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Are dogs REALLY pack animals?

Once upon a time, the answer would have been “you betcha!”

In recent years, though, both animal behaviorists and scientists are completely rethinking this theory.

What they’ve discovered has completely changed the way we think about dogs in general, and dog training specifically.

Read on for the latest info that answers the question of whether or not dogs are really pack animals.

Are Dogs Really Pack Animals?

To best answer that question let’s start with the origin of the theory, then we’ll find out what the experts say.

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Why do we think dogs are pack animals in the first place?

To understand whether or not dogs are really pack animals, we have to understand how the theory came to be in the first place!

As Victoria Stilwell (more on her in a moment) explains, the notion of dogs being pack animals stems from a 1970s study on domesticated wolves.

The researchers observed the behavior of the captive wolves and determined that wolves form hierarchies to determine who gets to call the shots (and who gets the resources first).

The “alpha” male and female stood at the top of the chain as the “head of the pack.”

After the study came out, dog trainers everywhere began touting the benefits of “alpha training,” claiming that dog owners needed to become the “pack leader.”

However, the bold part in “1970s study on domesticated wolves” should raise some serious concerns right off the bat. Here’s why:

The study took place nearly 50 years ago…

To put this into perspective, let’s look at a few things that we believed 50 years ago that we know to be wrong today.

  • Smoking was okay (they didn’t officially proclaim that it causes cancer until the 80s, although scientists started suggesting it in the 60s).
  • Pain killers aren’t addictive (we didn’t really understand the opposite until relatively recently!)
  • Pluto is a planet (poor, poor Pluto was stripped of planetary status in 2006)
  • Dinosaurs were scaly, lizard-like creatures (recent theories suggest that they actually had feathers).
  • Birds aren’t very brainy (if you still believe this, check out Einstein the African Grey!)

In other words, science is constantly evolving, and things that were “true” 50, 10, 5, or even 1 year ago have been proved otherwise.

…on domesticated wolves

There are two things wrong with that phrase, but let’s go with the obvious: dogs are not wolves.

In fact, new studies suggest that they didn’t even descend from them in the way we once thought, but rather both today’s wolves and dogs branched off from another common ancestor.

Even if they did descend from the modern wolf, thousands of years of evolution has changed them.

In other words, dogs are no more wolf than we are neanderthal.

The other problem: captive animals behave entirely differently than their wild counterparts, especially when they enter captivity after living in the wild.

If you’re interested in learning more about that, wildlife biologist Annie White’s thesis is a fascinating (albeit long) read.

So, now that we know where the theory came from and why it’s problematic, let’s see what the experts have to say.

What do the experts say?

Are dogs really pack animals? Find out what the experts have to say!

For the sake of clarity, “experts” refers to those who have actual credentials, including scientists, animal behaviorists, and trainers who underwent extensive training themselves from aforementioned experts.

It does not include self-taught or self-proclaimed “experts” or those who have made their entire living off the notion that dogs are pack animals.

I mean no offense to a particularly famous alpha dog trainer (or his fans), but I feel like we need to trust those with actual credentials over those without any.

If you eliminate the latter from the mix, you’ll find that the expert opinion is that dogs are not pack animals.

Don’t take my word for it, though. Check out a few expert sources below.

Expert Sources

For each source, I’ve listed the authors credentials, a key quote, and where the article appeared. Each title also links out to the original article.

1. Social Behavior in Dogs

  • Written by: Gary M. Landsbergand Sagi Denenberg
  • Credentials: A lot! Both are, among other credentials, veterinarians and certified animal behaviorists.
  • Appearing on: Merck Manual Veterinary Manual, one of the most reliable and up-to-date authorities on veterinary science.

The dog’s social structure has been referred to as a pack hierarchy, but this does not accurately or entirely describe the relationship of dogs with other dogs or with people.

Gary M. Landsberg

2. Using ‘Dominance’ To Explain Dog Behavior Is Old Hat

  • Written by: John W.S., Bradshaw , Emily J., Blackwell , Rachel A., Casey. 
  • Credentials: Scientists at the University of Bristol
  • Appearing on: Science Daily

Far from being helpful, the academics say, training approaches aimed at “dominance reduction” vary from being worthless in treatment to being actually dangerous and likely to make behaviours worse. 

Science Daily

3. Wolves and Dogs: Why Your Pet is Not a Domesticated Predator

  • Written by: Sian John
  • Credentials: Diploma in Veterinary Support and on study for her BSc in Canine Behavior and Training.
  • Appearing on: Decoded Science

Imagine the range of changes that could occur in the 15-20,000 years since dogs first began to become domesticated and distinguished from their wild wolf ancestors.

Sian John

4. The New Science Of Understanding Dog Behavior

This one is actually a transcript of a radio show that played on NPR’s Fresh Air.

I’m including it because it talks about John Bradshaw’s findings. Bradshaw is an animal behaviorist with a focus on dog behavior.

Animal behaviorist John Bradshaw says it’s realizing that dogs are neither wolves nor furry humans and that dog owners have certain responsibilities to make sure their dogs are psychologically healthy.


5. Pack Theory Debunked

  • Written by: Victoria Stilwell
  • Credentials: Extensively trained by leading animal behaviorists in England.
  • Appearing on:

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.

Victoria Stilwell

View from the Other Side

In the interest of fair play, I tried to find some expert views that still say “yes, they are pack animals.”

Aside from a myriad of articles on Cesar Millan’s websites, I only found one truly legit source from an expert, and even he adds caveats to the “dominance” theory.

Social Dominance Is Not a Myth

  • Written by: Marc Bekoff Ph.D.
  • Credentials: Professor emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado,
  • Appearing on: Psychology Today

Some of the critic’s concerns are legitimate because we need to be very careful about generalizing from the behavior of wild and captive wolves (from whom dogs emerged) to the behavior of dogs.

Marc Bekoff Ph.D.

What does all this mean for your training strategies?

Now that we understand why dogs aren’t exactly the pack animals that we once believed them to be, what does this mean for your training strategies?

For those who are already using positive reward training methods, it doesn’t change a thing.

Those who follow the alpha way, though, may want to incorporate more science-based methods into their strategies.

That doesn’t mean you have to throw out all of your Dog Whisperer books, just toss out the “bad” parts, like the archaic and abusive “alpha roll.

Alpha training does have some decent principals that can translate over to reward-training (many of which we’ll talk about here).

So, very long story short: are dogs really pack animals? According to the majority of experts, no, at least not in the way we thought they were!

What are your thoughts? Are dogs really pack animals in your opinion? Share below!

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