The problem with packs

large white dog standing on hind legs and sniffing nose of a manOf all of the misconceptions about dog behavior we are faced with, the idea that dogs are ‘pack’ animals is among the ‘stickiest’.

Yes dogs are closely related to the Grey Wolf, a species which does form cohesive and lasting ‘packs’ when in the wild, packs which function to ensure the continuation of the genes of the animals in that pack. They hunt together and raise their young together. Stray or feral dogs may form groups, may scavenge together, may even have best buddies, but they do not establish packs in the same way wolves do. The process of domestication has created a unique beast, an animal far more successful than their close relative, the wolf. Dogs are social animals without a doubt, and incredible ones at that, being able to extend their sociability to include us. But this ‘based on wolf pack’ idea, although questioned, studied and disputed for years, remains.

The point of this post was not to argue against the pack paradigm, the research shows it to be erroneous, but rather to invite you to come up with other ways of describing our relationship with dogs. ‘Pack leader’ rolls off the tongue so easily, as opposed to ‘orchestrator of activities for a fluid grouping of social animals’. Even if someone’s idea of leadership includes the kinder, gentler kind, the smudge of ‘alpha’ is carried along with it for many pet owners. It becomes apparent in the manner in which owners and trainers handle and interact with dogs. Sometimes its effect is benign but often it is not and we see all manner of inappropriate behaviors in response.

For my own purpose of thinking about my relationship with my dogs I envision myself as a camp counselor. I am responsible for their welfare, direct their daily activities, mediate social interactions and teach them how to weave pot holders. Well, we’re not quite up to potholders yet.

Contributors to the pack leader discussion for your reading pleasure.

Jean Donaldson

American Veterinary Society of Animal Behaviorists

John Bradshaw


30 comments so far

  1. KellyK on

    I love the camp counselor idea.

    The way I conceptualize my relationship to my pets is that I’m the mommy. Partly it’s a way of reinforcing in my own head that I don’t have to be the big bad alpha b—, because that’s not even how wolf packs work. Wolf packs are generally adult wolves and a couple sets of cubs. So, to me, it means yes I am in charge, but I don’t have to be bossy or dominating. It’s a much warmer, fuzzier, more nurturing kind of “in charge” than “alpha” or “pack leader” conveys.

    It obviously doesn’t work if you take it too far, because dogs aren’t children and you can mess them up badly by either expecting them to think like human children or expecting them to fill those sorts of needs for you. *But* both dogs and kids are dependent on their adult humans for food, shelter, affection, and opportunities for fun. And both see the world in a way that makes perfect sense to them but that adult humans often find incomprehensible.

  2. sara, oreo & chewy on

    I’ve been a camp counselor, and that is a good analogy.

    I’m also a teacher by trade. I see so many similarities between the way I interact with my students and dogs. As a teacher, I not only teach, but give emotional support, reward my student for good behavior (with human treats!), teach them tricks to help them learn. I’m a cheerleader, rule setter, and sometimes we simply play games together.

    So, maybe “teacher” works.

    • fearfuldogs on

      When I used to travel for my business I would often find myself sitting in the boarding area for a flight and having an interchange with someone’s kid. I never felt I was doing anything extraordinary, I usually talked about dogs with them (of course), but parents would ask me if I was a teacher. Whether I said I was or not depended on how I was defining myself that particular day (I’ve led educational student groups but have never been a classroom teacher), but I always thought, “We are ALL teachers to the kids we come in contact with!” I suppose I feel the same way about the dogs I meet.

  3. Pup links! « Doggerel on

    […] The Problem with Packs. Why the “pack mentality” for dogs is increasingly out of vogue. If we’re not pack leaders, then, what do we call ourselves? Pet parents? I like this blogger’s suggestion of being a “camp counselor” for her dogs. (Fearful Dogs’ Blog) […]

  4. Bluff Country Canine Rescue on

    In a way, I think I like Kelly’s analogy better because it allows for the close bond that (ideally) develops between a dog and it’s person.

    I had been thinking that I’d classify myself more as a ‘friend’ but that doesn’t necessarily incorporate the dog’s dependency. Perhaps a ‘big sister or big brother’ roll, if not the ‘mother’.

    I’d be interested in seeing you develop this topic further!

  5. Roxanne @ Champion of My Heart on

    Well, I’m not sure I have a word for the relationship part, but I like to say that my dogs look to me for information and guidance in situations where they’re trying to decide the best thing to do. I like to think they know they can rely on me to give them the details or options they need.

    • fearfuldogs on

      I like my dogs to know I ‘have their back’ too, especially Sunny.

      • KellyK on

        Same here. It always makes me happy to have Diamond sit next to me, relaxed and happy with her back against my leg, because she knows that I very literally have her back.

  6. Lizzie on

    I think it very much depends on the kind of relationship that someone has with their dog.

    If you look at an Assistance Dog as just one example, I would imagine that an owner would doubtless be unable to function without that dog by his/her side. That surely is more than a ‘pet’. These dogs can think for themsleves, and problem solve, I would go so far as to say that they are not so dependent on humans as yours or my dogs are, in fact I would say that it is quite the other way around! These dogs live to serve their humans, they help with laundry, shopping, ATM’s, pulling clothes off, picking up items etc. Gosh my husband could not even fit that bill!
    If I was disabled I know who I would rather rely on….

    Sure all domestic dogs are reliant on us humans for supplying food warmth and shelter; basic requirements for most mammals. But it’s the emotional ties that bind us the most, and that’s what makes our relationships with dogs so very special. Couldn’t sum that up in a single word!

    • fearfuldogs on

      Interesting point to bring up about assistance dogs. I might think of the difference between them and pet dogs is that not only must assistance dogs ‘problem solve’, they are allowed to!

      I won’t mention your comment to your husband. 😉

  7. lauren on

    love this! i hope millions of people read it. also, i would totally marry john bradshaw if i could. 🙂

    • fearfuldogs on

      HMMM..maybe I can add ‘matchmaker’ to my resume. If I ever have the pleasure of meeting himself I may pass your comment along.

      • lauren on

        ha ha! i’m totally already married and probably 30 years his junior, but i’m sure i can work something out. 😉

  8. Donna in VA on

    Ok, you all convinced me some time ago that pack leader was leaning too far. But I thing we need some descriptor that indicates an active rather than passive role in the dog’s life. I hate the people who stand idly by while their dog does whatever it chooses – like the rudest dog in the world who lives in our neighborhood. I liked the “guardian” descriptor and I recently said that I “managed” my dog in order to help him cope with situations. So it’s some combination of those two I think – “active guardian”.

    You also reminded me of the time I was working with Max on obedience exercises in the parking lot of a nearby recreational facility. A little girl asked if she could pet him and I said no, we were working, but she could watch. Her mother explained to the girl “She is TEACHING him.”

    • fearfuldogs on

      I’d agree that being our dog’s ‘door mat’ is not going to work 😉

  9. rangerskat on

    With Ranger, my registered therapy dog, who is calm, confident and reliable I am his dance partner. By that I mean we work together as a team so seamlessly that you can’t actually tell that I’m leading. With his crazy scaredy sister Finna, the one who brought me to this blog and the website, and all her issues I am her protector, teacher and nurturer. She’s made noticeable progress in the six weeks since she came to live with us but she has a long long way to go. It will be a long time or maybe never before she can be anyone’s partner. At this point our job is to protect her from scary situations and to protect our friends and neighbors from her fear aggression (those two are two sides of the same coin) and to help her to learn better coping strategies and skills, to nurture her confidence and teach her appropriate ways to behave.

  10. justthreadtwiddling on

    When you get to the successful potholders, please share as we are in need of new ones. Ike and Tina have eaten a few of the old ones!

  11. jet on

    my dogs and I are a team…. I like to think myself as a ‘spiritual leader’ in the sense that is used with sports teams – ie I am not the official ‘captain’ but the dogs rely on me for guidance anyhow, so I am a leader by example and by providing support and guidance

    • fearfuldogs on

      Your comment reminded me that I will often say to the dogs, “Ok team let’s go!”

  12. Janet Finlay on

    Great discussion. I like to see the role as a combination of teacher and coach in that I have a responsibility to guide and teach them – but I also want them to be able to reach their full potential and be the best they can be. It is a shame though that “leader” is now so charged as really the role we have is that of a *good* leader!

    • fearfuldogs on

      Yes, like cues that are ‘poisoned’ due to negative associations, I fear the same is true for ‘leader’ when it comes to dogs.

  13. Sarah on

    I really like this also. When I was running adoption meetings I would often suggest to people to first drop “pack” and just focus on being a good leader with their dogs. That their relationship should mirror that of a child and parent rather than the more abrasive alternative. Without needing much explanation, it’s clear way to get across that our relationship with our dogs should be inclusive of emotional support but also with rules and boundaries in order to help the dog become the best they can.

    It’s such a simple shift in perception, so I like to think there’s a good chance it will influence people… even if just one at time.

  14. Thom "Swanny" Swan on

    One would think it would be difficult for a guy with 14 dogs, but actually, it’s easy. My dogs are “the team” or “the dogs” or “the guys” or “the fuzz-butts”, and I am simply the “musher”, aka “the primate who rides on the sled.” Our relationship is simply that of human and dog, and I’m very content to let each dog truly be a dog, within a kennel and/or team of dogs.

    There is a common theme to many of the comments here, that of a team with the human taking the role of ‘coach’. It’s an analogy that is common among dog mushers and generally seems to be applicable.

    Although some mushers like to refer to themselves as “the brains of the outfit”, I sometimes feel I should question that statement.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks Thom. At the very least you can consider yourself the one with thumbs.

      I wonder if what you say is common among people who actually ‘work’ with their dogs. When I spent time in New Zealand on a sheep farm I never heard a shepherd talk about himself or herself as the ‘pack leader’. And around here the fellow who hunts coyotes with his hounds isn’t anything like a ‘leader’, he’s usually walking around with a satellite device trying to find his dogs.

  15. Jacqueline Burns on

    Very interesting how people see themselves as related to their dogs. One of my sons called me a crazy dog lady. Lol. He does not have a pet. I have four dachshunds, three of whom are part time workers. At home, sitting on the couches with us, they are like normal kids, pushing each other out of the way to get the best spot, or climbing up on Mom’s lap for some loving. And like good parents, we see to it that they get proper meals, see the doctor, get exercise, have fun, socialize and learn good manners.

    Daisy is my biggest, running between 14 and 16 pounds. Not your typical service dog, but she takes her job seriously, and does an excellent job of helping me walk and maintain my balance. She also protects me from idiots who dislike dogs, but that’s another story. Molly is at the other end of the scale at 8.5 pounds. She may get carried as much as she walks. She is also a medical alert dog. When these two put on their working vests, they are the most serious, calm dogs in the world. Without them, they are total goofballs. Mindy is a stay at home dog who listens for everything, and lets us know when anything needs checking out. She serves as a hearing dog for her dad. And finally, Taffy. That is a totally different relationship,lol. Taffy is the “It’s All About Me” girl, and we are her service people.

    The one shining truth that runs thru our lives with our dogs is unconditional love. They show it to us, and we return it to them. We consider them as sisters, tho they all came from different rescues. They consider us Mom and Dad. We treat them like kids, keeping in mind that they are not human, and need even more care than the two legged ones we raised. And it works for all of us.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for sharing, quite a crowd you have there! Sounds like fun actually.

  16. dgarrod on

    Family describes what I see, all with individual roles. I’m the hunter, the gatherer, the guide (maybe guidance counselor..hahah). I teach, educate, inform and provide resources for meeting needs.

    Each dog takes the role they are best suited for in the family – soldier/alert; nurturer; mediator; and each have their work/jobs (where do they excel – therapy work; agility; RallyO/Obedience; herding; tracking; nose work; conformation – what?). Jobs keep families busy and family requires understanding, teamwork, and equalization…and so much more.

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