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Pack Structure

This is a widely debated topic. After doing all the research we have, this appears to be one of the resulting causes in the division of opinions. Take a look on the Pack Structure Debate article to see why we suspect there are different views on the topic.

We have found it very helpful to understand this ideology. Clients we worked with that struggled with their dog and had been to previous trainers that may have helped a bit but didn’t solve their issue often found solutions in this ideology. If you read the article on Dog Types and suspect your dog is a mid Beta or higher (up to high Alpha) then read this article and follow these rules and see if it helps you out.

If Pack Structure does exist, as it seems to with some dogs, then the dogs would need a way to measure where they stand within the pack and who is higher ranking than who. It seems to allow them to have peace and understanding with one another which minimizes or eliminates fighting between them.

Out of the research we have done and watching dogs in training these appear to be the benchmarks on which they measure themselves.

1. Eating - The Alpha has access to food first and before anyone else. If there is enough food to go around then lower ranking pack members will be allowed to eat. Having a scheduled feeding time helps your dog to see you as the pack leader and see you in control of the food resources. Teaching your dog to sit back and away from their food before they are allowed to take it teaches very good self-control.

2. Possessions - The Alpha is in control of all possessions such as sticks, toys, shoes, socks, etc. An example of this is Fetch. Many people have a dog that will go and get the ball that is thrown but they do not want to bring it back. This is Pack Structure in effect. The dog is thinking "I was faster than you and I got the ball first and now I can keep it away from you so therefore I must be a higher ranking pack member". If a dog will naturally fetch you can train them to do just about anything. This is why Retrievers seem easier to train than a Terrier (usually). Retrievers have a natural desire to please (fetch) whereas Terriers have very little desire to please (again, usually, some Terriers do have high desire to please).

You may also see a few dogs that all have an identical toy and one dog will go and round up all the other toys from the dogs. The dog that rounds up the other possessions is asserting a higher ranking position over the other dogs. If the other dogs allow the dog rounding up the toys to take their toy they are in agreement that, that dog is higher ranking at least when it comes to possessions. If there is a scuffle or fight between the dogs then they are not in full agreement.

3. Attention - A higher ranking pack member can always demand attention from a lower ranking pack member. We as primates think our dog is trying to be friendly and cuddle when they come up for attention. The canine reads this as "This lower ranking pack member will always groom me whenever I tell them to". Some dogs truly come up for attention and will still listen to any command you give them but most are asserting their position in the pack above you. When dogs get a whole bunch of attention for free they do not want to work for it. This is why Seeing Eye Dogs are not allowed to be pet. If they got all of that attention for free they wouldn't want to work for it and it would distract them from their job. If you make your dog work for the attention they get you will have a very happy dog. Skimp on the attention you give them in low level distractions and really praise them in high level distractions when they follow through on a command.

If you have ever watched a person that is allergic to cats or dogs, those cats or dogs often won’t leave the allergic person alone. They keep trying to seek that person’s attention. This is because the allergic person is ignoring those animals which is sending a signal that they are higher ranking than those animals. These animals are often used to asserting their position over people as most people will readily pet them. So now they will try to pester the allergic person more and longer to try and establish their position. That is our theory on that, it would still need further testing but it does seem to answer the question.

4. Greeting - The Alpha is the one that greets first and decides whether to accept or reject into the pack. If your dog can get to the door first and greet people when they come in, this can make them think they are higher ranking. You want your dog to greet back and away from the door so you can answer the door and allow the guest to come in. Your guest can then take off their shoes and jacket and then they can come and greet the dog on their own terms. The easiest way to do this prior to excellent obedience is to have your dog tied back and away from the door (not in their kennel and not with someone holding the leash). A 3 foot tie out leash is best for an average sized dog. You want enough leash that the dog can sit, stand or lay down with just enough slack. If you have too much leash the dog will make big sweeping motions back and forth and will not get the concept of having to sit and wait for their attention. There is a lot more detail that goes into teaching Greeting so take a look here for more information.

The dogs that seem most eager to comply (Omegas) will naturally stay back and away from the door until you greet the guest and the guest comes in. Dogs that are higher ranking have a tougher time with greeting and want to be the first to greet the door and often bark a lot at the door and may also want to jump on the guest. In the case of Alphas they can be very aggressive when people come to the door.

5. Sleeping - The Alpha gets the highest and best resting position. In a house that would mean beds or furniture. If a dog is allowed up on furniture it can make them think they are higher ranking. If they are not allowed up then it will make them think they are lower ranking. This is one of the most controversial topics out there and we think it is due to Dog Types (Alpha, Beta, Omega). We have seen Omegas be allowed up on beds or furniture their whole lives and never have a problem with it, they never challenge another dog or person and always listen to their commands. We have seen Alphas up on beds or furniture and have a big problem with it. We have one client who has scars all the way up her arm and across her chest from being attacked by her own dog for trying to get into her own bed. If a dog ever growls when up on beds or furniture then it is best to not allow them up on furniture. This seems to be a tell tale sign they are a High Level Beta and are gunning for top position in the pack. The closer they are naturally to an Alpha, the more rules you have to follow to get them to listen. The closer they are naturally to an Omega, the less rules you have to follow to get them to listen. For fastest training it is best to not allow any freedoms and once your dog fully listens and has done so for at least 1-3 months in a row then you can allow a freedom if you choose. Their behaviour may stay the same or it may decline. If it declines then maybe you have to take that freedom away for a while longer or maybe this is a dog you can never allow that freedom with. After what we have seen working with dogs if you always follow the pack structure rules the dog seems to always be good. It is when freedoms are allowed that things can fall apart. It wouldn’t be so bad if you could resume the rules and things would go back to normal. The problem we have seen is that once a problem occurs, it can take a long time to rectify it and sometimes the dog never goes back to the way they first were.

We feel the reason that people most often don’t want to follow the pack structure rules after learning them is that they can think they are being cruel by not allowing them up on furniture or to greet first or be pet whenever they want. Us being primate species, this is how we show our affection, by sharing, cuddling and being social. Since canines seem to have different natural rules than we do, this can lead to training problems (unless you have an Omega then it doesn’t seem to matter). Being a leader with clear rules provides a stress free environment for your dog. They feel comfortable knowing that you will look out for them. If they doubt this it can cause bad anxiety.

6. Walking - The Alpha walks up front and decides direction of travel. We train dogs to walk on the right hand side a half step behind. Traditionally it is left hand side because of gun dogs. Most people are a right hand shooter so they would have their rifle on the right and their dog on the left. The first dogs ever put on leash were gun dogs as herding dogs needed to be free to herd livestock, guardian dogs had to be free to guard and terriers had to be free to eradicate vermin. So you can imagine if you have an 80 pound dog that you are taking out hunting with you for the first time. To keep them under control for training you put this dog on leash. If you are a right handed shooter you will have a loaded rifle in your right hand. You most certainly do not want to hold an untrained dog in the same hand, that is where training on the left began. You don't see too many people carrying a rifle in the city while walking their dog anymore so we figure you can switch the rules up a little. In the show ring dogs are also trained to walk on the left for presentation reasons. There is a big reason on why we train dogs to walk on the right hand side. Whenever you are greeting other dogs or people you are almost always on a sidewalk or pathway and they are passing on your left. We work with a lot of reactive dogs and training them to walk on the right really speeds up training. This way they can see you as the leader and you will protect them. If they are on the left they can think they have to look out for themselves or both of you and in front they will definitely think they have to look out for everyone. So training a reactive dog on the right hand side really speeds up training. Even if we are training an easy going dog we still train them on the right because we work with so many other dogs that will attack dogs on leash.

If you ever let your dog get attacked on leash your dog can lose trust and respect that you are able to protect them. If you want to maintain a dog that is great with other dogs then never let them greet another dog on leash. We have seen far too many dogs get attacked on leash by another "friendly dog". There are far better ways to have dogs greet. Teaching dogs to walk a half step behind on the right hand side goes into quite a bit of detail. Since it is a Pack Structure item most dogs have zero desire to want to walk in behind. See here for more details.

The reason people let dogs greet on leash is that it is common to think you need to do that to socialize your dog. We find this would work fine if all dogs were Omegas. When you throw Betas and Alphas into the mix it can cause bad problems. Take a look at the article on Greeting on Leash to see the debate on whether greeting on leash is good for you and your dog or not.

7. Sniffing - A higher ranking dog can sniff a lower ranking dog but not always the other way around. This is why you sometimes see two dogs going to sniff each other and one dog will growl and snap at the other dog. You may also see a low ranking dog flop to the ground while a higher ranking dog comes over to sniff them. You may also see a low ranking dog sniffing an object and a higher ranking dog will come over and push the lower ranking dog out of the way to sniff the object.

When greeting guests a higher ranking dog will always want to come over and sniff the guest. Omegas will hang back and will not try to sniff you.

When out on walks some dogs will go crazy when seeing another dog (Betas or Alphas) and the owners will say “My dog just wants to say hi.” This seems to be a dog that wants to assert their position over the other dog. Several different things can happen from here. If the dog being approached were an Omega they would drop to the ground and roll on their back to let the other dog sniff them or hide behind their human and tuck their tail or want to be picked up. If they were a lower Beta they would stand their ground a bit but not advance. The dogs may come nose to nose greeting and then one may go into a Play Bow and then want to spar from there. A high ranking Beta may also get fired up which could escalate to a fight or it could be fine so long as neither dog has been in a fight before. If it were an Alpha being approached then they would posture toward the approaching dog and the approaching dog may back off or they may still come over and a fight or a scolding will often ensue from there.

8. Marking - A higher ranking dog can mark (pee) over top of where a lower ranking dog has marked. When clients come out here for a session we always take the dog for a pee break first. There is a lot you can tell about a dog based on that pee break. If we get a dog that does not want to pee and will hold it the entire time they are here and wait till they get back home they are an easier dog to work with because they are not looking to claim new territory. If the dog is quick to go pee when out here then they require more work as they are looking to claim new territory.

Omegas will not mark territory but Betas and Alphas will. The dogs that mark territory here catch onto training faster than the dogs that don’t mark territory.

You may have seen someone walking their dog where the dog walks up front and has to pee on something every 10 steps. That is a dog marking territory. It is quite likely that, that dog does not see their human as the leader. We have had dogs out here for training that would mark everything and I mean everything. The more we worked with them establishing pack structure, rules and training, the dogs would stop marking in front of you. They would just go pee where you tell them to and they would fully relieve their bladders.

If you see two dogs living together and you suspect one is higher ranking than the other, check to see which dog pees first and which one pees over top of the others spot. We have seen rare cases where the dog that appeared to be lower ranking in every way would mark over top the other dogs spot but that is pretty rare (can only think of one case right now).

People often think that a male dog has to lift their leg to pee. This isn’t true and we discourage male dogs from learning to lift their leg and mark. If they never learn to claim territory they do much better when travelling in which they go to a hotel that allows dogs. The dog will not pee all over the room claiming territory. Also when visiting friends that have dogs they will not pee in your friends house claiming territory. To discourage leg lifting, when the dog first goes to lift their leg to pee, we push their leg back down. Ensure you follow all Pack Structure rules very closely. When the dog first goes to kick their feet off on the ground we say “ah” and sometimes give a quick poke to the neck and that often stops them. This not only helps with training it also makes your friends happier when you bring your dog over. They won’t tear up your friends lawn every time they go pee or poo.

We have seen female dogs lift their legs just like a male to mark territory. We have also seen female dogs do a handstand to pee higher on the tree than the boy dogs can. Marking is often indicated by sniffing first, moving forward one to two steps and then peeing. A dog that doesn’t mark will just stop all of a sudden and pee. When they do pee, they pee a lot. A dog that marks will only pee a little each time.

If a puppy starts marking territory prior to 6 months of age these people have a real handful of a dog. In short order they often start peeing all over the house even though they may have already been potty trained. We have most commonly seen this in small lap dogs and most often Yorkie or Maltese or a cross thereof. Small dogs are usually the biggest offender as people want them as lap dogs. Being a lap dog they are much more likely to get freedoms or be spoiled. These dogs then often see themselves as the highest ranking pack member and become a real handful for the humans.

If a person is planning on getting a lap dog we highly suggest learning about dog types and temperament testing. Get an Omega lap dog and you can do whatever you want with them and have no issues. If a person mistakenly gets an Alpha lap dog then it seems nearly impossible to have them be good and still be a lap dog. Any of the lap dogs we have seen as natural Alphas had to be made to follow more rules and given a job like a working dog. The peace then resumed in the pack.


The reason we found the ideology of Pack Structure to work so well is when we did Board and Train. This is when a dog would come to stay with us for 4-7 weeks. We would train the dog and then train the people and send the dog home. There were a lot of problems with doing this so we stopped. Our findings were this:

The dogs that were sent to us were Betas and Alphas. The people struggled with them so they thought it would be easier to send them off. We were lucky enough to work with three Omegas and they did fantastic after being sent home. Most people won’t send an Omega for training because they seem to require little to no training to be good.

The Betas and Alphas required us to be very clear on the Pack Structure rules we listed. We found these dogs would catch on fast but that didn’t mean they would follow through. You had to earn their respect first. This often took right around 3 weeks. Once you had their respect they would do anything you told them without the use of food or force.

When we first started Board and Train we kept the dogs for 4 weeks. 3 weeks to get them to know the commands and respect you. The last week was the first week of Management Phase. They were then sent home because they were doing very well with training.

We found that they would continue to do well for an average of 2 weeks. At around the 2 month mark we would often get a phone call or e-mail saying the dogs weren’t doing anything they were trained to and getting into all kinds of trouble. We first wondered how the dogs forgot everything. If they came back to me for training the dogs would immediately do whatever I told them to do. At first we couldn’t figure out the problem. Then we got asking our clients if they were following the pack structure rules and they weren’t or they said they were at first and they were doing so good so they stopped following the rules. The conclusion we came to was that the dogs did see their humans as the leaders but when they stopped following the rules the dogs would begin to test more and more until they would stop following commands. It seemed that the dogs had decided their humans no longer wanted to be the leader so the dogs started doing what they wanted to as a leader would. When they would come back out to us we would always follow the rules so the dogs would seem to think “we are back in the presence of a leader so we will listen”.

It was such a struggle to get people to follow Pack Structure rules so we first decided to extend training to 7 weeks so that the dogs had a 4 week Management Phase to really get them into the habit of listening and being respectful. That didn’t work so we just stopped doing Board and Train. The dogs were a peace of cake to train, it was the humans that were difficult to train. We even had the humans come out a few times to do training to learn everything. We sent them notes and videos on what to do. We told them to call us with any questions.

It seemed that unless a person had to train the dog themselves and follow the pack structure rules, they never had an appreciation for how important they were. Even now when we do training with people they sometimes ask us if we guarantee our training and we tell them no because we can’t guarantee the humans will do the work. We will help them through any problems they have but they still need to do the work.

If you are getting a dog and following pack structure rules seems like too much work for you or you just want a super cuddly companion that listens well we strongly recommend you get yourself an Omega. Read the article on Dog Types and look up temperament testing. There is a website called Volhard Temperament Testing that does a good job of helping you score a puppy to see if they are more eager to please or more independent.

If you want the simple version pick the puppy that hangs off to the side, not the ones that come running up to you. A lot of people say they chose the puppy that picked them. What they often don’t know is that the puppies that come up to you in the litter are the most dominant puppies of that litter. Don’t pick the ones that are jumping and chewing on the other puppies if you want an easy going lap dog or even a big easy going dog.