Understanding Your Dog Part 1

To be or not to be pack leader?

It wasn’t that long ago that pretty much everyone in the dog behaviour world believed that all problem behaviour was caused by dogs trying to be ‘dominant’ and so could be cured by the owner making sure they are ‘pack leader’. Some practising behaviourists still do. However, many others have started to challenge this idea and not only to move away from using it but to see it as a potentially harmful way to manage dog behaviour.

These conflicting views make it very hard for dog owners to know how best to train and interact with their dogs or who to seek help from if things go wrong. So who is right? How did this theory first develop and why do some now challenge it? Can it help bring a wayward dog under control or is it likely to do more harm than good? Should you be ‘pack leader’ or not? In this article, canine behaviour counsellor Stephanie Hedges will answer all these questions.

What is meant by being ‘pack leader’?

dog behaviour

The traditional view of dog behaviour suggested that whenever a group of dogs lived together they would naturally form a hierarchy that gave each member a place in order of seniority. The one at the top was said to be the ‘pack leader’, ‘alpha’ or to be ‘dominant’. The key advantage of being pack leader was that only the alpha animals of each sex are said to breed and so pass their genes on to the next generation. It was therefore believed that all dogs had a desire to be ‘alpha’ to give them this right.

How is it decided who will be pack leader?

The pack leader not only had the right to breed but also had priority access to anything of value to the dogs. This included obvious things like eating first or sleeping in the best spot. It also included less obvious things such as walking through a doorway first, being at the front on walks or being the one to initiate all social interactions. Who would be pack leader was therefore decided by who was able to control these important resources.

Which dog this was may at first have had to be decided through threats or even fights. However once the hierarchy was established, conflict was usually avoided by lower ranking members allowing the pack leader to control them without challenge. That said, as all dogs were believed to have an instinctive desire to be pack leader, the alpha would have to maintain control all the time. They would also interpret any attempt to take them as a challenge for the role of pack leader, and so would correct this using aggression if necessary.

dog behaviour

It used to be thought that if a dog if a dog growled when his owner tried to take away a juicy bone he was seen as challenging the owner’s right to eat first

How was the pack leader theory used to explain problem behaviour?

The pack leader theory suggested that dogs saw humans as part of their pack. It therefore interpreted most – if not all – problem behaviour as an attempt to challenge the owner for the right to be alpha. For example if a dog growled when his owner tried to take away a juicy bone he was seen as challenging the owner’s right to eat first and to control all food. If a dog pulled on the lead it was said to be a sign the dog was challenging the owner’s right to ‘lead the pack’. I have even heard it suggested that a dog that emptied the entire bowl of water whenever it was put down was trying to dominate the rest of the pack – including the owner – by controlling access to water.

How was the pack leader theory used to manage or correct dog behaviour?

As all problem behaviour was said to be due to a challenge for the role of pack leader then it naturally followed that if the owner was accepted as ‘alpha’ all these ‘challenges’ would disappear. Owners were advised to do things like eat before their dog to show they controlled all the food, not allow them to sleep on beds or sofas to show they controlled the best sleeping places, and not to let the dog pull on the lead to show they led the pack. They were also advised not to let the dog win if he used threat over something like a bone, and to use punishments if needed to correct challenges. For example the challenge of pulling on the lead was corrected using a check chain or slip lead constricted around the dog’s neck. Ultimately owners were advised they could show dominance by intimidating their dog by staring at or leaning over them, or even by rolling them onto their side and holding them there until they ‘submitted’ i.e. stopped resisting. This is referred to as a ‘dominance’ or ‘alpha’ roll.

In the second part of this article we will look at where this theory originated and how well it stands up in light of the most recent research into dog behaviour. We will also look at why some behaviourists believe that using these methods can be detrimental to a dog’s welfare and may even make some problem behaviours worse, and what alternatives there are.