Dogs Are Not Pack Animals

This is part of the learning theory module in our puppy, recall & practical courses.

Pack refers to the social grouping of canines. This is similar to the word we might use to describe a “gaggle” of geese. The true meaning of the word “pack” implies, those that are born into the social group. This means they have close relationships with each other and are more related to each other than members of another pack. Most houses have unrelated dogs which come into the house at any given age. Dogs also know that they are NOT related to humans. The way dogs live in our houses is almost anti-pack. The household relationships are governed by the humans decision to get another new animal into the house and this is enforced on the current incumbent.

We explain the reason why some people might assume that when dogs react together they form a “PACK”. This could easily be explained, very simply, by the concept of emotional contagion. We have dedicated a week long course for anyone interested in finding out more about emotional contagion and social empathy. Please find out more at:  Emotional Contagion & Empathy, The Neural Mechanisms & Evidence In Dog Behaviour

Using the word pack assumes a relationship dynamic which is almost anti-pack. More provocatively though, it assumes we should be “pack leaders”. This has caused much controversy to the dog training world and some highly visual people have gone on to mis-educate dogs. The drop down effect is, people are learning techniques which are careless, inappropriate, dangerous and abusive. Think about it, if you had a behaviour challenge and you went to see a psychiatrist, if he prodded you in the chest and told you to “SHHH” and then pinned you to the floor, how exactly would that solve the problem? It might stop the behaviour (because you have turned off the behaviour signals) but it will not change the underlying behaviour response. It will however lead any animal to not communicate going forward (what is the point) and this is how dogs go straight to biting without warning. We want communication, we want warning. So, popular media is partly responsible for the way that people are understanding their dogs (in the wrong way) and for them behaving carelessly towards animals. The ONLY way we can change this, is to let go of the word “pack” and all of its associated drop down menus in our brains.

The only way we can have a successful relationship with dogs is to listen to the questions they ask. They offer many questions (or behaviours) in order to elicit a response from a human. Watch any dog, he will use his paws, eye-contact, vocalise, approach or avoidance body language to communicate with us. Dogs should be taught from the very beginning to defer to us in any given situation where he feels uncomfortable. He should come and sit and look at us, because he trusts us and we have reinforced this. In any given situation this should be his default when he is unsure.  A couple of articles that will explain things a little further: The Neuroscience Of Dog Play, What To Watch Out For And When To Intervene / The Solution To Most Dog Behaviour Problems.

By interacting with a dog in this way, we are establishing a two way relationship with him, we are teaching him tools to communicate with us and vice-versa. Training is a language and the idea of it is to increase communication between the sender and receiver. We need to put the foundations of this behaviour into place with any training and behaviour protocol, so that appropriate cues can be communicated.

“Human belief systems, frequently display one-sided cognition. This is often biased towards what the sender infers the receiver to “already know”. Because the sender understands it, he can only assume that the receiver does too (he cannot decentre from his own cognition). People can learn to decentre. Appropriate understanding & training means we can capture, utilise & understand the complexities of dyadic relationships. We can only hope, that appropriate education, will have a ripple effect among the masses. The aim of our training is to dispel propagated myths, to those, who have been miseducated, by popular, ill informed media figures.”

By Georgina Lees-Smith

For example:

  • Expecting him to understand what “NO” means, despite him never being taught its meaning, Using the word “NO” means nothing to a dog, he is not born with an understanding of the word “NO” or any other word for that matter. He learns words, if we teach him. We teach him by engaging with him and repeating (reinforcement) tasks.
  • When someone says “he knows not to get on the table, he is just being defiant”, he does not know, otherwise he would not do it. Unless you teach him an alternative, or reinforce a word such as “off” he will not know. He might find your reaction (which is still attention) a way of getting attention from you.

Please see: The Science Behind Punishment & Why It Does Not Teach Anything

We have to teach owners to interact with their dogs without domination or just expecting the dogs to be obedient because they are lower in the pack (we need to remove this entire criteria setting). We set the criteria, we show them how we would like them to behave instead.

Dogs rely on us for absolutely everything, we have a duty to make sure we meet their needs. When these needs are not met, there is often fall out. Our strategy for managing and preventing behaviour problems lies with appropriate education and understanding from the ground up. This should be executed with compassion, errorless learning and rewarding all increments towards the right outcome.

We need to set the animal up to be safe, happy, have clear predictability and appropriate learning opportunities. This should be executed when he is young to have the best outcome. This will help him become more resilient when things do vary. It is appropriate that we understand how to meet his needs, training and education will provide people (owners) with a platform for this. Please see: The Neuroscience of puppy development. Start before you get him home

We need to avoid situations which are going to cause him stress, he needs an appropriate place to defer to: for rest, support, trust and reinforcement. He needs to feel like he has control over his needs. According to Dr Susan Friedman, Every animal has a right to express himself the way he needs to.

Behaviours that are a problematic, should be interrupted at the correct place in the sequence (according to Dr Karen Overall). This is so that an alternative can be taught (what would you like him to do instead). Please see: What Would You Like Your Dog To Do Instead Essential Dog Trainers Pack

We reward all freely offered desired behaviour and this shows him how we would like him to behave. So many dogs guess wrongly and get yelled at (sometimes with no other attention) for doing something wrong. Set him up to succeed and reward him for being right- Do not correct him for being wrong. Nothing is wrong, he just does not know that he could be rewarded for alternative behaviours.

By adhering to this ethos you will encourage questions, strengthen your trust and relationship with your dog. This will help him to make good decisions, reduce his stress (therefore increasing his learning-because stress is not conducive to learning) and help him to recover much quicker when he is met with challenges. All of this done in the absence of correction. Please see: The Relationship Between Stress, Aggression & Resilience and Neural Mechanisms Of Resilience & Its Role In Dog Training

We have developed two unique courses for owners and trainers which cover everything you need to know about the initial stages of raising a pup and setting them up to succeed (7 Day Puppy Survival Guide (owner/enthusiast/professional Or Puppy Training Classes Instructor Course).

All of our courses contain training schedules and charts which you can use to help educate and train your clients (or just fill in for fun). To get just the posters, please see: Essential Training Resource Guide. Example posters are below:






We talk about The Neuroscience of puppy development. Start before you get him home in this & why attachment is so important for training  Attachment, Development and Emotion- A Neurobiological Perspective and we cannot stress strongly enough the importance of building resilience into your training (to help your bond) here Neural Mechanisms Of Resilience & Its Role In Dog Training. Also, how we reduce aggression with predictability The Relationship Between Stress, Aggression & Resilience and finally (sorry for the info dump) we talk about why we do not use punishment and why it does not work, here: The Science Behind Punishment & Why It Does Not Teach Anything.

For those of you with a particular interest in the neural mechanisms of behaviour we have two online seminars: Introduction To the Science Of Behaviour (Beginners) Seminar OR, Introduction To the Neuroscience of Behaviour On-line Seminar (Degree level)

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