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Leader of the Pack

Updated on September 8, 2015

"Being the Pack Leader" is Old-Fashioned BUNK

If a dog trainer tells you that your problems with your dog are due to your not being a pack leader, that person has just shown that:

1. They haven't paid any attention to the research about wolves and dogs.

2. They don't know much about how animals learn.

3. They probably don't have any credentials to speak of.

4. They are hanging on to a "sticky" idea just because it sounds right and is an easy sell.

But in any case, they are incorrect. You need to know why, so their ideas don't hurt your dog.

Debunking the Pack Theory Myth - so easy

Here is pack theory in a nutshell.

1) Dogs are the same as wolves.

2) Wolves form packs and are constantly seeking higher status in the pack so therefore so are dogs.

3) If your dog jumps on you or steals food off the counter (or any number of other behaviors that people don't like) he is trying to dominate you and be the boss of you, your family, and your other dogs.

The problem is that not one of these points is true. The information is so readily available. I have written a blog post that has a quick summary of the errors inherent in pack theory. But you don't have to take my word for it! Here are some of the many excellent resources about the myth of pack theory by people with all sorts of credentials and experience (including a world expert on wolves).

Pack Leader!

This is the video that inspired me to create this lens. So very simple, yet powerful. 21 eminent dog trainers give their opinions on the need of being a pack leader.

Why Should We Care?

Because pack theory encourages people to hurt dogs.

The people who erroneously believe that your household group is a strict hierarchy, and that your dogs are ambitiously trying to climb to the top, have one basic recommendation to you, and it is to take your dog down a notch. Dogs are four legged creatures, so reducing their salaries, demoting them, even publicly humiliating them don't work to communicate the rank reduction. That leaves pain and force.

The people who promote pack theory ignore the science that has been around for decades. By misinterpreting the motivation behind a dog's behavior, they choose the wrong response. Behavior science shows that behavior has consequences. You can change any animal's behavior by changing the triggers (called cues or antecedents), or the results. The cool thing is that the dog's "motivation" is irrelevant. Once you can tell what the dog is gaining from a certain behavior, there are a half dozen humane ways to turn the situation around so that the dog can either gain the same thing in an acceptable way, or learn another behavior that gains him something better.

Whether you try consciously to be a "leader" or not, there is already a huge power differential between you and your dogs. It is very clear to them. They know that food comes through you, access to the outside comes through you, and fun (hopefully) comes through you. You have the keys to the cabinet, can work the buckles on collars and harnesses, and buy the toys. With all that power, why would you need to hurt your dog?

Eat crackers out of your dog's dish!
Eat crackers out of your dog's dish!

Ridiculous Recommendations

Why Do We Not Laugh at this Advice?

Two of the standard recommendations that come with pack theory are to be sure to eat before your dog, and to precede him out doors.

Let's apply some common sense and life experience to this. Have you ever heard anyone say, "Fido was giving me some real problems, but after I started eating in front of him before he had his supper and making him follow me out the door, he stopped jumping up on me, stealing food off the counter, barking at the doorbell, and chasing the cat."

**crickets chirping**

OK, so we don't have to think very hard to realize that these actions are not going to change the dog's unwanted behaviors. But what to do instead? Buy some books on dog behavior and reinforcement based training. If you need one, find a professional who uses humane techniques. (Hint: most trainers with actual credentials do!)

These three sites (in this order) are a good place to start to find a credentialed humane trainer.

The Pet Professional Guild (The Pet Professional Guild requires an explicit commitment to force-free training as a membership requirement)

Truly Dog Friendly (all people included in the list have pledged to train without force)

Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers (all members have been assessed for knowledge of learning theory, dog behavior, and husbandry. Most but not all use exclusively force free methods, so you'll need to ask some questions)

Read this article on choosing a trainer for the right questions to ask a potential trainer.

Here's a confession: I followed the "eat before your dog" advice once upon a time, too. But I didn't like the idea of arranging my meals around my dogs. (I was on the right track there; if I'm in charge why shouldn't I be able to eat when I want?) I read a suggestion for a shortcut, and get this: it said I should keep some crackers on the counter near where I measure out the dog food. I was to dish out the dog food, then pick up a cracker, making it appear that I was taking it out of the dog's bowl, and ostentatiously eat it. That way I was "eating before my dog" right out of his bowl(!), but I didn't have to rearrange my dinner schedule.

Yes, I did this. And guess what: It didn't make my young dog stop chewing inappropriate things or stop fighting with my other dog. Go figure. I guess I didn't chew dominantly enough.

What Buffy Thinks - Jean Donaldson's Dog Weighs In

Jean Donaldson is an eminent trainer with who has authored many books on dog behavior and training. She runs the world-class dog trainer academy Academy for Dog Trainers. She doesn't need to be a pack leader.

Read This Book and You'll Never Look at Dogs the Same Again

The Alpha Roll

Speaking of Ridiculous

The "alpha roll" is prime among the suggestions given by pack theory proponents as a way of putting your dog in his place. It is based, again, on misinformation.

The behavior we see in wolves that most often resembles an alpha roll is when a wolf offers submission, for example, to let a stronger wolf have primary access to a resource such as food. The wolf submitting rolls on his or her side and displays the belly.There is generally no physical aggression in these encounters.

You can see that clearly in this video.

In very specific situations involving breeding or feeding, you might see a wolf pin another wolf (still, preemptive submission seems to be the rule). Take a look at the link above from Joan Orr of Doggone Safe if you want more details about that. It contains an interview with some world experts (the Coppingers) on canids that addresses the mostly mythological and totally misapplied alpha roll.


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