Almost every call I get, a voice on the other end of the phone says, “I just want my dog to be able to get along with any dog and be happy!” While this is not an unreasonable desire, it is probably not realistic for every dog. To understand why, we need to look at just who dogs are and where they came from.
Often, I incorporate discussion about the wolf pack and the inherent traits dogs have from the wolves with my clients. There are trainers that will not admit that the modern domestic dog is a descendant of the wolf, even though DNA has proven that dogs are directly descended from wolves.
From my experience with having trained over 5,000 dogs in the Wood River Valley alone and from living with a pack of seven or eight German Shepherds at one time, I simply cannot discredit the factual basis of so many behaviors dogs have that come directly from the wolves.
The unfortunate part is that whenever anyone even mentions the word wolf, so many incorrect connotations ascend to the forefront of our consciousness. The more I train dogs, the more I see wolf-like behaviors that come directly from the distant wolf heritage all dogs share. It doesn’t matter if you have a Yorkie or a Husky. All dogs share certain traits that come from the wolves.
At this point I need to interject that NOT ALL INHERANT WOLF BEHAVIOR IN DOGS IS AGGRESSION! Somewhere, somehow, people have come to the conclusion that inherent wolf behavior must be aggression. It is not. Inherent wolf behavior comes in many forms. The “pack” and a dog’s pack DRIVE is one example, and it’s what we will explore here. Wolf pack behavior is what we humans need to understand in order to understand OUR DOG.
Dogs are social, but do not know how to relate to people any differently than they relate to other dogs
We hear that word often, “PACK BEHAVIOR”. It is true that dogs are pack animals and find emotional comfort from their pack. Often, we humans have taken that to mean that our dogs NEED to have other dog friends to be happy. We are further driven in this belief with the invention of Doggie Day Care, Play Groups, Dog Obedience Classes and the insatiable need we humans have to collect multiple dogs to have in our homes.
Let’s for a minute take a look at the wolf pack and how it functions. The wolf pack is a constant for the individual members. The pack cares for each other. They each have roles to perform in the group. They work together to hunt and take down prey to survive. The entire group helps to feed and care for the young. The wolf pack remains the same, each with their specific roles within the pack, for the history of the pack. The only variables happen when a wolf ages and dies, is wounded and dies, or when new young members are born into the pack. But, they MUST have their group members to survive. They MUST be social with each other and understand their pack structure.
The wolf pack is very similar to the human family with the higher ranking male and female much like a human mother and father. The siblings also have their rank below the parents. Usually human siblings, because of their age and maturity, have different roles they play in the family, just like in the wolf pack.
One of the very first things we must understand about dogs is that while they distinguish that humans are different than other dogs, they do not know how to relate to people any differently than they relate to other dogs. They simply do not have sophisticated enough emotional and mental abilities to relate any differently than as a pack to humans. Therefore, any human they live with IS INDEED ONE OF THEIR PACK MEMBERS.
Now that we have established that a pack remains somewhat consistent throughout the wolf lifespan, and that dogs relate to humans like pack members, we can now understand some basic canine behavior.
What that means for our modern domesticated dog is that frequent changes in the social pack are not normal for any canine. While some dogs are more able to cope with accepting new dogs into their social pack structure, others are still trying to overcome their natural instincts and hard wired response to having a consistent pack.
We humans expect dogs to simply get along with every dog they meet on the trail, at day care, etc., and to accept those other dogs in a matter of seconds when they don’t even have an idea where that dog fits into the current social structure. This is enormous pressure for any dog, even the most highly “socialized” dog or puppy.
Thinking back to the wolf pack, the social structure or pack remains for the most part, stable and consistent. Now we are asking our modern dogs to change the pack structure in a matter of seconds, and to do it with delight. As a dog behavior consultant and someone passionate about the natural behaviors of dogs, I see expecting the average dog to be able to cope with these demands on an everyday basis as extremely stressful.
We humans are many times at the core of the problem for dogs in their social skills with other dogs
Does that mean I don’t approve of multiple dog households, dog parks, Day Care, or other dog social events? Not at all. But, what I do think is that we as humans need to have realistic expectations about what each individual dog can handle, and to ACCEPT who our individual dog is.
Some dogs do thrive on relationships with other dogs, and it is easy for them to cope with the changes in pack structure and social rank. This is, however, usually a lower ranking dog that can make these adjustments easily.
Dogs that are unsure of their social rank in any pack are more stressed by frequent changes and new dogs. Unfortunately, we humans are incredibly talented in treating dogs like people instead of dogs, so that their personal social rank is very difficult for the dog to define, and to be comfortable with. To that end, we humans are many times at the core of the problem for dogs in their social skills.
This is why it is imperative that we human dog owners accept the responsibility of treating dogs like dogs, giving them healthy boundaries and social structure. We need to understand that dogs are not people and should not be treated like little people. They are not our equals. In the dog pack, there are no equals. There is always someone higher or lower in social rank. Always. When we try to treat them equally to each other, or to us, they become confused and eventually neurotic.
Treating a dog like a dog does not have to be inhumane. We confuse treating a dog like a dog with our fear of being inhumane. We fear to not treat them as equals. Although a cloud of controversy surrounds the Dominance Theory, we still need to accept that dogs live with social rank in every moment of their lives. That simply is who are. I am only stating that in order to be more HUMANE to our dogs, we must treat them like the dogs they are and accept that they are descendants of the wolves. We must accept that not all dogs are able to change pack structure quickly, just like the wolves.
Once we understand that, we move closer to understanding that not all dogs can be social butterflies. Some dogs are further evolved away from innate wolf behaviors than others. When we stop forcing uncomfortable day to day, or minute to minute pack changes on our dogs, we might find that they can better cope with the demands made on a modern domesticated dog. We further need to understand that in a dog’s eyes, we humans are also a part of their pack and their social needs. Not all dogs need multiple dogs in their lives to be happy. A dog can be happy if they are the only dog in your household. YOU are a part of their pack and YOU can influence their happiness by honoring them for the beautiful dogs that they are!
©2012 Fran Jewell