One of the constant bits of advice you'll hear from some trainers is: "you have to be your dog's pack leader." This idea has a lot of appeal for most people. "Yes!" they think. "That's what's wrong with my dog. He doesn't see me as his pack leader!"
But according to David Mech, the world's leading experts on wolves, real wolf packs don't have pack leaders, at least not in the traditional sense. The idea that they do
came from studies done on captive wolves, culled from various sources,
who didn't know one another, and behaved more like rivals than packmates. (To learn more about how real wolf packs operate, please scroll down...)
No wolf always walks ahead of the group when they're traveling. They take turns. No wolf always eats before other members of the group. No wolf always goes through an opening or crosses a threshold before other members of the group. No wolf ever puts one of his packmates in an alpha roll. No wolf tells his packmates how to behave.
According to Mech, dominance displays are rare in wild wolf packs and
usually only take place between the mother and father over how to
disburse food to their young. The female almost always wins these
battles by acting "submissive," which would mean she's supposedly
subservient to the male even though she's almost always victorious!
These are all facts. And here's what they all add up to: THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A PACK LEADER.
Yes, it's true that in any animal group there will be one member who is more experienced, more knowledgeable, and who has more "animal magnetism" than the others. And most members of the group will tend to be drawn to or gravitate toward that animal. But animal magnetism, which is felt on a visceral level, is something quite different from rank, leadership, and authority, which are almost purely mental constructs.
another factor. In wolf packs it was long believed that the alpha or
leadership role changes hands during the hunt. We now know, through the
principles of emergence theory, that the reason this seems to happen is
simply because one member of the pack will have a better skill set for
a certain type of terrain at some point during the hunt, or another
wolf may have more emotional flexibility for adjusting to the changes
in the prey animal's energy during that part of the hunt, or what's
even simpler: one wolf may suddenly be in closer proximity to the prey
at certain points, giving the impression that the others are now
"following" his leadership when in fact the hunt is always led by the prey.
back to dogs, in any situation where dogs are in conflict it's always
about who has control over resources, i.e., things in the environment.
And I don't know if you've noticed this, but you automatically have
more control over your dog's environment than he does. Who has the keys
to the car and the house? Who knows how to operate doorknobs? Who knows
how to use a can opener? Clearly, if a dog is capable of perceiving
things like leadership or superiority, your dog already sees you in
So why doesn't your dog listen to you the way the
dogs listen to some trainers who promote the pack leader idea? Because those trainers act more like a predator
than like a pack leader.
Yes. The spatial
relationship between two dogs or wolves takes place on the horizontal.
Their eyes face each other. They're on the same level. But the spatial
relationship between dog and human is quite different. We move through
space on the vertical. Our eyes are far above theirs. They look up at
us, we look down at them. Spatial relationships, which are concrete and visceral, are far more important to dogs than intangibles like leadership or status, which again are more abstract and conceptual in nature.
This brings up an interesting point that Kevin Behan, the originator of Natural Dog Training, makes about wolves, which
is that in the wild the only animal that poses serious threat of deadly
harm to a wolf (other than homo sapiens) is the same animal the
wolf usually hunts: elk, moose, deer, bison. These animals have sharp
horns and hooves that could easily kill or maim a wolf. When a moose,
for example, is running away from the wolf, the wolf is energized by
its movement, and is highly attracted through his desire to chase and
bite. But if a moose finds itself cornered, and as a result it turns
and stares down at the wolf, brandishing its antlers, the wolf will
stop dead in his tracks.
In the wolf's experience the prey has now become the predator.
the similarities in the spatial dynamics between the moose and wolf on
the left, and the dog and man on the right. Essentially the wolf (on
the left) and the pet dog (on the right) have a horizontal axis of
symmetry while the moose and the man are vertical. Now note how
different these two images are in comparison to the two wolves in the
center. They're facing each other directly; they're on the same
I'm not suggesting that a dog thinks his owner is a moose. What I am
suggesting is that even there were such a thing as a pack leader in
wild wolf packs (which there isn't), and even if dogs had inherited
that behavioral tendency from wolves (which they haven't), there is no
way a dog could confuse a human being for another dog, i.e., his "pack
leader." It simply could not happen. As I said before, the
relationships between objects in space is concrete while the idea of
the "pack leader" is more abstract and cerebral. So when you add yet another cerebral element -- that the human owner or trainer is a stand -- in for or symbolizes the already abstract idea of the pack leader -- you're getting into mental territory that is way beyond what a dog's brain is capable of.
The facts of nature and evolution strongly suggest
that wolves, and by extension dogs, have a long adaptive history of
being cautious about any animal whose eyes are set in a large head and
are looking down at them from above, particularly when that animal is
facing them directly. They would feel even more fearful or cautious if
that vertical being happened to be coming toward them.
of the way certain trainers act when they enter a room and believe they're
being a "pack leader." Picture the way they stand and use the fact that they're vertical to kind of intimidate the dog. Their level of gaze seems "magnetic," correct? The dogs are
on their "best behavior." Is that because they see the trainer as a pack
leader? Of course not. The spatial dynamic is nothing at like that
between a supposed pack leader and another dog or wolf. But remember,
when a moose suddenly turns and looks down at a wolf, the wolf stops
dead in his tracks. And that's exactly how most misbehaving dogs act
when a dominance trainer enters a room.
Another way of looking at is that
the dog isn't thinking, "I respect
your authority and leadership over me so I will submit and do as you
ask." It's far more likely that the he's thinking, "What can I do to
survive this moment? Show me how I can keep from being hurt." So the feelings such trainers are actually stimulating in dogs are the
polar opposite of magnetism or leadership. They're stimulating resistance, which extinguishes a dog's natural willingness and desire to learn and obey.