Sunday, January 18, 2009

Dogs as pack animals, or not

The following post is a compilation of some e-mails I shared on the subject to a dog list I am on. I thought it was good info to share so here it is as well.

Pretty much everything about dogs as pack animals has been extrapolated from wolf behavior. And not all of it is correct. For instance, wolf packs in the wild consist of a breeding pair and their offspring. The breeding pair is a pair that found each other and mated because they were sexually mature. Their offspring stay with them until they reach sexual maturity, which in wolves is about 3 years of age. Then those sexually mature wolves go off in search of their own mates. So the pack is a breeding pair plus more than one litter of pups at a given time of different ages. (I am speaking of a wild wolf pack not messed with by humans or one that is captive.)

Dogs that have been studied "in the wild" (such as the original Carolina dogs) or as feral dogs have been found to form loose transitory associations IF it is to their mutual benefit. (like finding food or to mate) They do not form packs to live with long term in general. So consider that the packs of our own dogs are manufactured and this is one reason not all of them get along. Left to their own devices they would pick and choose who they made long term associations with, if any. This is also one reason why the early socialization we do with them is important. (but it also explains why it doesn't always solve all problems) Dogs are a social species in general, which is one reason we were able to domesticate them in the first place. And why we can mold them to an extent by doing early socialization with them.

Let's also not forget that our dogs aren't wolves, because they have been domesticated this changes their behavior. In our case dogs are like a permanent form of an adolescent wolf. (you can look up the tame silver fox study done in Russia for more on this domestication/behavior link)

So while good leadership is very important, I look at it more as being a good leader in a parental role. Sure I may consider my group of dogs a pack, but one of my own formation and not a natural one. They may have evolved from a pack animal, but one that had a very specific reason to be a pack that lived together for its mutual benefit like having a good food source. (wolves that hunt together eat better and live longer than wolves that live alone)

The studying wolves as a basis for dog behavior can also be flawed in other ways. For instance with the use of the "Alpha Roll". The original alpha roll concept was passed on by the Monks of New Skete. They based it on wolf behavior that was known at the time. I've already covered how dogs differ from wolves. However the rest of the story is this, the behavior they were seeing was misinterpreted. They saw one wolf "pining" another down in a dominance display or, as they thought at the time, as one was wining a fight. Now they know that it is merely a body language display. The wolf being "pinned" is actually choosing to submit. If that wolf doesn't want to submit there would be an actual fight. Behavior that is considered very expensive in a wolf pack because of the risk of a serious or fatal injury.

In dogs we see far more willingness to fight because of the fact we are creating their packs and I believe because since we protect them (they are domesticated) they lack the survival skills a wolf has. If fighting were to expensive a behavior for dogs (meaning they know the consequences could be death) they would not engage in it nearly as often.

The tv trainer that still uses this method shows what looks like success because he is not changing their behavior, he is suppressing it. He is forcing the dogs to submit IN BODY LANGUAGE ONLY. It looks like he is creating a calmer state however in many cases he is simply causing the dogs to go into a state of what is called learned helplessness. (typical whenever you use flooding) They know they can't fight back because they may be physically outmatched. Try this on a strong enough dog or one with true dominance aggression and you will be provoking a fight.

In dog language this can be read from the dogs viewpoint as an attack, because they do not understand being forced to submit. A dog can only choose to submit, not be forced into it. You are only holding down their body, not changing how they feel about an event. (or forcing them into a submissive state internally. The dog being held down may be thinking, "Just wait until I can get up again so I can fight back". A dangerous proposition) You may even be causing more stress about the event because the dog makes a negative association to the event and the forthcoming physical attack from the person.

Like I said before, once the Monks learned what the body language really was they realized their mistake and recanted it as a reputable training method. The interesting part of that is that they still use traditional compulsion training methods. Though in their defense they use it the most fairly for the dogs that I have seen. With that method timing is everything.
And for fun here is video of Jack in todays snowstorm. Boy he sure loves the snow!


just in luv said...

Great post, Marie!

I love the pic of Jack in the snow. :]

Caveat said...

Good piece.

I'm one of those renegades who believes that dogs are more closely related to jackals than to wolves simply because of their behaviour.

And if that alpha-rolling thing is finally history, good.

Training Fido said...

Some very interesting thoughts. Dogs are such interesting animals and we still have a lot to learn.