I live in a relatively small farmhouse with ten sled dogs. With the (rather formidable) exception of needing to sweep up a lot of hair, it’s a wonderful way to live. The dogs mostly get along, playing and gamboling together in our large fenced yard and on daily hikes. They have a lot of fun with each other, and we—the humans in the house—have fun with them, too. I’m a professional dog trainer, so I enjoy the opportunity to see and troubleshoot the dynamics of a big group of dogs who live together. Some are littermates or otherwise family, and some are unrelated. To top it all off, we have foster sled dogs move through our house relatively often too.
Out With the Old and in With the “Crew”
Like pretty much any dog owner, I talk about my dogs with anyone who will listen: my poor guests generally hear a tale or two, as do my dog obedience class students, my family, my friends…I’m always talking about my crew.
My “crew”? Why not my “pack”? Whenever I talk about life with so many dogs, I’m very careful to refer to them as a crew. Or I might simply say my dogs. I scrupulously avoid calling them a pack, and I do this on purpose. Pack is a word weighed down with meanings and connotations and associations. It’s laden with some heavy baggage, most of which I want to keep far, far away from the canines I share my couch with.
Pack Terminology is Problematic
Wolves, who share an ancestor with dogs, certainly organize themselves into groups known as “packs”. That a pack is a group of wolves is universally accepted. But if we drill down a bit into how packs work and who they are, things get a bit (pardon the pun) hairy. The wolf pack is one of those concepts that is understood very differently by the general public than it is by specialists—in this case, those wolf biologists who study wolves in their wild, natural state.
According to wolf biologists, who know the most about natural wolf behaviour, wolf packs are usually nuclear families. There is typically a breeding pair who…you know. Breed. And then their puppy offspring, and possibly some older offspring too. Things can get a bit more complicated, but this is the basic formula. While there are obviously some spats and squabbles (show me a human family without spats and squabbles, and I won’t believe you), there is not a constant effort to both take over, and to quell uprisings from the younger members of the family. Those younger wolves are family. When young wolves grow up, they usually head off into the great beyond—like a teen heading off to college, perhaps—and start their own families. In other words, wolves who make it to adulthood become half of a new breeding pair (scientists sometimes call them a “breeding pair”, and sometimes call them the alpha pair, although the alpha term is falling out of favour for a few reasons).
The conception of a wolf pack in popular culture, unfortunately, has gone very wrong. In this misconception, a wolf pack refers to a group of adult wolves that hunt together and stay together, not a family. These imaginary packs aren’t happy groups, either. They seem to be in a constant state of barely-controlled order reminiscent of a B-movie prison. In these imaginary wolf packs, every member is scheming some kind of violent take-over and is barely kept in place through constant physical corrections from their “superior” pack-mates.
Some kind of a social hierarchy is always implied, but unlike human hierarchies such as company management structures or the armed forces, the imaginary wolf pack hierarchies aren’t stable and non-violent. They’re always falling apart at the seams. Instead of calling the breeding pair a breeding pair, the term alpha is used freely to describe the wolf who keeps everyone else in their place through violent displays or implicit threat. Since the wolves in this imaginary pack are all adults, there is no room for young wolves to grow up and disperse, starting their own pack and becoming their own “alpha”. No, these poor imaginary wolves are stuck in their B-movie prison lives forever, stuck imagining the glory of being higher status while constantly offering displays of submission to their larger, meaner cell-mate and in turn bullying the weaker kid on the block.
So where did the rather sad pop culture idea about wolf packs come from? In part from our own psyches, very likely: hierarchies matter to humans, without a doubt. We simply can’t help interpreting the world through our own experiences—I can’t, you can’t, and neither can wolf researchers. And the misconceptions come from research on captive wolves, too. Captive wolf research has certainly inundated popular literature. Captive wolves are generally unrelated adults forced to live together, often in large pens (not unlike a B-movie prison, if I think about it).
Unfortunately, when a 21st century English-speaking person hears the word pack in reference to dogs, that word will almost certainly evoke the popular literature version of a wolf pack (inmates in battle for world domination), not the idea of a family just trying to make a living in the world. This is a problem in two big ways. First of all, we know that wild wolf packs are very different from the popular conception of wolves so the very idea of a constant and quasi-violent battle for status is murky. But there’s an even bigger issue. Hold onto your seats: dogs aren’t wolves.
Dogs Aren’t Wolves?
Dogs and wolves share an ancestor, and a relatively recent one—possibly around fifteen thousand or thirty thousand years ago (the actual timeline is a hot topic among researchers right now). And while it’s true that dogs and wolves can interbreed and produce fertile offspring, which is one of the ways that biologists can define members of a species, it’s not true that they’re the same, behaviourally. The likelihood is that the common ancestor of dogs and wolves is now long gone—a friendlier, less fearful wolf was perhaps the source of today’s dogs. There seems to have been a split: proto-dogs on one side, evolving at first naturally and then being bred for increasing friendliness. And wild wolves on the other, possibly evolving to become more fearful than before, due to increasing pressure from their main natural adversary: people.
So if they can interbreed, aren’t they the same? That sounds compelling, but in real life it’s trickier. There are animals who can successfully interbreed but are absolutely different species (Google beefalo, if you’d like to have your mind blown: different species, different genus). For example, wolves are uniformly predatory. Wolves who don’t kill and eat other animals will die. Dogs are much more variable in the “predatory” department: some are happy to get their own meals to eat, some enjoy “predating” upon tennis balls only, and some have no urge whatsoever. Dogs tend to enjoy the company of humans, and I do mean close company (high fives to all the 50lb lap dogs out there). Wolves are a different story, even those who are raised with human company from birth. And when it comes to living in a tight-knit family pack, well, dogs and wolves diverge quite boldly. Wolves generally live together with their family in a pack. Dogs? Not so much.
Dogs do Sometimes Stay in Groups
It is true that dogs sometimes live in groups, or temporarily join up with other dogs. My own house has a load of dogs sharing a space and some resources.
Often researchers theorise that studies of unowned dogs or loose dogs are a good way to see how dogs would naturally organize themselves. (I’m not so convinced—a home with a comfy couch, a human dishing out affection, and a bowl of kibble is more of a natural dog environment, in my mind.) But these studies are still interesting, when it comes to the pack question. Studies of unowned dogs show that gaggles of googley-eyed males will gather briefly around a female in heat (ever hopeful). Female dogs have a different heat cycle than wolves, and are a beacon for males for quite some time before they’re ready to commit. Once the time is right, a female will pick a mate. Unowned dogs also sometimes form loose friendly associations. These groups might scavenge together for a while and then go their separate ways, or they might form semi-permanent groups, usually a few (unrelated) adults.
Unowned, loose dogs interact socially with other dogs around them—they seem to have friends. Pet dogs, too, often love to hang out with other dogs: most dogs are very social indeed. Dogs will play in pairs or groups, either at home or at a play date. As puppies hit adulthood, they usually become choosier about playmates, just like humans become choosier about who they’ll spend time with as teens, but play is often something they continue to enjoy their whole lives.
Some dogs have also inherited the group hunting instinct from their ancestors. What this means is that if one dog is doing a behaviour such as barking and chasing that is known to trigger this urge to “join in and hunt”, other dogs in the area will be drawn to that dog and will join in. For example, a sled dog who stayed with us for a time tried to predate upon a cow (the cow was fine). Our other dogs, who are normally fine with cows, joined in, which is sometimes called “packing up”. This is a scary phenomenon, and reminds us that we do indeed share our homes with carnivores that are often 50, 60, even 100 lbs.
So although dogs do often live in groups, or enjoy hanging out in groups temporarily, it doesn’t seem that they form packs. Remember, a “pack” has a strict definition: a group consisting of a breeding pair, with their offspring of various ages, who make a living in the world together. The family pack that is found among wolves seems, for dogs at least, to have gone the way of the dodo. The adorable mom and pop pairs with puppies in baskets we see on greeting cards? That’s a human thing, not a dog thing. The likelihood is that “dad” isn’t out hunting kibble, coming back to his family and regurgitating it up for his wee ones. And when they’re a year old, those puppies almost certainly are laying on the couch chewing a bully stick of their own or playing with the poodle across the street, not out helpfully roaming with dad, scouting for kibble-beasts to help feed their younger sisters and brothers. However, those are things that members of a wolf pack will certainly do. In fact, those things are what make a wolf pack a wolf pack. They’re intrinsic to it.
Dogs are awesome; wolves are awesome; but the same beast they are not.
Let’s Put Dogs in a New Package: Debunking Pack Theory
So, the pop culture understanding of wolf packs isn’t accurate. That in itself is unfortunate, but does that alone mean we should avoid the word? It’s so handy and brief, and pack rhymes with snack…and everyone loves snacks. But (unfortunately) there is even another problematic layer of misconceptions piled on top of pack. And this layer, this further misconception, is very bad for dogs.
Since the idea of a wolf pack as a group of snarling, barely-constrained power-hungry predators reigns in popular culture, trainers who make use of outmoded, scary and painful training methods cash in on that misconception to lead us into buying what they’re selling (and in retrospect, it’s quite a natural fit, isn’t it?). These trainers use phrases like be the alpha, dominance theory, pack leadership, and similar wolf-pack sounding terms to describe what they do to dogs. And what they do to dogs is hurt and scare them in order to get dogs to do what they want. No more, no less.
These trainers ride the wave of misinformation about wolf packs found in pop culture. If wolves regularly inflict pain and fear to sustain some ‘natural’ order, they say, well then humans better do so too. And if every scheming member of a pack is always plotting to take over no matter the cost, then using painful or scary techniques—yelling or swatting, jerking on the leash, pennies in a can, sprays of water, collars that tighten to cut off a dog’s airway, or dig painful metal bits into their necks, or deliver electric shocks—well that’s a minor price to pay for maintaining order. These trainers are selling a rather scary falsehood: if you, dear dog owner, don’t keep your pet wolves under strict control, then they’ll take over and some horrible bloody pandemonium will result.
So it’s a double-layer cake of misinformation. First off, wolf packs are family groups who collectively hunt and make a living in the world. Second, dogs aren’t wolves anyways, so even if the pop culture view of wolf packs (B-movie prison) were right, the application of this idea to dogs isn’t necessarily appropriate. In fact, even if dogs were wolves and wolves were evil and plotting criminals, we still don’t need to hurt and scare dogs to train them. Why would we want to hurt and scare these animals who we have brought into our homes to live with us? We care about their welfare, after all. And the science of behaviourism has made fantastic leaps and bounds in the last few decades. Modern dog trainers simply don’t need to rely on painful and scary techniques (read more about what science tells us about the benefits of rewards-based training here). We can train dogs to do pretty much anything they’re capable of doing and even help fearful and aggressive dogs overcome their issues using positive reinforcement, Pavlovian conditioning, and other fear-free training techniques.
Words Matter: Let’s Pack Away the Pack Leader Idea
Language is almost certainly a uniquely human capacity. It is the basis of our ability to communicate with and learn from each other in fantastically complex ways. And language is not just the formalized way we express our pure, language-free ideas. Ideas aren’t born in the ether of our brains, arising in some amorphous thought-haze, only later getting a quick translation into words and sentences so we can share them with others. Researchers who study human psychology and consciousness are quick to point out that, for humans at least, language and thought are truly inseparable. Philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett suggests that language lays down the tracks upon which thoughts can travel. Language both constrains thought, and is the foundation for it.
So words really do matter: a rose by any other name just smells different. And the word pack doesn’t just make us think “a collection of individuals”. It is positively soaked with meaning.
The myth that dogs are actually wolves that live like B-movie prison inmates isn’t helpful in general, and the extent to which it allows outdated and painful training methods to proliferate is deeply troubling. So let’s start thinking, and talking, about our dogs in ways that don’t automatically bring up “violently imposed control”. If your dog is snarly at a few of the dogs at the park, call them snarly. Or snarky. Dog-selective. Grumpy bear. (Or how about this: a normal adult dog.) Put “alpha” and “dominant” away unless they also have a life-long mate at home and they’re out hunting for their pups. And instead of a pack, how about an assembly? A class? A clutch, a posse, a passel, a community, a party, a retinue, a gathering…a crew? The reason we get dogs and keep them close to our hearts is because we like actual dogs, after all. We like dogs fine, just the way they are.
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