Fido and all other dogs are related. DNA testing of over 600 breeds from around the world has determined that they have all primarily developed from wolves in Eastern Europe. One exception might be Chihuahuas which have possibly developed from foxes. While Fido and the rest of our dogs have been domesticated for thousands of years, they have retained numerous traits their wolf relatives possess. Among these characteristics is their family or pack structure.
Everyone has heard that dogs are pack animals. What does that mean and how does it relate to Fido living with us?
Dogs are social not solitary animals. Packs are not just a group of dogs that hang around together with no purpose. Packs, both dog and wolf, have a structure or hierarchy based on leadership or dominance. They form these groups to ensure that everyone has a good chance at survival. Every dog has a place and responsibilities within the pack. Survival is of the utmost importance and without the structure within and cooperation of all the pack members there would be chaos which would greatly decrease everyone’s ability to survive.
Fido can only understand the world from his canine perspective. From his perspective our family is his pack. Everyone, both human and animal, that Fido lives with is part of his pack. In the pack there are leaders and subordinates or followers.
Some roles of the leaders are to provide the basic necessities of food, safety, shelter, etc and to direct the actions of the pack. The leaders control the resources. This doesn’t mean that the rest of the pack doesn’t get anything, it means the leaders get first pick of everything and usually take the best food and the most comfortable space. The role of the followers is to take their cues from the leaders, follow their lead and obey the rules the leaders have established.
How do leaders obtain and maintain their position as leaders and how does that relate to Fido and us?
Dogs constantly test each other and us to determine pack hierarchy or ranking. This is done actively during play. Who is the fastest at chase, who wins at tug or wrestling games? The leaders typically win these games, if they decide to play them. They also test passively by observing and testing who reacts to whom. Which dogs start the interactions and which dogs end them. Leaders typically only interact when they decide to, not when requested by subordinates.
The leaders maintain their position by consistently influencing the actions of the rest of the pack. Dogs are very consistent in their behavior and as long as the leaders maintain this consistency they remain the leaders. There is not normally a change in leadership if the pack is thriving. It’s only when the leaders can no longer provide for the pack or when their behavior becomes inconsistent that challenges to the leadership occur.
It’s important to note that most dogs do not want to be the leader. Most are happiest when someone else is making the decisions and having to worry about keeping the pack safe and fed. But, any dog, even the most insecure, will instinctively try to the best of his abilities to fulfill the role of leader. If he isn’t being shown leadership, in ways that he interprets as leadership, either from us or another dog, he’ll have no option but to try to fill the job.
People leadership does not always equal dog leadership. Our dogs look for leadership signals from those they live with. These signals, such as consistency, starting and ending interactions, controlling the resources of food, space, toys etc. and who wins the contests, will indicate who the leaders in the pack are.
There are only two choices for leadership in our homes with our dogs, Fido or us. He usually doesn’t want the job. He is also not suited for the job. His decisions are based on canine perceptions not human understanding. When Fido is in charge there are likely to be behavioral issues. When we’re in charge Fido can relax and not take on the weight of leadership.
Our on-line quiz is mainly listing active behaviors that dogs do when they feel they need to be in charge. Go to the following link for the quiz.
Understanding pack dynamics are important. Fido can’t change his perceptions but we can make adjustments in order to give him the security of leadership that he instinctively seeks.
Happy Dogs = Happy Families