Natural hierarchy among dogs can be manipulated to keep them all in check. Janet Menzies advises on how to make sure you outrank the entire pack as pack leader

Dogs are pack animals and need a natural hierarchy, so you must become the unquestioned pack leader. Janet Menzies shares her tips on how to outrank the entire pack and be uber boss even in the toughest of situations.

For more gundog training tips, read gundogs: what you should know before you start.


Dogs are pack animals. Think wolves, hyenas or jackals – or, even worse, half-a-dozen spaniels in the kitchen. The trouble is that dogs like being in packs, and they seek to form a pack at every opportunity. Once you have one dog (and another to keep it company), you will rapidly find you have three or four or more around the place without any apparent intentional effort on your part to acquire the dratted canines. Somehow they just turn up.

Unfortunately, when there are more than a couple of dogs running about, everything starts to go a bit David Attenborough. No matter how civilised we humans like to think we are, we end up living in the middle of a wildlife documentary. Every time you set out for a walk you can hear the hushed tones narrating from behind the camera: “Now that spring has arrived, Milly is showing signs of coming into season. She is the alpha bitch of the group, and Wigeon and Teal are competing for her attention.” In practice this means you yelling “heel” a lot and eventually leaving Milly behind. Sometimes it can be as bad as Big Brother commentary: “Bertie the labrador is in the kitchen, lying in front of the Aga. He has stolen Daisy’s bone. Daisy is in the hall chewing a gumboot instead. Bertie and Daisy aren’t speaking.”

Most of us try to pretend none of this is happening but, with dog-handling, denial isn’t a successful strategy for coping. In fact, tuning into your pack’s internal politics usually brings a quieter life for all concerned, and can pay training dividends as well.


The first thing to understand about the way packs work is that democracy is not an option. Most group-living animals function better with a well-established hierarchy. The top of the pecking order is known as the alpha. To be comfortable together your dogs need to agree on who is the alpha male, then the rest of the chain of command follows. Usually the top dog establishes himself swiftly and easily. In practice he will be the one who came along first, although if he has got old and doddery, the next one in line will probably take on the role. If you have bitches as well as dogs you are likely to end up with an alpha female as well. The two alphas get along as well as any live-in couple – OK until someone is a bit hormonal or there is something worth rowing about.

This may all sound as though you and your dogs have been transported to the heart of the Serengeti, but don’’t panic. Accept it and you will start to notice things such as how the top dog actually keeps the rest of the pack in line when you are not around. Introducing a new youngster to the group is easy because it quickly slips into its place -– bottom! Alpha-dogs are rarely aggressive – like champion boxers, they don’t have to be.


Watch your little group of mutts interacting and you can pick up all sorts of training ideas. The first thing you will see is that top dogs never take any nonsense from the subordinates. Punishment is swift, usually in the form of physically dominating by standing over the top of the junior dog, or by gripping the scruff of the neck, or even by a nip on the nose. The underdog immediately yields, usually by backing off, cringing and showing its belly.

It is very rare for a situation to get out of hand, and this is because top dogs are both firm and consistent. They usually give one formal warning by growling, and then there are no more second chances, so it is always clear to the underdog how things stand. Look at your own dog-handling technique by comparison. Do you sometimes let a dog get away with things because you are in a good mood? Are you more likely to push through a punishment on a bad day? Do you let a dog go on misbehaving before you reprimand him? An alpha dog would never do these things – and neither should you.

It is important to remember that while your pack has its own internal leader, you outrank them all. And not just by a little bit. Your pack may have a canine captain, but you are commander in chief. Make sure the whole pack respects your authority, especially the top dog. Alpha canines who end up bossing the human household are a real nuisance, especially to guests who come to visit. So stamp your authority on your pack – even if it means treading on a few paws. Many top professional handlers use exactly the same techniques as the dog would by growling, speaking sharply, shaking the scruff or rolling a dog over on its back.


Better still is just to have inbuilt confidence in your authority. As supreme leader you will automatically influence pack dynamics sometimes unintentionally. Any dog you have as favourite will be more likely to become top dog. This can help put an end to rivalries but may have unwanted side-effects. At one rather smart shoot two of the lady pickers-up got on fine, though there was a slight frisson of unspoken rivalry as to who was the better hostess. Their dogs (both alphas at home) sensed this and fought at every opportunity. They were reprimanded by their handlers, though perhaps not in the strongest possible terms.

Get to know the various possible causes of friction in the pack. Prized possessions such as bones and toys always cause problems. It’s no good simply giving the dogs a bone each because (after a major squabble) the top dog will end up with five bones and the other four with none. If you want to hand out bones make sure each dog is in a private space.

It is the same with retrieving. Very few top dogs will sit quietly on the peg watching a junior getting all the retrieves. Unless you are a seriously competent handler, it’s best to take the easy way by letting the top dog go first and then working the others in turn. Try to avoid working dogs of similar dominance together as you can end up with an embarrassing pheasant tug-of-war. It’s another situation where you must be really firm about your position as uber boss.

In an age of political correctness where few of us get the opportunity to wield absolute power at work or at home, here at least is one area where we can play capo di tutti capi and no one’s going to complain.


Remember you are the ultimate pack leader no matter what the pecking order is among the dogs. Don’t let them gang up on you. Call each dog by name and give commands individually, and be equally firm with all the dogs.

If your pack has both sexes, you will end up with two dominants – the alpha male and the alpha female. In practice they get on fine together, but remember that everything will become hectic when the bitch is in season. Be prepared to make special arrangements, including boarding the male if necessary.

You need a pack hierarchy because dogs have to know their place. If no obvious natural leader (usually the oldest or only male dog) has emerged, you can influence pack politics. If you have a favourite, you will unconsciously show it preference and it will gain kudos within the pack and be more likely to be dominant.

Be careful with prized objects. When giving out bones make sure each dog is in a space inaccessible to the rest, otherwise you will get bone fights.

Don’’t work dogs of equal dominance at the same time or there will be competition and torn up birds. You have to work the dominant dog first to avoid huge sulks.

Dominant dogs very rarely attack other dogs because they don’t need to prove anything, and younger dogs instinctively respect their status. But if you have a psycho or a stand-off with dogs of equal dominance then you must step in, since you outrank both of them.