why there’s no need to be a pack leader

It seems academics solved this debate conclusively a few years ago …

but while people are still asking questions about the topic, we’ll keep this page up.

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. As I’m not so interested in the telly, I was already able train my dogs effectively and the fad passed me by. 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.”

When I did get round to watching the programmes the whole concept of dominance was a bit alien to me and 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. Our dogs were sometimes fed first (depending on what we were doing) and this created no issues…. we seemed to do many things wrong, yet we all lived together very happily.

I was horrified to see dogs roughly manhandled and noticed dogs giving crystal clear warnings of fear and unhappiness which went unrecognised or unheeded. I was not surprised at the high frequency of bites but was shocked that a professional couldn’t see it coming a mile off. Carefully watching clips on youtube, I noticed that the dog would change the demeanour and that they had a new collars at that point- which looked suspiciously like shock collars. I began reading up and was relieved to find that I was not the only one who was concerned.

I am anxious that viewers will attempt to replicate these methods despite disclaimers like “do not to try this at home” and 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.


January 2013.

You don’t have to be a pack leader, you don’t have to care about who wants to be the boss…

You can have fun with your dog and not worry about who eats first, how many times you cuddle or whether or not you dog is supposed to be on your bed or your sofa. Supposed to? No. You should base that decision on whether you can cope with cleaning up the hairs. Everything is entirely up to you.

Why is there no need to be a “pack leader”?
The pack leader assumes that the modern domestic dog are like wolves in the wild and have based their dog training on their understandings of wolf pack composition and behaviour. Wolves are assumed to live in a hierarchical pack, where the alpha is the leader, the others are competing for power and attention; their  lives could be described as nasty, brutish and short*. These conclusions were drawn from when some wolves were waiting to be realised into Yellowstone and were in a (relatively) small holding pen. The researcher (Dr. L. David Mech) tracked the wolves after their release and he noticed that their behaviour was not at all like what he saw in artificial confines of the enclosure. There was less stress, more freedom and social interaction was much more co-operative and friendly. In the late 70’s, with this new knowledge, he retracted the initial findings.

In the meantime, some dog trainers saw similarities between dogs and wolves they got carried away thinking that dogs were like this wrong idea of wolf behaviour. The trouble with the dog training industry is the lack of cohesion of the trainer’s training. There is no over-arching governing body to regulate the standard of work- astonishingly you can set up shop without any training and, nearly 40 years after the theory was debunked by it’s own creator, some training courses still perpetuate the dominance theory. There is no way to hold a bad trainer accountable and no way you can prove you’re one of the good ones.

Dominance theorists thought dogs wanted to dominate the family and be in charge… so whatever your problem, that’s your answer. The pack leader takes their dog to the park and on the way, eager for the adventure, the dog pulls on the lead. The pack leader would say the dog wants to be in charge.  Yet on the way back the dog is tired and so walks nicely to heel- has the status of the dog changed?

Some pack leaders, under this philosophy, give the impression that it is OK to use shock or prong collars and roughly manhandle your dog- the way to show you’re in charge is to push the dog onto their backs. There is no need. It is so easy to train your dog very effectively with treats and encouragement.

Would you try to understand human behaviour by looking at a chimp? (Living with humans for thousands of years changed the wolf into a dog….)

Dogs and humans have lived together since the stone age. Dogs kept our unhygienic ancestors free from disease by scavenging the old food rubbish, keeping their camps clean, helping us to evolve. So dogs have been domesticated for many thousands of years now and their appearance and behaviour have changed because of it. Think of the differences between the breeds. It is not only dogs who have changed … imagine giving a caveman your pc.

Does domestication change an animal? What would happen if you tried to domesticate a fox?

Over some forty years scientists kept foxes. They kept two types, friendly ones and unfriendly ones. They took photographs and bred from both- thoroughly checking for social and biological differences. They even swapped over some 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. Domestication, therefore, does change an animal over time.

But … dogs and wolves are alike!

This is not to say a wolf and a dog aren’t similar,  they are both predator type animals, given half a chance. Dogs will have a ball play-fighting just as any other predator- like cats and humans- especially the youngsters. Wolves and dogs can mate and produce puppies. Donkeys and horses are similar and can make a mule, but no-one looks to a donkey to understand horses, they simply look at horses. Why not do this with dogs?  This is not to say that dogs carry some parts of wolf behaviour “in their genes”, something like that is part of everything’s make-up. Humans still have some attributes from our ancestors- women’s genes dictate that we can scan a large section quickly and pick out small items. This is from the time we were hunter/ gatherers and were looking for berries. Very handy when looking for something in the Useful Drawer. Men can’t do that so easily because they are programmed to spot and track prey in the distance. We’ve still got these things in our systems, we’re not hunter gatherers, but we do utilise the abilities in other areas. The pack leader has based their understanding of dog behaviour on the wrong idea about the wrong species- when looking at dog behaviour isn’t it better to look at dogs to try to understand dog motives?

Why did trainers look at wolves and not stray dogs? Do stray dogs form packs?
It’s not as easy as you’d think to study stray dogs- most places have a dog warden. But 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 are loose and do not conform to the dominance model; pack leaders are those who are more sociable and kind. Researchers think the more intelligent, kinder dogs gain the others respect more than the bully. Dogs are very sociable, they go to visit their friends on the tube. The strays’ life is harsh- they fend for themselves by scavenging and begging, but then they pick their targets wisely. A grumpy young man with food in his pocket is likely to be ignored, but a kindly looking older lady will be approached more often.

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

Just because there’s no such thing as a pack leader it doesn’t mean to say that there are no rules, or that family life would be a free- for all or that you can’t train your dog. Efficient training uses games to teach commands which can be utilised in many situations in an owner’s every day life. 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 the paper uninterrupted for a few moments, it’s reasonable to expect both. Simple. Just tell your dog when you want some together or some quiet time. Teaching “on” and “off” will let them know when it is appropriate and when they are invited. Train with encouragement and support, reward when they do the task. When they don’t they get no praise … that’s boring. The dog very quickly learns that only when they have good manners they are rewarded. Dogs love treats and fuss and enjoy communicating- they’re incredibly good at it.

This says to me that dogs are very able to understand human emotions and that those who wish to be a pack leader have vastly underestimated their dog.

Dr. L David Mech, top researcher and wolf behaviourist explains how and why finding more and more new facts changed his ideas: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tNtFgdwTsbU
Domesticated fox project: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Domesticated_silver_fox
Stray dogs: http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/628a8500-ff1c-11de-a677-00144feab49a.html#axzz1jnkmt7Ue

* “Nasty, brutish and short” was the phrase used by Thomas Hobbes in his book “The Leviathan”. Written in the context of English civil war, Hobbes thought that people had nasty, brutish and short lives. They were locked in a constant battle for survival, constantly trying to maintain and improve their own lot- and as such were not able to consider the common good. Hobbes elegantly argued that only a strong leader- a monarch- would be able to set aside his own interests (passions) and pass judgements that would benefit all.

Written by Susan Lyall MA CANTAB Affinity Dog Training, Northampton

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