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Beyond the PacK

Debunking outdated pack rules in Dog Training

Let's talk about a hot topic in the world of dog training today: the outdated concept of being the "pack leader."

Did you know that the idea of a "pack leader" as it pertains to dog training is actually based on a misunderstanding of wolf behavior? Contrary to popular belief, wolf packs are not dominated by an alpha or leader who asserts dominance over the others.

Studies have shown that wolf packs are more like families consisting of a breeding pair and their offspring. The breeding males and females utilize their roles are parents guiding, and mentoring their young. They will be helped by their older offspring until they reach maturity and head off to find a mate. This cooperative and nurturing approach is what truly fosters a harmonious and balanced social structure. After all a stable pack that looks out for each other has more chance of survival in the wild.

Dog training using the pack leader model involves implementing some pack rules. These rules were inspired by observations of captive wolves forced to live together. These wolves had no natural bond with each other and therefore their behaviour starkly differed from that of wolves in the wild living freely in cohesive packs. I guess it would be like going into prison to conduct a study on human behaviour and expecting the findings to apply to the greater population.

Here are a few examples of pack rules that have been debunked:

The "Alpha Roll": It was once believed that rolling a dog onto its back and asserting dominance was an effective way to establish leadership. However, studies have shown that this can actually lead to fear and aggression in dogs, damaging the trust between you and your dog.

Whilst wolves use ritualized displays of dominance and submission to communicate with each other these displays rarely end in aggression. The submissive posture is an instinctive offering by both wolves and dogs and is communicative but they are never physically forced into it.

For humans to force and dog into a submissive position physically or by shouting at them is nothing short of bullying. We could not do this to any other wild animal! Imagine trying this with a gorilla. Mind you there are a few people I would like to see give it a go.....!

Eating Before Your Dog: It was often suggested that eating before your dog would demonstrate your status as the pack leader. However, research has shown that mealtime hierarchy is not relevant for dogs and that feeding them on a consistent schedule is more beneficial for their overall well-being.

With regards to wolf packs when food is in abundance the whole family eats together. When food is scarce the pack's priority is to feed the youngest first. Even the breeding males and older offspring have been observed regurgitating food to feed cubs.

If wolves can go days in the wild without food and still be able to prioritize the well-being of the most vulnerable in their pack. Why are we expected to apply such a silly rule to feeding our dogs? Why not just feed them at the same time?

Walking through Doorways First: Many people used to believe that entering or exiting a doorway before their dog would establish dominance. However, this rule has been debunked, as it has no impact on your relationship with your dog. Instead, focus on teaching your dog polite door manners so they don't knock you over as they excitedly leave the house.

Funnily enough, this has not been observed in the wild as well.... there are no doorways. This will have been observed in captivity as the confident alpha wolf moves from their enclosure, displaying their ritualized dominance. The subordinate wolves instinctively show signs of deference. This dance of power is something that can't be imitated by humans. Attempts to mimic the alpha wolf here will not be met by a submissive response from the dog usually this is just because they have no clue what the person is actually doing. The whole exercise is pointless. Plus if the pack leader always goes first, do you need to continue going through every single doorway first forever to maintain your social status?

Some trainers still practice these outdated methods and will get a submissive response when teaching door manners. They abruptly close the door on the dog if they approach before being told to do so, sometimes hitting the dog with the door. The submission comes from the fear of getting hit by the door, not because of social status they do realize this person has power well, the power to hurt them.

Don't let them pull on the lead. This rule is based on the misconception that the alpha wolf always leads the way and always dictates where the pack goes. Your dog does not pull on the lead because they are trying to be the pack leader. Dogs pull due to excitement, curiosity, eagerness to explore, feeling anxious, over-arousal, or lack of training. To address lead pulling you need to ensure you are providing appropriate amounts of physical exercise and mental stimulation. You may need to work with a trainer to help build confidence in nervous dogs. Practice teaching your dog with reward-based training methods how to walk nicely on lead.

In wolf packs the breeding male and female may lead activities due to their roles in reproduction and raising the young. Just like any family unit, the parents exert control and the offspring naturally follow. However, even if they choose a route to follow they won't always lead from the front. The younger more exuberant offspring are often seen out front foraging ahead. The idea of a single dominant leader dictating all the pack's behaviour is not correct.

Ignoring your dog's attempts to initiate play or seek attention: Some believed that ignoring your dog's requests for attention would show them who's in charge. However, dogs thrive on social interaction, and ignoring their needs can lead to frustration and behavioral issues. It's important to provide positive attention and engage in play and training sessions to strengthen your bond. Your dog needs the training to teach them good manners and to prevent attention-seeking behaviours like barking and jumping up. Learning these unwanted behaviours has nothing to do with social status.

In order to thrive in an untamed wilderness, wolves rely on the establishment of robust social connections. These connections are forged by the desire for physical contact. Each day, the pack engages in playful interactions, and every member who is willing to participate will join in. There is no single individual dictating when playtime can or cannot occur. Notably, the breeding pair and the older siblings demonstrate remarkable levels of acceptance toward the younger members. If wild animals enjoy social connection and play together why can't we just enjoy our dogs' desire to engage with us? They didn't choose to live with us after all!

It is important to recognize that dogs are not wolves and do not operate within a pack hierarchy and their wild ancestors don't necessarily either. The concept of "pack rules" originated from studies conducted on captive wolf packs, which were later found to be flawed and misinterpreted.

Dogs have evolved alongside humans for thousands of years and have developed unique social dynamics. If you still believe they act out certain behaviours to dominate you and become the pack leader. Ask yourself this, what would they gain from becoming the pack leader? I mean we already feed, water, house, exercise, play with them, and provide grooming and medical care. They already have it made what could they possibly gain that is better? This unique dog-human relationship has spanned centuries and continues to evolve because dogs know we are not challenging them for social status.

Let's be honest if they wanted world domination they could literally kill us while we sleep but they are too busy cosying up beside us to bother.

Using outdated pack rules with dogs can be harmful and ineffective. It can lead to fear, anxiety, and aggression, as well as damage the bond between you and your dog. Instead, modern dog training emphasizes positive reinforcement, clear communication, and building a mutually respectful relationship based on trust and cooperation.

By focusing on reward-based training methods, understanding your dog's individual needs and preferences, and providing consistent guidance and boundaries, you can create a positive and harmonious relationship with your dog.

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