Busting The Dominance/Pack Myths
Many trainers, behaviorists and dog owners today are still buying into an old, outdated, and very flawed myth about dominance and pack mentality in domesticated dogs and wild wolves. In this blog post I’m going to explain the truth and bust those old myths, based on irrefutable science.
Way back in 1947 Rudolph Schenkel ignorantly published “Expression Studies of Wolves” where he gathered a bunch of wild wolves from different geographic locations and placed them all together in captivity. From his observations, he concluded this is how wolves behave in the wild. The problem is that wolves in the wild do not mix with others from vastly different geographical locations, they’re not in captivity where every aspect of their lives are controlled by humans, and they lose their family orientation. What he actually observed were wild wolves in states of fear and very high stress 24/7 for a very long time. It was cruel and inhumane. The data from this study should be stricken out of existence, it is factually useless. Unless you want to really learn how to NOT do science.
Then in 1968-1970 David Mech popularized the myth with his publication of “The Wolf: Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species.” It was simply expounding the same unscientific myths. But when Mr. Mech finally left his lab and went to observe wolves in the wild first hand, he found he was completely wrong about pack and dominance behaviors. He found actual family structures and begged the publisher to remove his book from sale. The publisher was making too much money and refused.
Mr. Mech has since recanted that book stating: “One of the outdated pieces of information is the concept of the alpha wolf. “Alpha” implies competing with others and becoming top dog by winning a contest or battle. However, most wolves who lead packs achieved their position simply by mating and producing pups, which then became their pack. In other words they are merely breeders, or parents, and that’s all we call them today, the “breeding male,” “breeding female,” or “male parent,” “female parent,” or the “adult male” or “adult female.”
Many studies since then have proven this singular, poorly conducted, misleading myth of “pack” and “dominance” to be absolutely wrong in some very significant ways. What the many legitimate studies of wolves in the wild have found are that what we refer to as a pack is actually a “family” unit that acts as such. And a quite complex family structure at that! Violence between the members is rare, caring for each other and cooperation of all members is paramount. That family of wild wolves consists of a pair of parents, having a litter of pups every year (domestic dogs breed twice a year). Some of those pups once they reach the age of two or three years old, leave the family to go find another lone wolf to mate and start their own family with. When food is most scarce, they feed the youngest pups FIRST.
Domestic dogs have been scientifically observed in their feral state. These dogs join and leave groups all the time, unlike wolves to remain with the family until they mature. These dogs are not related to each other. And these dogs are scavengers, they can’t hunt properly. No, your dog will not survive in the woods away from humans on its own, period! They do not have the hunting patterns of wild wolves. Even in wild wolves, hunting patters are learned, not genetic.
Your dog does not see you as another dog, so it doesn’t expect you to act like a dog. Your domestic dog had no dominance behaviors at all. Not even with other dogs. Some dogs are more social, some are more shy, and they all have different bodies and abilities. Wild wolves have not changed at all in thousands and thousands of years. Domestic dogs have been breed in so many ways it’s not funny.
A wild wolf can use over sixty facial expressions. A German Shepherd, one of the most closely related to today’s wild wolves, can only express about twelve. A pug can only express a bit less than twelve. So your domestic dog must learn to recognize body language of many other dogs, some who can express things they can’t, and can’t express some body language your dog can. Wild wolves on the other hand, they’re all physically the same.
I recently saw an ad on Facebook (I get flooded with dog training and product ads on FB as you can well imagine) for a guy who claimed to be a world authority on dog training. He said if you have a German Shepherd you should never get on the ground to be eye level with them, never pet them too lightly, never do this or that, because they will see it as a sign of weakness and dominate you. Really? I do that stuff all the time with Luna Belle (pure bred working line GSD), and she’s never tried to boss me around. I’ve never owned a dog who even had a second thought about bossing me around. I’ve never seen a dog try to dominate a human. I have seen dogs be afraid, or in pain, in need of some physical or mental resource the owner was not giving them, and act on that unfulfilled need. But that’s not being dominant, that’s simply asking for something essential from their parent who takes care of them.
I very highly recommend the book Dominance In Dogs: Fact or Fiction by Barry Eaton. It’s a short book and a fascinating read as he lays out all of the research and scientific facts about this subject. You’ll gain great insight into your own dog’s behaviors. If you own a dog, or are thinking of adopting a dog, please this book, as well as the book Calming Signals by Turid Rugaas. IMHO every trainer, dog professional, and dog owner should read both, cover to cover. Both are short, easy reads, fun, and packed with factual information that will make your relationship with your dog much easier and pleasurable.
I originally learned to train my own dogs many, many years ago with very bad information. Training was difficult, most people ignored it, and we were fed tons of garbage information by tons of garbage sources. Research of dog behavior, physiology, and training has grown by leaps and bounds. Today as a trainer I’m always reading, taking seminars and courses, always trying to keep up with the latest research. I’m a major geek in that fashion, and proud of it. I have found training a dog is really easy if you are armed with the proper information. I no longer use, or tolerate the use of prong collars or e-collars. I no longer attach leashes to collars that tend to damage the structures of a dog’s neck, and discourage the very dangerous head harnesses. I now use a proper, safe harness or vest instead. I still have a collar on my dog, it has her rabies vaccination tag on it. But it’s there only for that purpose and to show she is not a stray if she ever gets away from me. But I will never attach a leash to it, unless a specific (and rare) situation leaves me no other choice.
So read these two books, stop fussing at your dog, and learn to talk calmly to your dog, in their own language. There’s no dominance, there’s no pack, there’s just your dog being a family member with you, being your friend, being your partner. Please raise, train, care, and communicate with them properly. If you have any questions or comments, please go to the Contact Us page and let us know.