Pack Theory Debunked

PACK_THEORY_DEBUNKED_FeaturedDo you really need to be the 'Pack Leader' to your dogs?

First of all, that is impossible, since your dogs know perfectly well that you are not, in fact, a dog. But even if you were, the whole concept of 'pack leadership' in domestic dogs as it is commonly understood has long been dismissed by trainers, veterinarians, veterinary behaviorists and modern behavioral science.

Do we need to provide leadership and guidance for our dogs? Of course.

Do we need to force them to be 'submissive' to us and view us as a 'dominant' figure in their lives to suppress their supposed natural instinct to take over our relationships, our households and our world? No.

The History of Pack Theory
The dangerous but common misunderstanding about the concept of dominance and pack theory in the dog world is based in large part on research collected from studies performed on a pack of unrelated, captive wolves in the 1970s. The results of these early studies suggested that there was a rigid hierarchy in which 'alphas' (leaders) had priority access to resources, forcefully maintaining the group structure through displays of aggression to others.

Because dogs were believed to have descended from wolves, it was then assumed that similar social groupings and violent 'pack' dynamics must therefore exist among domestic dogs as well. What is more, the formation of these dog packs was supposedly based on the desire or drive of certain dogs to be the alpha or top dog of the group, and the resulting hierarchy was based on competitive success.

This theory became so popular that despite the obvious (and very important) fact that dogs and wolves are separated by thousands of years of evolution and that dogs and humans are completely different species, the concept was attributed to explain not only the social interactions between dogs, but also between people and dogs and how dogs should be trained.

But dogs are not wolves, and even if they were, those captive wolf studies have since been renounced by the very scientists who performed them and drew their original conclusions.

Science Debunks Pack Theory Captive wolves with no choice but to live in unrelated groups (not their own blood-related families) behave very differently from members of what we now know to be a true natural wolf pack. Dr. David Mech, the wolf expert and senior scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey who was largely responsible for the original scientific study promoting 'pack theory' (much of which he himself has since renounced), now explains that the behavioral differences between captive wolves like those used in his study and wolves in the wild are pronounced enough to call the results of his original research into question.

What is a True 'Pack'?
More recent scientific research has concluded that in the wild a true natural pack is actually composed of a mother and father and their offspring. This pack survives rather like a human family, in which the parents take the leadership roles and the children follow. In a natural pack, harmony is created because deference behaviors are offered freely by the younger wolves rather than being forced onto them by their parents.

The original study’s results were also skewed by the observation of subjects that were under severe stress because they were forced to live as captives with other unrelated wolves in an unnatural environment, unable to behave as they normally would in a natural familial pack.

The researchers mistakenly used their own human interpretations to conclude that the wolves were constantly driven by a desire to seek status over one another. Trouble is, no one really questioned at that point whether wolves really understood or shared our human concept of seeking status as a 'rank reduction' process.

It is more likely that for these captive wolves, the issue of rank was actually driven by something far simpler: the need for safety, survival and reproductive success. Was it safe to gain access to a particular resource from another wolf or not? Acquiring a resource safely would ensure survival, so although some wolves figured out how to hold onto their resources by challenging others and defending themselves, other wolves learned to ensure their survival by showing deference.

Mech’s researchers were observing a dysfunctional group of wolves that were using threat and deference displays in order to seek safety and survive within their unnatural captive group. This was not a true pack which functions on deference displays rather than violence.

Unfortunately, these truths regarding the concepts of dominance, submission, and rank hierarchy have only recently been accurately understood. Because the results of those early behavioral studies were misinterpreted and important aspects of dominance misunderstood, dog trainers began assuming that these supposed facts about captive wolf behavior could be neatly transferred into a box labeled 'dog behavior.'

Bottom Line
The concept of 'pack theory' as it is commonly understood by many today is fundamentally flawed for several key reasons:

  1. Dogs are not wolves, and we cannot assume that they act similarly to each other
  2. Even the results from the studies of wolves have since been disproven by the very scientists who conducted them
  3. 'Packs' in the true sense of the word do not exist among groups of unrelated domestic dogs. True familial pack is mother, father and offspring and functions non-violently with submission being freely given rather than forced.
  4. Dogs know we are not dogs, so it is silly for us to pretend like we are one of them by being their ‘pack leader.’

Should we be leaders and help guide our dogs to make the right choices as much as possible? Absolutely!

Is it even possible for us to pretend that we are 'pack leaders?' No. We are not dogs and therefore cannot be part of a dog pack, captive or otherwise and we should no longer treat dogs with violence like the captive wolves did to each other in those long ago studies. If we want to be true leaders, we must lead non-violently without domination or intimidation, regardless of dog breed, drive or behavior issue.


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20 thoughts on “Pack Theory Debunked

  1. PremierDogs

    A correction needs to be made in this article, which states, "...studies performed on a pack of unrelated, captive wolves in the 1970s." This is incorrect, as the original (flawed) research was carried out in the 1940's by Rudolph Schenkel.

    Otherwise, this article gets two thumbs up from me! 🙂

  2. Melodie Murphy

    While I agree with the article; it is very narrow in it's definition of "pack" and as such, many of the comments are only true in a pack as defined.

    If one were to use the words "mob" "crew" and "family" interchangeably with pack and so expand the definition of a "pack" then I would argue that it is very important your dog knows their place in your own personal version of a "pack".

    This may or may not be the leader of the entire mob/crew/family/pack but it should at least be clear to the dog, who is the leader/trainer/teacher/parent of the dog...

  3. PremierDogs

    You make a very good point Melodie, and this is one of the things about the intricacies of the English language that I see cropping up a lot when discussing dog training and behaviour: Multiple definitions for some words.

    These days 'common' use of words such as "pack" and "leadership" are trumping more traditional definitions and can sidetrack a discussion or topic. This is probably because they are now widely associated with someone/something such as Mr. C.M., or the idea of dominance-based social order.

    As an example, when I read one woman saying that "leadership is a dirty word" in her "force-free lifestyle" I couldn't help but respond with, "Please elaborate on your definition of leadership" because, in my book, leadership is a quality. If I want to use a word to describe the opposite of leader I would use bully, dictator, or dominator.

  4. PremierDogs

    "...while to my knowledge no one has done the work to figure out if dogs do in fact form/create packs on the level of wolves..."

    I am aware of a few studies done on the social order of feral dogs and even dingos, though I cannot quote specifics right off the top of my head. However, from my recollection, the common thread in the studies of feral dogs was that they didn't form structured packs. Instead they formed what I will paraphrase as a type of 'loose collection of individuals'.

  5. 13citizen13

    "...functions non-violently with submission being freely given rather than forced." That isn't even true for humans. Force can be anything from an all out attack to eye contact that merely suggests probable conflict, and is used by most, if not all, species to maintain an order. I understand the need to believe non-violent coalitions exist across the species, but that's all it is...a need.

  6. Mary

    I totally agree with you. And in this article where David Mech retracted what he studied, I also have studied wolves fro 28yrs, some of David's books actually, but when you study wolves in the wild, they do have an "alpha male & female" and they will correct the lower pack members. No dogs are not wolves but they do have 99.8% of their DNA. They are domesticated but I had my own pack of 12 German Shepherds out of Top West German Bloodlines from Germany and there actually "was" an alpha female and she would put a member in its place "if" it was misbehaving badly or trying to climb the ladder as a higher member of the pack. Some of the dogs were related, but others were not and they lived in "pack" orientation just like wolves do in the "wild" What David Mech should had said was when wolves have been studied in the wild, they do have what humans have named an "alpha" and when they correct, it is in body language, growling, snarling, and if necessary they do bite.

    I'm sorry but lots of positive reinforcement trainers believe in only their method as being the correct and only method and that corrections are not necessary. I would truly love to see these type of trainers on what they would do with a very aggressive dog, one that attacks other dogs &/or humans, and see if they could redirect this dog, use food, toys, balls, etc without ever having to give a physical correction. I like to be the type of behaviorist which I have done now for 24yrs(dog training for 30yrs) that uses "every" kind of method necessary for each individual problem. Surely you aren't going to give a hard correction on a small dog or puppy. I don't believe in any physical corrections on puppies and the use of all positive reinforcement for them, even most small dogs. But when you get a shelter dog that has been extremely aggressive(more aggression is also being caused by rabies vaccines, by the way) and you have no choice but to make it submit instead of getting bit, or breaking up a dog fight, and making them both submit near each other, then I would love to see how you do this with all positive reinforcement. And if you can show me, then I would welcome whole heart & soul, using only positive reinforcement.

    I'm not big on e-collars or prong collars, but I must admit there are times when a dog you saw & seemed to have a very good recall, escapes from its owner running loose in the street and won't come/here when it is called and acts like it doesn't even know the command, an e-collar is the only way to get it back. That doesn't mean you have to shock the crap out of it as all dogs has its own response, I have only used vibrate on an e-collar so far, and I don't use them very much at all. In all these years of behavior or even just plain dog training, probably between 5-10 dogs out of little more than 450. As I said above, if you as a positive reinforcement "only" trainer or behaviorist can show me that you can stop an aggressive dog, I would love to see it and then I'd never use a correction again or put a dog into a submissive position on its side. You can always contact me at : [email protected] as my website(s) & blog & professional Facebook pages have not been designed & up and running yet and to post on my personal Facebook page is kind of crazy.

  7. MajorStewie

    could you elaborate more on "Dogs know we are not dogs, so it is silly for us to pretend like we are one of them by being their ‘pack leader.’ there is no need to pretend because nobody is actually pretending.

  8. OhSnap

    Hi Sharon,
    It sounds as though it may be time to enlist the services of a certified behaviorist that will work with you at home and/or a veterinarian that is board certified in behavior. You may actually be accidentally engaging in behaviors that are reinforcing the anxiety, and if the desensitization and counterconditioning work with the behaviorist aren't enough, there are actually 5 classes of meds indicated for the condition that can be useful in controlling it. It really can get better with professional help!

  9. KD

    One more correction. Dogs are indeed wolves. Canis lupus familiaris, a subspecies of gray wolf, and each breed even the diminutive toy dogs can reproduce with modern grey wolves. Behavior and aesthetics have been changed drastically by breeding but genetically they are still very similar to their wild cousins.

  10. Rivka

    I don't think anyone actually says we should pretend to be the same species as dogs. That's a bit of a straw man argument, there.

  11. Reed

    This is pretty next level, you just created your own straw man and then pointed it out to be a straw man. The article doesn't say that anyone says 'we should pretend to be the same species as dogs'. It says that some people think ~ that dogs think that we belong to their species/pack.

  12. Sandy Wolbert

    To me it seems that you are only reinforcing your dog's anxiety by rushing away from EVERYTHING that makes her uncomfortable. I believe that with only mild correction, you could actually solve the problem, rather than changing your whole life to work around your dog's anxiety. By correction, I do NOT mean punishment. There is a big difference. Correction is done in a calm state of mind, whereas punishment comes from anger and frustration. Anger and frustration would only heighten the dog's anxiety, just as running away does. I also believe that after any successful correction, you MUST reward positive progress. I just think we could all benefit from using a more balanced approach with our dogs. I don't see why it has to be all or nothing. That is just my opinion though, and if you are truly happy living the way you are, more power to you. Peace.

  13. Miss Cellany

    Dingos I believe form packs more like wolves (but they are more closely related to wolves than domestic dogs are so that makes sense).

    Feral dogs form "packs" similar to feral cat colonies - where members share the same territory and resources and are generally friendly to each other (and may hang out together) but each female breeds and raises her pups seperately. At least that's what I've read anyway - correct me if I'm wrong?

  14. Miss Cellany

    I prefer to use the words training and guidance rather than leadership. I'm not particularly "leading" my dogs anywhere (we aren't going into battle or running a country) - I'm guiding and teaching them to fit into society.

  15. Roger Sharp

    It's very interesting that personally I can accept all of what is written above on an intellectual level, yet I am completely flummoxed when I see a team of Husky dogs, where each knows their place, and nobody does anything unless the leader does, although this may well be an example of a group of a dysfunctional group. Similarly, i get to look after a number of dogs and again, there are some that wish to be "Top Dog" when out walking, and will make that clear to any of their perceived rivals. I shall be reading the rest of the site to gain a better understanding.

    One thing I think we can all agree is that humans aren't dogs, so any attempt for us to be "pack leaders" is ill conceived nonsense, yet still widely believed to be true, and one can see the logical reason why. As is written, "Should we be leaders and help guide our dogs to make the right choices as much as possible? Absolutely". Amen to that.

    Justa quick note of thanks to PremierDogs for the updated information.

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