When you have more than one dog, you may have been given the advice to establish one dog as the “alpha” of the house. This typically would be the oldest dog, or the one that has been in your home the longest. You may have been given advice to feed the alpha dog first, or to pin the beta dog on their back to help your alpha dog establish dominance.
The truth is, there is no set hierarchy in a multi-dog home, nor is there in a wolf pack. The whole alpha dog theory comes from a 1930s study of captive wolves. Swiss animal behaviorist Rudolph Schenkel observed the wolves fighting over resources, and labeled the winner of those fights the “alpha wolf.”
In the past 70+ years, animal behaviorists have debunked this theory. The high-tension relationships in that particular captive wolf pack were caused by a completely unnatural situation – unrelated adult wolves living together in close quarters. It was like a bad reality show. Real wolves live with their families. Mated pairs and offspring live with one another… just like humans.
Chances are, your dogs are not related. They’re also not wolves. To have a peaceful, happy multi-dog household, you need to focus on creating a low-stress environment in which every dog feels safe. You can’t force them to be best friends, but you can ensure they don’t feel the need to fight over resources, which can be extremely dangerous, even deadly.
Who’s The Boss, Matilda or Cow?
Though Matilda and Cow are approximately the same age, having grown up together as puppies, to the untrained eye, people may think that Cow is the alpha dog in my home. After all, she is bigger and stronger, and Matilda steps aside if they’re about to go after the same toy.
I acknowledged that Matilda and Cow do not have a hierarchy, but in the past they have had some loud, scary squabbles over food and toys. By pure luck, neither dog has never been injured.
Matilda has learned to stay away from Cow when it comes to resources. But that’s not all.
When Matilda has a tasty raw meaty bone, and Cow comes too close for comfort… she growls! She growls like the tiniest lawnmower in the world.
And yet, sometimes Cow wrinkles her lip when she’s exhausted and Matilda walks over her in bed. Sometimes, Matilda wrinkles her lip.
At any sign of a snarl, growl or wrinkle-lip, I quickly distance the dogs.
But I’ve learned not to be afraid.
A growl is not disrespectful. A growl is the dog’s only way to say, “Hey, get away.”
I never punish either dog for these behaviors. In fact, I reinforce them by rewarding them with what they want – distance.
Alpha Rolls And Play
I love watching Matilda and Cow play. It used to make me very nervous because of their size differences. It used to make Matilda very nervous too, especially when she was a puppy.
But now, I’ve noticed that they’ve developed their own secret language. Matilda grabs Cow’s toe. Cow puts Matilda’s tiny paw in her mouth. Matilda flips over like a bug and kicks Cow in the face. Cow mouths her ever-so-gently (I’ve put my hands between them and felt it for myself), and Matilda keeps going back for more. It’s poetry.
Some dog trainers (I use this term very loosely), will tell you to pin your dog on their back for any particular reason. This never happens in the wild. Dogs never pin each other down to establish dominance.
Matilda flips herself over during play, and it gives her the advantage of being able to use all four paws to kick Cow in the face. It’s really a brilliant strategy.
Who Eats First?
When I first began training Matilda and Cow side-by-side, it was a mess. Any time I tried to deliver a treat, both dogs would go for it. I taught them to wait their turn by holding a treat in each hand and delivering them at the same time. Then, I took turns treating one girl first, then the other.
Now, they realize that there is no treat shortage. If sister is getting a treat, the other sister needs to just wait for her own. There’s always another treat coming.
Matilda eats in her crate, and Cow eats a few feet away.
You might have a dog that eats fast, then rushes to steal the other’s food. If so, you can feed that dog last, at a safe distance, teaching them to wait in their spot until it’s her turn to eat.
Dogs may not have as strong a sense of empathy as humans, but they can be taught that when good things come to their family members, their own reward is on the way. For safety purposes, though, be very attentive of body language, and be proactive about separating dogs before a conflict can occur. Crates are excellent for this, and as a bonus, you’ll be teaching your dog to love her crate by serving meals in it.
Raw meaty bones are likely to be the most prized possession your dog could ever have, so they could start wars. Always supervise when you give them to multiple dogs. Again, crates are best for this.