Saturday, October 27, 2012

Are Dogs Pack Animals?

Wolves in their natural environment, so not captive ones, function as a pack. They hunt cooperatively and raise their offspring together. There is group cohesion because there is common interest, and the breeding pair sets the direction not so much because they fought their way to top position, but because they are older and more experienced - the pack consists of parents with several generations of offspring.
The wolf pack is not as static as once believed. Internationally recognized wolf expert L. David Mech states that every wolf, once an adult, has the freedom to disperse, mate and form a new pack, and many do. Furthermore, a wolf who doesn’t benefit the group runs the risk of being ousted or killed.
However, that revised information is not common knowledge. The belief that wolves are hardwired status challengers, and that it is the physically strongest one that prevails and keeps the others in check,  and that the same is true for dogs since wolves are dogs’ ancestors, is so widespread that even non-dog-owning folks believe it.
It is also what Cesar Millan accepts as true. In “A Member of the Family” he writes that canids in the wild arrange themselves in smoothly functioning packs, and if a dog misbehaves or aggresses, it is because the pack leader has weak energy the subordinate recognizes and takes advantage of. Handily, he has a number of dominance displays up his sleeve the weak human ought to apply to demote the canine ladder climber a few rungs, but warns not to repeat it at home.
In any case, just because Millan says something and masses believe it, doesn’t mean that it is so. A three-year study of feral and stray dogs in Italy revealed social behaviors that are not at all wolfish – or packish.
The normal adult group size was 3-6, but there was a high mortality rate and new dogs were frequently recruited to keep the number stable. In other words, only the number of adult dogs was stable, the make-up dynamic; by the end of the 3 years only one dog of the original group remained.
When the optimal size was reached, outsiders were aggressively driven away, but there was no aggression within the group, and there was no animosity observed against other dogs on the garbage dump feeding sites. Only the home resting area was defended, not the roaming range, or food.
The dogs in the group had preferred associates and sometimes roamed with a buddy, but each one also spent time alone. There was no obvious pack leader.
There also wasn’t a breeding pair. All females mated and preferred familiar males to the strongest ones. Since the stud, unlike daddy-wolf, neither protects nor feeds the brood, strength is irrelevant.
Mom-dogs whelped away from the group, and stayed away for 4-5 months. The group did not help raise the pups, but stayed in loose contact with the female.
After the pups were weaned, they followed their mom to the feeding sites - neither she, nor any of the group’s adults, regurgitated food.
Only about 25% of the pups stayed with group.
The observations of this study align with others made around the world. Feral and stray dogs universally:
Do not form hierarchical packs, but loosely and transitory groups, and/or roam with a buddy, and/or alone.
Females breed often and with every male they choose, and are on their own raising the brood.
Unlike wolves, dogs don’t hunt cooperatively, but scavenge independently. Some avoid humans and adjust feeding to times when people aren’t in the vicinity, for example at dawn and dusk. Such was the case with our feral born Will, who was first spotted by humane society volunteers outside of Calgary. She and her 4 littermates were a guesstimated 10 weeks old, they traveled with mom-dog but no other ones, and all of them were so apprehensive that they couldn’t be trapped, not even with smelly wet cat food, but had to be tracked and cornered in their home-base hideout. And it's hideout, not dugout. The feral dog study found that the dogs did not dig dens, but moms-to-be used already existing cavities to whelp.

Strays are often less elusive. I observed non-owned dogs Greece and Southern Spain who solicited food from tourists, even though they were repeatedly shooed away by locals. They never jumped and stole food, and there are accounts aplenty of bolder strays that do, but the ones I observed didn’t. I also didn’t see any aggression, not against people or each other. They just hung out where tourists were, where they experienced morsels being tossed their way.
In Chalkidiki, a mom-dog and her litter followed me to dinner for a week, and in Andalusia a large blond dog arrived at the hotel pool each day when I had my lunch. Once I understood his pattern, I bought lunch for the both of us, and sometimes the hotel manager’s purebred Old English sheepdog would join in – both dogs intact males, no aggression.
So, an unchanging linear hierarchical pack, and the dominance that comes with it, is about as unnatural as it gets regarding dogs that are not directly manipulated by people. That is not how self-governing dogs arrange themselves.
The relevant and important question is if that changes when we eliminate autonomy and make dogs our dependents. When we include a dog in our social setup, don’t we function like a pack? Isn’t the owned dog a pack animal then, if not by nature, by adaptation?
Well yes, although I dislike the word pack in that context. Humans who live together, share space and  purpose, are called a family, circle of friends, sports team, focus group, school class, organization, but never pack. And owned dogs live with people, not the other way around, so my dog is a family member. But that is just semantics and rather trivial. What we have to understand, and that is crucial, is that the moment we acquire a dog, he has no option but to assimilate and become a functioning part of our intimate social group. At that point, the dog needs someone who teaches him how to: how he fits in, like members of any group need someone who outlines the direction. That instills safety in the newcomer, and group.
In the dog/human composition, it is the person who is the leader by virtue of species.
The ambition to lead humans is a choice. Many people are perfectly content to dabble away and let others make the important, and sometimes tough, decisions. In our relationship with dogs, there is no choice. The dog has lost independence and became a dependent, relying entirely on his people to provide for his needs. Like you would need a roadmap how to function successfully in a foreign land or culture, the dog needs directions how to access resources, how to gain social acceptance, how to feel secure - safe, and how to deal with stimuli that are part of his environment.
It is a no-brainer that that level of dependency makes the dog the one family member who is exactly NOT dominant and in charge. You are, and your dog knows it.

Forget and forgo the idiotic and damaging dominance rituals Millan and alike prescribe. Forced submission and physical power displays emotionally paralyzes the timid by nature dog, and provokes aggression in the confident one. We instill distress, and foster competition in a species programmed to orient to humans and be solicitous.
Dogs are not pack animals, or perhaps even innately social ones, but they are hardwired to be able to form close and permanent social relationships, which is what we're banging on when we invite a pooch to share our life’s journey. Studies showed that dogs look at humans for information; wolves don’t. Dogs are food, but also social opportunists. They are perhaps the only, other than human, animal who can feel more comfortable living with another species than their own.
Far from being naturally dominant, the dog is a natural follower. Remember that puppies follow their mother to where the food is? Following who facilitates basic needs is hardwired in dogs; they pay attention to whoever is important.
Attention is an offered behavior and has nothing to do with rank, but facilitation. Once we earned that attention, all we have to do is teach behaviors that please us the pooch can use to get what pleases him. In other words, the dog learns to access what motivates him through cooperation, and once these behaviors are habitual, no further leading is necessary - unless the situation changes, at which point the dog who has authentic group identity, feels bonded and trusts, will seek information from his human and follow his lead.

A pack, any social group, shares space and has common purpose. One does not become a pack leader by entering someone else’s home, pinning the dog or forcing him with a 20-cent rope to trot behind. Millan’s “pack” is nothing more than an arrangement of individual dogs coerced to avoid a certain set of behaviors when he is in the vicinity. That’s all. His is a relationship based on dominance and forced submission, and indeed requires what he preaches: to be on top of it all the time, to always be calm-assertive.
How tedious and impractical a relationship with an animal who is by nature not hierarchical, but programmed to form a cooperative close social bond and live in harmony within group.


  1. Once again a very interesting and most informative Blog. Thankyou for always sharing your wisdom and knowledge.

  2. Great post on how dogs function in a group.

    As for Cesar, I happened upon an episode recently where a couple was having severe fear/aggression issues with their young (1-2 yr) spanielX and they stated that their dog just did not trust them. She stated that she did not know what went wrong as they got the dog as an 8 week old pup and applied all of Cesar's techniques from day one. I thought BINGO! There you go, she inadvertently identified her dog's problem. Too bad the producers of the show couldn't have put two and two together.

  3. Sadly, all what the producers are interested in are ratings, not dogs' welfare.

  4. Great article, thank you. I went to a trainer because I was interested in doing agility with my overly rambunctious dog and she insisted on some obedience first, which I agreed, was needed. The first thing she had me do with my dog was feed her by hand, all her meals. In an incredibly short period of time, we had a much improved working relationship from that alone. I never was a "dominance" type, my dog was never the food motivated type, but she still needed to eat every day - what never worked before worked when all the food came directly from my hands. This article articulated that idea clearly. Again, thank you.

  5. Wow! A fascinating read that I will definitely refer to in years to come while integrating dogs into my family home. Amazing!