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Is the Pack Theory in Dogs Outdated?

Why those who call pack theory outdated are themselves outdated...

Tony Knight Dog Listener recalls that he was once thrown off an on-line chat room for a dog behaviour group for posting the comment, “A good leader inspires trust, not fear”. 
He received a message from the President of the group, telling him categorically that there was no such thing as pack hierarchy. When he pointed out the irony, considering that she was the President of a group… So he's now 'debunking the debunkers'...

After over 20 years as a Dog Listener, I am still often confronted online and in person with an outdated argument against my own “outdated” pack theory in dogs. When told that there is no such thing as pack theory in dogs, I often reply by asking if anyone has told dogs that? The fact that the way I help people is kind, calm and – above all – works really well doesn’t seem to matter. Facts and evidence aren’t always appreciated (try showing a member of the Flat Earth society photos and films of the planet that they are standing on).

There is one fundamental flaw in the argument against pack. There is almost a universal belief among them that the Alpha, or pack leader, uses physical dominance and force to achieve that position.
Unfortunately, this is not helped by the other extreme with certain “trainers” who indeed use force and physical dominance to “show the dog who’s the boss”. 

Some of the films I have seen from these people are cringe worthy. These trainers are also mistaken in their belief that the Alpha uses force to achieve its position of authority. Have you ever worked for a bad boss? How much effort did you give them? How much respect did they get? How did you feel when you left?

N.B. Have you noticed that these trainers get bitten a lot? I wonder why…

Classically, the “evidence” touted by the anti-packers comes from a study of captive wolves in the 1970s. Any decade that makes parents think that dressing up their son in brown, corduroy dungarees is a good thing should be treated with suspicion (the trauma still lives on…). 

One of the main arguments used to debunk this study is that the captivity of the wolves makes the findings null and void. However, what are dogs if not canines in captivity

If anything, it would make the findings more relevant, not less. Of course, over thousands of years, humans have genetically engineered canines to have lower levels of adrenalin (which also led to the accidental appearance of the first dog breeds). 

However, a dog’s language and instincts are still alive and well. These include the concept of a pack structure and a hierarchy of responsibility.

This natural instinct of hierarchy is not only and well in dogs, but also in humans. Take for example my friend - the President of her dog behaviour group - I am sure that in that organisation there is also a secretary, treasurer and maybe even other elected (a keyword) members that make up the committee. Similarly, just like canines, humans are still tribal animals with a strong sense of territory

Do you support a sports team (and as a result hate a rival team)? Maybe you are proud of where you live. Perhaps you love (and would protect) your family. These are all perfectly natural instincts and part of our make-up to this day. 
Secondly, the notion of leadership is all around us too (and not just in the case of our friend the dog group President). Monarchs, presidents and prime ministers are at the top of the tree in their countries. A good leader strives to make sure their compatriots succeed and flourish. Of course, there have been – and continue to be – certain individuals in charge that use force, but fortunately they are increasingly in the minority, and those of the past have been judged and often meet with a sticky end. 

However, the need for leadership is still imperative so we, as humans, can feel secure. France had its revolution to remove the monarchy, yet less than 20 years later they had an Emperor. On a smaller scale, parents are obviously above children when it comes to who is responsible. On a much larger scale, the ultimate hierarchy figure must be God. In fact, in certain beliefs there is even a hierarchy among the gods themselves!

Here is the key difference between the belief of the debunkers and the reality of pack hierarchy. A good leader inspires trust, not fear. They are responsible for their group and it is their job to look after those in their care. This is essentially where those that argue against pack theory and the Alpha role make the mistake. 

Aramis, Porthos and Conner opening Christmas presents!
They think that leaders use force, yet all around us there is evidence that the best leaders earn trust by example.
That goes the same for both canines in Nature and those who live with us. 

A pack animal feels secure in a structure where they know their place. If nobody is there to be the decision maker, another must replace them.

As a Dog Listener, I know that the #1 reason why there are problem dogs is that they have been inadvertently given the role of leader of their family in our world – a world they do not understand. 

Little wonder that a lot of dogs out there have problems. The only thing they possess to help them even try to do this job is their instinct, which comes directly from their cousins and ancestors. 

My job is to show owners how to convince the dogs that they can trust the humans with this responsibility. This is done using no physical dominance or force. Neither does it use complicated gadgetry or drugs. Once you understand the way dogs communicate, you can give them the information in their language.

One final point – I have also heard it said that dogs know we are not like them physically, so it is ridiculous to think they would accept us as members of their pack. 

Have you ever seen a dog and cat from the same family get along?
Conversely, have you ever seen what happens if that cat sees another dog, or vice versa? Monty Roberts – also known as the Horse Whisperer - is the first to tell you that he is not a horse. However, he does know their language… 

A quick look on social media is a very good reminder that extreme points of view pay little or no heed to facts and reality. In the case of a dog’s nature, neither extreme addresses the way that a dog actually thinks and behaves. It is obvious that pack structure is alive and well (even in human beings in 2018). It is much wiser to accept this nature and use it to our advantage, rather than to deny it. 

Also, remember that being a good leader does not mean using force and dominance. People and dogs will follow someone they can trust, but that individual needs to earn that trust. Those who call pack theory “out-dated” – and those who think that using force works long-term - may need to update their own knowledge by actually taking a look around their immediate surroundings (rather than living in online chat rooms…).

written by Tony Knight, Dog Listener - April 2018 (all rights reserved)

Golden Retriever Rescue Open Day 2017
Tony Knight is an internationally-renowned dog trainer, lecturer and public speaker. Tony is a firm believer that the right training can create a happy, relaxed bond between dog and owner.

Tony’s time in Australia has seen him take part in a broad range of media activities, across television, print, radio and online. This includes being dubbed the “Celebrity Dog Listener” for an eight part feature on Channel 7’s Morning Show, with his clients having included celebrities such as Peter Alexander, Molly Meldrum, Sonia Kruger, and Ruby Rose. He is also a regular contributor on radio featuring in segments on stations such as the ABC and Triple M.

Tony has advised dog owners around the globe, through private consultations, courses and talks. He has teamed up with Australian dog training company Taking The Lead to give Puppy and Adult Dog Education Classes all over Australia. 

For more information, please visit

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