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Pack Theory

Extract from Aunty Kaye’s Doggy Dictionary of Training and Behaviour

Dogs are social animals. Whether they are descended from wolves or from some other wild dog ancestors who started associating with people in prehistoric times, it is generally said that in the wild, they lived in packs, usually made up of an extended family. Their social nature and ability to communicate through body language, facial expressions and vocalisation played an important role in their adoption into (or of) human families.  Ethology, the study of how animals behave in their natural environment, has given us an insight into canine behaviour.

Much of our understanding of pack behaviour comes from studying wolves. However, dogs are not wolves. Their genes, behaviour, environment and living conditions are similar but significantly different. In a sense, we cannot talk about what dogs were like “in the wild” because dogs did not exist in the wild – only their ancestors did. Dogs, as we know them, are a domesticated species, and therefore their behaviour has been modified from what existed in the wild. Dogs were the first species to be domesticated and they are thought to have played a significant role in human evolution – for example by helping humans to become more successful hunters, increasing the amount of protein in the human diet and so fuelling brain growth. However, dogs did more than just help early humans to hunt. They may have kept human encampments more secure by scavenging on the outskirts of the camp and alerting people to intruders or predators. There is also a theory that an intense emotional bond formed very early, when human mothers breast fed canine puppies, which stimulated he release of Ocytocin, a “feel-good” hormone. Dogs probably also slept with the human family, helping to keep them warm at night. Recent scientific studies have shown that dogs scan the human face in greater detail than any other species, including primates such as chimpanzees, and are very adept at reading human emotion from our facial expressions. They do this more than their wolf ancestors, so this is one way they changed as they were genetically selected to fit in with humans.

“Pack theory” is used to refer to the paradigm of dog training and behaviour in which  pack relations and dominance have central importance. This contrasts with “learning theory” which places the scientific study of learning, especially operant conditioning, in prime position.

The controversy is not about whether dogs are social animals, but about what sort of relationships found in dog or wolf packs, and whether these relationships are relevant to how we relate to our pet dogs.

In particular, trainers who use “positive” i.e. reward-based methods might object to those who train by means of physical discipline and reprimand, but they also disagree fundamentally with how dogs’ behaviour is interpreted. Unwanted behaviour is not necessarily a sign of dominance. Dominating the dog, especially by physical means is not necessarily the way to deal with behaviour problems or unreliable responses to commands.

“Pack Theory” is a euphemism for the paradigm of dog training that says that the human dog owner has to become the leader of the pack, and that this involves physical as well as social discipline of the dog. there are three main problems with this, as I see it:

  1. dogs are not wolves;
  2. the perception that wolf society is characterised by aggression and physical discipline is a misinterpretation of wolf behaviour, and in fact studies have shown that there is a lot of affection and social signalling between pack members; and
  3. the existence of social or dominance hierarchies has been used as an excuse for brutal and oppressive training methods – such as the “Alpha Roll” and the “Scruff Shake”. These methods have been advocated in the past, but the writers who promoted these methods have since withdrawn the advice, because too many people were bitten as a result of using physical confrontation to train their dogs. These methods are simply not necessary.



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