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The Rules of the Pack and Other Tales.

I once had the task of fixing the behavior of two geriatric coyotes at the Phoenix Zoo. During my regular visits I was asked to take a look at their Mexican Wolves. They were trying to integrate two, new animals into the exhibit and it wasn’t going well. As a result, I had the opportunity to watch two adult wolves eating red meat from a distance of about three feet, with no chain link or other barrier between us. Apparently they weren’t pleased with the portions and decided to settle the matter as wolves do. There was much gnashing of teeth, leaping, darting, and snapping, but less snarling than I imagined. Generally it was a pretty violent ten seconds. The thing I took away from this experience is that wolves eat at the same time. I also took away an intact skin around my vital organs. I was pleased with that outcome. I did not, however, actively strive to gain any of the red meat, which may have explained my intact departure from the scene. 

A few days later I returned to the zoo. The scenario played out, roughly as it did the first time. The characters in the play took the same parts, fought in the same way and showed no change from the previous encounter. The thing I took away from this is that fighting, posturing and controlling of resources is a thing of the moment and is unlikely to leave any lasting semblance of general authority.

Having survived my ordeal, twice, I left the enclosure, transformed. I discovered that my newfound knowledge put me at odds with the mainstream of dog trainers. You see, I have heard it said that to be the “alpha” in a pack, one should eat before the subordinate pack members, even though real wolves normally eat at the same time. Another “alpha” suggestion is to go through doorways before your dogs do.  I have no idea what that has to do with being an alpha wolf, as there are no doorways in nature which require wolves to wait for the alpha to pass through. My observation was that the wolves I have been around don’t seem to care who goes through doors or kennel gates first. Finally, I have heard that once dominance is established, it has a residual quality that can be maintained with a hard stare or low growl or other dominance contest or display. I can confirm that many trainers suggest that wolves have a rigid social hierarchy and that if we behave like wolves, we can better control our dogs.

WolfThe basic logic of this philosophy can be summed up with this top-ten list.

1)     Wolves are pack animals.

2)     There is a dominant animal, usually a male, who has “alpha” status and pretty much runs the show.

3)     There is a female who mates with the alpha. She is the only one who breeds with the alpha and shares control of the pack.

4)     The other wolves have a pecking order and range in a descending order of dominance from most to least powerful.

5)     Dogs are descended from wolves.

6)     Dogs also have this rigid social order.

7)     If we behave like an alpha, our dogs will obey us and we will have no trouble with them.

8)     Once dominance is established, we have found Oz and the Wicked Witch will melt when we pour water over her. The Cairn Terrier will escape destruction at the paws of winged apes.

9)     A white rabbit with a vest and pocket watch will arrive at the tea party in a timely fashion.

10)   Lassie will pick up the wounded dove in her mouth and then “find Gramps” at Timmie’s request. The vet will be called and the dove will recover, only to be killed and eaten by Frazier’s dog, Eddie.

Of these top ten rules of the pack, I like the last three, best. They are the most entertaining and are as fictional as five of the former seven. The only ones that are actually correct are numbers 1 and 5, and number 1 isn’t entirely accurate.  Wolves do live in packs, but a pack is more significantly, a family unit. All of the members are related as father, mother, brother, sister, niece, nephew, son, or daughter. I take Number 5 on faith because a number of valid sources say so and I don’t know how to process DNA samples in order to prove it for myself.

I think you can see where this is leading. I’m not convinced that this list accurately describes the social structure of wolves. I don’t think that periodic displays of dominant behavior make one wolf the alpha, for life. I also don’t think that wolves have a rigid social hierarchy. Logically, if the ancestors of dogs don’t possess these behaviors, they couldn’t have passed them along as an intact, universal set of traits. Having trained only about a dozen wolves, I can’t validate these thoughts based on direct experience – but I know someone who can. 

“Labeling a high-ranking wolf alpha emphasizes its rank in a dominance hierarchy. However, in natural wolf packs, the alpha male or female are merely the breeding animals, the parents of the pack, and dominance contests with other wolves are rare, if they exist at all. During my 13 summers observing the Ellesmere Island pack, I saw none. “

That quote comes from Dr. L. David Mech. (pronounced, Meech) He has arguably more time under his belt observing wolves than anyone else. Additionally, he observes wolves in their natural environment. That means that his knowledge trumps mine by many thousands of hours and supersedes the majority of studies that have been done on wolves in captivity. To view the entire report that places this quote in context, take a look at… http://www.npwrc.usgs.gov/resource/mammals/alstat/index.htm 

I think this is an important thing for dog trainers to remember. One of the foremost authorities on wolves says that in more than ten years of observing a pack of wolves, he concluded that “dominance contests with other wolves are rare, if they exist at all.“ If you watch any of several popular TV dog trainers, you can’t go 30 minutes without several references to establishing yourself as the alpha in your pack. Likewise, you are told that you have to be the “leader” – even though wolves apparently don’t have a leader in the human sense. Additionally, you are instructed to imitate wolves -- by doing things that wolves don’t actually do.

So, we have a problem. I know that some people will read this and think that even if Mech is right, we can use the alpha stuff as a metaphor and continue on as before – even if our former understanding is mistaken. Besides the intellectual short-circuit that would cause, there are several huge training pitfalls that derive from the old perspective.

First, all of the posturing that wolves and dogs offer in their various ritual contests have little or no influence on the future. The real rule of the pack is that on any given day, any wolf can knock any other wolf’s block off - or die trying. This goes on forever. If they feel lucky, they use violence to settle their grievances, whims and desires. That wolf-fest that I described at the start of this article is perfectly wolf-like and nothing I ever want to see from close range, again, especially from my dogs. I certainly don’t want my dogs to feel they have the option of taking my finger off to grab a nacho – but wolves do that kind of thing, all the time, instinctively, regardless if the biggest toughest wolf is holding the chip. They are creatures of opportunity, tenacity, ferocity and violence as long as it pays off. To imitate wolves and “talk dog” invariably ignores these more dangerous aspects of their behavior. Additionally, humans make very poor wolf imitators. When we hunker down on all fours we more closely resemble pigs than wolves. We then lift our lips and bare our pathetic, chicklet-style teeth at an animal whose mouth can rip apart an elk. They laugh at us when we do that. Trust me.

Worse, most of the things we are told to do are based on mistaken observation. Grabbing another creature with your hands is a behavior common to humans, apes, raccoons, kangaroos, koalas and geckos – but not wolves. When a wolf or dog turns turtle to neutralize an attack or threat, they do it voluntarily.  The threatening wolf doesn’t grab them by the neck and shake them with his paws – he can’t. Only creatures with opposable thumbs can pull that off. In most cases, a threat like this doesn’t include any actual contact between teeth and fur. It’s merely posturing. If it does get to the level of actual fighting, they use their teeth to rip and slash and unless one voluntarily submits, they both try to bite the heck out of each other. Hands forcibly restraining a dog have nothing to do with this set of behaviors. It is highly doubtful that any normal wolf or dog would be hood-winked that your man-handling resembles the bite of a full set of large canines. This threat/submit/fight sequence is conducted routinely in order to gain specific resources, such as food, but not just for the sake of being perceived as “alpha.”  That’s why holding a dog on his back doesn’t buy you control in the future based on his belief that you are the big bad wolf. If it works at all, it’s because holding them down is physically painful or unpleasant and acts as a punishment.

Perhaps the biggest difficulty with controlling your dog this way is that very few people can even attempt it. If your three-year-old loves to hold protracted eye contact with a dog, hugs the doggie tightly around the neck or slaps his hand down on the dog’s withers, the child has inadvertently imitated three specific threats that are common to both wolves and dogs. The child is “talking dog” without knowing it. If the dog understands the language and responds accordingly, the child can’t possibly back up the threat. It’s pretty clear that even if dogs do respect some kind of dominance system, children will never be able to grapple or intimidate dogs into submission. The same is true of older people who are often frail and slow.

The most common outcome of using wolf-like threats and posturing to control dogs is ironically the same outcome that wolves get – a momentary, transitory intimidation factor that must be repeated over and over, for life. For instance, after keeping your “pack” at bay while you eat a sandwich, leave the room for awhile. The odds are that the sandwich will disappear as soon as you do. That is the real way of the wolf – you must defend your food at all times, regardless of your status. You may be able to dominate them in your presence, but it doesn’t work when you are gone. If you have succeeded in controlling your dog’s behavior in the future and when you aren’t there, it’s not because you are “alpha.”  Creating long lasting inhibitions to stealing food, protecting possessions and jumping on guests is achieved by connecting specific consequences to specific behaviors. The ability to learn from consequences is the real genetic legacy passed from wolves to dogs. They all have the ability to modify their behavior to fit in with their human families. This allows you great flexibility to teach them to “respect” your property, your family, your friends and even your child’s guinea pig – a creature that will never be able to establish alpha status over your dog.

A long time ago, humans created a living artifact – dogs. We changed them from their natural state, physically and behaviorally. We have created so many different types of them that they often don’t even resemble each other behaviorally, let alone their ancestors. Using valid ethological terminology such as alpha and dominance hierarchy to describe a species that does not possess those social behaviors is a fruitless venture. It would be like using terms associated with the aerodynamic shape of a bird wing to discuss the angle of dihedral of a pig’s ears. Worse, in pretending to give insight it paints a false picture of both wolves and dogs. To again quote Mech,

“The point here is not so much the terminology but what the terminology falsely implies: a rigid, force-based dominance hierarchy. “ 

…and with that, the tale ends.


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