Most everyone seems to think so, and an entire dog training methology is based on the believe that dogs live in hierarchical packs, with each aiming for alpha leadership. It is so ingrained, even with the non-dog owning public, that folks don’t realize that it is just a hypothesis, not truth. A seemingly no-brainer theory that, when questioned and investigated deeper, might actually turn out to be false.
Every species is unique in their behavior. That is how we tell them apart even if their anatomy is closely related. As such, humans and chimps are clearly different species, with a common ancestor, but only some common, primate behaviors. The same is true for dogs and wolves.
Behavioral variations happen when animals adjust to different environmental demands. Adapting to one’s Umwelt, the milieu she lives in, is evolutionary success. The big divergence regarding wolves and dogs is that dogs live on human waste, and non-captive wolves kill prey. Food seeking is a primal drive, and that makes that difference a profound one, because it means that wolves depend on one another for survival, and dogs don’t. They depend on humans.
Wolves are stronger in numbers, because they are not skilled enough to bring down large prey alone. In addition to cooperative hunting, wolves also benefit from pack support when raising their young. Wild wolves procreate only a small number of precious puppies once a year, and their survival is crucial for the species. Being cared for by a group increases the pups’ chance to reach maturity and contribute in the hunt, or procreate themselves.
The sole purpose of a pack is to thrive better as a group than an individual. That is clearly the case with wolves in their natural habitat. It takes a pack to raise a pup, and because nobody feeds them, they have to work together to kill big game for sustenance.
Dogs’, by nature, hang out where humans are. Not just the ones who claim a food bowl and leash, occupy the passenger’s seat in the car and sleep on our bed. In fact, most of our world’s dogs are feral born and strays, but still choose to live in the vicinity of humans because, since the dawn of agriculture and early settlements, that’s where their food is. Yes, occasionally one eats a rodent, but almost always when dogs kill it is either with the intent to eliminate and typically a controlled shake without a drop of blood spilled, or a hyper-aroused, out-of-control frenzied blood orgy; a rip fest that can leave many animals dead, but that are not consumed.
As a species dogs forage on what we dump, and forming a pack doesn’t make ecological sense for scavengers, especially if there is a limited supply of resources. Dogs also don’t rely on group cooperation to propel the species. As any rescue organization will attest, puppies are plentifully produced. A female dog comes into heat younger than a wolf, and more often. She can accept several suitors, even during one heat, and typically cares for her brood alone. Male dogs conveniently move on after mating; are the canine version of deadbeat dads.
Dogs don’t need a pack to thrive, but that does not mean they can’t enjoy inter-canine affiliations, or belong to a loose and transitory group when circumstances dictate or favor it, but they rarely depend on one another for survival.
Why does it matter to us if dogs are natural pack animals or not? Because it impacts their behavior and our life with them, that’s why.
Alike humans, dogs infest every corner of this planet to scavenge on waste we leave, or leftovers we kindly share. When resources are scarce, real or imagined, every other dog becomes a natural opponent. That means that dogs, inherently, drift toward competition regarding their own kind, not cooperation.
Indeed, a majority of my clients hire me because their dog aggresses against other dogs, and that interestingly is also the case with ones that were socialized properly. I pondered for some time why dogs that socially know other dogs well would proactively aggress, and came to the conclusion that it is because they have experienced dogs as resource competitors. For these dogs, more socializing in the usual way is not the solution. Quite to the contrary, it often overwhelms the dog, increases anxiety and makes matters worse.
Based on my experience, the awareness that inter-dog aggression could be the nature of the beast, not the pathology of a bad dog, makes many owners almost instantly more compassionate and patient, which allows them to approach the problem cognitively, and that leads to an improved relationship between dog and owner, which by itself can take the edge off aggression.
Regarding humans, strays are not connected to specific people, so no pack behavior there either. Hanging out in proximity does not make a pack - there has to be somewhat of a connection, which happens when we invite a dog into our home. The leash, house, fenced yard and crate eliminate her choices, and she becomes solely dependant on her person(s). The closest to what could be called pack belonging.
Does that mean that our canine companion needs a pack leader? Well, she certainly needs someone who explains how her world works; how she can belong, stay safe and access resources. How she can thrive through cooperation. And that someone has to be the human. The onus is on you, but an existing canine co-dweller who knows the ropes can certainly function as a great helper.
As far as humans are concerned, a dog, owned or not, is not a status-seeking opponent always vigilant for her chance to topple us, because directly, or indirectly, people supplied food since some 14.000 years, and people’s hands are able to hurt and harm. Dogs inherently know this, and that makes them, as a species, deferent to us.
If we translate pack leader into physical dominance displays and confrontational resource disputes, we create competition where there naturally isn’t one, and we run the danger that our dog becomes anxious, resentful and confrontational. Calling a human/dog group a pack, social unit, team or family is just semantics. What matters is that every owned dog has a person who educates, not dominates, so that she can thrive in the group she’s forced to live with.