It’s a wonderful part of my job to meet new people and dogs on a regular basis, and this week has been no exception. What I’m always interested to see is how quickly the words ‘dominance’ or ‘pack leader’ comes up in conversation.
These labels came about after the research in 1947 of Rudolph Schenkel, an animal behaviourist who studied captive wolves in a zoo in Switzerland. Click on the title if you’re interested to see his paper “Expression Studies on Wolves” which explains his observations of two packs of wolves living in captivity.
If you’ve ever visited a zoo, do you notice that there’s a difference in the behaviour of those animals compared to the beautiful, nature documentaries that we get to watch from the comfort of our living rooms? It makes me sad to see animals in enclosures that simply can’t replicate the space and freedom that the experience in the wild.
Think also about the difference between those nature documentaries we enjoy now, compared to the ones that would have been filmed around the time of Schenkel’s study. The technology available to us for observing wild animals is light years away, and appears to improve each and every year.
So whilst that study was ground-breaking in it’s time, the information contained in it was held on to by the dog owning public and dog training community for far longer than scientists have done. They have continued to explore and observe these private and remarkable animals, only they are now able to do so in the wolves natural habitats.
Current understanding of wolf pack behaviour has had a massive overhaul. Instead of these snarling, aggressive animals who use violence and intimidation in their daily lives, we find that wolf ‘packs’ are not so dissimilar to the human family model. The odd argument – yes of course, inevitable! 😉 But not the scary picture that has been portrayed in the past. These families usually contain mother and father, older cubs, alongside new cubs – where the focus of that family is to provide and take care of the babies of the family.
In the same way the usual course of events in human families is for young adults to move out of the family home and start their own families, so to do young wolves. It isn’t really a question of a domineering set of alpha female and males controlling everything – more the natural progression of family life.
The next thing to understand about why you don’t need to be your dog’s pack leader, is simply the evidence lying at your feet:
Your dog is a dog, not a wolf
Genetically speaking they are not many genes away from their wolf ancestors, but to give you an idea of how different they are, our own genes are not many away from the great apes! And we don’t rely on behavioural observations of apes to understand human psychology.
At a lecture I attended, John Bradshaw author of the excellent “In Defence of Dogs”, explained that for many years studying pet dogs was simply not a very desirable course for many scientists. So all the dog world had to use to explain dog behaviour was the studies of their closest living wild relatives. In Bradshaw’s book he delves into the history of how we arrived at our current amazing spectrum of dogs – incredible that the Chihuahua is the same species as a Great Dane!
Honestly I think we still have a lot to learn about why dogs behave the way that they do. But the key information that we need is how are we to live successfully with our pet dogs and how should we be training them?
First off, abandon the idea that your dog is trying to take over your home and that the answer to everything your dog does that you don’t like is rooted in them trying to be ‘dominant’. Instead try and see the world from your dog’s point of view.
You set the rules – not the dog, but as they speak a different language it’s not fair to expect them to know what they are without some explanation. If their behaviour is frustrating you, cut them some slack – chances are they didn’t get the memo explaining what you wanted.
Every household will have a different set of rules for the inhabitants – we each have our own way of doing things. When we bring another species like a dog into our home, I believe it’s our responsibility to figure out how to explain our expectations to them in a kind and fair way. Do I expect you to get it right all the time? Absolutely not, dog training is a science and learning the principles and applying them isn’t always easy. But to be good parents and guardians to our dogs, we should always be trying.