Canine Behavior/Male dog behavior in my mini-dog pack
I have a question that is kind of a follow up to a question I saw you had answered previously about genetalia licking. I have three dogs, all male, aged 1 1/2, 5, and 9 years - basset hound, Australian shepherd, and golden lab, respectively. The oldest and the youngest are the only ones who engage in genetalia licking, the middle is left out, as he is from most things. The oldest and youngest are definitely in the lead for who is the most dominant, although I can't even tell for sure if they've figured it out! Now in the answer you gave before, you noted that the licking is just a way that dogs familiarize themselves with each other and often times most dogs won't tolerate it for long. However, the youngest dog, multiple times a day, will try to force the oldest into licking his genitals. He does this by sitting on the oldest one's head or positioning himself just right. Sometimes the oldest obliges - until he is instructed to stop - and sometimes he growls and let's the other know he's not in the mood. I'm interested in what all this behavior means. The youngest will also lick the oldest as well. Again, middle dog, never.
It is curious to me as the youngest is forcing it to happen instead of just the oldest being merely interested in the scent/taste and initiating the behavior on his own. Is this an issue of dominance?
Any insight is much appreciated.
Thank you for your question. While dominance, per se, is not actually a thing in domestic dogs (not as is typically understood), as part of normal dog-dog communication dogs will do behaviors that might be described as submissive displays or dominance displays.
In your case, it sounds like the Basset hound (the youngest and the one who is doing the sitting) is insecure and looking for either reassurance of connection or to control his environment because he is feeling over stimulated by actions that are happening.
So, approaching another dog and presenting bum or penis for sniffing is an active submissive behavior. You might translate it something like, "Hi. Check me out. I'm OK, right? You like me, right? I can be part of your group???" We sometimes see a more exaggerated version of this behavior when a dog may approach another and then go to the ground and expose their belly. In that case, the translation is probably a little closer to "Please don't hurt me, see how vulnerable I'm making myself for you?? See how much I trust you...."
When a dog sits on another living individual, it can have a couple of different motivations. We see dogs who will sit on their owner's foot or lean right up against them. That's typically about getting reassurance - the contact with their person is comforting and by having contact, they can actually relax a little more because they'll feel the moment you move and will then be ready to check in and see if what you're doing is important (should they follow? Is there a game about to happen??? Food????). Sometimes we see dogs sit on the heads of other pets. It's an odd behavior at first blush. But, I believe it is often an issue of trying to control the movements of another who may make them feel insecure. We see it during play when an otherwise insecure dog will mount a more rambunctious dog - the mounting behavior in that encounter is actually an effort to calm the rambunctious dog down so that the insecure dog can feel better. Of course, we often see the mounting dog and assume they're in charge and leading the interaction, but in reality, they are very often feeling out of control which makes them nervous and so it's sort of akin to a child on a playground shouting, 'Time Out!' only the other kids often ignore that, and so sometimes that child may get upset/overwhelmed enough that they end up pushing a child who runs up to them. In this case, the insecure dog has likely given signals of needing a break and the other dog has failed to heed those signals and so the insecure dog then moves to a physical effort to interrupt the game (mounting).
So, you didn't offer circumstances in which your young dog sits on your older dog's head. And it may have at this point become a learned behavior and so is just part of their interaction repertoire, but I'd bet it first started at what appeared to be the end of a game, or the older dog was playing with someone else or a toy and the young dog came up and did this behavior (effectively ending the older dog's behavior) and so has now become (or is becoming) a learned behavior. The young dog is learning that this works to calm the older dog, and it works as a reassurance for himself and so he continues to do it.
The older dog's reaction to it sounds pretty normal. Sometimes he checks his brother out and sometimes he says, "get off my G-D head!"
Back to dominance for a moment, since you asked directly if this is an issue of dominance.
Dominance is defined as "consistent, priority access to highly valued items such as food, mates and resting spots." It requires that both dogs have an equal desire for that valued item at that moment in time. It is not a personality trait of an individual, but rather a relationship dynamic between individuals that is actually often quite fluid. More importantly, dominance is something seen in stable free-living social group animals such as wolves, hyenas, many primate species, etc. But it is NOT something seen in feral domestic dogs. Dogs, when not living with humans, are predominantly scavengers (not hunters) and live in what we call "fission/fusion groups". That means that dogs will pal around with one or two other dogs and those small groups will likely come together with others here and there for mating and scavenging (e.g. at a trash dump) and then they go their separate ways again. Dogs, whether living with humans or on their own, have very little use for true dominance relationships. But what you might see is that one dog always gets to have first crack at a particular toy and only when that dog is done with that toy is the other dog/s allowed to engage with it. But it may be a different dog who always gets to have a particular resting spot and the others don't even dare to ever try to rest there. In these examples, there is a dog who is dominant with regard to that toy or that resting spot, but it may very well be a different dog who "owns" the toy vs the "resting spot."
As mentioned above, if Dog A really, really wants a specific resting spot, but dog B is just as happy to rest somewhere else, there is no dominance display because Dog B doesn't try to gain access to Dog A's spot to begin with. It's only if Dog B is just as determined to lie in that spot as Dog A that you'll even see any kind of dominance display to determine who will get it. And the dog who consistently does get it is then considered the dominant dog with regard to that resting spot. I hope this is making some sense. It can be a little convoluted.
The bottom line here is that I don't think any of this genitalia presentation behavior is about one dog trying to be dominant over another, It's far more likely that dog presenting his genitalia is feeling insecure and is looking for reassurance from the older dog.
I'm not sure if I feel bad for your middle dog who seems to get left out of things. Probably just as well he's left out of this particular encounter. But I hope he's getting extra love and cuddles from the humans if he's not getting to be part of the play and snuggles with his brothers.
I hope this helps explain what is likely happening in your home. Please feel free to follow up if I can be of any further assistance.
Jody, CPDT-KA, APDT
Masters Candidate - Animals and Public Policy (Animal Behavior)
Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Behavior