The Mind of the Pack…

Posted: January 24, 2012 in Uncategorized

There are always a few posts in my Draft file that are hanging fire, waiting for completion, contemplation, and publication.  This one started when I began to find articles and whole books on the subject of, “Are Canines really Pack Animals?”   The foremost writer is one Jean Donaldson, a best-selling author and “behaviorist”.

There are several others that are now espousing the theory that dogs are not Pack animals at all, and that current behavior theories are flawed in the extreme.  All of these writers seem quite determined to beat it into us that “Dogs are not wolves!”    A statement that has basis in fact.  Our dogs truly are not wolves.  But the discussion then takes a more “Targeted” tangent…aimed directly at those who train with Pack mentality firmly involved.  Once again, when a certain methodology rises to prominence,( and financial success)  there will always be those that seek their own rise by being contrarian, and controversial.  Or making fun of those they see as a  getting attention that they desire.  So be it…Those without the ability to produce original thoughts need to make a living too…

The writer/poet  Rudyard Kipling wrote a poem entitled, “The Law of the Jungle”, and it was a foundation stone for the epic story we know as “The Jungle Book.”  It is the story of a young boy raised in the jungle by a wolfpack, and his eventual return to the family of man.  It reads as follows, and is the basis for my contention that, even if dogs are not Pack animals, they are better off being in a Pack.

                                                       “Now this is the Law of the Jungle-as

                                                        old and as true as the sky;

                                                         And the Wolf that shall keep it may

                                                          prosper, but the Wolf 

                                                         that shall break it must die.

                                                         As the creeper that girdles the tree

                                                          trunk, the Law runneth

                                                                forward and back

                                                          For the Strength of the Pack is the

                                                            Wolf, and the Strength of

                                                                the Wolf is the Pack.

                                                                                                                                 –                                                                                                    Rudyard Kipling

   I have no formal education in biological or behavioral aspects of canids.   In fact, I don’t understand my own behavior at times!  I don’t consider myself an expert of dog behavior or training.  I stand zero possibility of making a living from my opinion of what makes dogs tick.  I understand even less of what makes humans the way that they are…But I do spend the majority of my time with my dogs, and several other  dogs that I work with, and they teach me something everyday.  Goodly portions of my time are also spent with people that don’t attempt to fit in with  polite society, and end up in our nations penal system as inmates.  This qualifies me to at least make an observation on both.

Jean Donaldson, the author cited and linked above, makes many of her suppositions based on dogs found in 3rd world, and otherwise developing nations in turmoil.  Her observations state that dogs do quite well living alone, without structure or discipline or assistance of any kind.  They are therefore, certainly not Pack animals.  She also postulates that Wolves in the wild actively seek out, or form structures Packs, and are therefore true Pack animals.  Both of these conclusions have basis in fact.  But both conclusions are also filled with holes.

Regarding wolves, many individuals eschew pack life and strike out on their own for whatever reason.  The National Geographic Society  produced special, “Rise of the Black Wolf” is a compilative story of one such wolf.  Black Wolf prefers life on the periphery of several packs, wooing females, and successfully passing on his genetics surreptitiously.  He does eventually form a Pack, but abandons it several times for the solitude of oneness.  The interesting thing is this:  Black Wolf is never quite Normal.  His method of living makes him quirky and disheveled.  Secretive and unfocused, without direction.  He needed the normalcy of a Pack.

The third world dogs that Donaldson observed, while certainly “Getting Along just Fine without a Pack”, were also described as ‘skittish, afraid and stand-offish’.  This is not normal behavior.  Dogs that live with a Pack, (Even if that pack is predominantly human)  have a tendency to be far more stable and mentally well-adjusted.

Having opportunity to observe  humans that have this “Lone Wolf” mentality, it has been noticed that they too appear different. I offer as evidence Mr. Ted Kaczynski.  His story is one of separating from all contact that would demand the discipline and connection of the whole.  Don’t misunderstand me…I’m not espousing a “Group-Think” mentality where we all walk in lock-step.  I’m inclined to a Mountain-Shack surrounded by  canned goods and firearms myself.

Ted Kaczynski-AKA The Packless UnaBomber.

But the evidence suggests that keeping safely within the embrace of others is a protection mentally, spiritually, and physically.  My contention is that dogs are similar.
  If you were to observe a canine of any breed, chained to a dog house, left alone for the most part, you will find a living soul with issues in behavior.  Aggressiveness, Fear, Nervousness, and even more.  They need interaction.  If you were to tie another dog to the same tether (No, I’m NOT saying this is right to do! )  they would immediately begin to form a relationship of sorts, and a Pack Leader would ultimately be established. That is the natural order of canine behavior.  When a Pack arrangement is possible, they  will naturally form one.
My breeder, Rhonda Sellers of Omorrow German Shepherds, is an unquestioned expert on “Pack Behavior”.  She has earned this expertise at the tutelage of her Pack of German Shepherds, that have the run of a large farm in central Ohio.  When she walks out of the door of her home, or her kennel facility, as many as 15 adult German Shepherds will follow at her heels, intent on nothing more than following her.  Those dogs choose to follow…I’m not sure that most of them have ever worn a leash.  They simply don’t need it.  Whether in the house, or in her office, there are always several large German Shepherds milling about the place.  Yes, they do act like dogs at times.  They wrestle, they get into things, they beg to play ball, they get under foot, but the slightest movement on Rhonda’s part results in the attention of every one of them.  And it’s not just the adults.  Young puppies awaiting homes, young adults that represent the future of her program, senior dogs retired from breeding, and none of them have been separated from their ability to breed.  Just observing this in action convinces me that dogs are at least, desirous of belonging to a Pack, or at most, unable to resist the urge to be a collective Pack.  Take your pick.
The evidence suggests, to me, that humans and dogs benefit from the company and comfort of others.  It helps maintain mental balance.  I’m not saying that they are the same, because we humans are much more sophisticated in our mental processes.  We are ruled by emotions that can change in an instant.  We tend to think too thoroughly to maintain constant balance in our behavior. ” Mercurial”, is the word that best describes us…
But now I’m curious.  I want to know what this Pack thinks.  Are Dogs Pack animals in your opinion?  Are they better off as a Pack?  Does a human Pack fulfill their needs as a dog?  Are training methods based on Pack Behavior effective and motivating?
  1. Kyrie says:

    Thanks for the post Rhonda. It made me realize I might not have been as clear in my wandering rant as I had thought. The basic difference in how I see working with my dogs that really acts as the fork in the road between the discussion of these two methods is whether or not dogs see: people as dogs; or, see people as people and as a completely separate species. The pack mentality work that I’ve referenced does base in dominance/submission, or alpha/beta dogs however you want to phrase it, and it stipulates that dogs see humans as they would other dogs and fit them into either the alpha/beta role and social hierarchy.
    The difference with how I train/live with my dogs is believing that the dogs can make the distinction between the two species (i.e. humans and canines, people and dogs, again however you want to phrase it). It is that distinction that made me say the part about assuming the role of giver of all things good. Although they might act in the role of alpha/beta dogs to each other, when they are dealing with me they follow me from room to room because I give them food, water and their favorite toys. I know this for a fact because I don’t try to take on dog-like behaviors to maintain a position of alpha to them, I don’t speak with them much, we just go room to room and I give them stuff to occupy their time or engage them in play or engage them in training or they are sleeping.
    In a group setting where my puppy does have access to other dogs and is off leash with a choice of what to do, she tries to engage me in training rather than being involved in the social happenings around her – even though other dogs are right in her face trying to get her to play. My point here is that both approaches work – there’s proof left and right that both approaches work, what each and every one of us is faced with when choosing a path to follow is what kind of a dog we want at the end of the day. I want a dog that is happy and comes to the door to greet me, I want a dog that when I pick up from day care or boarding will rub against me chattering away telling me about their day, I want a dog who is so excited about the thought of playing outside with me and goes barreling out like a fool only to turn and give me the ‘aren’t you coming yet?’ look on his face, and most importantly I want a dog whose natural personality and quirks have been nurtured to make them the individuals I have come to love and adore. I have that, and so much more.
    To steal a chapter from someone else as I lack original thought on this one; I don’t consider myself to be a pack leader, I consider myself to be a Benevolent Leader. (Courtesy of someone else’s thought: Benevolent Leadership is about placing yourself in the position of being looked to for direction. It is about setting appropriate limits and guidelines so that your dogs know what is expected of them. It is about trust that you will take care of things.)
    Oh, and Rhonda, your ‘ramblings’ are always important. You have many years of experience to draw from, especially when it comes to the personality of your dogs – your words are much appreciated and respected.

  2. Oh my Robert!! From MY aspect, dogs are definitely pack animals. Not because I read it somewhere, but live it! My perspective is also that yes, we humans do serve as pack leaders and/or members !
    Why else does a dog even have the social need to act or interact with us or other canines? I also have had the opportunity to understand herds of horses. (Do people dispute the fact that horses, cows, sheep etc are herd animals? If so, I have never read or heard it. Yet a horse can survive sequestered alone, but also have behavior issues as a result. We all, regardless of species, long for some sort of companionship, affermation, a belonging. (There are obviously exceptions to all rules, we do not live in a perfect world. There are flaws in everything.) Whether it is a herd, in a pack, or a human group, we all need companionship, direction, and yes ALWAYS a leader.

    In watching my dogs through the years, there is always an heirarchy among them and as young puppies, part of their developement is fighting for their position in that pack. Just as in the human world, I watch the mothers correct and instruct their offspring, sometimes physically. The stronger personalies in the group of puppies emerge and the others always follow, and puppies are all about physical! They do not follow the leader because the leader brought them food, water, or a favorite toy! In the adults, I have watched true, good alphas in action and they are most generally aloof, selfconfident, CALM, and kind. In aloof, I do not mean they show no affection or interaction, on the contrary, but it IS them that determines when, if , and how much. I also watch the followers and young “wanna be” alphas look to the alpha for the proper response to every situation. The interesting thing about watching dog behavior is that if the leader is removed, the next in line automatically assumes the leader role, and the rest give them the same resect and yes, follow them. I can bring in a new puppy, not born here, and immediately they gravitate to Blitz, my current alpha. There is something that we cannot detect that they immediately just know! Most often they grovel,lick and make complete fools of themselves, which he regally accepts, but when the are clamoring too hard, he will warn, and then touch. The beauty in this is it is never more correction than needed, and always is out of the way at a very young age. Any correction after this is usually just a look from him. Many years ago, Sunny treated him the same.

    I am not a dog expert by any means, I have just had the opportunity to live with many, for many years and observe. Not having alot of time to read everything written on the subject, I come to my conclusions through my own experience. Am I totally old school in my corrections, absolutely NOT. it is just a bump with my knee, a poke with my finger, or a word or tone very similar to what my alphas do. Are my dogs perfectly behaved? Not by a long shot. Do we manage to live everyday without turmoil with 6 intact males in the house, and any numer of females as well? Yes, because of pack order. You see, I am the pack leader that my alpha, and all the rest recognize. That is why I have a trail of dogs on my heals at all times, it is hard for me to head to the bathroom alone, and there are dog bodies I must negotiate whenever I get out of the shower, wake up in the dark, or cook. If I am ever alone it is because I have separated myself from them with a physical barrier. As I type, there are 9 at my feet , or as close as they can get, by their own choice. They respect me first, and love me completely, as I do them. I have been blessed beyond measure.

    There is alot more detail I could go into on this subject, but my ramblings are not important. In my humble opinion, dogs, at least GSDs, have a strong pack instinct and do look for direction and instruction from their pack leader, whether it be 4 legged or two!

  3. I debated for awhile about whether or not I was going to respond to this question, not because it isn’t a good question, and not because I don’t have an opinion, but because I am very reticent about trading the friends I have made for an opinion that I have. That out of the way, I hope that everyone will keep an open mind about what I (and others) have to say and appreciate (though not have to buy into) what I am about to say. One of my favorite things about literature is that there is an endless possibility of options to debate and while everyone may get heated at the end of the day everyone is still friends who can respect the other side. While science is a lot different (in that science is aiming to prove an absolute truth) I hope people will keep more of the literature mentality when reviewing my post.

    It is not proven if a dog is a pack animal. Neither is it disproven. Therefore, the question posed is somewhat philosophical and highly opinionated. Many people feel passionately one way or the other and I am not out to belittle or degrade one thought. What I believe, however, is that even the definitions posed are subjective. Do I believe a dog is a pack animal? Scientifically speaking, no. I don’t. I believe a dog is completely capable of surviving and continuing the species as he was biologically intended to do without human interference and without a pack structure. So to do I believe that some of the greatest “deviants” this human world has ever known were the foremost thinkers of their time.

    Rosa Parks was a deviant, Ghandi was a deviant. Social device is a necessary evil of society (although sometimes it is, indeed, purely evil). However, I do not think that human structures and wolf structures should be compared too closely.

    I believe, first and foremost, that my dog needs me, not because he needs a ‘pack’ but because he recognizes that he needs me to provide food, water and freedom. Without me, he has none of these things. He recognizes this, and tries to do all in his power to insure that he has these things. He was designed for this purpose.

    Do I think my dog is happier with me maintaining pack leadership or alpha status? I don’t believe in these terms. But to the extent that they entail physically correcting the dog by any means, no, honestly I don’t (there I said it). I don’t think my dog wants or needs me to punish him. In fact, I think he would prefer I didn’t.

    Do I think my dog needs structure? I think he appreciates training, exercise and a healthy diet. I think he likes to learn, to run and to eat well. Coming from someone who has physically corrected a dog, I can tell the difference. My dogs are truly happy they are completely unafraid. They are excited every day to try new things and venture forth in their training. I never think that I am above them. In fact, more often than not, they teach me new things.

    In all honesty, I don’t even care about who is “leader” in my “pack” or even if there is a leader. I just want my dogs to be happy and of all the things we have tried, clicker training (singly with Smokey before we had Shelby and together with) has made them the happiest. Smokey was happy before we had Dusty. He was sad when we lost her. She was a member of our family, but he was recovered when we got Shelby. And now that we have her he is still happy.

    If the question is physical correction or not, I will go with not every time. And again, I genuinely hope no one will think me the less for this opinion nor think i am looking down on them for his, but I do hope everyone will at least research and learn a little about clicker training before so off handedly dismissing it. In this, if I have reached even one person, I am successful.

  4. Kyrie says:

    From all that I’ve read, witnessed and experienced first hand over the last two-years I do believe that dogs amongst dogs do form a pack. I also believe that dogs don’t view humans as two-legged dogs, and I don’t think that people really fall into a pack hierarchy with dogs. I think dogs are dogs, people are people. I do think that dogs recognize the importance that we humans play in their lives as provides of all things good (and sometimes bad). I think that the status of being that over arching provider has dogs give a level of respect to their two-legged friends. I do agree with the thought process that dogs are not wolves, they may be wolf-like as they do share common denominators back in the day…but fast forward hundreds of years and I think that they have developed into something – different, yes, let’s go with different. Not better, not worse, just different. Dogs have come to rely on humans to provide a lot of things in life like food and water. That doesn’t mean that they could never turn feral and rely on their instincts to survive, it just means that given a choice they would probably stick close to humans. Although I have never read Jean Donaldson, her writing has been recommended to me by some other ‘behaviorists’ that I trust very much. I have studied other authors who also go against the ‘pack mentality’ methods – probably for the same tangent you allude to above. From what I’ve experience so far networking to bring a different form of training to my reservation that isn’t based in physical abuse like traditional training, or dominance based methods that *seem* to go hand-in-hand with the ‘pack mentality’ method, I would rather go the route of the other guy. I wasted 10-months of Bella’s life trying to force her into a ‘human-dog pack’ using methods that I spent months reading about prior to bringing her home, watching on popular TV channels the ‘group think’ way of how to work with my dog. I came SO VERY close to putting her outside to be permanently attached to a box, because I figured if a Cornell University educated person who studied communication theory couldn’t ‘get’ how to use plain black and white text to get a dog to submit to the ‘pack mentality’ then obviously there is something wrong with me and I have no hope to be the ‘pack leader’ of my own home. Now I’ve spent the better part of a year researching this other form of training, and from only reading books I can see how it can be interpreted as a lot of recycled information with each new trainer on the scene rehashing things they’ve read from other authors who can now be considered the foundation for disregarding the ‘pack mentality’. In the last three years I have had 4-German Shepherds, one who I used the pack mentality method for half their life then transitioned out of and who I eventually lost to cancer, one who has been with me from the start of researching a different way to train, another who I tragically lost just as things were getting interesting, and one five-month old baby whose only limitation now is my own imagination. I do think dogs do better in a multiple dog household, but if the effort is put in they can be just fine in a human-only household. As for that last question – for me, personally, no, the pack behavior methods were ineffective and not motivating. But thank you for asking.

  5. Kim Atwell says:

    Personally, I believe that yes, dogs are ‘pack animals’. It’s defining the word ‘pack’ that I feel is where people who oppose my personal opinion are missing the target. Do dogs HAVE to be in a pack to survive? Nope. Bob the Lone Dog can get on just fine on his own, living off what he finds and taking shelter where and when he needs to. I myself could do the same. Do I personally feel that a dog is happier, more fulfilled and more stable with an established set of rules and a ‘pack hierarchy’? Yep. I won’t go into all manner of reasons why I feel this way – the glaring reason is sitting in my floor beside me…rolling all over one another, chewing on each other and bumping into my chair every few minutes. We have had a single dog before. That single dog was SO much happier and just seemed to enjoy life more once we got him a buddy. The new dog seemed to know who was in charge, fell in line and that was that. Don’t tell me you can’t see the joy in a dog’s face when he knows you are in charge and are praising him or working with him to stimulate his brain. I honestly feel they are HAPPY with structure. Can a dog survive on it’s own? Sure. Is a dog it’s best self when in the company of other dogs day in and day out? With the exception of my Lou, I say ABSOLUTELY! Good question, Robert!

  6. Dave Spriggens says:

    Very interesting piece Robert i noted the part where ya said ( humans are much more sophisticated in our mental processes )
    well i dont know on that one , close contact and working with my dogs show me they have anticipated my next and every movement, they are epscially good at reading my mood and as i have a ongoing health situation they also show me with thiere actions they know how i feel at any given time.

    SO in fact i know they are better Honed to feelings actions and thoughts, Than we humans ,
    As for the question of are they Pack or not , my own observations say yes they are most definitely pack animals and benifit from each others company also our company .

  7. Deb Whitmore says:

    Can you compare the behavior of dogs in abnormal circumstances (Romania) with dogs living more typical lives? Seems as though there are too many variables to make conclusions…..I think the article raises good questions. Have dogs evolved into pack animals by virtue of centuries of socialization with humans? That may debunk the “dogs are wolves therefore pack animal” theory.

    The essence of my chosen field is assisting children and adults in becoming more successful in their “social environments”. If my only means of interpreting their behavior was by observation, I would be making huge assumptions and faulty conclusions.

    I’m at home with a cold and the good old thought processes feel fuzzy :). I’ eager to read the thoughts/comments of others.