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  • Writer's pictureNICE

The Misguided World of "Pack Leadership"

There's not a town or a park without a pack leader in it is there? Even now, in these times of easy information and free science, it still falls out of peoples mouths "Dominance, leader, alpha' and so on.

Let's take a closer look at the urban legend that says dogs must be below people in the pack. The "Pack Leadership" method in dog training, rooted in observations of wolf behaviour, suggests that dogs inherently follow a pack model defined by hierarchical social structures with a distinct leader at the helm.

The Myth

People who talk about this idea state that dogs perceive their human families through this pack perspective, considering themselves essential pack members. They teach that if a dog's guardian doesn't consistently assert their role as the 'pack leader', this can induce anxiety in the dog. That sensing a leadership void, the dog may take on the 'alpha' role, potentially leading to aggressive behaviours, hyperactivity, or acute stress due to the overwhelming sense of duty.

The Concern

Worryingly, many individuals professing to be dog trainers are still endorsing and teaching this flawed methodology.

They perpetuate the notion that domesticated dogs, as descendants of wolves, strictly adhere to the social dynamics of wolf packs. Advocates argue that if a dog recognises their guardian as the 'alpha', it can comfortably settle into a subordinate role, resulting in a more relaxed and content animal.

Another concerning facet of this method requires guardians to adopt peculiar rituals and restrictive behaviours to assert dominance. For instance, dogs should not be higher than humans physically, meaning they should not be allowed on sofas or beds.

Dogs are also to be ignored when they seek attention, supposedly to prevent them from 'manipulating' their guardians. Such practices can lead to dogs feeling isolated and desperate for connection, potentially causing depression or other emotional distress.

Rituals might also involve eating from their dog's bowl before serving the dog a meal or disturbing the dog's rest to claim its bed - actions many guardians find odd and uncomfortable.

Despite their oddity, these gestures are believed to reinforce the human's position as the 'pack leader', even though they lack a foundation in canine behavioural science.

The Dangers

Beyond theoretical inadequacies, the pack leadership method poses significant emotional and physical risks to dogs.

  • Emotionally, enforcing a strict hierarchical structure and limiting affection can lead to feelings of isolation in dogs, culminating in fear, anxiety, and depression. These repressed emotions can eventually manifest as unpredictable behaviours.

  • Physically, extreme applications of the method include practices like "alpha rolling", where a dog is forcibly rolled onto their back and held down. Misinterpretations or misapplications can lead some trainers or guardians to use force or intimidation, suppressing behaviours without addressing root causes. Over time, these suppressed behaviours can emerge unexpectedly.

Furthermore, ill-informed trainers might exploit pack leadership concepts to rationalise aggressive tactics, labelling them as 'asserting dominance'. Such measures not only erode trust between dog and guardian but can also instigate long-term emotional challenges and trauma.

As our understanding of canine behaviour evolves, it's paramount for dog guardians to be informed and choose training methods based on mutual respect, trust, and positive reinforcement.

As educated dog professionals we must reject the mythical reflection of wolf pack dynamics and acknowledge that the model is an oversimplification. Let's face it, even wild wolves don't strictly adhere to the once-presumed 'alpha dominance' structure, rendering the core premise of the pack leadership method story, not reality.

Are you a dog professional? Why not enhance your canine journey by joining us at The National Institute for Canine Ethics?

As a member of our supportive community, you'll receive access to 12 free member-exclusive webinars and over a dozen free member meetings annually. You can also download a free ebook, just by visiting the website, click the the button.

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