Are Dogs Pack Animals?
In the last decade, the mantra of many dog trainers has been the same: be the leader of your pack. This rule has remained constant due to the belief dogs are no different than the wolves they evolved from. Despite dogs now coming in a range of sizes, from teacup to small pony, we remain sure that there is a wolf in dog’s clothing waiting in our living room.
Recent studies have come to light which call for a change of this approach, though, moving from dogs having a pack mentality to a completely different social structure. In fact, modern behaviorists now feel that pack mentality training has always been the incorrect way to relate to dogs, who differ from their wolf ancestors in more ways than just socially.
The Differences Between Wolves and Dogs:
To understand what an actual pack mentality would mean, a close look at the differences between dogs and wolves is important:
Dogs: Dogs live in a loose social structure that does not always have a definite leader4. Groups with either same sex dogs or mixed sex dogs are able to co-exist peacefully with minimal competitions for dominance. A dog’s social life is often established through play, with a dog having multiple social circles. Humans, cats and even other farm animals can be included in social groupings with dogs.
Wolves: The most important driving force behind a wolf pack is the alpha pair, or the male and female wolf who are at the top of the social hierarchy5. Competition will take place throughout the year, especially during mating season, for other members to become the alpha leaders of the pack. No other species have been seen living peacefully within the pack social structure. Wolves live in large, rarely-changing groups which support all aspects of normal life.
Dogs: Reproduction is decided when and who with by a human and does not involve interaction with the dog social group1. The dog mother gives birth and raises the puppies almost entirely on her own. The puppies will usually not stay with the mother past ten weeks, but are generally taken to join their new family when very young. Social life and behaviors are taught by the puppy’s human family and any other animals in the household.
Wolves: All wolves in the pack work to raise and take care of the pups, who are usually only from the alpha pair, by babysitting, hunting, and bringing food to the new mother. Wolf pups will be raised by the entire pack to learn social hierarchy and how to hunt during their first year of life through successive approximations rather than instinct, often involving both male and female wolves5. Wolves will sometimes stay with their birth pack for life, and some will leave after they reach maturity to join a neighboring pack.
Dogs: Dogs communicate with body language, tail position, and facial expressions, both between themselves and with other species. Dogs are unique in that they are much more vocal in their expression, and love to howl at many things instead of just between each other1. Dogs also have a special set of play signals for when they interact with other species7. They use exaggerated social signals when playing with people or other mammals, which is believed to show they are not trying to dominate other species through play but to communicate. Dogs are also easily able to follow the body language and facial expressions of humans from puppyhood on6,2.
Wolves: Wolves have a complicated system of tail signals, body language, facial expressions, and two known types of vocalizations to communicate with pack members5. While wolves normally don’t communicate with other species, they can be taught to read the body language of humans after conditioning, something that is natural in dogs6.
These three areas show the greatest differences between dogs and wolves, who, while sharing a common ancestry, are totally different.
Why We Shouldn’t Treat Dogs Like Pack Animals:
Humans first started to leave the African continent and traveled North about 50,000 years ago, leaving researchers to believe humans must have first encountered wolves about the same time3. Looking back on genetic changes in dogs, evolution from their wolf ancestors must have started around 40,000 years ago. That leaves a lot of room for change with human direction between wolves as they interact in the wild and dogs in our homes. Insisting that dogs are exactly the same as wolves, despite all the evidence to the contrary, ignores an evolution with humans which created a whole new being.
The idea that dogs are pack animals has long been believed despite constant evidence to the contrary7. While most dog trainers encourage pet parents to be the leader of the pack, supposedly filling in the alpha male and female role, this ignores the fact that most dogs have not operated on an alpha-based hierarchy since the start of dogs’ domestication. In a persons’ efforts to dominate dogs to keep this hierarchy, punishment style training has been encouraged. As new research shows, dogs respond best to a reward-based training plan8.
By ignoring the many thousands of years that dogs have been included in human social structure (and have adapted to it), we are ignoring a large part of what motivates dogs. In assuming that dogs are only looking for a dominant relationship, instead of camaraderie that comes with a diverse social group, people fail to experience a full relationship with their pet. It’s time to move on from focusing on dogs as the descendants of wolves and move on to just calling them family members.
By Lauren Pescarus
8 Hiby, E., Rooney, N., & Bradshaw, J. (2004). Dog training methods: Their use, effectiveness and interaction with behaviour and welfare. Animal Welfare,63-69. Retrieved May 7, 2018, from http://dogscouts.org/base/tonto-site/uploads/2014/10/620_art_training_methods.pdf
4 Kerkhove, W. V. (2004). A Fresh Look at the Wolf-Pack Theory of Companion-Animal Dog Social Behavior. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science,7(4), 279-285. doi:10.1207/s15327604jaws0704_7