Pack Dynamics Of The Dog And Wolf

Written by

Chad Singer

Written by

Chad Singer

Chad’s mission is to help as many dog owners truly enhance their relationship with their dogs despite the issues that they may be experiencing.

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In order to clearly communicate with our dogs on an instinctual level, we need to take a deep-dive into how the natural dog pack operates.  There have been many studies conducted on dog packs and the dog’s ancestor, the wolf.  In this article, we’re going to take a look at some of the key takeaways from studies that have been conducted on pack life and pack mentality.

The Origin of Dogs From Wolves

To understand the dog we must look at where the dog has originated from, the wolf.  Dogs are wolves at their basic instinctual level, human intervention inbreeding over the centuries has altered the dog’s appearance and mind from that of the wolf, but the instincts are still the same. 

Dogs Are Pack Animals

They are pack animals, an animal that lives in a structured group of others of the same species who stick together for various purposes.  In a pack, it is not enough for animals of the same species to be in the same place at the same time.  A pack is much more complicated than that.  In a wolf pack, there is a strong bond between the members and a clear understanding of the pack hierarchy.  Strangers are not automatically accepted into a pack and acceptance into the pack may only occur after many elaborate rituals and ceremonies.

Does this process of acceptance into a pack sound familiar with some organizations in our human world? 

Think about the military, new members must complete boot camp.  In law enforcement, a new member must pass the police academy.  To be accepted into certain universities you must meet a specific requirement.  There are numerous examples in the human world that reflect upon the natural dynamic of a dog or wolf pack which further indicates how important it is to understand pack dynamics and be able to reflect them as best as possible at home with your own dog.

Wolves and dogs live and operate by a basic underlying premise:

Nothing in life is free and nothing is free of consequences.

They believe that everything must be earned and are social beings with an extraordinary ability to compromise, to win, to lose, and still get the best out of every situation.

Wolf Packs

A pack is established when the individuals need each other and when they support each other in the performance of vital daily functions.  Some of these functions could be: migrating, hunting, caring for the puppies, etc.  They learn familiarity with each other through daily routines and they also create exclusive rituals specific to their pack.  These routines and rituals are very important in maintaining the relationships in the pack and a stable rank order. 

Many times during a single day the various members of the pack assure each other through these rituals that nothing has changed, dominant and submissive positions are still existing and stability is maintained.  This is a critical piece of information to keep in mind and use during your daily life with your own pet dog.  Keep your daily routine consistent and performing rituals throughout the day to maintain leadership / followership (dominance / submission) roles in the pack. 

One of the things we do every single day with our trainees and alumni as a ritual is our “standard obedience drill” where we have an obedience routine we perform with the dog to maintain appropriate hierarchy positions, strengthen our bond, mentally exercise the dog, and also to preserve the muscle memory of those obedience behaviors. You can read more about this in our article & podcast on pack structure.

Rank Order In The Pack

Now that we’ve briefly touched on how a pack forms and some of the key things that a pack is going to do each day to maintain stability (routines & rituals), let’s discuss rank order in the pack.  There are a lot of myths out there about being “Alpha” and I hope this discussion will help to clear some of it up.

Pack animals will establish an order inside the group where each individual has a position in relation to the others.  The purpose of this rank order / hierarchy is to prevent fights and daily conflicts.  In a wolf or dog pack the leader, commonly referred to as the “alpha”, is normally a strong, powerful, and confident male.  There is often a female “alpha” as well who shares overall leadership with the male, but is the number one among all females. 

Creating, Developing, & Maintaing Canine Pack Bonds

The bond between canine pack members is created, developed, and maintained by the performance of daily survival strategies: finding prey, catching it, killing it, devouring it, etc.  It is when participating in these vital operations that the rank order is established, maintained, or reversed.  The alpha can lose his position if he is no longer fit to lead and pack members may test the alpha to determine if he is still a strong and suitable leader to follow.

In general pet owners do not participate in such activities and neither do their dogs.  Feeding procedures are typically routine and mundane tasks to complete.  The dog should regard itself as lower in rank than all human members and also not regard children as lower-ranking puppies.  In order to achieve the alpha role in a family pack, the owner must use artificial situations and exercises designed for this purpose and which will also instigate the dog’s natural pack instincts. 

3 Ways To Simulate Natural Pack Behavior With Your Dog

Let’s discuss three ways that we can simulate some of these natural pack behaviors to instinctually communicate with our dogs and achieve the role of pack leader.

  1. First, remember that the pack leader is responsible for daily survival strategies.  So with this in mind, we need to control our pack’s vital resources: food and water.  We can start by giving food on a schedule, which also taps into the routine aspect of a pack.  Going even further, we can have our dog perform some type of behavior before feeding time which also taps into the ritual aspect of a pack.  An example could be taking your dog for a walk before feeding time or feeding your dog after they complete a series of obedience exercises.  Again, not only will this control the vital resources but it will also tap into the routine and ritual aspects of pack structure.
  2. Second, If a pack operates in a structured manner with routines and rituals, then as the pack leader for our family pack we need to reflect and implement these important aspects of a pack.  An example routine could be that I feed my dog in the morning at 7am, take a walk, train obedience, put my dog in the kennel when I go to work, come home from work, train obedience, take my dog on another walk, play ball or tug with them, feed dinner at 7pm, have relaxed time around the house until bedtime at 9pm. 
    • Just an example there but the key is to try and create a systematic routine for your family and dog that your dog knows and understands which asserts your leadership.  An example ritual that we implement could be when I’m going outside of a door, I have my dog Sit-Stay at the door when I open it until I tell them to go in or out of the door.  This short and minor ritual can go a long way with asserting my leadership in my family pack. 
    • Another example of a ritual could be that anytime my doorbell rings or someone knocks on my door, my dog is allowed to go bark at the door for a few moments then I tell them to go lay down on a dog bed or dog cot while I address the door.  Little rituals such as this throughout the day with your dog asserts your leadership and helps your dog understand their role in your family pack and will result in a calm, confident, and relaxed pack mentality.
  3. Third, keep in mind what we mentioned earlier that nothing in life is free and nothing is free of consequences.  So stop just petting your dog for “looking cute”, stop giving them a treat because you feel like giving them a treat, and stop letting your dog do just whatever they want to do at all times.  Not only do these actions make your dog “spoiled”, but your dog will absolutely not respect you as a strong pack leader.  They will love you, yes, but they will not respect you unless you show them that you are a strong pack leader worth following. 
    • Pet your dog when they do something that you have asked them and on your terms, give your dog a treat for being calm, not barking at other dogs, not pulling on a leash, and give your dog free time to hang out and do as they please, within reason, if they have performed for you at over 90% adherence to what you have asked during the day (without repeating yourself). 

Everything must be earned from your dog! 

Nothing is free of consequences, consequences could be pleasant or unpleasant.  If my dog does a Sit-Stay before I open the door and while the door is open great job!  I can provide a pleasant consequence by petting them or giving them a treat.  However, if my dog does not Sit-Stay at the door or tries to dart out while it is open I need to provide a possible unpleasant consequence so that my dog learns that darting out of the door is not allowed. 

A quick tug on the leash on a proper training collar is usually an appropriate consequence for this misbehavior (as long as I have taught my dog the expectation to Sit-Stay at the door).  I always have to teach my expectation before I can provide an unpleasant consequence for it.  Some of these rituals are a safety-related issue, take the Sit-Stay at the door for example. You can read more about teaching your dog to not pull on a leash in our past article – here

If my dog is used to darting out of the door, one day they could end up darting out of the door and across the street right as a car is coming which could result in getting hit by a car.  So not only are these routines and rituals important to assert and maintain your leadership in the pack, but also to ensure the safety of the pack.  The pack’s safety should be your priority as leader.

Understanding how a dog or wolf pack operates can greatly assist us in developing and working with our pet dogs at home.  But it can also help us in our families, raising children, at work, etc. 

These principles of communication, routine, ritual, controlling vital resources, nothing is free, and nothing is free of consequences can be applied in these other areas as well, just in a slightly different way.

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