When I published a post on this subject on Facebook, I received both enormous support (it was shared more than 80 times by colleagues) and enormous backlash (many dog owners clearly resent being told that they need to give up on pack theory)! So just to clarify a few points:
1. This is not an attack on dog owners or clients - it is an attempt to educate on an idea that persists in being one of the most problematic myths in the dog-owning world.
2. Yes, I do understand that people simply follow what they have been told - that is why as behaviourists and trainers we have to speak out and change the false narrative that has been put out there by TV celebrities and pop dog psychology.
3. Yes, a collective noun for dogs is pack. However, other collective nouns for dogs include "cry", "kennel", "cowardice" and "litter". I seldom see anyone using any of these or arguing over the right to use them. None of them carry the baggage and connotations of the word "pack" and in 20 years, I have not come across a dog owner who did not imply all the popular connotations of the word pack, when using this to describe his/her dogs.
4. Having a dog, rescuing a dog or even living with several dogs for any number of years does not give you expertise in the field of dog behaviour. Your observations of your own dogs may, in your opinion, confirm the ideas about dogs that you have always taken for granted, but they do not constitute any kind of expert opinion or fact. It is easy to interpret what we see in light of what we already believe (much like all the parents who believe that sugar makes their children hyperactive, ignoring all other factors that could be at play in a particular situation and every study that has shown that there is no evidence to support this idea). If you are not a behaviourist, ethologist, evolutionary biologist or ecologist or any other person who has actually devoted your life to studying dog behaviour and keeping up with developments and research in the field, you have to consider that an expert in the field is more likely to be right than you are!
So here goes:
The first word that people seem to want to throw out when talking about their dogs, is “pack”. As a trainer and behaviourist I am forever being told things like:
We decided it was time to add to our pack.
Freddy is clearly the head of our pack.
Frodo is much better when he is with his pack.
Flora is much worse when she is with her pack.
I am sure the dog I am adopting will settle, once he has found his place in our pack.
My dogs love doing pack walks.
Often, I think that people feel this kind of terminology helps to build a rapport with those of us working with dogs, so they throw in these words to show they know a bit about dogs and help the conversation along. Unfortunately, for any educated dog trainer or behaviourist, words such as pack, dominance and alpha are like nails on a chalk board. They make us want to head for the hills! They do not reveal knowledge on the part of the dog owner, but a long road ahead for us trying to change these false and very damaging perceptions. Somehow, the general public is just not getting the message that dogs do NOT form packs, so here is another attempt to get the message out there:
DOGS DO NOT FORM PACKS! YOUR DOGS IN YOUR HOME ARE NOT A PACK! YOU ARE NOT PART OF YOUR DOG’S PACK AND YOUR DOG IS NOT PART OF YOUR PACK!
I would love to just leave it there, but of course, I do need to provide some evidence for what I am saying, so here goes:
1. Dogs are not wolves. This is not even a debate anymore. We know that dogs evolved and separated from wolves a very long time ago. While wolves are predators that hunt in organised family groups, dogs are scavengers that feed on waste discarded from human settlements. To hunt large prey, wolves have to work together in an efficient and effective manner. Wolves live in tight-knit family groups, relying on each other for safety and success in obtaining food. These groups consist of related individuals – mom, dad and offspring of a couple of generations. An individual born into the family may disperse when mature and form their own nuclear family with another dispersing wolf, but wolves do not run around the forest bumping into unrelated individuals and saying: “Hey, why don’t you, me and Sonny over there form a pack”. They are born into their pack and a few will go on to generate a new pack by mating and producing offspring. Dogs are nothing like this.
2. Dogs scavenge for a living. A huge proportion of the world’s dog population is not “owned” but lives on the streets and around villages or dumps. From studying these dogs, we can get the best idea of how dogs behave socially, if left to their own devices i.e. in their “natural” state. It has been very clearly demonstrated that these dogs do not form anything even remotely resembling a wolf pack. Dogs form loose associations. They are not dependant on each other to obtain food – they do not need other dogs to survive. This is not to say that they do not form bonds or have social relationships, but they do not form stable and highly structured packs.
So, if dogs do not form packs when in their “natural” state, then why would they suddenly start forming packs in our homes? The answer is that they don’t! The pack obsession is not theirs, it is ours. It is all the nonsense put out there by TV celebrity dog trainers who have not studied dog behaviour a day in their lives and a few ancient and long-dismissed faulty studies on wolves that has set this notion in our minds. It really is time to let it go!
For more information on the subject, please see: https://www.tarynblyth.co.za/the-dominance-myth-pack-theory
For those interested in researching the subject more fully, the following books are highly recommended:
Dogs: A New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior and Evolution
by Lorna Coppinger and Raymond Coppinger
Dominance in Dogs: Fact Or Fiction?
by Barry Eaton