Girl Trouble

Why tinkering with your dogs’ social relationships regarding the “Alpha dog” is not all that useful – and what can be much more helpful.


We’ve had a sudden burst of questions regarding “Alpha dogs” in a multiple-dog household. We decided to have our ever-practical training expert, Dr. Ian Dunbar, answer these questions. Dr. Dunbar is a veterinarian and dog trainer residing in Berkeley, CA. A native of England, Dr. Dunbar is the founder of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers, the creator of the K9 Games, and is well-known for his renowned Sirius Puppy Training program, which he describes in his popular books and instructional videos.


Girl Trouble

Is the female always the Alpha in a two dog house? I try to give my four year old male a treat first, I greet him first and consider him to be #1, but am I doing the wrong thing or going against nature? Our one-year-old female seems to run the show now!

-LuAnne Marshall
via email


We have two female dogs: a five year old Newfoundland and a two-year-old Shih Tzu. They are rivals. They both like to chew on rawhide bones, even if I give them the exact same kind. As soon as the Newf gets up off of her “place” the Shih Tzu goes and steals her bone. Then the Newf wants the Shih Tzu’s bone! This occurs even if the Shih Tzu has a very small bone. Another annoying behavior is that the Shih Tzu barks in a very threatening way whenever the Newf barks to be let back in the house. The Newf goes outside frequently to enjoy the air, so this is very annoying. We would like the Newf to be the Alpha dog. What can we do to keep her position?

-Laurie Pevnick
Milwaukee, WI


I have two female German Shepherds: Casey, who is four and a half, and Tasha, who just turned three. They started fighting when we moved four weeks ago and have fought once a week since then. This is the second time they have had fights when there was a major change in the household. The first time this happened was in November 1998, when they fought about five times. We hired a trainer who deals with aggression and she taught us about hierarchy and showed us some exercises. We established Casey as the Alpha because she had always been the leader. They didn’t fight again until the recent move.

This time, Casey seems to always be the culprit. It seems that she wants to establish territory, that she’s jealous, and that she is not happy with our schedule changes. She attacks Tasha for what seems to be no reason. When they fight she won’t stop even when Tasha submits. It’s been terrible! Since June, I’ve been keeping them in separate rooms; they are together only when we are there and they are leashed.

Last week I took both dogs to a university behavioral clinic. Basically, the behaviorists felt that Casey is controlling, jealous, aggressive, and very anxious. They gave us exercises to do to relax them and teach them to “look” at us and defer to us.

They also said that, because of Casey’s inappropriate behavior, we should treat Tasha as the Alpha dog, meaning that we should do everything with her first, like we used to do with Casey, including putting her in the least liked room. The idea was that she would realize that she acted inappropriately and that Tasha has some status in our home. And, that we will have to do this for the rest of their lives, not just as a correction. But we are afraid of doing this because we think Casey will take it out on Tasha. We think she will get mad because Tasha is being preferred in our eyes and she is already jealous of her.

Should we change the hierarchy for the rest of their lives even though Tasha has always been the one to submit? Or could we just change it as a correction when Casey acts inappropriately with Tasha?

-Mary Hager
via email


Dr. Ian Dunbar replies:
There certainly is a lot of interesting information out there about Alpha dogs and submissive dogs and so forth, isn’t there? It is fascinating stuff, I agree, but when it comes to living with the dogs, what good is it doing anyone? Let me give you my version of relationships in a multiple dog household, and then tell you what I would do about the dogs that are causing trouble in the latter two letters.

It’s true that male dogs do establish a very firm and respected hierarchy, which male dogs respect. However, when you bring one bitch onto the scene, the whole thing just falls apart. Female dogs have a number of amendments to male hierarchical law, so many, in fact, that they often end up as the “top dog” in the household, even if they are much younger (as in the first letter) or much smaller (as with the Shih Tzu and the poor Newfie) than the male dog. And a two-female household is likely to be somewhat chaotic. But everything mentioned in the letters above is perfectly normal female dog behavior, and nothing to be worried about.

Girl Trouble

However, the writers also mention that they found the behaviors alarming and annoying. That’s different!

As to the dogs in the second letter: In my opinion, the discussion about maintaining the Newf’s alpha dog position is kind of a moot point – and actually laughable in the Shih Tzu’s eyes – because the Newf isn’t the alpha dog. It sounds to me as if the Newf and the Shih Tzu have worked out a very harmonious living relationship. The business of one dog wanting the other’s bone and so on is the normal behavior of any two dogs living together – like any two humans living together! And both dogs are females … This is classic girl-dog talk!

The real issue is, however, that it is irritating to have to witness the dogs’ little scenes. Simply establish a very simple “settle down” command so they will not be dashing across the room stealing this toy or that toy. If one of the dogs disregards the command to settle down, then ask that dog to leave the room, and remain in the room with the one that is obediently laying down. When my dogs are being too active, agitating around the room, doing all this chew toy stuff when I just want to sit down, meditate, have a cup of tea, or read a book, I just say, “Dogs: Lie down, thank you.” And if one dog breaks the “down-stay,” I say to that dog, “Newf, outside.” That ends that problem.

Hard work should pay off
The owners in the last letter are to be commended for trying so hard to do the right thing. But, personally, I don’t see the use of labeling the problem or coming up with complicated reasons why the dog is doing this or that. Trying to “put” one or the other dog in the dominant position is absolutely ridiculous. Plus, if you were to invoke a human analogy, you would never go for the solution that has been prescribed. If you have two kids squabbling, you wouldn’t say, “I am going to make this child the high ranking child, because he has been here the longest” or something like that. You simply get the kids to knock it off!

I think these owners would be a lot better off focusing their efforts on teaching the commands I just mentioned: “Settle down!” and “Outside!” But let me back up a moment. With any dogs that are squabbling, the first question that must be asked is, “Do these dogs hurt each other when they fight? Have you ever had to take one to the vet for stitches after a fight?” In the letters above, the answer to that question seems to be, “No.” Obviously, these dogs have had many altercations over the past year, and with that number of fights, it is very unlikely that the dogs are hurting each other, or even denting the skin, let alone puncturing it. So, what we are dealing with here has nothing to do with aggression, it has to do with two animals living together and having regular little altercations and arguments every day – no different than the average pair of siblings or the average married couple. These dogs are both perfectly normal in the respect that they have learned to resolve their various difficulties without causing harm to the other.

My own two dogs are great examples of this. On an average day, my female Malamute, Phoenix, and the male Oso, a mutt, have probably have half a dozen snits. I ignore these, unless it is a situation in which I want there to be quiet, whether I am concentrating at the computer or reading a book. If the snit goes on longer than three seconds, which seems to be my maximum tolerance, then I just tell them, “Outside! Leave the room!” Before I can even turn around, I have to laugh because I know I’ll see two heads in the doorway, saying, “Can we come in, please? We’re best friends now . . .”

As long as the dogs have good bite inhibition, and they are not hurting each other to the point where you are having to take them to the vet, don’t worry about the squabbles. If, on the other hand, the dogs are fighting for real, with blood and trips to the vet, that’s another story.

In the next issue, I’ll discuss what I would suggest doing in the case of dogs that fight to point of injury and bloodshed.