Pack dynamics

Much ado about nothing or the key to a well-behaved companion dog?


First vilified as killers in life and fable, then romanticized as symbols of freedom and environmental purity, wolves stir up love-hate relationships that may have little or nothing to do with their actual character and value to the precarious balance of nature. Most recently, wolves (Canis lupus) have been superimposed on dogs as the originators of dog behavior patterns and thus the model for training dogs to be good companions.

The nub of the matter is that wolves have a very strict code of behavior exemplified by a pack hierarchy. Male and female wolves develop separate managerial levels of authority that often overlap with some females dominating some males. The dominant male – the alpha wolf – rules over all, the dominant female comes next, and all others usually give way in eating from the kill or producing the next generation of cubs.

There’s no doubt that dogs (Canis lupus familiaris) are wolves of many colors, shapes, and sizes. Therefore, the theory goes, dogs have a pack dynamic that can be used to keep them in line. As a result, trainers have recommended such methods as scruff-shaking, alpha rolls, and even biting a puppy’s muzzle to teach him that owner-is-alpha. However, domestication has wrought many changes: instead of an alpha wolf, the single-dog household pack may have several leaders – all of them human. In the wild, pack cohesion is necessary for survival. In the home, the dog must know his place and respect his human family, but because a cooperative effort is not necessary to finding food or raising the next generation of pack members, the dog has no instinctive need to recognize people as leaders.

A family, not a pack

Actually, the connection between a pet or working dog and his human family is more akin to other human relationships than it is to the wolf pack. Dogs don’t need an alliance to hunt down caribou or elk or to produce, feed, nurture, and train a litter of growing cubs – their food arrives in a bowl on schedule without canine effort and pups are cared for by humans, relieving Fido and Fifi of the parental role in assimilating offspring into the pack.

Even though the dog owner is hampered by a questionable ability to communicate with another species, he is an authoritarian guide for his companion much as parents are authoritarian guides for their children. Although Fido is a member of the family or a working partner (or both), he is not an equal in responsibility or freedom and must be trained to behave in an appropriate manner inside and outside the home. This training can take advantage of the characteristics that dogs have inherited from their wolf ancestors but with a nod to the influences of domestication. The trick is to guide the dog even though we cannot communicate with him on his own level but are destined (or doomed) to educate him according to our human nature. Therefore, understanding dominance, submission, aggression, and the dog’s affinity for group living are important to the process even though thousands of years of canine husbandry have moderated their purpose and we are limited to the uncertainties of inter-species interaction.

Dominance, submission, and aggression

Dominance, submission, and aggression are complex behaviors, even among wolves. Add humans to the mix and complexity intensifies.

Dog behavior with other dogs is different than dog behavior with people, but some parallels can be drawn. Although a dominant or submissive temperament is inherited, it by no means foretells how the dog will behave with all other dogs or with people. A dog that tends to be dominant to other dogs can be submissive to people in general or in particular or can be dominant to children or other select humans. And a dog that is allowed to dominate humans can become a menace to family members and to strangers.

In a nutshell, a dominant dog may have a bold temperament, or, like many politicians and businessmen, may have a combination of steely self-regard and charisma that makes people think twice about imposing restrictions on her behavior. Or she may give the evil eye to other dogs but be perfectly happy to submit to her human family in a mutually beneficial association.

A submissive dog may be happy to grovel to people and other dogs or may be difficult to train because he is sooooo shy. And a dog in the middle may quarrel with other dogs (or not) and vacillate between tough guy and wimp in relationships with people.

In addition, a dog may behave in a dominant fashion on one day and be submissive the next or slavishly obey Mr. Jones and completely ignore Mrs. Jones every day.

To baffle owners even further, dominance by itself is not aggression, but it can become aggression if the dog is given too much leeway to pursue his own agenda.

In the wolf pack, the alpha male rules the roost with a glance, a stiffening of the body, or, if necessary with juvenile males, a raised lip or a scruff shake. This is dominance.

When one wolf pack meets another, when a lone wolf enters the territory of a resident pack, or when an upstart juvenile challenges an animal above him (or her) in the pack order, a fight of gargantuan proportions breaks out – sometimes to the death. This is aggression.

When a female wolf comes into heat, hormones cause mid-level males to fight among themselves (even though they are unlikely to win her favor). This, too, is aggression, although death is not usually the outcome.

And when mid-level wolves settle down to the remains of a carcass, squabbles may break out. Aggression again, but not severe enough to affect pack unity.

Both dominance and aggression serve a purpose. In the wild, dominance keeps the wolf pack intact and helps it function with minimum expenditure of energy, and aggression helps the pack defend its territory. In the home, dominance can help a dog learn and adjust to new circumstances, and modified aggression makes him a good watchdog.

When aggression becomes a means of enforcing dominance, problems ensue.

A dominant dog has an air of superiority, a way of demanding attention and challenging control that buffaloes many pet owners. Once the owner is convinced to allow Fido to climb on the furniture, sleep in the bed, eat on demand, or behave like a bratty child, Fido may raise the stakes in the relationship. Then come the growls when the toddler approaches the food dish or picks up a dog toy or when Mrs. Jones wants to sit on the sofa herself. And then come the bites – often followed by a one-way trip to the animal shelter.

Preventing dominance aggression

Dominance aggression is not a wolf pack problem. The alpha wolf remains in charge until he gets old or is seriously injured in a hunt or a fight with interlopers; the battle to replace him is often fierce and sometimes deadly, but once a new leader is chosen, things generally settle down so the pack can get on with the business of survival.

Dominance aggression in the home progresses in stages because the owner may not have the understanding or the experience to nip it in the bud. Even if the owner is aware that science classifies the dog as a subspecies of wolf, it does him no good to know that the alpha wolf controls his underlings with a stare or a stiff-legged gait or a rollover. Dominant puppies and dominant-aggressive dogs seldom respond to these tactics from two-legged family members who are definitely of another species. In fact, the techniques may backfire: a staring child, for example, may trigger an aggressive response from a dog that has been allowed to bully people and a rollover performed by an inexperienced adult can result in a serious bite attack.

However, understanding the dog’s need for leadership even in the humans-plus-canine family is critical to preventing and solving canine-and-human relationship problems. The pack mentality makes it easier to develop good family ties, but owners need not act like wolves to achieve that goal.

An ounce of prevention …

Modern methods of dog training – make it fun, reward good behavior, and don’t let the pup develop habits that are unsuitable for the adult dog – are geared towards preventing problems as much as to developing a strong bond with a pet or working companion. Dog Owner’s Guide columnist Vicki DeGruy has been writing about problem prevention for several years, and new columnists Jackie Krieger and Cacky Vincent now add their perspective as devotees of clicker training. There are books to help new dog owners establish gentle but firm control over their pets, including

  1. The Evans Guide for Housetraining Your Dog Job Michael Evans/Hardcover/1987
  2. The Body Language and Emotion of Dogs : A Practical Guide to the Physical and Behavioral Displays Owners and Dogs Exchange and How to Use Them... Myrna M., D.V.M. Milani/Paperback/1993
  3. The Art of Raising a Puppy New Skete Monks/Hardcover/1991
  4. How to Be Your Dog's Best Friend : A Training Manual for Dog Owners New Skete Monks/Hardcover/1978
  5. I Just Got a Puppy : What Do I Do? Mordecai Siegal, Matthew Margolis/Paperback/1992
  6. The Pearsall Guide to Successful Dog Training : Obedience 'from the Dog's Point of View' Margaret E. Pearsall/Hardcover/1980
  7. How to Raise a Puppy You Can Live With Clarice Rutherford, David H. Neil/Paperback/1992

A pound of cure

If you’re already in a pickle with Fido, there are books about solving dominance and aggression problems, including

Norma Bennett Woolf

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