Canine body postures and behaviors signal pecking order

A group of dogs unrelated to the study establish their relationships via status signals like body tail wag ‪and mouth lick.    

Wolves and domestic dogs are social creatures. In such groups, a hierarchy emerges that enables the group to operate efficiently. In the canine world, how are such roles established? A new study sought to decode that.

In a study published August 26 in PLOS ONE, Dutch researchers identified 7 postures and 24 behaviors that resulted in a canine group’s hierarchy. They also found that the hierarchy in a group of dogs is established not from the top down and with aggression, as many dog owners and dog trainers believe, but from the bottom up, via submissive behavior.

The top two postures that indicate dominance are muzzle bite, and high posture, that is, head up and tail upright, ears pricked, straight back, and straight leg.

The top submissive posture was body tail wag. Other submissive postures included the four variations of lowering of the posture, from half low to on-back.

Mouth lick and pass under head were also submissive postures but were shown almost exclusively toward the highest-ranking dog.

The dog’s age and weight were not significant factors in a dog’s ranking in a group.

The study found that dominance in a group of dogs is not determined by aggression. In fact, aggression was exhibited not only by higher-ranked dogs towards lower-ranked dogs but also in the opposite direction, from lower-ranked dogs towards higher-ranked dogs.

The researchers noted that such information could help identify who’s who in dog-to-dog and dog-to-human relationships. It can also inform and aid with related behavior problems.

Video compliments of Drs. Joanne A.M. van der Borg, behavioral biologist at the Behavior Ecology chair group, Wageningen University

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