Dear Doctor – Whose pack are you in, anyway?


Q In your excellent article “Words That Wound” last month, you said lack of understanding about dominance in the canine world comes into play with people’s misperception that they and their dog are part of the same pack and that they think they have to show the dog who’s really the alpha. But aren’t the people and the dog in the household part of the same pack? Doesn’t the pet see it that way?
Maxine Mangione
Chicago, Illinois

Dear Ms. Mangione,
A No. Says Tufts Animal Behavior Clinic Head Stephanie Borns-Weil, DVM, “the notion of humans and dogs being together in a pack is not a valid way of understanding dog-human social groups. To a dog, a pack is a very specific thing, and even whether domestic dogs, as opposed to dogs living in the wild, can form a pack is contested.”

In the canine world, including among wolves, a pack by definition is a family group: a bonded male and female — a “couple” — and their offspring. The male is the alpha male, and the female is the alpha female.

“The next season,” Dr. Borns-Weil says, “the alpha male and female may have a second litter of puppies. The puppies from the previous season will stay on with the pack and help with the young ones and even join their parents in hunting.” Sometimes there’ll even be a third liter of puppies remaining with the pack, she says, although by that point the older ones will have started to disperse to form their own new social bonds — their own packs. It’s how the species preserves itself.

Thus, “it’s a big assumption to say dogs thrown together are a pack when they’re not biologically related,” Dr. Borns-Weil says. And it’s certainly not true that dogs and their human families are packs — at least, not in the dog’s eyes. Do dogs feel an incredible bond with the people who take care of them? Do they love them? No doubt. But neither the dog nor the head of the household is the pack “alpha.” The person is, shall we say, the “leader” who affectionately yet clearly sets the rules for acceptable conduct and on whom the dog depends for a good life. It’s simply a whole other dynamic than the one that goes on in a pack.


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