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Canine Behavior/The order of feeding a pack animal in a human pack


Who and WHY eats first in a human family with canines?

Thank you for your question. A lot of people wonder this and it stems from an old, misunderstood dominance myth about wolves that has been debunked many times over.

It used to be believed that wolf groups were made up of a dominant pair, who, naturally ate first after a hunt, leaving the lesser ranking wolves to fight it out after the dominant pair had gorged themselves. It was also believed for a couple decades that life in a wolf pack was a constant battle for who would be the alpha male and alpha female.

But, all of those beliefs were determined by watching captive wolves that had no familial relations, being forced to live together in close quarters.

In the last 3 decades, much research has been done with wild wolves, in their natural habitat. What we've learned is that wolf packs are actually family units. The so-called "alphas" are actually better described as the breeding pair. It's the mom and dad. The rest of the wolves in that group are the children of the breeding pair. The breeding pair protect and educate the children - teaching them how to stay safe and how to hunt. When dinner is brought back, the parents usually eat first because if they don't survive, they won't be around to protect and educate their young. But, then the parents shoo away the adolescent wolves, making sure the youngest pups (who are weaned off milk) get to eat before the teenagers do. This ensures there's enough for everyone. And when food is plentiful, they all eat together without any order of who eats when.

But, this is a wolf pack. Not a domestic dog group. Domestic dogs don't actually pack in the way we tend to think. Pack animals are such because they hunt together as a cohesive unit - working together to take down prey. Feral dogs live in fission/fusion groups - much like humans. That means they come together to socialize, mate and because there's safety in numbers, but they just as easily move on to be on their own or hang out with other groups of dogs. But they are scavengers and only opportunistic hunters - who hunt alone, not with each other. And so comparing domestic dogs to wild wolves is a disservice to the dogs and the people trying to live with them.

Now, to your question - who eats first and why? There is an old school myth (based on what I said at the top of this answer) that says the human should always eat first in order to establish and reinforce their status as "alpha." But, wolves don't have an alpha. Dogs don't have an alpha in the way this is suggesting.

Besides, the opposable thumbs which allow us access to the food makes us "alpha" by default. Our relationship with our dogs is much more like that of parent and child. Dogs are not in a never-ending quest to take charge of our household. They look to us for guidance. They want to please us because when we're happy, they're happy. If the dog isn't behaving as we'd like, then we need to educate them as to what is acceptable. But eating order has nothing to do with that.

When my Rainbow bridge dog was an only dog, she free fed. That meant I put her daily ration of kibble in her bowl in the morning and left her to her own devices. Sometimes she ate early. Sometimes she ate later - it depended on the activity in the house and her hunger. If she thought she might get something from me, she'd wait. If I didn't offer her any of my food, then she'd go eat her own food and so we often ate at the same time.

My two dogs now get breakfast and dinner. Who eats first - me or them - is strictly a matter of convenience to me. They eat dinner between 7 and 7.30. If I'm hungry and want to eat around 6 or 6.30, then I eat before they do. If I had a later lunch and am not hungry at that time, then they eat before me. If I'm going out or busy, they often eat before me. If we're going to eat around the same time, I will almost always feed them first because it takes about 45 seconds to put their food in the bowl and go through our polite behavior ritual to get them eating, and it'll take me several minutes to make my own dinner, then I'm gonna want to sit down and enjoy my dinner. If my dogs' stomachs are full, they're less likely to beg from me, so it's useful for them to eat first. They don't beg from me anyway, but it's nicer if they're already satisfied.

And, if we were to go back to biblical times, the Talmud (Jewish holy book) tells us that we must feed our livestock before we feed ourselves.

So... who eats first - human or dog? Really it should be a matter of convenience for the human. It should be a matter of what schedule you prefer your dogs to eat - if you want your dogs to eat at 4 or 5 because this ensures a good potty before bed, then they're likely going to always eat first. If you prefer your dogs to eat at 8 or 9pm for whatever reason, then they probably eat after you. If their dinner time is around the same time as yours, then it's up to you and need not be consistent every night. So long as their eating ritual is consistent, it can happen before or after you eat. So long as it's not about an effort to establish or reinforce your status over your dog, it doesn't matter.

I will say that personally I think it' rude to actively eat in front of your dog, making them watch you. There's a YouTube video out there of a person leaning against her counter, with her dog in a Sit/Stay. She's acting like she's pulling food out of the dog's bowl and eating it while the dog watches in an effort to make the dog believe that she's eating first and the dog is being allowed to scavenge the leftovers. That video makes me roll my eyes because it's just silly. All I see is a human taunting and teasing a hungry dog, and making them wait and drool while the person eats even though she's not hungry at that time.

I hope this is helpful. I know it was probably more of a scholastic lecture than you expected... Please feel free to followup if I can be of any further assistance.

Jody, APDT
Los Angeles Behaviorist

Canine Behavior

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Jody Epstein, MS, CPDT-KA


IF YOU BELIEVE YOUR DOG IS ILL OR INJURED, PLEASE CONTACT YOUR LOCAL VETERINARIAN IMMEDIATELY. THIS IS NOT THE FORUM TO ADDRESS URGENT MEDICAL ISSUES. I AM NOT A LICENSED VET AND HAVE NO DIAGNOSTIC SKILLS. ***I have been answering questions on All Experts for over 8 years now. I enjoy being able to offer assistance in this forum. I do need to be clear, though. If you’re looking for free advice about a specific behavior question, you MUST submit your question to me via All Experts. If you bypass All Experts and write to me directly through my website, I will ask you to submit via All Experts. On the flip side, if you’re local to Los Angeles and you wish to speak to me privately about an in person consultation, please go through my website. I appreciate your assistance in keeping my volunteer work on the volunteer site.*** I can answer questions about the following canine behavior issues: obedience, timid/fearful & fear-based aggression, nuisance behaviors, families that are expanding with either new human or new animal members and many other issues. If you have potty training questions please first read my trio of blogs at If you still have questions after reading the blogs you can post your specific questions here. PLEASE be as specific as possible when asking a question. Give me a detailed example of the situation - dog's behavior, body language, circumstances surrounding the issue, what the consequences are (another dog's response, your response), etc. I can only provide insight if I can get a picture of the whole scenario. If I ask for further details, please provide them. In person I would normally observe for at least 90 minutes to assess the situation and the dynamics before offering tools and suggestions to modify it. In writing it is ever so much more difficult. Thank you for your participation in the process.


I have been a professional obedience trainer for 9 years, and specializing in behavior modification for 8 years. I have owned dogs my entire life. I own my own dog training and behavior modification business called Nutz About Mutz.

I am a Certified Profession Dog Trainer - Knowledge Assessed (CPDT-KA), #2133301 ; I am a member in good standing with the Association of Professional Dog Trainers (APDT), #77763 ; I am an AKC certified Canine Good Citizen evaluator (CGC), #71253

Publications ; ; Multiple articles in the local pet magazine Pet Press (found across Southern California)

I have a masters degree (MS) in Animals and Public Policy, with a minor in Animal Behavior, from Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine. I also have 3 years of graduate education in Animal Behavior and Learning from UM-Missoula and UL-Lafayette. I continue to educate myself to canine-specific behavior through extensive reading, online interactive workshops, vidoes and attending canine behavior conferences, workshops and seminars. Beginning in March, 2017, I will be the Behavior & Training Manager at Second Chance Center for Animals in Flagstaff, AZ.

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