Old-school theory on pack structure is reliant upon two assumptions – the first is that dogs will adhere to the same social structure as wolves, and the second is that captive wolves will be entirely unaffected by their captivity, and will act socially exactly as they would in their natural environment and habitat… and we now know that both of these assumptions are entirely false!
Bruce Fogle describes the rigid wolf-pack hierarchy as being based upon a ‘dominance – subdominance – submission’ structure with a dominant wolf, subdominant tag-alongs, and the submissive pack members, who perform ritual passive behaviours, such as crawling, keeping their heads low, and licking the lips of the dominant wolf. It was a widely held belief that the alpha would defend his position with aggression if necessary, and quash any challenges to his position – an idea that many trainers of previous decades translated into modern dog-owning practice, suggesting that our dogs’ errant behaviours are caused by their misguided belief that they are the leader of the pack, and that we as owners must seek to educate them otherwise, and take that title for ourselves, in order that they might become submissive and therefore compliant.
However, in 1999 Mech highlighted the dramatic changes in wolf behaviour that were caused by their captivity, stating that within a natural and free wolf-pack, dominance is not manifested as a pecking order, dominance contests are extremely rare, and the typical free wolf-pack functions more like a symbiotic family unit, sharing out the leadership, labour, and responsibilities to ensure survival.
Whilst captive wolves make frequent challenges to their pack leader, free wolves do not. We forget the many differences that captivity presents – manipulated by man, the captive pack consists of unacquainted wolves unnaturally brought together from different sources; they have a stable and predictable food supply, and there is little outside threat to their existence – no real risk of injury or death. In other words, all the reasons to work together and form a harmonious pack no longer exist in this artificial environment – there is no opportunity or encouragement for them to act naturally.
In stark contrast, free wolf packs have been observed to actually have a lot in common with our human family groups – a breeding pair and their cubs will co-operate together as a unit to ensure their survival, and rather than challenge the elders’ position, the young (once matured) will often leave to find another lone wolf and form their own pack – something which isn’t possible in captivity. Coppinger suggests that pack formation is not a genetic inevitability, but merely an efficient response to their environmental situation, stating ‘wolves live in packs primarily because adult pairs can then efficiently share with their offspring the surplus food resulting from the pair’s predation on large prey.’
Varying pack studies aside, there are now numerous studies available on free ranging and feral dogs – because we must remember that ultimately, dogs are not wolves – most if not all of which reveal that many of these dogs in fact live independently, without ever forming social packs with dominance hierarchies. Thomas Daniels, who observed free ranging domestic dogs in New Jersey, noted that whilst the dogs were familiar with each other, they weren’t overly social or cohesive, they rarely fought, and there was no evidence of territorial behaviour – findings similar to those of Alan Beck who observed Philadelphia dogs, and Ian Dunbar who observed dogs in California.
Now it could be argued that these dogs are not living in the wild, with a scarcity of food or any real threat of injury or death from serious predator so, like the captive wolves, perhaps their behaviour is affected by their environment – but then wouldn’t that support an argument against dominance theory and pack hierarchy once again – certainly where its application to our domesticated pet dogs is concerned? After all, our pet dogs are living in a massively artificial environment with 100% security against predators, a surplus of regular and reliable food... there is no need to resort to the safety and security of pack structure when there is no real threat to their survival, if it is to be believed that packs are formed out of sensible necessity rather than as a result of genetic instinct.
We must also remember that domesticated dogs are neither wild dogs, nor are they wolves. So much human interference has taken place, with selective breeding to give us the selection of domesticated dog breeds that we have today, which has had a massive impact on dog appearance, behaviour and temperament across the breeds, that these dogs are so far from the wolves which have been studied, that there is plenty of room for myriad differences between them.
Coppinger’s research showed that even feral dogs – without restrictions on all the vital elements of survival, such as food, water, and shelter, were happy to live independently or harmoniously in small groups with a loose social structure, far from the cohesive family unit of the wolf-pack. Dogs are not wolves. Humans are not dogs. Humans and dogs co-habiting is so far from being a wolf-pack, it starts to become odd to insist that we behave like alpha wolves before our pugs, in order to ensure a successful home-life.
Old-school theory which argues that almost every negative behaviour is down to our dogs attempting to challenge our dominance, or climb up the pack hierarchy is unfortunate in that it allows us to blame something else for what could in fact just be put down to poor training. If you subscribe to this theory that we must create a hierarchical pack in order to stop our dogs pulling on the lead, then people resort to some unnecessary and absurd behaviours (such as eating a biscuit before feeding the dog, performing alpha rolls, etc.) when actually teaching a dog to heel well can be taught with positive training. Your dog is not pulling on the lead because he believes himself to be superior to you… he’s pulling on the lead because he’s excited to be out of the house, you’re walking too slowly, and you haven’t taught him not to!
So whilst I whole-heartedly believe that as owners, we should provide our dogs with guidance and a good education in order to make it clear what we expect from them, I have every faith that we can achieve this with positive training, not by seeking to construct and enforce a hierarchy, so that we can go on to consistently remind our dog that he is at the bottom with a series of fruitless and sometimes cruel engagements.