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Pack Structure: Lead or be Led

by Lori Rodriguez

Published in Dog World Magazine

A puppy or dog will adopt his human family as his new pack soon after his arrival. His sense of well-being depends on his feeling a secure place within the pack. In most homes, this occurs naturally; however, when things go slightly awry, they have a tendency to snowball. Understanding how important pack security is to your dog can hopefully stop a problem before it becomes a behavioral mess.


A good pack relationship is one in which the owner is neither abusive nor permissive in his role as leader and the dog is neither disobedient nor fearful.


Developing a Good Relationship with Your Dog

A good relationship between dog and owner is one of understanding and respect - not fear! A dog should be willingly obedient, not neurotically submissive. If a dog cringes when his owner comes near or if he rules his home with his owner catering to his every whim, something has gone wrong. Luckily, with a strong commitment for change (and guidance from a good trainer), the owner and his dog can usually reestablish are more rewarding relationship.


In dog training today, the "in" term is pack leadership. Developing pack leadership does not need to involve verbal or physical abuse or a lot of effort; it is more of an attitude - an attitude that can easily be developed through the use of games and obedience exercises. With a puppy, the proper relationship can develop so easily and naturally that the owner won't even notice it. Unfortunately, while the definition of a pack leader is self explanatory, the theories on why and how to establish it range from mildly amusing to downright abusive.


Take the case of a woman who took her rambunctious labrador puppy to obedience school. The animal behaviorist told her to pounce unexpectedly on her dog and pin her to the ground three times a day. This would show the dog she was the pack leader. Not only is this advice absurd and unnecessary, but the three key elements of training - clearness, consistency, and timing - are missing! Firstly, while pinning the dog to the ground to show superiority is a natural act, it is out of context in this situation, creating confusion and mistrust. To make a command, correction, or action clear to a dog, it must be within the context of his natural behavior (he can understand it), he must be able to modify his behavior appropriately (find a positive way out of the correction), and it must be of the appropriate strength to elicit the proper response (neither too hard or too soft). This act of unprovoked pouncing is not something that would normally occur in a natural play for dominance; therefor, the dog is unclear as to what is expected of him.


Each time the owner pounces, the dog tries in vain to modify his behavior to avoid the incident in the future (learning), but because there is no rhyme or reason to the pouncing, the dog cannot win - he has no way out - creating anxiety which will manifest itself in destructive behaviors (chewing, soiling, aggression, withdrawal, depression, etc.) Secondly, this particularly dog has been allowed to run the home with her owners catering to her like inferior pack members. The three-times-a-day pouncing is completely inconsistent with the otherwise established pack order. Thirdly, the timing is off. The pouncing occurs when the dog is not doing anything wrong. The dog cannot make any association between the action of her owner and the desired behavior because the two are out of sync. The end result of this bad advice is a poor relationship that has led to problems in other areas as well.


Another man was told by a trainder to beat his dog until it urinated on itself, "then you've established pack leadership." This cruel, abusive behavior is totally unnecessary. Pack leadership and proper upbringing go hand in hand. An owner need not use tricks, gimmicks, gadgets or gizmos - just time and understanding! If he makes the effort to keep commands, corrections, and actions clear, consistent, and well timed, he is establishing his role as pack leader without extra effort or ridiculous actions. The only time of difficulty may come during adolescence, when the dog (like a child) is torn between his own maturing desires and the will of his master.


Pack Structure and Security

Dogs are social animals, which makes them ideally suited as human companions - a role the revel in. One dog and one owner are a pack and whether the owner is aware or not, a social structure has been established. The security of the dog's position is more important to him than his actual order (except for those very rare alpha male types). He does not have to be number one to be happy; contentment comes with being a member secure within the pack.


If pack structure is or becomes unstable, an inborn desire to create stability (resolve stress) will produce an inner drive that compels the dog to secure social structure by assuming a more dominant position. The amount and intensity of this drive varies from breed to breed, dog to dog. This tension can occur when a new member of the family is introduced (be it dog or person) or if someone leaves, becomes ill, or changes temperament drastically. This change of temperament can also occur during mating season (when a bitch is in heat) or as a young dog reacts to hormonal changes. If an owner understands that his dog has not suddenly turned vicious, but is reacting to natural urges, he can usually avoid or control this situation. Again, security, not position is the dog's desire.


A wild canine pack must operate as a highly organized team. If a pack's members were in constant tension and continually fighting to assume a higher rank, the pack would die off from the chaos. Therefor, the atmoshpere of a pack is generally peaceful and non-aggressive.


A pack leader's job is to maintain pack security both from without and from within. He does this by assuming authoritative postures/attitude and by keeping his inferiors in line (when warranted) with quick, decisive action. He is neither abusive to inferior members (picking his opportunities to show authority carefully) nor permissive. Because each time he fights, he risks losing and each time he backs away, he lessons his authority, it behooves him to choose his confrontations wisely. If he can make his pack work for him with little physical confrontation, his chances of remaining leader are greater.


The correlation between the wild pack leader and the human dog owner is significant. Our social structures are similar enough that the dog treats his human family as his pack, looking for the same stability, guidance, and structure. A dog owner, must cater to that need by assuming a leader role. Leadership is ongoing, not something that happens three times daily. To gain and maintain the leadership position, a dog owner must lead. That means taking an active role in the life of his dog - spending quality and quantity time teaching the dog to be an obedient, confident, and respectful pack member - and a good dose of love and friendship doesn't hurt either!



Anthropomorphism is the attribution of human characteristics to nonhuman beings or things. Dogs' social structure and facial expressions can seem so human-like that people often think of them as little furry humans. They live in our homes, eat our food, and sleep on our beds; we talk to them, confide in them, cuddle them, and mourn their loss, we even dress them up and send them greeting cards. While the benefits of such caring and closeness to both dog and owner is obvious, the detriments may not be.


Each animal species in God's kingdom has its own set of behavioral rules that guide it. And while a dog may live like one, he is not and can never be a human. He does not possess the same drives, feelings, motivations, and innate responses, that a human has. This is an important fact to understand and remember when training a dog. Because a dog cannot learn to think like a human, the owner must learn to understand how the dog thinks - he must learn to think like a dog. To be a successful trainer, an owner must understand what and how his dog is motivated.


Another important fact is that a dog cannot understand human conversation. Although this statement is obvious and simple, it is often forgotten. Yes, a dog can respond to soothing words or perform a task upon command. But he is reacting to the tone of voice and body cues or a previously conditioned response. He does not understand the actual words as a human understands them. Dogs are not motivated by anger, resentment, or spite. These are anthropomorphic ideas. If a dog has once again chewed his owner's shoes, it is not because he is getting back at him. Humans may think that way, but a dog cannot! To insist that a dog's actions are done because of anger, resentment, or spite is a major stumbling block to fixing the problem. It's also an easy way to write the dog off, an excuse to get rid him.


An owner must work to figure out the reason for the dog's behavior. Chewing is not a bad behavior from a dog's point of view. It is a necessary part of teething, chewing is also a way to relieve stress, chewing is necessary in order to eat, chewing is a way to maintain good teeth, etc. Chewing his owner's shoes is bad because it ruins his owner's shoes. As far as the dog is concerned their is no difference between the owner's shoes and a rawhide bone. The owner must find a way to let his dog know that there are some things he may chew and some things he may not. Chewing shoes becomes a bad habit not out of spite, but because the owner has allowed and unwanted behavior to exist - there is confusion about what is and is not allowed.


Developing Good Habits

Develop good habits by rewarding wanted behaviors and eliminating unwanted ones. When the dog, by accident or design, exhibits a positive behavior, reward him. Prevent negative behaviors from occurring whenever possible (passive inhibition). If a negative behavior cannot be avoided, either ignore it or correct the dog for the behavior remembering to be clear, consistent, and well-timed. Thus the dog learns to control his environment. The dog makes the decision to be exhibit correct behavior because there is something in it for him. Unwanted behaviors are extinguished because they were either unsuccessful (ignored) or uncomfortable (corrected). This type of learned behavior is much more reliable because the dog himself realizes the benefits of good behavior and modifies his behavior accordingly.


Positive and negative behaviors are relative. Each owner has his own idea of the type of relationship he wants to have with his dog. Hopefully he has spent the time to research different breeds and their naturally tendencies, has chosen his breed and breeder well, and is aware that creating a good relationship takes work. A rescued dog is more difficult to work with because the owner lacks a history of the dog, however, the positive rewards of retraining a rescued dog can be immense.


Let's go back to the owner with the chewed up shoes. The dog has learned that chewing shoes is pleasant. If he is caught in the act and corrected but has access to the shoes when no one is around, he learns that chewing shoes in front of his owner is unpleasant, but chewing shoes when his owner is not in sight is still enjoyable. If he chewed the shoes at noon and his owner found them at one o'clock and corrected him then, the dog has learned that if his owner acts in a certain way, he will be corrected, but chewing shoes when his owner is not in sight is still enjoyable. He cannot associate between chewing shoes at noon and getting punished at one. Later still, after many days of coming home to chewed up shoes and punishing the dog, the owner comes home to find the dog cowering (the owner thinks, "he obviously knows he is wrong for having chewed the shoes at noon because "guilt is written all over his face"). The owner is now extremely frustrated because he knows the dog knows what he has done, so he must be continuing to do so out of spite! This is how anthropomorphism can ruin a relationship. The owner inappropriately projects human thoughts onto the dog. So, let's back up to the beginning. The owner having provided the dog with chew toys comes home to find the loose dog has chewed his shoes for the first time. What should he do. The first reaction is to reprimand the dog, but we have seen that this does not work because the association is not there and chewing in and of itself is not bad. The response should be to chalk one up to bad preparation and try to avoid the situation in the future. Ahh ha, there's a good lesson, anger has no place in training. The owner may feel better taking it out on the dog, but his abuse only makes the situation worse. The answer is to prevent the problem behavior, then teach the dog how to be correct in the future.


Just as a parent would for a toddler, the owner should put away or deny access to any and everything the dog can get in trouble with until he has learned positive behaviors around such items. When the dog cannot be supervised, put him in his crate or outside play area until he learns house rules and earns free house time. As the dog matures, the owner can allow him more and more structured and unstructured freedoms as he teaches him the rules of the house. Before he knows it, he will have a well-mannered, happy dog he can live with and a well-established pack structure.


Pack leadership is an honor bestowed upon a dog owner that must be earned through love, patience, consistency, and proper discipline.

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