Pack Leader

If you use a search engine and search for “pack leader,” the first page of hits looks something like this (taken from actual Google page).

  • Establishing Yourself as Pack Leader
  • PACK LEADERS – Canine Advice, Tips, and Tutorials
  • How to Be the Pack Leader
  • Labeling Machine Manufacturer and Supplier in Taiwan (yes, an actual business called is 4th in the list)
  • PackLeader Dog Training
  • How to Control Your Dog’s Behavior by Becoming Pack Leader
  • Being a good alpha (pack leader)
  • Alpha Dog, Pack Leader, Dog Growling, Dog Bitting (sic)
  • Be the Pack Leader
  • Pack Leader Academy

If you limit the search to videos, you will get a page full of similar links, with the exception of two that are tied to a video game.

This despite the complete, thorough, absolute debunking of the whole pack theory approach in dog training.

Picture of red chow dog. Text reads: Hi I'm Buffy. My food guarding, object guarding, stranger aggression and dog-dog aggression were all modified using undergraduate level animal learning principles. What the hell is a "pack leader?"
Poster by eminent dog trainer and author Jean Donaldson, used with permission

Pack theory goes something like this:

  1. Dogs are like wolves.
  2. Wolves form hierarchical packs with a rigid status hierarchy and vie for position within the pack.
  3. Therefore any behavior your dog does that you don’t like means that your dog is trying to raise his status in the pack, with the ultimate goal of dominating you, your family, and any other dogs.

Every one of the numbered points is wrong.

1. Like wolves. Dogs and wolves can interbreed, but have followed separate evolutionary paths for tens of thousands of years, and behavioral differences between the two groups are both obvious and have been shown in studies. Here are a published paper and a post that highlight just two of these differences.

Are Dogs Pack Animals? by Jean Donaldson includes observations of populations of feral dogs. It has long been observed that although wolves hunt cooperatively in family groups, feral dogs are scavengers and have much more fluid and loosely knit relationships with each other.

The Genomic Signature of Dog Domestication Reveals Adaptation to a Starch-Rich Diet by Eric Axxelson was published in Nature in January 2013 and describes an evolutionary fork in the road between dogs and wolves. Here is an article that is accessible for free that elaborates on that research: Agriculture and parting from wolves shaped dog evolution, study finds.

2. Hierarchical packs and social climbing. The initial studies on wolves were performed on captive groups of wolves. Wolves in the wild tend to form cooperative family groups run by mom and dad, not hierarchical packs. This article: Whatever Happened to the Term Alpha Wolf? elaborates on that. It was written by L. David Mech, one of the original researchers who initially used the term “alpha.” He does’t anymore, and points out that no serious wolf researchers do. So he should know.

3. Dominance. The term “dominant” has a specific meaning in animal behavior. It has to do with the animal who gets access to a desired resource at a particular point in time. So if my dog Zani (the smallest of my dogs in training) walks over and sticks her nose in Summer’s butt while Summer is visiting me, and Summer moves away, Zani was “dominant” with regard to access to me at that moment in time. (And she does do this.) Dominance is not a character trait. It is a label used in an interaction. Summer might be “dominant” later regarding a toy they both wanted. (Also note that Zani’s behavior would not fit most dog people’s definition of a dominant behavior. Dominance in an interaction often does not include force.)

OK, with that out of the way, the vast majority of day to day dog behaviors that annoy us are methods for the dogs to get stuff that we or the environment have inadvertently reinforced. Dogs do what works. They are neither little ambitious humans in furry suits nor little robots; they are keen observers and learn what they need to do to get what they want.

If these “bad” behaviors are supposed to be all about the dog’s ambitions, why are they so dead easy to modify with environmental changes and positive reinforcement? A junior high school student who has taken a class about learning theory, with a hands-on laboratory component, could walk into most houses and could get a friendly dog to sit instead of jumping on her within 5 minutes, and could get the basics of “leave-it” in place in another 5 or 10.

Dog behaviors that include aggression take more time and care to address, (don’t send your junior high school kid; for that you probably need the undergrad college work that Jean Donaldson refers to, and a few years of experience) but the methods that work reliably to change the dog’s behavior are not force based. And the old chestnuts such as alpha rolls, hanging, throw chains, and “in your face” scruff shakes are great at either exacerbating aggression or throwing the dog into complete fear shutdown.

To the pack theory believers, everything is about (this misunderstood version of) dominance. A few years back, well-known trainer Helix Fairweather compiled a list of all the things her trainers had been told or had said were “dominant” behavior by dogs. It would be funny if it weren’t sad. (Eats too fast? Licks the bottom of my shoes?)

Enough Talk; How About the Video!

I’m not going to write more about that since it has been ably done all over the place. Perhaps I’ll put some links in later. Mostly, this post is a showcase for this wonderful video: 21 great trainers with credentials ranging from great to incredible, all saying simply that they don’t need to be the pack leader. And neither do we. I found it incredibly warming to watch.

Back to the search engines. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if some good information came up when people searched for “pack leader”? We could make that happen. Share the video. Like the video. Blog about the video. Link to the video.

That’s what I’m doing.

Here is another article I wrote on pack theory, again featuring the above video, but it also has a list of resources on the topic. Perhaps good to send to someone who needs to be persuaded.

P.S. Special Invitation: Lots of folks are making posters similar to Jean’s above. Please feel free to post them on eileenanddogs on FaceBook!

Addendum 3/6/13. Because of comments from an astute reader, I have changed the resources in #1 above about differences between dogs and wolves. I originally cited a study about dogs, not wolves, being able to follow human communication better, but that has since been called into question. Thank you Åsa!

Coming up soon:

Eileenanddogs on Youtube:

30 thoughts on “Pack Leader

  1. i’m frequently taken aback when i hear someone mention ‘dominant’ dog, ‘pack leader’, or ‘alpha dog’ (even though it probably happens at least weekly). i have immersed myself so much in progressive dog teaching methods that i often forget that others still use these terms as well as forceful methods with dogs.
    so, when i see a post like this i think to myself: are we really still discussing this stuff? isn’t it ancient history yet?
    but then i am reminded of the last person i encountered who used an alpha roll on their dog to keep him from exuberantly greeting other dogs or called their clearly anxious dog ‘dominant’.
    so i am grateful that you and others like you are still posting on the dominance myth.
    i suppose it will be necessary for quite some time to come.
    thank you eileen 🙂

    1. Hi Diana, and thanks. I’m putting together another article to publish on a different platform that will feature the same video. I thought it should include a list of posts on the topic. When I searched for them I thought, “Why am I even doing this?” The information is all over the place, completely available, and has been for years. People have already made lists of articles. I don’t have any new angle to bring to the table, which is usually part of why I post something. But the Internet is even more full of misinformation on the topic. So thanks for the encouragement. I hope bringing it to people’s attention once again will help a few dogs and people.

  2. It’s always been amazing to me how the whole “pack leader” thing ever got such a foot hold. I love the video. I believe learning should never hurt.

    1. Thanks, Marjorie. I find the video very moving. I was discussing the issue of what to call ourselves the other day with an Internet friend. Clicker trainers, humane, force free, etc. She said, quite seriously, the her favorite and most descriptive definition is “trainers who want the learner to have fun.”

      1. Actually, I prefer the term “teacher” vs “trainer” because I believe it is more accurate for what we do. When I think of a “trainer” I think circus animals etc. I think what you and others who use these methods are doing is more like teaching, because you are giving the dog an opportinity to make a choice and work cooperatively with you. So I like the term “dog teachers/educators.”

        1. I like that too, Marjorie. I wish I would remember to use it! Also (professional) dog teachers are people teachers as well (often more than directly teaching dogs!)

  3. I have to agree with Diana, I am frequently shocked when I hear people talk about “dominant” dogs and “alpha” this and whatnot. I actually feel a physical surprise when I hear the words. People are always so worried about it too when they say it, things like, “My 10 week old puppy is rushing out the door before me, do you think he’s trying to dominate me?” Or, “I have a six month old dog who always paws at me and tries to put his paw on top of my hand, do you think it’s him trying to take a place as pack leader?” I literally read questions like this over and over trying to fathom how that kind of question even makes sense. I’m actually sitting here typing this and shaking my head, lol. Thanks for the link to the video! I will definitely share!

    1. I’m glad you are going to share the video, crystalpegasus. I sure wish it weren’t necessary. Of all the silly things to have to talk about, eh? Thanks for reading.

  4. Amen! I have worked with a few vets who encourage scruffing and alpha rolls. Drives me bonkers because I am not allowed to ‘dis’ a colleague! Positive reinforcement will win any day over force – case in point – 15 week old cattle dog pup in for vaccinations. I was told that at his last visit they had to take him to the back and he screamed while his nails were done. Got the dog to sit and the son to feed him treats as long as he sat nicely. I did all 4 feet and he didn’t notice. I feel like a broken record and get SO tired of repeating myself to clients, but it is worth it to at least try, for the dogs! I am going to send some people here to have a read for sure! Thanks!

  5. Hi! I want to start by saying that I think your blog is thought provoking and well written, and I enjoy reading it even though I myself don’t have any dogs and am more of a horse and rabbit person.

    Have you seen this article published in Animal Behaviour (“Wolves outperform dogs in following human social cues.”,%20Dorey%20&%20Wynne%20-%20wolves%20outperform%20dogs%20-%20AB%202008.pdf)? They compared clicker trained wolves, pet dogs and shelter dogs under tests with familiar and unfamiliar handlers and surroundings. They believe that the differences between their results and those of the article you link to may be caused by testing wolves in more difficult surroundings than the dogs.

    So the evidence of differences in dogs and wolves reading human social cues seems be pointing in different directions.

    1. Åsa, thank you for the kind words and the additional information. I can’t remember now whether I have seen that article before or not but it surely is important. How interesting that the differences could have been the testing conditions. Kind of an obvious thing to miss. We all know that dogs at least perform completely differently in an outdoor or more distracting environment. I’ll need to update my post and I’m really glad you brought this to my attention. In the “differences between dogs and wolves” section I’ll probably talk about the differences in their observed social groups, which is more relevant to the topic anyway. Thanks so much for writing.

    2. Åsa and others, I just wanted to let you know that I changed the citations in the post about the differences between dogs and wolves, since there are plenty others that do not involve the research about following human gestures that has shown to not be definitive. Thank you again for the heads-up Åsa.

  6. Hi Eileen. I enjoyed reading this article of yours ( I am dogtrainer in Switzerland and wondering, if you give your permission for translating and sharing this article? I will always mention your name and refer to your blog. Kind regards.

    1. Silvia I would be delighted! That goes for anyone else out there who wants to translate any of my stuff. Silvia, I’m going to send you an email since I have a couple of suggestions for when you do translate it. Thank you so much.

  7. Thank you for that post! I read it with great interest and couldn’t agree more. As a moderator in a Swiss forum (, I took the liberty to translate your post into German, so everybody in the forum is sure to understand your point. If you want to have the translation, I can send it to you, of course! 🙂 Thanks for the good job!

    1. Thank you Monica for taking the positive approach. I hope everyone reads this lovely piece on what we can be for our dogs, so we don’t just focus on what we’re not.

  8. Another great article 🙂 As a professional dog scientist I have used the term “alpha” in very specific contexts, generally referring to control of reproduction and its effects on gene flow to the ensuing generations. I have never, ever found the terminology of dominance useful in training or living with domestic dogs! Gives me a bit of a nervous tic when certain dog trainers talk (lie) about “what dogs do in the wild” when it’s clear they’ve never spent any time with wild dogs or read the research on them. Keep spreading the word 😀

      1. Always! Although as you said these terms do have specific and sensible definitions in animal ecology and behaviour fields, I feel like they have become so muddied and misunderstood as to have become almost useless anyway. And IME wild dogs only move towards hierarchies when the chips are really down and they are struggling for enough resources to survive – which is a situation no pet dog should ever find themselves in.

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