The Problem with the “Pack Leadership” Mentality


"What we ask is that you engage with us, show up beside us, and learn from us." Brené Brown (Photo by Patrick Danforth |

The pack leader label just won’t seem to die a natural death. This bothers me, but instead of analyzing why people are so attached to being pack leaders, I decided it would be easier for me to uncover why I dislike it so much. Here is my interview with myself.

Q: What is it about the term pack leader that bothers you?
A: So many dog training history began in the dominance age. We used chokers, alpha rolled our dogs and saw disobedience as a threat to our role. I didn’t enjoy 'pack leadership' very much. Having now found out that dogs don’t naturally form packs and their behavior is far more interesting and complex than simple seekers of the throne, the term seems just a bit ridiculous really.

Q: But things have changed and pack leaders are kind and humane now.
A: Are they? I think we’re seeing people who are very good at not getting angry using quite forceful techniques on dogs. Because the handlers aren’t angry and tell good stories about the positivity of what they’re doing, people believe them. They believe that the training technique was necessary and wasn’t forceful, scary or painful. I think they are often deluding themselves because they don’t want to face the possibility that they might be doing unpleasant things which hurt and scare their dogs.

Q: Not everyone uses force though, what about the genuinely force-free pack leadership?
A: No, you’re right. Some people control food and doorways and the walk and present their neatly packaged, miracle cure 3, 4 or 5 steps to being a pack leader. I know that people like lists. I also know that being given priorities is helpful and we like simple. Heck, I LOVE simple; but simple doesn’t mean easy.

Following a handful of steps may help some owners live more pleasantly with their dogs. I’m all for that. However, it won’t solve serious issues or actually train the dog to do anything much worthwhile. I’m sorry, but eating before your dog won’t stop him chasing cats. Nor will getting the dog to wait at doors, toilet train him. The lists provide a bare minimum of steps which might help you establish some rules and some consistency in your dog’s life. Pretty much all dogs and owners will benefit from that. Sadly, they keep you focused on controlling your dog, and feeling important because you are the leader.

There’s a very good reason for wanting this. Lack of control is stressful and causes our bodies to produce cortisol. Control feels much nicer and we’ll take that dose of dopamine thank you very much. (1)

Q: So you think there is a physiological reason people like to call themselves pack leaders?
A: In many cases, yes. Most of them just don’t realize it. We definitely all need some power over our own lives. It's very important. That power includes the freedom to make choices. Dogs need these things too. The powerless dog suffers stress just as the powerless human does.

However, power has many negative effects too. For example it reduces empathy while increasing egocentricity, and hypocrisy. We may tell ourselves the stories we want to believe because we ‘know’ we are fair, reasonable people who love our dogs and therefore we would never do anything that wasn’t fair, reasonable or loving. We might be wrong, but we don't notice because being right is so much more comfortable.

This is also possibly why some people don’t want to be 'pack leaders'. The whole idea of controlling another being doesn’t sit well with them.

Q: Is that a problem?
A: No and yes. No, they certainly don’t have to call themselves pack leaders , but yes, they do have to use some control. It’s fine to give a dog a lot of freedom, but first we have to prepare them for that. Initially we do have to control their environment a lot and teach them what is expected. We do the same with all learners. Set them up to be right; teach the rules/ expectations/ skills and as they succeed, give them more independence. If we just give a dog (or child, or anyone) total freedom from the beginning, they will do what works for them and that may not work for us.

However, although control is important, it’s not everything. It’s just the beginning really. With clear training, dogs will willingly respond to us and begin controlling their own behavior. We’ll then be able to give them a lot more freedom.

Q: What’s more important than control?
A: Relying on the 3, 4 or 5 pack leader rules can limit our relationship, and the dog’s life. An obsession with control can make us miss so many other aspects of our dog’s personality and capabilities.

Your retriever isn’t gathering your socks because she thinks she’s in charge – she’s a RETRIEVER! Your terrier isn’t shredding the rug because he thinks he’s in charge – he’s a TERRIER! Know the breed and know your dog. Provide them with things they love to do and if possible, do those things with them. Most dogs love walks, but on leash at your pace isn’t enough. Time to sniff; time to run free; little training opportunities; playing games; new places to see, hear, smell and experience, all make walks more interesting. Train your dog to do all sorts of things. Make it fun to be with you and to do things with you.

Develop your training skills. Learn to teach your dog, so they don’t stay stuck at kindergarten level learning, and graduate from university instead.

Q: Do you think your attitude towards hierarchies has an effect on your intolerance of the pack leader label?
A: Probably. I am very suspicious of the effects of hierarchies. I respect authority, but I don’t worship it and I expect to be allowed to question it. I’m not a fan of mindless rebellion or disruption for the sake of making trouble, but thoughtful questioning of authority and the decisions made by those in control, is incredibly important.

These days there is more and more written about the type of leaders we really want and  controlling, micro managing types don’t score very highly. There are endless articles written about leadership. I love reading them myself, but I think that in our focus on leadership we often overlook that nobody can lead without followers and no captain can be victorious without the team. That team brings specialist skills and each member must be given the opportunity to use their skills when they see fit and not simply when directed by their leader. Among many other things, every team member needs the soft skills of courage, initiative and trust.

Detection dogs are taught what to indicate on, then trusted to do their job. Guide dogs are taught how to lead their people, then trusted to do it. Search and Rescue dogs, police dogs, obedience, agility, herding dogs etc bring their inherent potential. They rely on us to nurture that, train them, and handle them as best we can to allow them to show their skills. We are part of the team. We are not the team and at times we are not making the decisions. They are. We CANNOT do what they can. They are BETTER than us at their job.

Q: Any other comments?
A: I like to generalize the learning from each area of my life, so it is useful elsewhere. I purposefully look for connections. I can’t see too many other applications for pack leadership because all too often, it categorizes non-compliance as power seeking. That oversimplifies the situation and gives unfair responsibility to others. I don’t like that.

Read the book Switch by Chip and Dan Heath and you’ll meet the elephant, the rider and the path. They’re analogies for these things.

The elephant is motivation. This is EMOTION – it’s what we (or our dogs) feel.
Emotion is the powerhouse which drives behavior. You need the ‘right’ emotion for the desired behavior. Ignore emotions at your peril. Encourage emotions like enthusiasm, playfulness or calm thoughtfulness – whichever is most useful for the skill you’re teaching.

The rider is cognition. This is knowledge/ skill/ self control. It’s what we (or our dogs) know and can do.

The rider is far weaker than the elephant. In a short battle of willpower/ self control the rider can succeed, but the battle must be short. In a sustained battle, the enormous power of emotion will always win. Ideally the elephant and rider will be working together, not locked in a struggle.

The path is the environment. It’s everything outside the elephant and rider which affects their ability to do the task.

Before blaming our dogs' lack of skill or motivation, we need to consider whether the environment is making the task too difficult.

For our dogs it’s all those things that make it easier or harder for them to succeed.
1. Definition – of the task. Have we actually trained the skill well enough to expect success in those circumstances?
2. Distance – very close to a great smell/ a long way away from you.
3. Difference – places/ people/ situations – which confuses them e.g. a dog taught to heel on your left side won’t understand how to heel on your right side until you teach that skill.
4. Distractions – new sights, sounds and smells may be interesting, exciting or frightening. A frightened dog may not want to come away from the dog who is scaring him in case he is chased. An engrossing smell may mean your dog simply doesn’t hear you. I’m sure you get engrossed sometimes and don’t hear what people are saying to you.
5. Duration – asking your dog to do something for longer than he/ she has learned to do in that situation challenges their skills and self control. Be aware that like a tired muscle, self control weakens with overuse. If you have already done lots of self control work – the dog may have none left!

If we see our animals as generic creatures - dogs - which are to be controlled following a 3 or 4 or 5 step pack leadership process, we are using a way of relating and behaving that is either of no further use in our life, or of limited use. Staying calm, acting assertively, setting and teaching rules certainly have their place, but guess what? We aren't always right. We need to be open to feedback (even the feedback we don't like), and thinking in terms of controlling others isn't especially empathetic or helpful in the human world.

When we see our animals as individuals with needs and rights, and see ourselves as having a responsibility to help those animals enjoy life and reach full potential, we are practicing skills we can use in every realm of our life – with our families, our friends, our workmates, employees, bosses, even people we meet in passing. We can see the actual person, not the category or job description or stereotype and try to make a positive contribution to their lives.

Yes, we can do this from a leadership perspective if that's important to us. In her book Daring Greatly, Brene Brown interviews Lululemon's CEO, Christine Day who says she once..." "majored in being right." Her transformation came when she realized that getting people to engage and take ownership wasn't about the 'telling', but about letting them come into the idea in a purpose-led way, and that her job was creating the space for other people to perform...The shift she described is the shift from controlling to engaging with vulnerability - taking risks and cultivating trust." (2)

Isn’t that what positive reinforcement training is really all about?

(1) See my summary of the book The Winner Effect by Ian H. Robinson here.

(2) Please read any or all of Brené Brown's amazing books!  I thought it was just me (but it isn't), The Gifts of Imperfection, Daring Greatly and Rising Strong.

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Positively Expert: Diana Bird

Diana lives in NZ. She is intensely interested in behaviour, teaching, learning, and self development. She strives to generalise positive reinforcement ideas to her life and relationships with other people.


2 thoughts on “The Problem with the “Pack Leadership” Mentality

  1. Brandi Burket

    As someone who worked for 5 years with an Animal Behaviorist who utilized positive reinforcement, but blamed everything a dog did on pack leadership...I LOVE this article. It was my first job as a Certified Trainer so I didn't have any experience to compare the one I was having working for her to, and I struggled with supporting and teaching her concept. It just didn't feel right. This article makes me feel relived to know there ARE other ways and the other ways make more sense. Thank you for writing this!!!!!

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