Category: Human and dog misunderstandings

Pack Leader

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 www.packleader.com 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: https://www.youtube.com/eileenanddogs

Get Out of My Face! Teaching an Incompatible Behavior

Get Out of My Face! Teaching an Incompatible Behavior

Ever since she arrived at my home at the age of 10 weeks, Clara has been a challenge.

One of her more problematic behaviors was her mugging of my face whenever it got within range. It happened all the time. How many times a day do you lean over your puppy, or lean over in her presence to pick up something off the floor? Most often something that she either dropped or shouldn’t have. Answer: a lot. Except not me, anymore, because she shaped me not to. If a strong, speedy puppy came barreling at your head every time you bent over, you might modify your behavior, too. So I do this embarrassing dance whenever I need to pick something up: distracting her, sneaking past, or trying to move REALLY FAST (which of course makes her all the more excited when she does catch me). Continue reading “Get Out of My Face! Teaching an Incompatible Behavior”

A New Resource, and our Rally Weekend

A New Resource, and our Rally Weekend

I have published a permanent page on my blog that collects all the posts and videos I have made that I have been told are useful for dog trainers to show their students.

It can be accessed here:

Video Examples for Teachers

but also is listed on the permanent menu above. I hope it is helpful. I will be adding more material as I develop it.

Our Weekend

For those of you who saw my last post on practicing Rally with Summer and attempting to reinforce appropriately, here are some pictures of how we spent our weekend. We trial very infrequently for a number of reasons, so it is a big deal for me when we do.

On Saturday we both worked hard but it wasn’t fun like it can be. I tried hard to make it easy and fun for her, but there were various stressors. We held it together in a difficult ring with an 88 and fourth place.

But on Sunday it was magic. We had a lovely run, stayed connected, and Summer stayed happy despite the difficult trial environment. I am pleased with the sequence of photos below that show her eagerly taking the jump, then beautifully collecting and checking in on her landing (fourth photo).

We scored a 98 and took first place. My unlikely competitive obedience dog and I.

Summer jump sequence 1
Summer jump sequence 2
Summer jump sequence 3
Summer jump sequence 4
Summer jump sequence 5
In the ring for awards
Accepting our blue ribbon
Dogs Who Like to be Petted or Touched

Dogs Who Like to be Petted or Touched

Today I am offering more examples of dogs who enjoy being petted, or enjoy other types of human touch. (This is a followup to “Does Your Dog REALLY Want to Be Petted?”) And I’m encouraging humans again to figure out what their dog likes and doesn’t like. If your dog doesn’t like petting, maybe you can figure out an alternative behavior for yourself that both you and your dog can enjoy.

I am blessed with Clara, who thrives on touching and being touched, and has since she was a baby. Here she is at 12 weeks and 14 months. I am doing the “consent test” in both clips; stopping the petting and waiting to see if she solicits more. She generally answers with an emphatic Yes. There’s also a “stupid human” trick though, when I am continuing to ooh and ahh and pet her while she is squirming and obviously done with the whole thing. Oops.

Some dogs like other kinds of touch from humans. Here is my friend’s chihuahua, who blisses out when I gently, gently wobble her body back and forth.

And here is elderly Cricket, who really enjoys wiping her face all over any part of my body or clothing that she can reach. I think it makes her feel safe that she can control the touch this way, too. If I were to handle her the way I handle Clara, she would be desperately trying to escape.

In a previous post we saw Zani saying “No” to petting, but she enjoys lap time and snuggling up close.

Zani isn’t interested in being petted, but she likes to snuggle

I scoured YouTube one evening as well, and dug up videos of a few more dogs who seemed to enjoy petting (and saw dozens who didn’t). In many of these videos, the dog doesn’t enjoy every single thing the human does. But they appear to enjoy the petting and touching in general and ask for more. If you can find some more good ones–or think that any of these aren’t good examples, let me know. You can tell from the titles that these folks have all done something like a consent test, whether they knew it was called that or not. (In some of the videos, the people appear to have reinforced  demanding behavior from their dogs. That’s a subject for another day!)

If you are going to watch only one, watch the first one. It is especially moving. The Doberman in the movie is a rescued stray and is so obviously pleased with human touch and contact. (As of 9/16/12 he is available for adoption through Doberman Rescue of the Triad, covering Georgia, the Carolinas, Virginia, and West Virginia in the U.S.)

Beamer – Rescue Doberman

Cutest dog ever: don’t stop petting me (rat terrier mix?)

My Pug will not let you stop petting him

Don’t stop petting the dog (labrador)

Pierre – CDC foster dog/” Don’t stop petting me!!!” (poodle/chihuahua mix)

Get Pet 101: Obsessive chocolate lab wants to be pet more

Thanks to Nancy S. for helping me look over these.

Discussions coming soon:

Thanks for reading!

Lumping It: A Public Service Announcement

Lumping It: A Public Service Announcement

So maybe you are new to clicker training and you keep hearing people talking about lumping and how bad it is. Be a splitter, not a lumper, they say. You have a vague idea about it but maybe aren’t exactly sure what they mean except that lumping is bad.

Or maybe you are a teacher and you would like a really clear example of lumping vs splitting to show your students.

Do I have a video for you!

Continue reading “Lumping It: A Public Service Announcement”
Does Your Dog REALLY Want to be Petted?

Does Your Dog REALLY Want to be Petted?

Newsflash. Not all dogs want to be petted. But you wouldn’t know it from watching videos on YouTube.

What you can learn on YouTube is that there are lots of dogs whose owners _think_ they are enjoying petting. But they aren’t. This is another one of those disconnects between dog and people language. People who adore their dogs–and whose dogs love them–post videos of said dogs saying in every polite way they know how that they would like the human to STOP.

Continue reading “Does Your Dog REALLY Want to be Petted?”
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