The Big Debate on Pack Behavior in Dogs

  The debate is firing up about dominance and pack behavior in domestic dogs. On one side of the fence, you have professionals stating dogs are not like wolves therefore do not follow a hierarchy. On the other side, you have professionals that say you must be a leader in order to have peace in your pack. So who is right? Both sides have research to prove their theory is correct, but they bash each other and say the other is completely wrong. In my opinion, they are both right and wrong in different ways.
    After researching and learning from the dogs themselves, I do believe they follow a pack order but they do not achieve this by constantly showing aggression to make other pack members submit. The calm, confident dog controls, protects, and keeps order in the pack. They use body language or a quick correction to communicate with the rest of the pack, not brute force or fear tactics. The aggressive dog is the unstable pack member looking for rank. These dogs do not see you as a leader, but rather just another unstable pack member striving for the same rank. Why? Because we act just as they do to gain that rank. We use outbursts of physical force like spanking and rolling a dog to correct behaviors (impulsively aggressive), we yell and scream (bark in a high pitch) if we can’t control a situation. Some people even have temper tantrums and full discussions as they clean up a mess (pacing and being destructive). It is no wonder our dogs are so confused by us. We strive for leadership but act unstable.
     The debate about whether or not dogs follow a pack order started very recently, simply because of one TV show in particular. There have been hundreds if not thousands of people battling over this since the TV show aired. Up until then, even our well-known behaviorists out there believed in pack behavior. I personally, will not put 20 years of personal research and experience aside because I don’t like the way this show portrays gaining leadership. I will continue to educate people on how fear will not make you a strong leader, but rather an unstable pack member. Many trainers out there believe it should be taken off the air because of the physical corrections that are used. I personally, do not think it should be taken off the air, because it does point out that dogs are not humans. I do think we need to keep educating people that physical force is NOT the answer. TV is not the only problem; I have been on quite a few breed bulletin boards that have behavioral tips with internet links to certain aggression trainers. I have seen trainers and veterinarians that still to this day, recommend extremely harsh methods to correct aggression. There is no way to stop bad information from surfacing but to say domestic dogs are not pack animals because of this is ridiculous.
     Too many times I have had people with multiple dogs call me because either they are fighting or a weak member has been killed. If they are not pack animals and they follow our human emotions (because we have genetically made them evolve so much), doesn’t that make this behavior, in human terms, a mental disability? If a human killed one of their family members, we would view them as mentally unstable or evil. So does that mean since we “filtered” out the dog so much, that these occurrences mean the dog is mentally unstable? That they should be immediately placed on some behavior-modifying drug and kept in a cell for its entire life as we do with humans? No, it simply shows their instinctual behavior survival by keeping a pack strong. The younger, stronger dog will challenge for leadership when the time is right. For example, a news article was brought to my attention of a disastrous shelter incident. The shelter had five dogs housed together, all of which had been getting along fine. The female went into heat and the younger stronger males attacked the weaker older male of the pack. We see this as barbaric, but this is their true instinct. The right to breed belongs to the strongest male. This is a great example of how their “wild” roots still exist. If the wolf were filtered out of our domestic dogs, these dogs would not have acted as a pack and attacked the older male. For more info on this incident click here:,0,6542657.story?track=rss

     Our domestic dogs are domestic now because we have helped them adjust to it. So what does this mean? We provide food daily, medical care, shelter, toys, and affection. These amenities are not available in the wild. We readily say how we have changed today’s dog to be non-wolf like but then state that they should be allowed to roam freely like a wolf. We blame their aggression on their “instincts” but will quickly say they are not pack animals; therefore they do not need to follow normal pack behaviors. In short. we are constantly contradicting ourselves.

    Yes, we have helped them adapt to our style of living, but their “wild” nature still confuses us. We feed them but they still thrive on hunting and killing prey like their ancestors. We provide shelter with big roomy houses, but they still love to be in a den like area (under tables, beds, crates) like their ancestors. We give them an incredible amount of affection but they still bite if they don’t want it like their ancestors.

   Some professionals refer to our living situations with domestic dogs as a “forced” pack. They say we should allow dogs the freedom of being dogs and having rank amongst themselves. I completely disagree with this, because we are forcing dogs to live as we do and in surroundings like we do. In the wild they will eventually fight over food, territory, and mating. It would be unacceptable and dangerous to the humans to allow your dogs to fight each other over these things in your home. In a natural pack, they have plenty of space where one dog can leave to start their own pack if they are unsuccessful in the battle for leadership. In your home, you are forcing them to stay in the same territory, therefore you must be able to control the pack. If you were to allow a “wild” pack mentality where the dogs have rank and sort things out themselves in your house, you are creating a dangerous situation in an unnatural setting. If we are asking them to live as we do, it is important to remember they should abide by the same rules as they would outside with a wild pack, but adjusted to confined quarters and human pack members. Otherwise, we leave room for dogs that challenge humans for position in a pack.

6 thoughts on “The Big Debate on Pack Behavior in Dogs

  1. With my dog, I had found that ignoring Tara’s recommendations by letting him sleep at the same height as me, and not enforcing who is the alpha, also teaches him to question me. When we do follow her instructions, he obeys me beautifully. These techniques are simple to follow, having him wait to eat on command, having him sit and wait to be let outside, not letting him sleep on the same height as me, so on and so forth. The secret to his success has been following Tara’s advice.

    1. Thanks for the post Russell. With all the debate around this topic, I had to voice my opinion. It is a constant battle and I am afraid people are losing sight of the fact that dogs are the ones that are suffering. As a society today we give up on more dogs then we need to, simply because we do not understand them.

  2. I read the article but I don’t see disagreement between Tara’s methods and Ceasar Milan’s methods. You say that you disagree with how the show portrays gaining leadership. How does the show portray gaining leadership in some negative way? Where have you ever seen Ceasar Milan act harshly or strike fear into a dog. Just as you say in you article about a good dog pack leader Ceasar acts like a calm, confident dog would and controls, protects, and keeps order in the pack. You say, dogs use body language or a quick correction to communicate with the rest of the pack, not brute force or fear tactics. Is this not exactly what Ceasar Milan does? What physical corrections are being used that are a problem? I have watched every episode of that television show and have read all the books and I do not see harsh aggressive anything being used. He has handled some pretty violent dogs and been calm and assertive and these unstable dogs respond with very little violence of their own. Everything in your article seems to indicate that you believe the same things that Ceasar Milan does about dogs and their nature and behavior.
    So again, I’m not sure how you can disagree about much of what he says or does.

    1. Chrys
      The methods I speak of include wrestling a dog to the ground, using his foot to “kick” a dog in the rear and in one show, using a shock collar set too high. In quite a few episodes, when wrestling a dog to the ground, if you observe the dog when the “battle” is done, the tongue is thick and purple and under an extreme amount of respiratory distress. The reason for this: the leash that is used literally takes the air away from them, so they essentailly “pass out”. Many trainers use this method but they use a version that looks less “tv” appropriate. Their technique is to lift the dog up by it’s leash until it passes out. There are different names for this technique, but they all lead to the same result; A dog that is taught a human can “take its life away”. This is in my book a harsh correction and a fear tactic.
      In one episode a bulldog was repeatedly”kicked” in the hind end, to redirect her from attacking a skateboard. By the end of the episode, the bulldog cowered everytime the owner turned into her, not just if her foot touched her.
      I do not agree with encouraging fear in a dog. My methods differ from his because, while I will give a proper leash correction for a display of aggression, it is only applied after a verbal correction is given. If you correct properly on a leash the first time after a verbal, then only a verbal is needed after that. I keep my rehabilitation cases in a work mind by using a consequence for negative behavior. For example, if they show barrier aggression as the exit the kennel, they simply do not exit until they are calm. Even if this takes 30-60 minutes I will continue to walk away from the kennel with patience and return 2 minutes later to try again. All dogs learn quickly that their freedom relies on their behavior.
      The same holds true for dogs that are reactive with other dogs. I have many dogs come to me that owners would choose to walk at ridiculous hours in order to avoid coming across other dogs on a walk. I do not need to “wrestle” a dog to the ground to stop this, nor do I need to make them understand that I can “take their life away”. I will keep approaching that dog on leash and use placement and sudden redirected motions until I can stand in front of the dog they were lunging at without issue. These sessions if done properly, literally take 15-20 minutes. Using body language and isolating what works in a pack, leads to a healthy relationship with your dog, not a fearful one.

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