While I may have a “pack,” I’m no “Pack Leader”

While I may have a “pack,” I’m no “Pack Leader”

Not a single week goes by without someone calling me a dog whisperer, calling me a good “pack leader,” asking me if their dog is trying to be dominant, or asking me how to show their dog that they are the “pack leader.”  I certainly appreciate the sentiment when it’s a compliment but I do not work in such mysterious ways as implied by being a “dog whisperer”–I use behavioral science, the science of learning, and experience to train dogs.

I very intentionally do not call dogs “pack animals”  but rather “social animals” when I’m talking with students because of the connection humans have created between dogs as “pack animals” and a strict social hierarchy.  There has been, and continues to be, research that indicates that there isn’t a strict static hierarchical pack structure within the canine world (mostly based on feral dog populations) and even a recanting by the man who coined the term “alpha wolf.”

I really get bothered by trainers spewing “he doesn’t see you as pack leader” or “he’s being dominant over you” bologna.  Where do those assessments/statements leave us as trainers/pet guardians.  “He doesn’t see you as pack leader”–okay, what does that tell us about the dog’s behavior?  What does that tell us about how to resolve the behavior?  Not much.  Add on to this that research seems to imply that this type of social hierarchy doesn’t even exist in the canine world.  If dogs don’t really have an “alpha dog” or “pack leader” social structure, I wonder what they think of all the attempts people make at being “pack leader”–religiously eating first, body blocking so they walk through thresholds first, never ever letting the dog on the furniture, and being confrontational over resources.

Having well mannered pets is not about being a “pack leader” in the sense that a certain TV star has popularized–it’s not about jabbing dogs in the neck, forcing them to bow to my power, alpha rolling them, making sure I eat first, making sure I walk through doors first, exercising until total exhaustion, keeping pets off of furniture, or punishing out the unwanted behavior (or suppressing it).  It has everything to do with rewarding behaviors you want, setting boundaries (whatever that means for each individual person), having a trusting relationship, and not being a pushover (this piece is important).

Reward behaviors you like–if you reward behaviors they are more likely to happen again.  You like that your puppy made the choice not to jump up on you, reward it.  Your dog responded to a cue, reward it so they are likely to respond in the future (depending on where in the process of training the dog is, the reward may be a treat or just  a”thank you”).  Your dog walked by another dog without barking/pulling/trying to say hi, reward it so Fido learns what behaviors pay out.

Set boundaries–in my house dogs are allowed on furniture and my dogs are allowed on my bed but I absolutely respect the wishes of other pet guardians who do not want pets on furniture because they have expensive or hard to clean pieces.  Maybe you do not want your dogs in the kitchen while you prepare a meal, give them that boundary.  If you’d rather not be jumped on set that rule.  My dogs are not permitted to go out of any exterior door without permission, they must be on their beds while I’m eating, must move from my spot on he couch when requested, and  must leave food on a plate/in bowl/etc alone, even if it’s left out.  Handlers must go back to rewarding desired behaviors in order to teach the rules and set the boundaries but these are important.

Build a trusting relationship–this is built on mutual respect.  Respect that your dog has likes and dislikes–respect their body language and listen to them.  Take note of their body language and advocate for them if it’s needed (or use dog-friendly behavior modification to resolve any issue you may encounter).  Let your dog know that you are the giver of good things and that you will respect them and even advocate for them.

Don’t be a pushover–just because your dog is a puppy, or is giving you the puppy-dog eyes, pouty face, barking, and/or some soft whining doesn’t mean you should bend the rules and let him do something you generally don’t allow or don’t like.  If sometimes you let the dog do X behavior when he feels like it, and sometimes you punish him for doing X behavior, how is he to know that it’s an unwanted behavior.  If you don’t like Y behavior, do not accept it–ask for more or change the behavior.  Don’t let the dog get away with or be rewarded for doing unwanted or sub-par behaviors–it’s okay to be strict and high expectations of behavior (but remember to first reward the behavior you want–you cannot expect behavior you haven’t taught).  Dogs are opportunistic, if they learn that giving you sad eyes, or barking, or nipping, or whatever will get you to give in, they will continue to use it.


Right now I have 4 dogs (all with some type of special ‘feature’) and 3 cats living in a house peacefully and in harmony both inside and outside my home and I do not need to be a “pack leader”.



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1 Comment
  1. “Build a trusting relationship–this is built on mutual respect.”

    Exactly. Dogs are meant to be our companions. They need us to look out for them but they don’t need us to dominate them. That is hardly the relationship I imagined when I thought about getting a dog. Where is the joy in that?

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