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The New Pack: Why Humans Are a Dog's Best Friends

Over the years, it has become increasingly common to talk about our dogs as family members. I think we do this because it feels natural. We share our lives with them, from the morning routine to adventures out and about and lazy evenings in front of the television. Most importantly, we love them, and when they snuggle up to us or gaze into our eyes, it sure feels like they love us, too. Science is finally catching up to this experience, and it turns out that yep, that love really does go both ways. (See How Dogs Love Us, by Gregory Berns).

For most of the 20th century, the literature surrounding dog training came in conflict with this notion of the family dog, instead putting forth a narrative of pack leadership and competition, one still embraced by some trainers. Dogs, we have been told, need a pack leader, need to be dominated, and if they are not, they will take it upon themselves to dominate you. Don't let the dog in bed, or he will think he's the boss. If you feed her before you eat dinner, she will become president of the household. Dogs are competitive, and if you don't win the competition, you will have a dangerous monster on your hands.

If you sometimes feed your dog before dinner, and he hasn't eaten you yet, you may not be surprised to hear that this simply isn't true. But what is the reality of the dog pack? How should we treat our dogs—as family members, or as subordinates? Or as something else entirely? Recent research on canine genetics, wolf family structure, and canine learning and relationships sheds quite a bit of light on this, and has brought me to the conclusion that the natural dog “pack” includes human and dog members, a true inter-species partnership that has evolved over thousands of years.

Problems With Pack Theory

Despite being once widely accepted, “Pack Theory,” as it is generally known, has quite a few holes in it. Here's the quick and dirty version:

  • The original study that created the framework for pack theory was done by Konrad Lorenz on wolves in a zoo. Lorenz observed an apparent pecking order among the wolves, identifying a top, or “alpha” male, as well as competing subordinates. He interpreted this wolf as the pack's leader, and believed the wolf to hold this position with so-called “dominant” behaviors. Among these behaviors was “alpha” wolves rolling “subordinate” wolves on their backs and pinning them on the ground—the so-called "alpha roll."

  • Yet observations made in a zoo can be misleading. Animals do not act naturally in artificial environments, and typically simply adapt to whatever social structure works best for the survival of the group. We see this with our pets of multiple species living together, with other wild zoo animals, or with houses full of human strangers on reality TV. In other words, just because your cat and dog are best friends, doesn't mean cats and dogs in the wild like to share their dens.

  • Two other points central to the alpha dog pack theory don't hold water. It turns out that in the wild, a wolf pack is actually a family unit of related wolves, not a bunch of wolves with various relationships living together, like those Lorenz studied. Second, most of what Lorenz had perceived as aggressive displays, including the alpha roll, are ritualized behaviors. Submission is something that is offered, not forced—one animal rolls and expose him or herself to another as a way of communicating appeasement or deference. (For more detail on Lorenz's work & its relevance to pack theory, see “The Damage of Dog Whispering: A Critique of Cesar Millan's Theory of Dog Pack Dynamics.”)

Are Dogs Wolves?

Pack theory is based on wolf studies. This means that for the theory to stand up, dogs have to be wolves. Yet one of the most important recent developments in our understanding of our best friends is the discovery of evidence that dogs did not evolve directly from wolves—rather, the two share a common ancestor. This work is so new, we have yet to understand whether this ancestor was more wolf-like, or more dog -like. However, many scientists believe that the common ancestor looks more like pariah dogs—today's wild dogs—than like a wolf. Perhaps it was actually wolves that changed, gaining a thicker coat, taller build, and different social unit as an adaptation to the colder climes in which they are found.

Genetically, dogs and wolves belong to the same species (with a separate subspecies for dogs, Canis lupus familiaris), but behaviorally, they are very different animals. And this last point is where we get to the heart of the question. Let's examine the outcomes of two recent studies:

  • Dogs are masters at following human social cues like finger-pointing or the gaze of a person's eye. Say I have two sealed (smell proof!) containers, and only one has food in it. If I point to the one with food, a dog is statistically more likely to go to the container I pointed to. This is good, because he gets the treat now! According to researchers, our closest relatives, chimps, will have a random shot at getting the right container. They are unable to learn these social cues our dogs follow so easily. Studies conflict on whether wolves can perform this task.

  • When it comes to working with others of their same species, wolves are the winners. In another recent studyby Friederike Range and Zsófia Virányi, a lab-raised “pack” of wolves and another lab-raised “pack” of dogs were given a puzzle to solve in order to access a food source. The wolves cooperated with each other to solve the problem, and shared the resources. The dogs, on the other hand, did not work together, and had spats over the resources when they presented themselves.

So putting these studies together, it appears that dogs are actually better at working with us than they are at working with each other. Going back to our zoo study, there is no doubt that our dogs form various relationships with each other, and some are very strongly bonded. But what of the question of a dog's natural pack? Could it be that the natural pack for our best friends is actually one of us and one of them? Or that a multiple human and multiple dog pack is perfectly natural, and that within that group, the dogs naturally cooperate with us, and adapt to (usually) cooperating with each other? Or perhaps domestication, by definition, precludes the existence of any natural pack. As canine research gets more in depth, I think we'll get closer to answering these questions.

In the meantime, I think we have enough evidence to change our language around packs and dominance, and instead focus on families and partnerships. Let's talk about working with our dogs, about cooperating, and about building trust. We really can enjoy our pets as family members, and still have well mannered dogs who succeed at living safely and happily in a human world.


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