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why there’s no need to be a pack leader

Pack leader myths and problems: what science has told us

Why being a “pack leader” causes problems and what to do instead

It’s unhelpful for you and detrimental to your dog to listen to the myths espoused by a pack leader. Dominance training uses quick fixes that only work for a short time and can make things worse in the long run. 

This page is part of our info on dog training theory. Here’s an evaluation of different dog training methods (including detailed examples of how they would deal with jumping up and growling)

Academics solved this debate conclusively years ago…

but while people are still asking questions about the topic, we’ll keep this page up. The references make good further reading.

Pack leader myths and problems: history
How is the reasoning behind the pack leader flawed?

The pack leader assumes that the modern domestic dog are like wolves in the wild and have based their dog training on how they think wolves interact and organise themselves. Wolves are assumed to live in a hierarchical pack. The alpha is the leader. Everyone else competes for power and attention; their lives could be described as nasty, brutish and short*. Some wolves were waiting to be realised into Yellowstone and researchers watched their every move in a (relatively) small holding pen. Dog trainers had seen the information, saw similarities and then formulated the idea of dominance.

Bizarre plot twist! Academic retracts idea but everyone else doubles down.

The researcher (Dr. L. David Mech) tracked the wolves after their release and he noticed that their behaviour was undeniably different to what he saw in artificial confines of the enclosure. Evidently, he’d made a terrible mistake. There was less stress, more freedom and social interaction was considerably more co-operation and friendliness. In the late 70’s, with this new knowledge, he retracted the initial findings.  Wolves don’t live in hierarchical packs, there is no proud Alpha or lowly Omega, there’s just wolf families. But by then, it was too late. The pack leader had based their understanding of dog behaviour on the wrong idea about the wrong species. 

Opinions beat facts, obviously.

The dominance training popularised on the TV had appeal in a mix of charisma and quick fixes. Additionally, the documentary style gained viewer trust. Dominance became accepted. It was almost seen as “obvious” and “natural”. Things considered “natural” are very hard to challenge. Perhaps the later study didn’t get the reputable publicity it deserved. Maybe too many were already too invested in the dominance idea. They doubled down instead of rethinking. Whatever the reason, the new wolf information served to fuel arguments which polarised the dog world, rather than end the debate

Both sides accused each other of anthropomorphising. Each side pointed fingers and claimed that the others’ reasoning was flawed as they were thinking about and treating dogs in human terms. Dominance and pack trainers complained that that positive dog trainers were babied their pets and the media promoted the idea. Ideas such as the dog mustn’t eat first became widely accepted. Behaviourists and academics worked to conclusively refute the allegations and detail exactly how and why dominance is ‘wrong idea of the wrong species’. They proved it over and over again in many different replicable scientific tests (I’ll mention some later). Yet frustratingly, none of the actual proven facts seemed to diminish opinion. Presently, popularity of the idea of the pack leader remains reasonably high.

Pack leader myths and problems: What sort of groups do dogs form?

Why not look at dogs to try to understand dogs? 

It’s not as easy as you’d think to study stray dogs- most places have a dog warden. Not Moscow. Studies of the strays there found that the dogs don’t behave like the pack leaders would expect. 

Packs are formed, but they’re loose. They don’t conform to the dominance model. Leaders are more sociable and kind. 

Stray dogs don’t form hierarchical packs.

Researchers think the more intelligent, kinder dogs gain the others respect more than the bully. Dogs are very sociable and in Moscow, they go on the tube to visit friends. The strays’ life is harsh- they fend for themselves by scavenging and begging, but then they pick their targets wisely. Dogs are more likely to ignore a grumpy young man with food in his pocket. On the other hand, dogs would approach a kindly looking older lady more often. 

Domestic dogs don’t form hierarchical packs.

A study of 19 dogs living domestically (within a sanctuary) showed that they use past experiences to help them understand new interactions. Researchers wanted to ascertain if the dogs formed anything like hierarchy. Individual dogs did forge relationships with each other but it did not conform to the dominance model (Bradshaw et al. 2009). 

Dogs are more co-operative and less selfish around each other. 

One study, looking into how pairs of dogs react to inequality when being rewarded. They proved that the dogs are able to assess and compare their efforts and achievements. Behaviour changed when they realised what they were doing was affecting the other dog. They’d purposefully avoid inequality (Friederike Range et al). This is completely at odds with the dominance way of thinking. If dogs are in a take-over power struggle, competing for resources, then you wouldn’t expect them to be considerate towards each other.

Does domestication have an effect?

Thousands of years of domestication changes animals 

In studying wolves to understand dogs, another important factor needs consideration: the impact of domestication. Wouldn’t thousands of years have an effect? Whilst there are commonalities in the body languages of wolves and dogs, selective breeding and living with us have changed them.

Over some forty years scientists kept foxes. They kept two types, friendly ones and unfriendly ones. Many, may photographs documented their colourings. They thoroughly investigated social and biological differences. Breeding occurred within and between the 2 groups. The research was meticulous, even swapping embryos between the two groups. After forty years they noticed many differences in appearance and behaviour. The domesticated friendlier foxes looked more puppyish, their markings changed remarkably. Generally, eyes became proportionally larger- similarly noses shortened and ears grew. Domestication, therefore, does change an animal over time.

Dominance training is seriously flawed in theory and dangerous in practice.

Dominance training promotes the use of punishment and that makes things worse. More dogs are aggressive towards humans and reported injuries have increased.

pack leader myths and problems chart

In dominance training, dogs are thought to want to take over the world in an aggressive bid for leadership. Consequently misbehaviour is treated aggressively- with like for like. To change behaviour, dominance training uses negative reinforcement until dogs start doing the correct behaviour (like a spray collar for recall) and negative punishment until they stop doing the undesirable behaviour, e.g. “put your knee up to stop the pup jumping up” (my mother’s neighbour). Dominance training makes things unpleasant for the dog until they do what they are told and a habit is formed.

As you’ve just heard, we use rather strange academic language. When combined with negative or positive, punishment means a decrease in behaviour. The negative or positive bit considers the cause of that change. The change is considered to be negative if something feels uncomfortable (or worse) for the dog . Analysis and examples here.

This aspect of dominance is the most controversial and has been the focus of the majority of the studies. It’s been found that dogs are less likely to remember the lesson due to increased anxiety and more likely to misunderstand and learn the wrong behaviour. If problems go away, they’re very likely to resurface elsewhere and become deep-seated and worse. Especially worrying, there is an increased chance that they will become aggressive.

Pack leader myths: Negative training

The use of spray, shock or prong collars is advised in dominance training and falls into the category of “negative reinforcement” (as things are made unpleasant for the dog until they comply). A study looked into how people got their dog to return to them whist they were in the park and assessed how reliably the dog reacted. One group used remote e-collars and negative reinforcement. A different group had been to puppy school and knew how to recall with rewards. The dogs using the e-collars proved unhelpful as the dogs didn’t want to return to their people. In comparison, those who used rewards, or positive reinforcement, had a significantly more reliable recall (Blackwell, et al. 2012)

Dominance training suggests such things as flicking the lead to teach walking nicely. Something unpleasant happens until the dog behaves appropriately. Negative punishment was proved to be problematic. The method makes the dog more likely to be stressed (Mendl, 1999) and they’re less likely to remember (Walker et al.,1997). Not only does yanking the lead risk injury, such techniques are prone to misunderstanding. It’s very confusing for the dog. 

Crime and punishment

Any delay in punishment (or reward) can lead the dog can associate the feedback with the wrong thing (Polsky, 1994). If there is any delay, the dog associates the flick with walking, so dogs trained in this method tend to tense up in expectation of the tug as they take a pace and be relaxed as they pull (Welfare in Dog Training, link below). Injury is considerably more likely.

Dominance training often encourages reprimanding for indiscretions, advising people to tell the dog off because punishment, in their mind, establishes boundaries. Dogs are likely to misinterpret why they are being told off, so reprimanding a dog usually results in the problems changing or becoming worse. (Solomon et al, 1953; Brush, 1957). There’s a good chance that the dog has been told off for inside toileting if the dog relieves themselves behind the sofa. The dog is confused and has inadvertently become uncomfortable performing in front of people. (How to encourage outside toileting here).

It’s particularly worrying that aggression is increases after a dog is reprimanded. For example, a dog who has been told off for growling is more likely to bite. The telling off only serves to remove their warning system (see the methods page).

Training using negative punishment and reinforcement increases confusion and anxiety. And aggression. Such techniques “are associated with a 2.9 times increased risk of aggression to family members, and a 2.2 times increased risk of aggression to unfamiliar people outside of the household” (Stanley Coren, PhD., DSc., FRSC)

Aggression only happens when a dog feels threatened.

In our professional career, we’ve seen a small handful of dogs who’d bite without reason or warning. Medical issues were later found in all of the dogs..

“Dogs are aggressive in response to unfolding events… it is always dependent upon what they believe is happening to them” (David Ryan),

When something happens and the dog is frightened, they’ll respond with growls or snaps. Dominance training would say the dog needs a telling off. Frightened dogs would then be treated aggressively. Such reprimands would increase their anxiety (Joels et al. 2006). The whole situation is made worse. This is damaging and worrying. Thinking that the dog wants to be in charge is the projection of human thoughts and emotions onto dogs and such, anthropomorphism is a problem at the core dominance hypothesis. The confrontational standpoint colours how behaviour is viewed and interpreted. It’s no wonder that things escalate. 59% of bites occur when someone tries to punish their dog (Reisner et al. 2007).

Dogs trained using dominance method are more likely to be “hand- shy”. They’re scared when people move their hands near them. So they’re more likely to bite (Hunthausen 2009).

Please contact us if this is happening with your dog, we can show how their thinking can be turned around to make a hand mean warmth and kindness, rather than being scary.

Pack leader myths:: Willow sneaks a kiss and photobombs a selfie. It's funny, not problematic

Pack leader myths and problems: rules to attempt control don’t work

Common misconceptions: guidelines and rules don’t help and can make things worse.

Behaviour problems are supposed to arise when a dog becomes higher in rank than their “owner” Researchers proved this to be mistaken and unhelpful (Drews, 1993, amongst others).

Various behaviours which are thought to convey a fight for leadership.  This includes undefined aggression, with no consideration of whether it’s grumbling a warning or biting. There’s no in-depth consideration of the circumstances. Other “dominant” behaviours include: attention seeking, barking excessively, destruction, escaping, excitement at the front door, humping, ignoring commands, leaning on people or jumping up them, lying in doorways, marking, mouthing and nipping when playing and pulling on the lead (Milan & Peltier, 2007, amongst others). Lying in a doorway hardly seems like a punishable offence- our dogs appreciate a cooling draft.

Most of the behaviours seem shockingly normal and a good training course should address them without causing harm or distress. Typically. dogs cause the most destruction within their first few months. It’s not only because they’re teething and being toilet trained, it’s also when they are learning what is (and what is not) an appropriate toy. I’d expect them in any untrained dog who’s under a year old.

Pack leader myths and problems- the list of unhelpful guidelines with no scientific basis 

The general rules go something like this: Don’t spoil dog, don’t cuddle them and don’t treat the dog like a human child. Don’t let the dog to win a game of tug. The dog mustn’t sleep in bed or on the furniture. Dogs should not to go first through doors. Dogs can’t walk ahead whilst on the lead and dogs ought to eat after people. 

The “rules” have been studied by several researchers. All are convinced that such efforts have little impact on behaviour (Goodloe, L. P. and Borchelt, P. L. 1998, amongst others). The definition of “spoil” is very loose here and what the researchers are emphasising is that you can be kind and nice to your dog and they won’t think that you’re weak or beneath them- dogs don’t see getting something lovely as a sign that they are in control. (Of course, we urge people to be considerate of waistlines, health and well-being). 

Trying to follow the list of guidelines may inconvenient and unsafe. Entering the house first with a pram and some shopping whilst trying keep the dogs in a wait outside is not very practical, especially if the front door opens up onto the pavement, like in our Victorian terrace. People would have to let go of the lead and turn their backs to the dogs while they manoeuvre themselves, the pram and shopping inside- the dogs are then free to dash off or run into the road.

It doesn’t mean there aren’t any rules…

Pack leader myths:- tugging is good fun!

Just because there’s no such thing as a pack leader it doesn’t mean to say that there are no rules or boundaries, or that family life would be a free- for all or that you can’t train your dog. Efficient training uses games to teach words which can be utilised in many situations in every day life. Dogs learn best with repetition and the better the reward, the more motivated they are to remember (Hillard) and repeat the behaviour.

Dogs love food and positive interactions with their family. Fun increases the chance that any lesson will be retained. Teaching tricks can be more helpful than it sounds- there’s a practical applications in many. If you can ask your dog to walk backwards, for example, they can move themselves safely out of the way when you’re wandering across the kitchen to drain hot steaming pots, or if you have dropped and broken a glass. 

The rules are up to you. Say you want your dog on the sofa for a cuddle once in a while but you also like to read uninterrupted for a few moments, it’s reasonable to expect both. Dogs learn when they are invited by teaching them “on” and “off”. To avoid any mixed messages and jumping up, it’s good to develop a signal for “I want cuddles”. I pat my knees and hold out my arms and wiggle my fingers- you don’t have to copy that thought, the best signals (and words) are always whatever comes most naturally to you.  

Pack leader myths and problems: how positive reinforcement makes life better for dogs and people 

Training with encouragement and support then rewarding when they do the task encourages a supporting trusting bond and increases the motivation to behave politely. When they don’t they get no praise… that’s boring. Reducing motivation by making something seem pointless is a kind way to diminish unwanted behaviour. The dog learns that rewards are the consequences of good manners. Dogs love treats and fuss and enjoy communicating- they’re incredibly good at it.

So please, cuddle them as much as you like. If it’s easier or safer, let your dog go first in and out of the house. Dogs can eat first, if it’s more convenient and if you want your dog in your bedroom, or up on the sofa, then by all means, invite them. You should base that decision on whether you can cope with cleaning up the hairs. Everything is entirely up to you.

click here for more how training methods differ- with detailed examples (jumping up and growling).

*Thomas Hobbes wrote the phrase “nasty, brutish and short” in his book called The Leviathan. Written in the context of English civil war, Hobbes thought that people had nasty, brutish and short lives. Being selfish, no one was able to consider the common good. People were stuck in a constant battle for survival. Constantly trying to maintain and improve blinded them from seeing the bigger picture. Hobbes elegantly argued that only a strong leader- a monarch- would be able to set aside his own interests and pass judgements that would benefit all.

Pack leader myths: After thoughts…

When the idea of the pack leader and theories of dominance really first started on television, it seemed to be readily accepted into people’s imaginations. It mostly passed me by as I could already train my dogs and we have pcs, rather than a telly. Some of my earliest memories are playing with my grandfather’s dog, where I lived in the fens on a small farm, with pigs and chickens. Grandad showed me how to train when I was small. “A dog is your best friend, they look after you” my grandfather would say, “treat ’em right, and they’ll treat you right.”

I first encountered dominance when I began researching dog training- people saw how our dogs behaved and we were increasingly being asked how we did it. It was important to be helpful so I researched, I was afraid I’d say something and accidentally make things worse for someone. Although what worked for us didn’t conform to what the TV was saying. Obviously a huge a sign that I needed to learn more. The more I learned, the more uneasy the dominance method made me feel.

Tv (again)

Tv’s portrayal of dominance didn’t really sit well with what I had been taught by experience or as a child. Our dogs were allowed on the sofa at times when someone fancied a cuddle and we had no problems. Despite sometimes eating last (depending on what we were doing) there were no issues. We do many things “wrong”, yet we live together very happily.

Dominance ideas were rarely referenced when I was training, as it was described as common sense. Whilst in university, I learned that anything is labelled natural, then people are making assumptions about something and it needs careful and thorough investigation. I began to look into it more and read up.

Don’t to try this at home, kids

I was horrified to see dogs roughly manhandled on the TV and noticed dogs giving crystal clear warnings of fear and unhappiness, which went unrecognised or unheeded. The high frequency of warnings and the (regretfully) inevitable bites that followed seemed to confuse and surprise the professional presenters. Carefully watching clips on youtube, I noticed that the dog would change the demeanour and so with freeze framing, I noticed that they had a new collars at that point- which looked suspiciously like shock collars. Concerned, I began reading up. Thankfully, many others also think such TV magic is troubling.

It made me anxious that viewers would attempt to replicate these methods (despite the disclaimers saying “do not to try this at home”) as I fear that neither the people or dogs would not benefit from this type of advice. Sadly it seems I was right- since the programme aired dog bites on humans have increased. I wrote this article a good few years ago now in the attempt to properly explain to people that there really is no need to try to be a pack leader.

Pack leader myths: References

Dr. L David Mech, top researcher and wolf behaviourist explains how and why finding more and more new facts changed his ideas:

Dog cognition, memory and relationships 

Bradshaw, J.W.S., Blackwell, E.J. and Casey, R.A. (2009) Dominance in domestic dogs – useful construct or bad habit? Journal of Veterinary Behaviour, Clinical Applications and Research, Volume 4, Issue 3, Pages 109-144.

De Keuster, T. and Jung, H. (2009). Aggression towards familiar people and animals. In Horwitz, D.F. and Mills, D.S. BSAVA Manual of Canine and Feline Behavioural Medicine. 2nd ed. 182-210.

Drews, C. (1993). The Concept and Definition of Dominance in Animal Behaviour. Behaviour, 125, (4), 283-313.

Goodloe, L. P. and Borchelt, P. L. (1998). Companion dog temperament traits. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science 1(4): 303-338. both Sited here

Hunthausen, W. (2009). Preventative behavioural medicine for dogs. In Horwitz, D.F. and Mills, D.S. BSAVA Manual of Canine and Feline Behavioural Medicine. 2nd ed. 65-74

Mendl, M., (1999). Performing under pressure: stress and cognitive function. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 65, 221-244

Milan, C. & Peltier, M.J. (2007). Be the Pack Leader: Use Cesar’s Way to Transform Your Dog . . . and Your Life. Random House Inc., New York: Three Rivers Press. sited here

Polsky RH (1994). Electronic shock collars – are they worth the risks? Journal of the American Animal Hospital Association, 30 (5), 463-468

https://www.dogwelfarecampaign.org/implications-of-punishment.php

interesting reading: positively.com/dog-training/myths-truths/the-truth-about-dominance/

Walker, R., Fisher, J. and Neville, P. (1997). The treatment of phobias in the dog. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 52, 275–289.

Written by Sue Lyall MA CANTAB Affinity Dog Training, Northampton

January 2013.

Edited June 2017 and April 23 (website overhaul)

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