roaming, hunting, and initiates aggression/acceptance toward outsiders. Regardless of how the other dogs in the “pack” relate to each other (dog “A” may lead “B”, dog “B” may lead “C”, and dog “C” may lead “A”), you can say there is a true alpha in the pack, when all the dogs follow the lead of that one. So depending on the wild or especially domesticated situation, there may or may not be a true “Alpha”.

Generally, higher a ranking dog, cannot be pushed into engaging in activities, he/she is not ready to do. Any pushy behavior from others, is either ignored or diffused by absolute minimal amount of threats, that rarely escalate to aggression (which almost never result in injury). In fact, most alphas and other higher ranking dogs, will keep peace in the lower ranking pack by splitting up (mostly with their body) and diffusing aggression between dogs. Much of their culture can be explained by these rituals of control, mainly through the stronger-willed and confident personality types and less by the last resort of  aggression.   

Bear in mind that certain behaviors override hierarchical rules.  These are classified as SURVIVAL INSTINCT behaviors.

Survival instinct behaviors, are all fear-based and are dealt with differently in dog training than issues, that are explainable through hierarchy (pack structure) issues.

For instance, a dog will generally not show aggression to a higher-ranking dog or human, when the higher-ranking one initiates contact. But, if that dog is in pain (or anticipates pain), the dog may show aggression because his instinct to avoid that pain may override the rules of subordination. Also, a dog may disobey a command from the owner, or not follow his pack leader, if he is fearful of where that action may bring him.

Another interesting and often misunderstood behavior that is placed into this category, is food aggression. This behavior is sometimes referred to as a dominance (pack structure) issue. From many years of observations, this is only true if the dog shows aggression toward UNCLAIMED food (a resource). If there is a steak in the middle of three dogs, the highest ranking one is likely to show aggression, only if one of the others goes to claim that steak, while he is on his way to also claim it. But, if the lowest-ranking of those three dogs, happened to already have that steak and the two higher ranking discover him with it, the rules may change. If the lowest ranking dog shows aggression, as the other two approach, it is not considered a challenge to the hierarchical order by the two higher-ranking dogs. It is actually a form of survival instinct, which is a throwback to the dog’s wild ancestors. In a pack of wild canines, if the lowest ranking individual always had everything taken from him, he would starve to death. So, when food is unclaimed, it goes to the higher-ranking individual, while claimed food usually stays with whoever has it. In fact, a higher-ranking dog will often guard a lower-ranking dog, who is eating, from other challengers. On the other hand, that higher-ranking dog will be able to take what the lower-ranking dog leaves behind (“unclaimed resource”), without challenge from other pack members.

This is an ancient set of rules that helps prevent unnecessary fights and rewards good pack leaders with a large and healthy pack. Poor pack leaders often cause unnecessary injury to themselves and others.  Since puppies are born into submissive (follower) roles, it is very uncommon to witness major conflict or fights in canine family units, that have these well-balanced instincts.  Pack structures often remain stable for years.

Chaos is more likely observed, when initially combining new canines into a “forced pack” with shared resources. This is especially true in situations where there is a dog or dogs that have a weaker instinct to adhere to these rituals and do not use minimal amount of aggression during conflict.  Also, certain breeds of dogs, that have low resource guarding instincts, may find all of their “resources” stolen from literally right under their nose, if there isn’t a good “alpha” dog, or person (hint hint) to keep the “pack” in check.

Some breeds of dogs, more than others, will display the primitive instinct of food (and other resource) guarding.  It is an instinct that was historically discouraged through selective breeding of our domesticated versions of wolves, particularly in the sporting breeds, which were needed to easily retrieve and hand over dead game to their masters.  But now, “resource guarding” is much more prevalent, even in the sporting breeds, because the pet industry has largely ignored selective breeding for functional purposes.  Therefore, a dog that does well in the show ring or is a good producer at a money-motivated puppy mill, may be used for breeding, and pass along certain genetics, which underlie those behavioral traits.

A simple understanding of the roles a dog has as a “leader” and “follower” in a relationship, is the least you need to know about their culture to move forward.

Next, you’ll need to be able to read some of your dog’s basic body language, to understand what he is trying to communicate.

Click Here to Learn about Dog Body Language


  1. These are so great Mike! Thank you!
    Im trying to understand one thing though, about survival instinct in the context of food aggression. I believe, as you are saying here, that an Alpha will usually respect the claim of a lower ranking dog to its claimed object or food until a time in which that dog relinquishes ownership over it. Which is to say, a higher ranking dog will tolerate some display of aggression from a lower dog when it comes to claimed food and that this is outside of what you consider a dominance issue. But this behavior is not usually tolerated in a human run pack and it is my experience that by taking on a leadership role you can stop this behavior of guarding from taking place. How is it that the fear/survival instinct is so easily overcome in this issue using dominance? Is it that the fear/survival instinct exists on a spectrum? and/or perhaps that only a human leader would ask a dog to check its behavior in such a way?
    I look forward to learning more about techniques to deal with fear aggression.

    1. We dive more into this in the wolf modules and the mech studies on the “ownership zone” to understand what is normal behavior for canines and this is what the video above is based on, besides my experience. In general, I discourage owners from “not tolerating” growling behavior at food because anytime you go against mother nature there are risks for side effects, and I have witnessed a lot of side effects from owners punishing for that behavior. The most common reason for side effects is that it essentially teaches the dog that we will show aggression over food. This may be fine if it is an adult, that for whatever reason wants to put their hand in a bowl while a dog eats, but then a child becomes a much more likely target to the dog that may approach a dog. That may not take one the “alpha” but has learned that humans get aggressive over their food and will jump the gun before jr acts like dad. The best way I have found to deal with the most pronounced food aggression cases is to teach the dog that humans do not want their food anyway, that we want it even less than other dogs. In fact, we will protect them while they eat. If we are to approach, it is likely because we want to give more or better food. If we need to remove the food we use obedience so we do not cut into any reflexive behavior. So I will teach dogs to remove themselves from food or drop food (bones)if needed. This is the best way to avoid side effects from the most pronounced resource guarders. For weaker dogs, I have witnessed the side effect of a dog simply being timid eating around their “alpha” and will simply stop eating at the approach. This would be reflective of a canine that attacks members of their pack for normal harmless guarding behavior. These dogs rarely bite unless pushed to unreasonable levels. Resource guarding is mainly genetic and some dogs you can do everything “wrong” with them and it will never be a problem. Other dogs can steal things from right under some dog’s noses, other dogs are genetically pronounced and we must be careful of what EXACTLY we are teaching them about humans or else we get “good” behavior when it doesn’t really matter, and worse behavior when it does matter and when our back is turned. I say this because early in my training career I was obsessed with “fixing” resource guarding. Once I accepted it as normal and went with mother nature, it has become a relatively easy thing, and there is never a need to even witness a dog showing aggression at a bowl if a dog is managed and conditioned in a way that put them at ease. Dogs are very smart and they pick up on the fact that we are their protectors – not competitors with the right plan (and without the side effects of SOME dogs) I hope this makes sense.

  2. I’ve always believed that there is training, management, and acceptance. We try to train and manage behaviors or situations first, but when it comes to certain issues, “human nature” mostly, we manage and accept. I had a client whose young adult dog was always guarding his food bowl. When I introduced the concept of management paired with acceptance, the client seemed disappointed that it was something I couldn’t fix (or didn’t feel the need to fix since I didn’t really see a problem with it). He said “well I plan on having kids so this can’t happen when I have a kid” and later on told me he would eventually consult a behaviorist about it. Then again, this was the same client who told me his dog was walking great on a leash after one short session of me teaching “walking on a loose leash”, only for me to find that he started using a prong collar shortly after. No wonder his dog was “walking great”.