As a dog trainer and behaviour consultant, every 5th client tells me that their dog is 'dominant', to which I have to bite my tongue. I know what they are implying, that in certain situations their dog is a little boisterous, or perhaps over confident, or perhaps has learnt that using brute forge helps him to get what he wants.
The term 'dominant' has become infamous due to a certain dog 'trainer', and has led to many dogs being trained with ineffective methods which are often quite cruel for the dog.
Methods such as alpha roll overs (pushing your dog on their back), staring at your dog until they look away, eating before your dog, and physically over powering your dog are some of the many training tips being given out on a daily basis as a method to 'dominate' your dog, or show them that you are 'alpha' with the hope that these magical techniques will tell your dog that they must obey your every wish because you're bigger and badder than they are.
This doesn't work.....
To determine whether or not a dog is a pack oriented animal we must first decide what do we mean by 'pack'? Often dog trainers or owners will perceive that a group of dogs will behave similarly to a group of wolves, and that there will be alpha, or dominant, pack leaders amongst the dogs. The theory is that if you behave as a pack leader, your dogs, as pack animals, will fall into line, immediately become subordinate and will comply with your every instruction.
The 'pack' mentality to dog training is originally based on a study on captive wolf behaviour. This study was carried out by Rudolf Schenkel at the Zoological Garden, Basle, and the Zoological Institute of the University of Basle. He studied two captive wolf populations and found internal struggles within the groups. These wolves were kept in small enclosures, one being 20m x 10m in size with up to 10 wolves contained. He found that the wolves would fight over access to resources and they're interactions were often conflict based (Schenkel, 1946).
David Mech was a scientist who originally, like many others, accepted that Schenkel's findings would be replicated in wolves in their natural habitat. It wasn't until later when he actually studied wolves in the wild that he discovered many of the behaviours that Schenkel observed were virtually non-existent in a more natural setting. He found that a wolf 'pack' in its rightful state consisted of a mother and father wolf, the alpha pair, and their offspring, often two litters of different ages. He found that there was minimal conflict, and there was no challenging for dominance, or to be 'pack leader' as a wolf could no more become the alpha wolf any more than he can become his littermate's father (Mech, 2010).
A pack in its rightful form consists of a family of wolves who all work together. The alpha male wolf will help feed the pups, as will older litters help to teach the pups to hunt, and protect them. This is a pack working in its true form, all for one and one for all (Mech, and Boitani, 2003).
Where the blurred lines begin to form is when it is assumed that members of a pack compete for hierarchy, and to be ranked higher in the pack. Schenkel (1946) reported that this is what wolves were doing when he observed conflict, yet in a natural wolf pack, away from human intervention, Mech (2010) found that wolves did not compete to be higher in their pack.
To understand if a dog is truly a pack animal, it is best to study them without human influence. The best way to do this is to look at populations of feral dogs. Pal et. al (1999) found that, in feral dog populations there was no fixed bond between a mating pair, and that it was not uncommon for a female to mate with several males. This shows, from the very conception of a dog, that the pack dynamic and format was not coming into play. There would be no alpha male in these pups upbringing.
Bradshaw et. al. 1999 carried out a study on the group dynamics of a large group of neutered dogs to determine if any pack structure formed. They found that, while each dog formed a relationship with each other, there was no linear hierarchy, and there was no pack mentality formed. There were no dogs challenging to dominate other dogs to become dominant, nor were any dogs putting themselves subordinate to all other dogs.
While arguing over the validity of the dog pack concept may seem trivial, it is an argument that must be had, and had in a public forum, as far too often forceful, and to some, cruel, training methods are being used world wide on dogs all in the name of showing your dog that you are their 'pack leader'.
TV shows and books have introduced training methods such as Nothing In Life Is Free, or Rank Reduction Methods popular, under the pretense that putting your dog into an alpha rollover, or eating before your dog will result in your dog assuming that you are boss, and no longer pulling on the lead / barking at the doorbell / carrying out any unwanted behavioural issues.
Becoming 'pack leader' has taken president over training your dog basic manners, and teaching your dog appropriate behaviours. By educating pet dog owners on the truth behind the dog pack theory we can then hopefully convince them that simple obedience training is the way forward, and they can stop worrying about owning a 'dominant' dog.
I am a firm believer that the domestic dog is not a pack oriented animal. I do believe that they are social animals that enjoy complex relationships with other dogs and other animals, but the pack dynamic does not occur in canine familiaris, and to treat them as pack animals and train them with this in mind is foolish and often detrimental to the relationship between dog and trainer.
Lots to share !