Multi Dog Households & Hierarchies

May 13,2024

Animal Care And Farming

Social dynamics of family dogs: A peek behind hierarchies 

The concept of "dominance" carries different connotations in human psychology and animal behavior (ethology). In ethology, dominance specifically indicates preferential access to limited resources. Researchers at the Family Dog Project of Eötvös Loránd University have developed a tool, the Dog Rank Assessment Questionnaire (DRA-Q), to investigate the Multi-dog households, with their findings published in Animal Cognition. 

While companion dogs might not compete directly for resources in the same way wild animals do, studies suggest they still establish hierarchies. These hierarchies may influence their personalities and social interactions outside of immediate resource competition. Investigating these social structures has real-life applications for dog owners and trainers. 

Traditionally, researchers have relied on questionnaires to assess dominance in companion dogs. This is practical since rank-related behaviors can be infrequent within the home. However, these questionnaires often rely on just a few questions, raising doubts about their accuracy. 

The newly developed Dog Rank Assessment Questionnaire (DRA-Q) takes a more nuanced approach. It assesses three aspects of rank: 

  • Formal rank: Based on submissive signals 
  • Agonistic rank: Based on resource-related interactions 
  • Leadership/group defense 

The questionnaire assigns a "Rank score" to participating dogs. But does this score reflect the dogs' true social dynamic? To answer this, researchers devised two experiments—the "Toy Possession Test" and the "Greeting Test"—to examine how dogs' behaviors in these tests aligned with their DRA-Q scores. 

Their goal was to see if dogs' behavior consistently corresponded to their predicted hierarchical positions. Results from both tests validated the DRA-Q, suggesting it's a useful tool for assessing rank within family dog groups. 

Multi-dog households

Putting the DRA-Q to the test 

The Toy Possession Test provided interesting insights. In this test, both dogs were simultaneously released as the experimenter casually tossed a toy. Researchers observed which dog reached the toy first and which one kept it at the end of the trial. Importantly, no fetching or retrieval was encouraged, as these scenarios can influence the dogs' motivations. Dogs with higher DRA-Q scores in two out of three aspects of rank generally obtained the toy more often and were more likely to keep it. Significantly, this occurred regardless of the toy type, and no aggressive behavior was observed. 

The Greeting Test offered further validation. Dogs predicted to be higher-ranking based on their DRA-Q score displayed fewer submissive behaviors, like licking the other dog's muzzle. They were also more likely to exhibit dominant behaviors, such as standing over the other dog. 

"These results show that DRA-Q can be a useful tool for assessing rank relationships between cohabiting family dogs not only in the qualitative, dominant-subordinate way but it also makes the hierarchy position quantifiable, making it useful for investigating social dynamics in bigger groups, measuring the firmness of the hierarchy," explains Kata Vékony, Ph.D. student and the study's first author. 

Previous research hints that while related, different aspects of rank may not fully overlap. The current findings affirm that this holds true for companion dogs as well. Different aspects of rank could be more influential depending on the context. 

“Our results support the idea that dominance hierarchies exist among groups of companion dogs," concludes principal investigator Péter Pongrácz. "However, using the concept of 'dominance' as a catch-all explanation for dog behavior in every circumstance can be misleading." 

Understanding Canine Social Structures 

So, what does all this mean for dog owners? Firstly, it suggests simple questionnaires may not fully capture the subtleties of social relationships between dogs living together. The DRA-Q could offer a more nuanced perspective. 

Secondly, understanding the hierarchical dynamic between dogs in a household could help owners with behavior management and training. For instance, a dog perceived as higher-ranking might be more likely to benefit from one-on-one training initially, with the other dog joining in later when certain behaviors are established. 

This research also sheds light on the ongoing debate over the usefulness of "dominance" terminology within the world of dog behavior. While hierarchies appear to exist, a more nuanced understanding may be key to making the most of canine social structures within our homes. 

Beyond 'Top Dog' 

It's important to note that hierarchies among companion dogs aren't always rigid or linear. While one dog might generally be considered more dominant, the dynamic can shift from situation to situation. For example, a dog who's highly motivated by food might take the lead whenever food-related resources are at play, even if they aren't the "top dog" in all other scenarios. 

Furthermore, researchers acknowledge that factors beyond dominance rank can influence canine social behavior. Individual dog personalities, breed characteristics, and even learning history interact with a dog's perceived status in the group. For instance, a generally submissive dog might become more assertive when defending a favorite resting spot, especially if they have past positive experiences protecting that space. 

How can awareness of these social dynamics improve the lives of both dogs and their owners? Here are a few potential applications: 

  • Managing Conflicts: If owners recognize a clear hierarchy between their dogs, they may be able to intervene earlier in potentially tense situations. For example, separating dogs when high-value treats are present, or providing duplicate resting spots in preferred locations, could pre-empt conflict. 
  • Tailored Training: Understanding the hierarchical relationship may help owners decide which dog to train first for specific behaviors. In some cases, the dog perceived as higher-ranking might learn more easily. Their success could then positively influence the learning process for their canine housemates. 
  • Reducing Misinterpretations: Dog owners often label behaviors like a dog taking another dog's toy as "bullying" or "being mean." This can lead to misdirected attempts at correction when, in reality, the behavior likely reflects an established hierarchy the owner wasn't fully aware of. 

Important Considerations 

Of course, managing multi-dog households extends beyond recognizing hierarchy alone. Here are some crucial points for all dog owners: 

  • Resource Availability: Ensuring ample resources for all dogs remains paramount. This includes food, water, toys, resting spots, and human attention. Even with an established hierarchy, resource scarcity can lead to conflict. 
  • Breed and Individuality: Breed traits and individual dog personalities should never be discounted. Some breeds are naturally more assertive or have stronger guarding instincts. Likewise, individual experiences can strongly affect a dog's behavior, even overriding the expectations based on hierarchical position. 
  • Professional Guidance: When conflicts become disruptive and potentially harmful, seeking help from a qualified dog trainer or animal behaviorist is essential. Understanding the root cause of the conflict is crucial for finding effective and lasting solutions. 

Practical Tips for Owners of Multiple Dogs 

While the science behind canine hierarchies is fascinating, it's the real-world impact that most dog owners care about. Here are some tips for creating harmony in multi-dog households, taking into account the insights from the study: 

  • Observation is Key: Spending time observing your dogs' interactions without interference can reveal valuable information. Which dog tends to initiate play? Who retreats when a conflict seems imminent? Paying close attention provides a starting point for understanding their social dynamic. 
  • Separate When Necessary: Even with the friendliest of dogs, sometimes separation is needed. Using baby gates or crates to give dogs time and space apart, especially during feeding time or when introducing high-value toys, can significantly decrease tension. 
  • The Power of Parallel: Whenever possible, try to provide the same resources to both dogs simultaneously. This could mean identical food bowls placed far apart, dual walks with separate handlers, or duplicate chew toys. It reduces the feeling of competition and promotes a sense of fairness. 
  • Training Isn't One Size Fits All: If one dog clearly displays more dominant tendencies, consider training them independently at first. Once they master a command or behavior, you can introduce the other dog, allowing them to benefit from observing their housemate's success. 
  • Be Aware of Triggers: Certain items, locations, or even particular humans might trigger possessive or guarding behaviors. Recognizing these triggers allows owners to anticipate and potentially modify situations before conflicts arise. 
  • Don't Ignore Subtle Signs: Minor tensions can quickly escalate. Be mindful of changes in body language such as stiffening, tail tucking, avoidance, or low growls. These early warning signs might indicate a need to intervene and divert the dogs' attention. 

The Evolving Relationship 

It's important to remember that the social dynamic between dogs can change over time. New dogs joining the family, major life events, or even a dog reaching senior age can alter the established order. Here are some factors that can influence shifts: 

  • Age and Health: An older dog who becomes less playful and assertive might naturally concede a leadership position to a younger canine companion. Additionally, health concerns or pain can make a dog more irritable, leading to increased tension in the household. 
  • The Human Factor: Changes within the human family, such as a new baby or a significant schedule alteration, can indirectly affect the dogs. They might experience increased stress or competition for attention, leading to shifts in their own dynamic. 
  • Intact vs. Neutered/Spayed: Hormonal status can play a role, especially in households where some dogs are intact and others are not. Neutering or spaying might reduce some dominance-related behaviors, although it's not a guaranteed solution. 

A Focus on Positive Relationships 

While understanding hierarchies can help owners manage their multi-dog homes, the ultimate goal is to foster positive, enriching relationships between canine companions. Here's where owners can make a real difference: 

  • Promoting Play and Cooperation: Structured games and activities that encourage both dogs to participate jointly can strengthen their bond. Games of fetch involving two toys, practicing cooperative commands, or engaging in scent work together can all be beneficial. 
  • Sharing the Love: It's crucial to show affection and offer quality time to each dog individually. This helps prevent feelings of jealousy or competition for human attention, which can exacerbate tensions. 
  • Consistency is Key: Setting clear and consistent rules and expectations for all dogs in the household promotes fairness and predictability. When dogs know what to expect, they feel more secure, reducing the chances of conflict. 
  • The Importance of Supervision: Even the most well-adjusted canine companions shouldn't be left unsupervised indefinitely, especially when new dynamics are being established. This allows owners to intervene if needed and reward positive interactions. 
  • Addressing Anxiety and Insecurity: If a dog seems chronically fearful or insecure, addressing the underlying cause of their anxiety is essential. This might involve consulting with a veterinary behaviorist for appropriate medication or behavioral modification plans. A stressed and insecure dog is more likely to behave unpredictably, potentially disrupting the harmony within the pack. 

The Takeaway 

The research on canine hierarchies highlights that our furry companions have more intricate social lives than many assume. While the term "dominance" might be simplistic, it does reflect an underlying reality within many multi-dog households. 

Being aware of these social dynamics gives owners the tools they need to provide a nurturing and supportive environment for all their dogs. This awareness does not mean encouraging rivalry or using outdated training methods based on dominance theory. Instead, it's about understanding each dog as an individual, respecting their place within the pack, and using that knowledge to foster positive interactions and lifelong companionship. 

The exploration of dog social behavior is far from over. Researchers will continue to refine their understanding of how hierarchies form, how they evolve, and how best to support dogs living in groups. It's a fascinating field that promises to further improve the lives of our beloved canine companions. 

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