why there’s no need to be a pack leader

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


It seems academics solved this debate conclusively years ago …

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

Why there’s no such thing as a pack leader

It’s unhelpful for you and detrimental to your dog. This kind of trainer uses quick fixes that only work for a short time and makes things worse in the long run. 

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.

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, 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.

In a bizarre plot twist, 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- he had made a terrible mistake. 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.  Wolves don’t live in hierarchical packs, there is no proud Alpha or lowly Omega, there’s just wolf families. 

The pack leader has based their understanding of dog behaviour on the wrong idea about the wrong species- why not look at dogs to try to understand dogs?

Stray dogs don’t form hierarchical 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. 

Domestication changes an animal! 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.

Looking at a wolf to understand a domesticated dog is like looking at chimps to understand human behaviour.

Studies have found that dogs don’t plot and scheme to take over the world.

They just don’t think like that, it was found that their short term memories aren’t wired that way. Projecting human thoughts and emotions onto a dog like that is called anthropomorphism and it is a core problem with dominance theory.

This is not to say that dogs are stupid- this is far from the case. It is said that they have the intellectual capacity of a child starting school. Unlike monkeys, apes and cats, they understand that pointing means follow the line of my finger, not look at the end of it. They are very able to work out by process of elimination (that if the treat isn’t under cup A, it will be under cup B- this is called inferential reasoning). Whilst they can’t woof in English, they certainly can understand it. We haven’t purposefully taught our dogs “is it time to feed the dogs?”, “dinner” or “chicken”, but they certainly know what they mean.

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 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 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 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.

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Click here for more about different dog training methods and the theories and reasoning behind them (with detailed examples and evaluation)



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

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. 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.

Edited June 2017 (website overhaul)

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