‘Pack order’ in dog training – which dog should I reward first?

For those of you with multiple dogs, do you have any sort of “pack order” as far as feeding, walking, handing out treats, etc.?

I know the word “pack” will make some people defensive. All I’m trying to say is do you give priority to one dog vs. another?

Do you always reward the calmest dog? Or do you reward the pushiest, strongest, “most alpha-like” dog?

Or if you’re like me, do you try to reward your oldest dog?

Rewarding calm behavior

I would think most trainers would suggest rewarding all dogs for calm, polite behavior.

Calm dogs get fed. Patient dogs get attention and treats. Dogs that aren’t being pushy get let outside.

Dog behaviorist Dr. Patricia McConnell covers this issue so well in some of her short books, How to be the Leader of the Pack and Feeling Outnumbered? I recommend both little books (they’re very short), and included my Amazon affiliate links.

Pack order in dog training

I also found a great article by McConnell originally published in Bark Magazine. You can see the pdf here.

In it, she warns dog owners not to “support the alpha” (meaning, the strongest, pushiest dog) because some “high-status” dogs rule with “terror and intimidation” and “supporting the alpha” can end up making problems worse between dogs.

I could see how this would be the case with my dog Ace and my former foster dog Lana. You can see in the picture she would place her body in front of him, pushing him back from me. He allowed her to do this and actually turned away. It wasn’t exactly a problem, but I’d rather not encourage a dog’s pushiness.

Ace is sweet and sensitive and allows other dogs to push him around a bit if it means avoiding conflict. Lana, on the other hand, would barge her way to whatever she wanted. If I were to support her as the clear “alpha” of the two, I would only be encouraging more chaos.

“My advice to people who live within a pack of dogs is to teach them that you get what you want by being polite and patient, not by throwing your weight around,” McConnell wrote in the article.

Oh, you want to go out the door? Then please pause rather than barge into me, she wrote.

Foster dog Lana the Lab mix

You want attention? OK, well sit and wait for a second while I finish petting the other dog first, she wrote. If you don’t, I’ll ask you to lie down and stay for a minute.

Oh, this is the story of my life right now!

Of course, this is easier said than done, so McConnell offered these tips:

1. Make each exercise (each problem) a fun game.

2. Work with each dog individually when you can. (I wrote about that here.)

3. Be patient!

So, what do the rest of you think about managing multiple dogs?

Are you dealing with any pushy dogs right now?


19 thoughts on “‘Pack order’ in dog training – which dog should I reward first?”

  1. All three of mine have to wait to eat. We put D.O.G.s first, Missy second and Aeon third. The funny thing is Missy is the worst for waiting. D.O.G. and Aeon have that down pat. For after feeding treats, D.O.G. is fed his treat first as he is normally the calmest and will take his treat away from the malay that is the two girls. I try to feed them their treats at the same time. This does not always work and I like feeding Aeon’s her last due to the fact that she is the pushiest.

    As for attention hoggers, that’s the girls and Aeon is worse than Missy and I think its due mainly to size. After the girls get their attention D.O.G. comes over for his. I do make a point of petting him and showing him attention first. He does push his way around when walk time is at hand, and he’s the first one back in the house. But he was also here first, so there is some stuff I let slide. Mainly because he’s taking both little girls so well. And CV makes a point of taking him for a ride at least once a week and leaves the girls.

    Belle sounds like Lana when we first got her. It takes a lot of training and or a dog willing to be just as pushy back. I’m sure all your “seniors” will be happier with a quieter house!!! 🙂

  2. The same here – I reward calm behavior, or – with some dogs – the least crazy behavior.
    It might be that Lana cools down once she’s home with no other pets. Our puppy did after our little foster dog Shari got adopted.

  3. It makes perfect sense to reward the calmest dog first. I reward the dog that does the behavior the quickest. This is usually Pierson, who also happens to be the alpha. But Pierson doesn’t always get rewarded first if he is being pushy.

    When I look back at past dogs, it seems I tended to reward the oldest first. The oldest also tended to be the best behaved and the alpha!

  4. Very interesting. I’m the alpha at our house and I like to boss my sisters around. We talked to one trainer and one behaviorist who all said to always let me keep my alpha position or I could become aggressive trying to regain my status. Mom used to reward in seniority order, but since those trainers told her otherwise, I am always first. Mom has always felt what you are saying is more correct, so maybe we will give that a try again.

    1. I’ve heard that idea as well, Emma. I know some trainers do believe you should “support the alpha” especially if the alpha is the dog that’s been in the house the longest. I think maybe it also depends on the individual dogs and how the “alpha” treats the others. If the alpha knows to be polite, like you probably do, then maybe rewarding the alpha is not a big deal. I’m not sure, but I think it’s an interesting discussion.

  5. If its a situation where one dog is doing what I ask and the other is doing it but slightly more excited, I will feed the calm one first. If both dogs are being obedient and doing what I ask, I usually just mix it up. One day Phoebe will get it first, the next day Chip will.

  6. Interesting topic! I would always encourage (and reward) polite and calm behavior first too. Ace’s personality sounds a lot like Haley’s personality. We’ve had many dogs come and stay with us for days or weeks, and she eventually gives in and ends up getting pushed around a little bit. She would like to be the top dog, but just doesn’t have it in her to maintain that status. After she gives in to the other dog, she gets kind of mopey and sulks.

    1. Lindsay Stordahl

      Yep, sounds exactly like Ace. He kind of mopes around and sulks as well. At least, that’s how I see it. He’s probably also just exhausted from having another dog around.

  7. When I’m dealing with both my dog and my housemate’s dog, I tend to do what you do and reward/give attention to the older dog (my housemate’s) first. Of course, being an old man compared to my young terrier, this means that the older dog is also the calmer dog.

  8. I treat mealtime and treats/chews as two distinct things. Mealtime has a routine. Dogs are always fed in the same order, each in their own place. If I changed it up and tried to feed them out of order, they would be very confused and quirky dog might not even eat. Treats and chews are given to the dogs who do what they are supposed to do fastest (come, sitting calmly, etc.). If it’s a tie or they are getting a just because treat or chew, then I feed the dog closest to me first. 🙂

    1. Lindsay Stordahl

      That sounds good! I had to smile when you said the quirky dog might not even eat if they are fed out of order. Haha! Silly dogs! 🙂

  9. Our guys are actually amazingly patient with getting things. The other told a visitor was admiring how polite they are. LOL Never really thought of it that way but I guess they are.

    1. A partial list of things that make quirky dog not eat – even if he is hungry:

      1. Being fed without a bowl, even food items that he immediately removes from the bowl.

      2. Being fed in a different location from usual, including places that are not entirely novel and with his people/dogs still around.

      3. Being fed in the morning when he is still tired.

      4. Being fed a meal while on leash.

      5. Being fed food he does not like very much but can tolerate and would eat if he was really starving.

      6. Being fed whole/raw food he likes SO much that he paces around the house looking for a better place to eat it (or burying/digging it up repeatedly if outside)

      Quirky dog earned his nickname..

  10. I am ok with admitting it, but Neeko gets everything first in my house. We have had her the longest, she’s the calmest, and let’s face it-she’s a princess…

  11. I support the dog who (1) does what I ask and (2) is calmly waiting for their reward. For instance, each morning before work, the dogs go to the “puppy condo.” I say “go to the condo” and everyone runs to their area of the garage (Bay 3 with a door to their yard). The dog who does this without jumping on me or returning to rush me gets their treat first. Eventually all the dogs pick up on this 🙂

    By the way – GREAT POST!

  12. I feed the dog I had first, first, and then the second one I adopted. They are perfectly fine with this. They both sit while I put their bowel down (or if I use food toys) and wait until I say okay before they can eat.

  13. I feed the dog who takes the longest first. That’s all there is to it. I have two dogs. One (Dahlia) is about 11 and takes her sweet time doing EVERYTHING. The other (Ben) is about 3 and will eat his food in about 2 seconds flat. We’re also constantly working on impulse control with him while I work on getting the other dog excited (they could not be more opposite, the fact they get along so well amazes me). So if I’m feeding them out of a bowl, I make Ben sit and wait while I go to the other room with Dahlia. I make Dahlia bark (because this gets her all excited and happy!) and she gets her food. Then I go back to Ben, set his food down, and release him to it (he still finishes first but at least the finish times are closer!).

    If I’m feeding Ben out of his Kong wobbler, HE is going to take longer. So I feed him first. We run to my husband’s study. He has to back up and sit down. I set the wobbler down, and then release him to it. Then I go and feed Dahlia, who only eats out of a bowl because her reaction to the Kong wobbler was “what is that?” And I want Ben to get started first because Dahlia will go down into the study and help him eat the food after he bats it around and while Ben doesn’t mind, I don’t want her eating extra! So in that case, he gets his first.

    So basically, I don’t really buy into the pack leader, alpha dog stuff. So they get fed in whatever order seems to work best for them.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *