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Pack or Dominance Theory: Fact or Fiction?

Whether you hear it from dog owners, dog trainers or amateur behaviourists, pop dog psychology usually revolves around the words “pack”, “dominance” and “alpha”. It seems that a large proportion of the dog-owning population has become stuck on analysing our canine companions in relation to their wild relatives and labelling everything from aggression to house-soiling as “dominance issues”. All over the western world people are spitting in their dogs’ food and racing through doorways first in order to maintain their status as “leader” in their dogs’ eyes. But where do all these ideas come from and what is the basic theory behind them? Even more importantly, is the theory based on any fact and is it relevant for dog owners? 

The basics of pack theory as it is commonly understood in dog circles today:
Pack theory states that dogs, like wolves and some other wild canids, are “pack” animals. This is understood to mean that they would naturally live in complex social groups with a clear hierarchy governing the relationships between individuals in the group. While the group would cooperate in order to hunt and care for offspring, there would also be constant competition within the group as each animal strove to increase its status. There would be a clear leader of the pack, known as the “alpha” male, and his mating partner would be the “alpha bitch” or highest ranking female. The alpha pair would have absolute rights to food, shelter and reproductive activity. All the other animals would have a definite place in the hierarchy and would relate to each other through submissive or dominant gestures depending on where they ranked. The lowest ranking animal, the “omega”, would be constantly picked on by everyone. If the alpha dog became ill or showed any form of weakness, he would be deposed and replaced by the dog next in seniority.


Following from this idea, pack theorists decided that all domestic dogs spend their lives striving to increase their status within their human families. Humans who are not able to demonstrate their dominant positions will be dominated by their dogs and this will result  in all sorts of canine behavioural problems, particularly aggression. In order to have a well-behaved dog, an owner has to constantly strive to demonstrate his or her “alpha status” to the dog in no uncertain terms.


Is the evidence for pack theory sound?
Pack theory was originally based on a study of captive wolves (Zimen, 1975). Wolves from various origins were brought together and had no choice but to live together. Studying these wolves revealed that there was a significant amount of competition over resources within the group. However, at the time it was not taken into account that captivity was a major influence in this behaviour. More recently, a 13 year study of wild wolves at Ellesmere Island (Mech, 1999) revealed that wolves actually live in family groups consisting of parents and offspring. Once pups reach 1 to 2 years of age, those that were capable would leave their parents, find their own mates and start their own families. So theoretically, any wolf that left home and started his or her own family with a new mate would become an “alpha”. Conflict within family groups is rare, with parents naturally caring and providing for their younger offspring and pups naturally relying and depending on their parents. Offspring NEVER depose their parents and cooperation, not competition, is the vital ingredient for success of the family. As cooperative hunters, wolves need to live in harmony with each other as their survival depends on it. 

Are there any studies on domestic dogs?
Dr Frank Beach performed a thirty-year study on dogs at Yale and UC Berkeley. Among the interesting things that were noted was the fact that while hierarchies seemed to be evident to a certain extent when priority access to resources was tested within the group, they were very flexible. While dominance has often been understood as the ability to keep and control all resources, these studies showed that it was often simply how much an animal wanted a particular resource that determined the extent to which he/she would try to get it. Furthermore, puppies were treated with great tolerance, dogs developed “special” friendships and alliances and bitches had no stable hierarchy at all. (Dr Ian Dunbar comments that bitches tend to go by the First Bitch Amendment: “I have it and you don’t!” - Why Can’t a Dog be More Like a Dog?). The idea of stable hierarchies in domestic dogs is meaningless. 


Studies in feral dogs (the majority of the world's dog population is not "owned" but lives off human dump sites and village waste in 3rd World countries) revealed that they do not form tight, highly structured packs, but rather loose associations which change as new dogs enter the picture.

Dogs are opportunistic scavengers, not cooperative hunters. The idea of dogs forming packs has no foundation. 


Why is pack theory such a problem?
“Labelling a dog “dominant” has become a very used and abused term and tends to be applied to any dog that shows less than perfect behaviour. It has become very popular amongst dog owners, behaviour enthusiasts, uninformed trainers and amateur behaviourists, as it provides a convenient answer to all evils and in some cases an opportune disguise for ignorance” Shannon McKay, Dominance Theory - Convoluted & Confusing


Following on from this quote, here are some of the reasons why pack theory is a problem:
1. Pack theory provides the same explanation for nearly all behaviour problems: the dog is misbehaving because it thinks it is “alpha” or is trying to be “alpha”.
2. Pack theory provides the same solution to nearly all problem behaviours: the owner must establish his “alpha” status over the dog and make sure the dog knows his “place” in the pack.
3. Pack theorists often advocate physical punishment to “correct” the dog-owner relationship. Examples of this are: “alpha rolls” (the dog is forced onto its back and the owner growls in its face), pinching the dog’s back with a pair of pliers, holding its muzzle closed with one’s hands, shaking the dog by the scruff or hanging the dog by its collar. (All these punishments are falsely believed to imitate real canine behaviours dished out by the top dog to disrespectful subordinates.)
4. Pack theory does not take into account any real factors that may be influencing behaviour nor does it take into account basic learning theory.
5. Pack theory offers little help to owners who are unable to physically dominate or psychologically intimidate their dogs.
6. Pack theory assumes that dogs view humans as other dogs - this is clearly not true, as some dogs are aggressive towards other dogs, but friendly towards people or visa versa.


Without a doubt, the most dangerous effect of pack theory is that it encourages dog owners to take a competitive or antagonistic attitude towards their dogs - the owner must always be ready to let the dog know who is boss and to ensure that the “ambitious” dog never wins or gets the better of him. No matter how much it is sugar-coated, this is not a healthy, loving relationship. Furthermore, some dogs will react extremely negatively to such forceful handling and may become increasingly aggressive towards their owners. If someone grabbed you, threw you on your back and yelled in your face what would you do? Are we really surprised that dogs bite people?


What about the “softer” versions of pack theory?
As violence towards animals has become less acceptable and positive training techniques are the order of the day, some pack theorists have toned down their methods to be more politically correct. We are now told that the real role of “alpha dog” is to be a strong, but benevolent leader and that it is through total indifference and the control of all resources at all times that the alpha dog rules - not through physical force. Thus we are encouraged to ignore our dogs when they greet us and to greatly limit our attention towards them at all times. We are then told to do seemingly benign things like spit in their food (that apparently means you have eaten from the bowl first!) and to go through doorways first (alpha always leads the hunt!) We are also strongly warned against the supposed dire consequences of things like allowing the dogs into the bedroom, stroking their chests or chins and allowing them to lean against us or place their heads on our laps.


While these actions or cautions may seem pretty harmless in themselves, they nevertheless put owners in a position where they constantly have to evaluate their actions with regards to whether they are behaving like a true “alpha” or not. As a result, many of the delights of owning a dog become possible pitfalls for the worried owner: Should I rub the dog’s tummy, ever let him win at tug-of-war, greet him when I come home or allow him to come upstairs in the house? If I break eye-contact first, will he think he has won, but then again, if I look at him at will he think he is too important? It is easy to see how quickly this kind of thinking can get out of hand. Owners often end up behaving like paranoid tyrants, worrying that their sneaky dogs will depose them if they let their guard down for even a moment.


Why is pack theory still so popular?

Although pack theory has long been dismissed by educated behaviourists and trainers, it retains its popularity in dog circles for the following reasons:
1. Pack theory has a romantic quality to it. It supposedly takes us and our dogs back to our roots and back to nature.
2. We humans are obsessed with our own social status - is it any surprise that we would project our obsession onto our closest companions?
3. Pack theory has a “magical” quality to it - an assertive and charismatic pack theorist may be able to intimidate a dog to such an extent that he may suddenly seem perfectly behaved. The fact that the dog is utterly terrified and the “cure” may only be temporary is overlooked.
4. Pack theory seems to do away with the need for any real training or hard work on the part of the owner.
5. Because of the attractiveness of the theory and its mass appeal, TV networks are keen to produce shows about pack theorists and their “work”. Probably the most well-known or well-promoted pack theorist today is Cesar Milan. While Cesar himself confesses that he has no behaviour qualifications, his hit TV series shows how he uses pack theory to “sort out” dogs. However, it is interesting to note that the show always contains the warning “do not try this at home”! In other words, Cesar may be physically strong and psychologically confident enough to subdue the most difficult of dogs, but real-life owners are likely to get bitten if they try the same tactics. Is this really of any use?


If we abandon Pack Theory, what have we got left?

“None of us will ever know for certain what a dog is thinking, what are its motives or why it does what it does. What we do know however, is what the dog did.” Dr Ian Dunbar, Why Can’t a Dog be More Like a Dog?


Dogs have the ability to learn and change according to what is going on around them. A practical way of dealing with dog behaviour is to work with the ways and means that learning takes place. Once we understand learning theory, we have a huge range of tools at our disposal which can be used to teach, change, develop, inhibit or eliminate behaviours. The basic principals of learning theory are not complicated: We all know that if a behaviour is rewarded it is likely to be repeated and if it is not rewarded it is less likely to be repeated. Obviously there are many and more complicated parts to learning theory (classical conditioning, operant conditioning, desensitization, habituation, reinforcement schedules, extinction, negative punishment, positive reinforcement etc). That is why all trainers and behaviourists should be experts on the subject. If they do not understand how a dog learns - how can they teach it anything?

Dogs also have a rich emotional life which influences and motivates behaviour. By studying the emotional brain, behaviourists can help owners to change the underlying motives for behaviour, bringing about lasting resolutions to problems. 

What sort of relationship should we have with our dogs?
Does turning our backs on pack theory mean that we should allow our dogs to do as they please? Of course not! It is our job to look after our dogs and a vital part of that is educating them about the appropriate ways to get what they want and need i.e. what behaviour works and what doesn't work. 


While dogs may not be wild wolves, neither are they human beings and we need to recognise that taping a list of “house rules” to the fridge or sitting them down for a long chat is just not going to cut it when it comes to teaching them acceptable behaviour. We must acknowledge the things that our dogs enjoy and the things that they want or need and then go about teaching them acceptable ways to obtain these things. This is the very principal of reward training: the dog learns how to gain what it wants (attention, walks, food, toys, chews etc) by complying with what we want (sit, lie down, give paw, come when called, go to the toilet outside etc). The dog also learns that trying to gain what it wants by unacceptable means (jumping up, mouthing, barking etc) does not work (they never gain what they want by engaging in these actions).


The relationship that results from this approach is one of trust and respect. My dogs trust that when I put a hand out to them I am not going to hit them, they trust that if I ask them to get in the car something nice (a walk or outing) will happen or that if I put my hand in their food bowl while they are eating, it is not to steal their food! At the same time, they respect that they need to sit politely before their meals, settle down when I say “enough” and let go of a tug-toy when I ask them to.


I think that the following statement by James O’Heare sums things up very nicely:
“We (behaviourists and trainers) have a responsibility to promote a healthy bond between the dog and the owner. A healthy relationship, be it between humans , or between humans and dogs is based on cooperation and not on competition.”  Competitive vs. Cooperative Relations with Dogs - An Editorial

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