It is hard to imagine that man's best friend is really not all that far removed, at least behaviorally speaking, from wild wolves, coyotes and even foxes. Some dog breeds, considered the primitive dogs, are very close in both behavior and genetics to their wild ancestors and as such have more similarities in appearance. If you consider a very specialized and refined breed such as a Pomeranian, Afghan Hound or even the Chinese Crested it is a bit more difficult to see the family resemblance, at least at first glance.
Dogs, however housetrained and pampered they may be, all communicate both with each other and with the humans and other animals in their life. The way they do this communication is almost identical to the types of communication and signaling that you would observe if you could watch wild wolves or coyotes interact. The pack behavior is still very evident in domestic dogs and if you understand this type of instinctual dog communication you can really boost your training potential and help your dog get the right message every time.
The first thing that owners have to understand is that every pack has to have a leader. This is typically the most dominant male or female in the group, however it is not always the physically largest dog. This is why in households with more than one dog a toy or small sized dog may be the leader and a large breed may be the pack, responding to the alpha dog's behavior, not the other way around. In some groupings it may be the dog that is most in their physical prime or the dog that has the most dominant personality or temperament. The most dominant dog or the alpha dog is not, however, the most aggressive. Most leaders, once their position in the pack has been established, rarely have to use aggression as the rest of the pack simply responds to the leader without the need for ongoing challenges and battles. The leader shows his or her leadership by walking first, eating and drinking first, taking their favorite toy first and typically deciding where he or she is going to sleep.
Submissive dogs are all other pack members that aren't the leader. They can be males or females, spayed or neutered or intact, and they can be puppies and older dogs. Submissive dogs aren't timid or afraid of the leader, rather they respect the alpha dog as the leader and don't keep constantly challenging. This only makes sense since in the wild the pack needs its energy to hunt and forage, not to continually fight within itself. Submissive dogs within the pack will often seek the attention of the leader and will not act aggressively when the leader approaches their food, toys or bedding area.
Within the pack there is also a social standing or hierarchy within the submissive pack members. This is often based on age and temperament with older females and males closest to the alpha dog, then young adults, juveniles and finally puppies. As young males react the age of maturity they may begin to challenge the male alpha leader for breeding rights within the pack, while the alpha female typically will not face the same challenges. The dominant male will mate with all females in the pack, however the juvenile and young males may also mate if the opportunity presents itself and they are unchallenged by the alpha male for some reason.
Understanding this pack hierarchy is important in training and working with your dog. If your dog is able to assert him or herself as the pack leader then you are, by very logic, submissive to that dog's position. If you are submissive or a pack member and not an alpha leader, the dog is not going to obey your commands and may be very challenging to work with. Becoming the alpha or pack leader in your dog's eyes is the key to effective training and having your dog feel contented and secure within the family.
Becoming a pack leader really isn't difficult if you start from day one with your new puppy or dog. Remember that pack leaders aren't aggressive but they are assertive and in control. Everything in your dog's world is yours, as the pack leader, as far as your dog or puppy is concerned. Dogs that understand this basic principle have already developed an understanding in their relationship with you and other family members. This is the same in a wild pack where puppies are solely dependent on the mother dog for food, shelter, protection and even fun and games.
Start by requiring your dog or puppy to sit before you feed. Even a little puppy will naturally sit if you are standing but if they don't bend down, holding a small piece of food in your fingers about at their nose level. When they see the food, give the sit command and slide your hand back to the center of their forehead. As the puppy moves his nose up to keep track of the food he will naturally sit. Give them the treat, lots of praise and provide them with the food. During feeding stay around the puppy's dish and even touch the dish and food. If the puppy growls or barks at you, remove the dish and have them sit again before placing it down again. Soon your puppy will understand that you may touch and be around their food but that if they are submissive and not aggressive or challenging you will not take it away. In addition they always give the food back when the stop the aggressive or dominant behavior. This doubly reinforces their good behavior.
Do the same with toys, interacting with them and playing, but then removing chew toys and bones on a routine basis. This helps the puppy understand that you are a benevolent pack leader and will give them back their items. If the puppy is at all dominant or is trying to assert his or her presence in challenging ways don't play strength games such as tug-a-war or wrestling with these dogs, it will only increase their dominant tendencies. It is natural for dogs to have their own personalities, however they should not be challenging you, as the owner, for leadership of the household.