Contrary to what many researchers assumed, the most aggressive dog isn’t the one sitting at the top of the hierarchy. In fact, maybe surprisingly, researchers recently discovered the most aggressive behavior amongst a pack of 27 mongrel dogs in Italy are the ones sitting smack dab in the middle of the pack socially.
Researchers from the University of Exeter and the Veterinary Service of the Local Health Unit Rome 3 in Italy studied dogs to see how aggression plays out within a dominance hierarchy. For an entire year, they specifically observed a pack of canines that depend on humans for regular food but roam freely throughout the city and the suburbs, mostly keeping to themselves throughout the day.
The dominance hierarchy was structured more or less how you might expect: sex and age tended to be the most influential factors in where a particular wild dog found itself within the social structure. Mature males essentially ran the pack, and males dominated over females of the same age group.
Previously, experts believed that the most aggressive dogs would be, for lack of a better phrase, the top dogs. Those mature males would battle it out with others in an effort to keep their status and rights to those choice scraps and even mating selection, as researchers assumed. As it turns out, dogs within the middle of the dominance hierarchy are the ones who actively assert themselves and display even more aggression towards others as a way to inch closer to that top spot.
“Our results reveal the unavoidable costs of climbing a dominance hierarchy,” said Dr. Matthew Silk, a member of the research team. “In the middle of the hierarchy – where it’s harder to predict which animal should be dominant – we see lots of aggression.”
Beyond simply picking up day-to-day meals or choosing partners, research of wild dogs has told us a lot about how the wild versions of our favorite domesticated four-legged friends socialize. For example, another study in Africa recently observed how packs of wild dogs act democratically, developing a voting system in which sneezes communicate when the animals are all in agreement about something like changing the pack’s location to look for food.
“The more sneezes that occurred, the more likely it was that the pack moved off and started hunting. The sneeze acts like a type of voting system,” said Dr. Neil Jordan from the University of New South Wales Centre for Ecosystem Science in Sydney, Australia, and the study’s lead author.
While the idea of a dog democracy is intriguing enough, to begin with, that study also affirmed that a dominance hierarchy plays into even their democratic interactions. Not all votes carried the same weight in the study of African wild dogs, as the dominant, older males and older females had the strongest influence on the pack’s decision. Simply, if the pack leaders voted in favor of something with a sneeze then it took fewer sneezes for the rest of the pack to weigh in and eventually carry on.
“We found that when the dominant male and female were involved in the rally, the pack only had to sneeze a few times before they would move off. However, if the dominant pair were not engaged, more sneezes were needed – approximately 10 – before the pack would move off,” said Reena Walker from Brown University, first author of the study.
A for the dogs in Italy, “Fighting over food and mates uses energy and time and can lead to injuries, so hierarchies play an important role because animals know their place without needing to fight,” said Robbie McDonald, a fellow researcher.
Middle of the pack dogs were mostly young males, researchers discovered. Simple body language like an upright posture, holding their tail and head high, and even a gesture in which a dog would lay its paw on the back of another were considered “displays” of dominance, or at least an effort to assert it. Submissive behavior, on the other hand, included avoiding eye contact, holding the head and ears low and lying down with the chest and stomach exposed. These are all actually commonly understood and observed displays amongst domesticated dogs.
“Although fights within a social group of free-roaming dogs are usually characterized by low-intensity aggression, the middle of the hierarchy is occupied by young males of similar size and age, among whom nothing is definitive and for whom the challenge is to gain rank,” said Dr. Simona Cafazzo, of the University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna.
What this newest research shows scientists is that dogs can have difficulty figuring out where they stand within the social hierarchy they are a part of. As for our own interactions with our pets, it’s important to understand and acknowledge their body language. Ignoring their communication via body language can pose a threat for not only us but their interactions with other dogs as well, as it can insight more aggression.
“Properly assessing body language can predict whether or not the dog will bite,” according to Wikipedia. “Biting occurrences most often involve small children, where bites often affect facial areas. In comparison, bites in adults are less serious, usually involving extremities. Warning signals can be identified through evaluating the body language of dogs accordingly. Oftentimes, people struggle when identifying the body motions of a fearful/anxious dog, incorrectly associating the motions with behaviors of approachable/relaxed dogs. This misinterpretation is most often one that results in the occurrence of biting.”
“Misreading the warning signs portrayed by dogs can also result in behavioral problems. Euthanasia can be avoided in cases where such behavioral issues occur due to humans ignoring the warning signs expressed by a dog. By accurately interpreting body language, such issues will decrease, thus, decreasing the number of dogs that are euthanized as a result of severe behavioral complications, such as biting or attack.”