Fact or Fiction?

Since the early 1960s, as professional pet dog training developed as an industry, many dog training instructors have based their methods on the theory that an owner must ‘dominate’ his or her dog, including the use of ‘pack rules’ to reinforce a dominant position. This was because many people in the field did indeed view a dog as simply a domesticated wolf. An owner was told he had to train his tame, domesticated dog as though he was a wolf—a theory that was perpetuated by a number of dog training books published during this time. Even today, books, DVDs and television shows based on this theory are still popular and cause confusion among pet dog owners as they attempt to ensure their ‘dominance’ over their pet dogs by being the alpha in their dog/family pack. The premise that pack rules should apply to modern day pet dogs is incorrect despite the dog being a direct descendent of the wolf. This results in the following misleading assumptions:
• A dog’s behaviour closely mimics that of the wolf.
• Grey wolves form packs based on a structured hierarchy and compete to become ‘alpha’ by aggressively asserting their dominance over other wolves and, therefore, dogs will do the same.
• Even though the domestic dog lives with humans, he will act as though he is a member of a pack, therefore the owner and family have to be higher ranking than the dog.
Nobody stopped to question this line of thinking until recently. Over the last few years, however, researchers in dog behaviour have begun to question the relevance of treating pet dogs as though they are wolves and members of a pack. At the same time, researchers studying wolves in the wild have learned that wolf packs function quite differently than had previously been thought. Current knowledge and thinking are questioning whether we were ever right to equate a dog’s behaviour to that of his distant cousin, the wolf.

Much of what we thought we knew about wolf behaviour 20 to 40 years ago came from the study of captive wolves. Contrary to the family values of a naturally free pack, wolves in a captive pack do make frequent challenges to gain higher status. The higher the position at stake the more vigorously a campaign is conducted. A captive pack will have unacquainted wolves of different ages and gender brought together from different sources. In this situation, a certain amount of social tension is likely to exist, particularly during the mating season. Under these circumstances there is often a dominant male and female, and there are frequent fights among younger wolves for higher status. Within the captive pack, managed and manipulated by man, wolves will be unable to express many of their natural behaviours and will be unable to leave the pack to find a mate as free wolves do. It was due to the observations of captive packs that wolf and dog experts at the time decided that, as dogs are related to wolves, then that’s how dogs will behave. Hence the idea that, given the chance, as a captive wolf will try to raise its status then a dog will also try to raise his status over his owner. To prevent this from happening, an owner should be ‘dominant’, ‘alpha’ or ‘pack leader’, depending on one’s choice of phrase, and put in place ‘pack rules’ based on the observations of captive packs.

Today, leading wolf authorities no longer use the term ‘alpha male’ and ‘alpha female’ to describe pack leaders. Instead they are called the ‘breeding pair’. A breeding pair of wolves should be viewed in much the same way as a human family raising their children. The breeding pair’s first litter of cubs mature and develop under the guidance of their parents. The following year, when a second litter is produced, the breeding pair are the pack’s leaders, and the yearlings are naturally dominant over the new arrivals just as older brothers and sisters in a human family might guide the younger siblings, but still there is no general battle to try to gain pack leadership; that just naturally stays with the original parents. Wolves work co-operatively during a hunt, feeding, looking after pups and defending their territory.

Ritualised greeting behaviour of a family of wolves (Courtesy M. Sloane)

Domestic dogs, generally, are no longer equipped to naturally work as a team as wolves do; and they are no longer able to form stable packs as wolves do. Domestication has changed the dog in so many ways (behaviours and looks) that they have lost the capabilities of fending for themselves within a conspecific group. There is now such a vast range of breeds of different shapes, sizes, coat types, facial and body morphology, and breed specific behaviours that the social communication needed to live in groups can be, and often is, confused or misunderstood. Minor disputes can often escalate into major fights as communications will either be missed altogether or just misunderstood causing friction between dogs. Imagine a highly active Border collie in a play bow trying to communicate his desire to play with a Dachshund that has short legs and a long body. Because of his morphology, the Dachshund may be unable to reciprocate with a play bow, which could be pretty confusing to the Collie when he doesn’t receive a response. This is the antithesis of what goes on in a pack of wild wolves.

(Courtesy M. Sloane)                                (Courtesy C. Matthew)

A wolf can express about 60 distinct facial communications, whereas a German Shepherd, can only express 12, and the Pug even less.

Having accepted a dog for what he is—a domesticated, tame animal with different behaviours and motivations than a wolf—we may be in a better position to consider objectively a different, more up-to-date hypothesis of dominance based on science and what we now know about wolf and dog behaviour. The use of the term or concept of dominance in a dog-dog or dog-human relationship should be limited to:
(1) The ability of a dog to regulate access to and retain resources; or
(2) The degree to which he engages in dominance aggression or a combination of the two.

A dog may fight to gain access to, or retain possession of, a toy. In that instance alone, the winner is deemed to be dominant. If an owner mistreats their dog and the dog nips, the owner will withdraw their hand. But the dog has learned that his act of nipping has been rewarding if only for a brief moment and he’s therefore likely to do it again; and so the situation escalates. So, gaining or retaining possessions and learned aggression may be what the concept of dominance is all about – but dominance has nothing to do with status, and owners do not have to dominate their dog.

Yes, you can allow your dog on the sofa but teach an ‘invite’ and ‘off’ command

(Courtesy S. Derrick)

‘Dogs are natural pack animals’ is a phrase that has been written and bandied about so often it is just accepted. Nobody questions it. You find the phrase everywhere; TV shows, books, magazines, web sites and DVDs. The belief that dogs are natural pack animals has been around for so long it’s taken for granted. Like many other things we take for granted about the relationship between dog and owner and indeed, dog and dog, the issue that dogs are ‘natural pack animals’ needs looking at a bit more closely.

A common notion is, if a dog can’t be part of a pack with other dogs, the owner and family take its place and the dog becomes part of the family ‘pack’.  We use the term ‘flock’ when we talk about a number of sheep together and ‘herd’ when we talk about a number of cows. But put sheep and cows together in a field you don’t have a flock and you don’t have a herd. You have a group of animals. The same can be said of dogs and humans; together we are just a group of animals, and this is the point. Mixed species do not form herds, flocks or packs or anything else other than a group. With dogs and humans though, both are social species so we form a social group. I believe it is more appropriate, and scientifically correct, to use the word ‘pack’ as a collective, meaning a group of dogs, rather than trying to liken it to a pack of wolves.
In wolves, pack behaviours are not totally genetic. Pack behaviours develop during the pup’s critical socialisation period and the behaviours that develop depend on the environment the wolf lives in and the social interaction he receives from other young and adult wolves. If pack behaviours haven’t developed during the critical socialisation period, chances are the wolf will probably never be able to live within a pack. So not even a wolf is a ‘natural’ pack animal.

I guess we have all seen a dog being walked along the street pulling on his leash and barking at an on-coming dog. This is a dog telling the on-coming dog to ‘back off’. The same dog when off leash is likely to avoid social interaction with other dogs. In short, the dog is not comfortable in the company of other dogs. So how does that fit in with ‘dogs are natural pack animals’ mantra? There is nothing in either a wolf’s or a dog’s genetic make-up that naturally drives them to being part of a pack. A dog is not a natural pack animal and we should not treat him as one.
I don’t like putting labels on what we think we are in our relationship with our dogs, but some people do. Thinking of ourselves as the ‘alpha’ is outdated and scientifically incorrect. ‘Pack leader’ is also a misnomer as domestic dogs cannot form packs; they form social units. Therefore there isn’t a pack to lead. Even if dogs could form packs, why would they form one with a different species; why would they form a pack with us?

Parents are dominant over their children, but they don’t enforce silly rules; sensible rules, yes, to help and guide them through the early stages of life and into adulthood. In the same way, as responsible dog owners, there is no reason to inflict so-called ‘pack rules’ on our dogs in order to enforce a position of authority (the ‘rules’ don’t apply to wolves and certainly don’t apply to dogs). We should be guiding our dogs through their early stages of life and into adulthood by correct and timely socialization, and training them to behave appropriately within our social unit, and live in harmony within our society. We also owe it to our dog to learn about dog behavior so we can understand better our canine companion and what he’s trying to communicate to us. If we follow those rules, we should have no fear of dogs taking over our family.

Barry Eaton Dip CABT

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