I regularly read comments like 'dominance theory of dog packs is debunked', 'Cesar Millan's methods are based on outdated, debunked studies', etc. And it always bugs me when people quote out of context just to advance their own agenda by mixing truth with fiction.
Let me take the more important part on first. Today's dogs are descendants from the Middle Eastern grey wolves and their DNA is over 99.8% identical. So most that is relevant to wolf behavior is also relevant to dog behavior and vice versa. To be clear dogs aren't wolves and there are clear differences. However, both are pack-oriented canines and part of the biological Canidae family. The differences in their social structure are so minor that they are irrelevant from a psychological point of view. If anyone has actual scientific proof to the contrary I would love to hear it; until then let's stick to the obvious.
Hierarchies are very much present in wolf and dog packs. Ignoring that is just plain silly. There is no disagreement or debate among actual experts—a hierarchy absolutely exists. It is easily observable in nature and has been documented many times. To doubters may suggest picking up a copy of "Three Among the Wolves by Helen Thayer". She, her husband and their dog observed several wolf packs in the wild over the duration of 6 months and delivered a truly remarkable account of the hierarchical structure and ways with which pack leaders rule their packs and pack members relate and accept each other.
What is often quoted by naysayers to back up their ridiculous notions is a study from the 1940, that in fact is no longer regarded as accurate. In this study captive wolves gathered from various places—when forced to live together—naturally competed for status. Acclaimed animal behaviorist Rudolph Schenkel dubbed the male and female who won out, the alpha pair. Basically, the wolves will fight it out and the strongest wins and rules. That is fact is no longer believed to be true; it appears to be far less violent. We now understand that this behavior was only observed within this captive group due to their living circumstances.
What we have learned since from accounts like Thayer's and research by David L. Mech—founder of the Minnesota-based International Wolf Center—is, that wolves usually live in nuclear families, not randomly assembled units. In nuclear families the mother and father are the pack leaders and their offspring's status is based on birth order or rank-play. However, outside wolves can join these families and after hazing rituals will either be accepted into the family or not. If a wolf is allowed to join, his rank can fall anywhere in the hierarchy and is not necessarily below the natural family. We also know from Thayer's account that the leadership of a pack can fluctuate. She did observe a pack member assume leadership for the hunt as he was better at it and afterwards the regular pack leader took over again. These power transfers occurred naturally without any confrontations. So while a hierarchy is always necessary for a pack to effectively operate, it isn't set in stone. So let's stop saying there are no hierarchies in wolf and dog packs—there simply are.
Now let's talk about dominance and submission. These words have somewhat negative connotation and lead people to think all kinds of crazy stuff. However, in the animal world these concepts are very important for most species but especially with wolves and dogs. Dominance is however not a violent, terrorizing rule like some people seem to think—it is far more subtle. A new pack leader is selected—unless a new pack is started by a male and female alone—by the pack based on its dominant attributes, which would be the calmest yet most assertive pack member—not the most aggressive one. Wolves and dogs are balanced, calm animals and are drawn to that kind of energy. They realize dominant energy in each other and the less dominant members naturally submit to that energy. This is the way a pack leader gains and holds his position. The pack naturally follows. It could of course be challenged from the inside or the outside of the pack but such a challenge doesn't necessarily include a fight—it could—but that appears to be the exception. The most common leadership change appears to be a more dominant energy either grew up in the pack or joined it. Such a transition could be very peaceful.
So the term "dominance theory" is a joke. It makes it sound like there is actually disagreement among real animal experts that wolf and dog packs have a hierarchical structure. That is laughable. The hierarchy exists and is apparently set by the dominance level of the pack member's energy.
Lastly, submission is not a beaten down, shaking, fearful state like portraited at times. It is a natural state wolves and dogs assume when approaching a higher ranking a pack member. It is a natural way of showing respect. The best know visual cue is a lowered head and lower—below medium—hanging or wagging tail—not tugged between the legs. It is a body position followers assume naturally—not out of fear, but respect for their leader. It is a beautiful, natural, relaxed state for a wolf or dog to be in. If a canine is in that state, it doesn't have to be alert to defend the pack. It is not in charge but a follower. It can leave protection and decison-making up to the leader and therefore has less stress.
So when you hear hierarchy in dog packs, know it exists, when you hear dominance, know it is a calm but assertive state of natural leadership (think Opera Winfrey or Bill Clinton) and nothing violent or cruel and if you hear submission, think relaxation because you don't have to worry about things. These are three great words and concepts to understand when dealing with wolves and dogs and I hope more people understood them properly instead of making stuff up.
Lastly, let me link all this back to the criticism of Cesar Millan I mentioned earlier. When Cesar Millan speaks of being the pack leader, he means being the calm but assertive energy that your dog will naturally follow and nothing else. He doesn't derive his insights from a debunked study. He grew up around dog packs and learned everything by opening is eyes and observing—I doubt he even read that study until much later. He doesn't mean beating, yelling, cruelty or whatever else people accuse him of.
If you are calm-assertive you are dominant and your dog will naturally follow you, it will be calm-submissive and no one has to even say a word or lift a finger. It is the state of mind that matters for dogs. The human world we created doesn't really work that way anymore—the native Indians had it right.This is why many people have a hard time with these natural principles, but nature works that way and so does your dog.
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Ralf Weber is a certified dog trainer (IACP CDT, CDTA) and behaviorist. A professional member of the International Association of Canine Professionals (IACP) and an AKC evaluator for Puppy S.T.A.R., Canine Good Citizen, and Community Canine certifications.