Dogs are so often associated with straightforward characteristics like loyalty and courage that we often forget they can be more mysterious than we give them credit for, demonstrating behaviors we often do not understand at first glance. If you are confused by your canine companion’s deference to another during precious meal times before they eat, it is likely very typical behavior and no cause for concern.
So why does my dog wait for the other dog to finish eating? The most likely answer is because your dog is deferring to its pack leader out of respect for your pack’s rank structure before it begins its own meal.
We are going to discuss a few reasons why your dog may be allowing another dog to finish eating before beginning their own meal. This article will cover the traditional “pecking order” often associated with dogs and pack mentality, age and breed, and possible illness or aggression.
“Pecking Order” or Pack Mentality
It has been theorized for a long time that dogs inherited a pack mentality from their common ancestor, the grey wolf. In wolf and wild dog packs, there is a clearly delineated rank structure, often separated by sex. A male and female alpha pair lead the pack, followed by a beta pair, then the bulk of the pack, and finally the lowest-ranking omega or omega pair.
There is often a similar, albeit not as strict, structure in domestic packs. Most homes do not have the typical eight-to-fifteen-member pack found in the wild, but even in small groups domestic dogs form structured packs and do quite well in group living situations.
It is commonly thought that domestic dogs view us bipedal family members as the pack leaders, however, our canine companions typically establish betas and omegas amongst themselves, the betas being the leaders of the quadruped part of the home pack.
A common perk of that leadership in the wild is getting first choice of things: first to eat, best sleeping arrangements, or first choice of a mate. Amongst the inherited behaviors domestic dogs demonstrate is deference to the pack leader during mealtimes.
This likely means that when your dog waits for its packmate to eat first, it is offering its pack leader respect owed by nature of the pack’s rank structure. This behavior is a sign of respect and the status quo amongst your furry packmates, so do not worry about addressing or altering it—there is no cause for concern.
When it comes to rank amongst your furry friends, age plays a large part in behavior as well, so read on to learn even more about the inner workings of your companions’ pack mentality.
Regarding pack structure, elder wolves or dogs typically have more experience under their belts than puppies and young adults. In the wild during times of scarcity, older members in packs of wolves or wild dogs have been observed allowing younger animals to eat first to ensure the survival of the pack.
This instinctual behavior may have been inherited by domestic dogs, which could explain why your dog allows another to eat first, especially if the dog deferring their meal is an elder.
In contrast, sometimes young dogs will defer to an elder out of respect, which aligns with our first and most likely answer—that your dog is following a traditional rank structure within your little home pack.
Puppies and young dogs often learn from the good manners of their elders both in the wild and at home. The older dog’s knowledge delineates its dominance to the little ones; therefore, it is not necessarily submission, but deference spawned from respect of age and experience that may compel a younger dog to defer mealtime to an elder.
Outside of age and rank, other factors such as your dog’s breed and personality may well explain this mealtime behavior.
Breed and Personality
A dog’s breed characteristics have a lot to do with its behavior, and each breed brings its own distinctive dynamics to a home pack. For example, Beagles are typically known as friendly, curious, and even merry. They do great in pack settings and are high-energy hounds.
Conversely, the Basset Hound is independent, calm, and typically a low-energy companion. In a pack consisting of these two breeds, the excitable Beagles might end up eating first while the stoic Bassets patiently await their turn, not wanting much to do with the hustle and bustle their hound cousins bring to the dinner table.
Beyond breed characteristics alone, a dog’s individual personality drives much of its behavior. Like any other creature, and certainly like us humans, each dog has its own personality traits and quirks.
These traits affect everything from how a dog prefers to play and interact with its family to how it likes to relax and unwind. Some dogs enjoy sprawling out like cats to relax, some simply love to perform silly tricks, while others just want attention, and will stop at nothing to get it!
Additionally, it has been suggested that dogs can pick up personality traits from their human companions. This means that if you have any particularly strong or overbearing traits, your dog may end up with them too, whether you like it or not.
A few of the personality traits dogs have been observed “inheriting” from their humans include coping skills, confidence, setting or following boundaries, and anxiety. If your dog is allowing their counterpart to finish eating first, observe their behavior while they are waiting.
You might see something of yourself reflected there, such as an abundance of patience, a firm understanding of boundaries, or perhaps nervousness or anxiety.
If none of the breed attributes or personality quirks of your dog are adding up to the mealtime manners you have observed, perhaps your dog is sick and is trying to communicate that to you.
Unfortunately, our loyal companions cannot tell us when they are feeling under the weather. However, if you know what to look for there are usually plenty of warning signs that you can spot to prevent an illness from progressing.
If one of your dogs is sick, it may be deferring to its packmate to eat first while it builds up the energy or desire to eat, as appetite is often negatively impacted by illness. Just like in humans, there are multiple conditions that can strike our furry friends. Below are a few common signs and symptoms of general illness for which you should be on the lookout:
- Poor appetite
- Change in weight (progressive weight loss or unexpected gain)
- Red or swollen gums
- Watery eyes or nose
This list is by no means comprehensive, but if you are observing these symptoms or any like them during the period in which your dog has been deferring mealtime, you may have a sick pup on your hands.
Take a little time to carefully observe and assess your companion’s symptoms and behavior, both during mealtimes and throughout the day, to determine your next steps. While some illnesses can be treated from home, it is usually best to err on the side of caution and give your veterinarian a call.
If you have read this far but still have questions about your four-legged friend’s odd behavior, consider food aggression as one more possible culprit.
Food aggression is a common resource-guarding behavior domestic dogs develop through both evolution and their environments. Often associated with stray or neglected dogs, this behavior can also develop due to trauma, breed-inherited guarding characteristics (as in many working dog breeds), and during puppyhood in a larger-than-average litter.
Food aggression manifests in many ways, often with overt protective behaviors such as growling or snapping at others when food is present. Sometimes, however, signals from your dog may be more subtle. Dogs communicate quite clearly through body language, but we often miss many of these signals.
For example, some aggression signals include stiffness, crouching, uncharacteristic yawning, pinned back ears, and avoiding eye contact. Fear signals are similar and include crouching or cowering and trembling.
If the dog who eats first demonstrates aggressive body language while the deferring dog demonstrates fearful body language, food aggression may be behind your furry friends’ behavior. Luckily, there are plenty of training resources available to help your dogs with food aggression and fearful behavior, so worry not—break out your treats for some training sessions!
When your dog waits for its counterpart to eat first before it digs in for its own meal, it is most likely behaving normally within the structure of your pack’s ranks by way of an inherited pack mentality.
Factors playing further into this behavior likely include your dogs’ ages, breeds, and personalities. However, there may be a concern for illness or food aggression, so make sure to carefully observe their behavior during mealtime just to be sure. If your little home pack is happy and healthy, there is likely no cause for concern—enjoy mealtime with your packmates.