How does a Top Dog Behave?
Most of the behaviour that owners see in their dogs is friendly or submissive, because it is the human members of the ‘pack’ that are the truly dominant ones. But where several dogs live together it is possible to observe the way in which the ‘top dog’ treats its subordinates.
If the dominance of the senior dog is challenged, it will perform a threat display in an attempt to subdue the upstart without having to resort to force. Essentially the threat display does two things. it will make the the dominant animal appear larger and stronger and it demonstrates the animals eagerness to plunge straight into an attack should an attack be necessary. This is usually enough to scare off any rival.
The threat display is made up of ten characteristic elements, each of which contributes its special signal to the enemy:
1 The teeth are bared by pulling the upper lip up and the lower lip down. This exposes the canines and the incisors, and indicates that the threatening animal is ready to sink its fangs into the enemy.
2 The mouth is open, showing that the dog is ready to clamp down with its jaws.
3 The mouth-corners are drawn forward. This is the opposite of the friendly, playful and submissive facial expressions, in all of which the mouth-corners are pulled back towards the ears. This element of the threat display makes it clear that the dog is neither friendly, nor playful, nor submissive.
4 The ears are erect and forward-pointing. Even in flop- eared breeds there is a brave attempt to assume this position, which tells the enemy that the dog is fully alert and listening intently for any tell-tale sound of fear or aggression. It also demonstrates that the aggressor is so confident that it feels no need to protect the ears by flattening them.
5 The tail is held high, in contrast to the submissive tail-between-the-legs posture. This tail-up posture exposes the anal region with its special odours. These scents identify the dog (while the tail-down dog tries to hide its identity). They let the weaker animal know precisely who it is dealing with.
7 At the same time, legs are fully stretched and the whole body suddenly seems awesomely more massive and powerful.
8 The effect is heightened by an intense, unwavering stare.
9 A deep rumbling growl is uttered.
10 The body is so tense that the tail trembles, in its bolt-upright position.
This fearsome sight is enough to make most rivals cringe and slink away. It is used in serious confrontations where the dominant animal feels there is a real challenge to its high status. At other times, when the mood is more relaxed, a dominant dog may offer occasional reminders of its power, using other types of display. One is the broadside ritual in which it deliberately pushes itself up against a weaker dog, which may be standing or lying down.
The top dog positions itself across the subordinate, as if trying to block its path, and stiffly remains there long enough to give the message ‘I control your movements.’ Alternatively, it may perform the mounting ritual, in which it rears up and places its front legs on the lesser animal’s back or shoulders. This is the first move towards mounting for copulation, but it is used here in a totally non- sexual context. It is the canine equivalent of saying ‘up yours’.
The other way the animal lets its subordinate know who is boss are the spring-threat and the ambush-threat. In the first, the dog makes the intention movement of springing at the enemy, but without bothering to carry it through. In the second, the dog crouches as if in an ambush, but makes its position quite conspicuous to its rival. In both cases the subordinate gets the message very quickly and reacts accordingly.