eileenanddogs

Tag: pack theory

The False Hypothesis of the Pack

The False Hypothesis of the Pack

Hey! “Pack theory” is not a theory at all!

Observations of captive wolves in unnatural groupings led to "pack theory"
Observations of captive wolves in unnatural groupings led to “pack theory” –Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Theories vs Hypotheses

One of the biggest misunderstandings between science folk and lay folk is the definition of the word, “theory,” and here we are adding to that misunderstanding.

In science, the term “theory” has a specific meaning. It is much stronger than how we use the word in casual conversation.

From the National Academy of Sciences:

A scientific theory is a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world, based on a body of facts that have been repeatedly confirmed through observation and experiment.

Heliocentricity is a theory although there is virtually no question that the earth revolves around the sun. Gravity is also a theory. So is learning theory (take that, you quadrants bashers!).

Actually, the scientific meaning of a “hypothesis” is closer to what people mean when they say in everyday settings that they have a theory, although it too has some specific criteria for usage.

Also from the National Academy of Sciences:

A hypothesis is a tentative statement about the natural world leading to deductions that can be tested. If the deductions are verified, it becomes more probable that the hypothesis is correct. If the deductions are incorrect, the original hypothesis can be abandoned or modified. Hypotheses can be used to build more complex inferences and explanations.

Both theories and hypotheses can be disproven, but not proven.

Pack Theory

So why are we still using the term “pack theory”? On the one hand a lot of us are trying to teach people the scientific definition of the word, “theory.” On the other we are referring to “pack theory,” which was never was a theory to begin with.

It was an initial idea and statement about the natural world, and maybe qualified as a hypothesis.

This post is not about the incorrectness of the pack hypothesis. If you are interested, here are two articles I wrote about that. There are some original sources at the bottom of the post as well.

This post is just a small rant about nomenclature and its effects on thinking.

In addition to “pack theory,” one can also see references to “alpha theory,” and “dominance theory,” the latter even in a publication by the American Veterinary Society for Animal Behavior.** So I think putting a lot of energy into trying to eradicate the terms is probably useless. But personally, I’m going to try to remember to call it “outdated pack hypothesis,” or even better, “pack nonsense.”

Hey, I’m Not the Only One!

I was wondering whether to post this. Figured it might appeal only to other word nerds, but I decided to put it out there anyway. I did one more Google search, and found out that I got scooped! The wonderful trainer and blogger Sam Tatters wrote about this in July 2013! Here is her piece: Where We’re Going Wrong.

Thanks, Sam! I think you were right on target, and more succinct than I was. And why am I not surprised to find the “awesome” Yvette Van Veen chiming in over there as well!

By the way, no disrespect meant to L. David Mech, who is a scientific hero as far as I’m concerned. His book came out of those early observations of captive wolves, and he has corrected the misinformation and is actively rectifying the incorrect application of those early ideas to wild wolves. Here are an article and a video he made.

Thanks for reading! So how are you going to refer to “pack stuff” now?

Wolves
Wolves: Do you think this is a family group? (Photo credit, Wikimedia Commons)

**Comments by a couple of readers made me realize that the term “dominance” is in a slightly different category from the other two, since it is defined and used in ethology. But since it also doesn’t mean what lay people generally think it means, I’m not going to write extensively about that here. Dr. Patricia McConnell has the creds to do so, so here is one of her articles. Thanks, Cynthia and Laura in the Canine Skeptics FaceBook group.

Coming up:

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

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

Theme: Overlay by Kaira Extra Text
Cape Town, South Africa