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Pack issues

What is a Pack?

A pack is a group of animals of the same species who live together and form social bonds within their group. Dogs are pack animals who readily form relationships with other dogs and, as a result of living socially, have a complex system of communication, using body language, facial expressions and vocalisation. These are much less developed in canines that are mostly solitary, such as foxes. Being a pack animal does not mean that every dog will regard every other dog as their friend. The pack is an “in group” that may regard others as outsiders and potential competitors.

Domestication has muddied the waters somewhat. Domestic dogs no longer live in the wild (unless they are feral, but that is different), and no longer live the way their ancestors used to. Most dogs live in a group of animals of a different species – with humans. We humans are also a social species, and have been able to form bonds with dogs (and they with us) because we are both social, and because we share enough of our communication systems to get by, albeit with some misunderstandings. There are many ways in which the relationship has been mutually beneficial.

Dogs do relate to members of their own species in a social way, but “pack” is a more fluid concept. People who have two or more dog in their household have a pack of dogs who will work out ways of relating to each other. This is never static or permanent, but nor are packs which have been studied in the wild, such as wolves. Relationships change as animals mature and age. However, a pack of dogs in a human household will have some stability in the medium term.

Many domestic dogs relate to their own species in the context of fluid and temporary groups, such as those who meet and play in the park. Even though the individuals are unfamiliar to each other and the group is not permanent, most dogs seem extraordinarily “ripe” to join in. I wonder whether this is because of the neotenisation of the domestic dog – in other words, adult dogs who relate readily to a group of other dogs or people do so because they have retained juvenile characteristics of their wild ancestors, as shown by their dependence and readiness to join in and follow others.

Having said that dogs are pack animals, I should add that the consequences of this for training and behaviour are very controversial – see pack leadership and pack theory.

Pack leadership

I believe that “leadership” is important in the relationship between you and your dog, and that it is not just a pretext for control freaks who want to dominate and abuse their dogs. I have seen too many dogs severely stressed or showing aggression as a result of the owner’s failure to establish a suitable kind of relationship or basis for interacting. Let’s call it “tapping in to the social nature of the dog”, if leadership is to hard to distinguish from the old dominance stuff. I have also seen problems evaporate when leadership, or some intangible “relationship thing” was established as the result of the person taking some initiative in interaction with their dog.

Leadership is rather like assertiveness. It is achieved by developing an attitude of mind towards your dog and behaving accordingly. If this does not come naturally to you, and you find yourself turning to face your dog, following your dog, automatically responding when your dog approaches, apologising when your dog steps on your foot and so on, you will have to carry out the Leadership Exercises – aiming for the spirit rather than the letter of the law. It may feel artificial at first, but gradually both you and your dog should internalise these attitudes, and you will have developed a “leader-follower” relationship with your dog.



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