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07/06/2011 / Julie

Mythical leadership

Growing up with dogs I was told that my dog needed to know that I was the leader of the pack, otherwise he would never respect me. I was nine when I attended my first obedience class with my dog, and it would take me four years before I’d ever try training him again. Despite a fierce interest in dogs. In this class we used treats, however if the dog didn’t do as we wanted, it got corrected, and if it was really unruly we, the paying customers, would get a look, and sometimes the instructor would take our dog and yank it into its place.

The theory I learned in that class was based on research from wolf packs in zoo’s, like most was back then. A wolf like any other wild animal will not act naturally in a zoo. It was also old research that is now completely outdated, but somehow is still very much alive. I grew up with the notion that wolves and dogs lead identical lives when dogs are “let loose.” I also learned that wolves have a strict hierarchy with that alpha male and his woman at the top. From there it was basically steps of stairs all the way down to the omega. The omega was a bit of a victim and an easy target for all the others. The alpha male rules his pack with an iron hand, he was the one to eat first, he had the right to take the food from the others if he wanted to, and he could basically do what he wanted. He was almost depicted as a kind of terrorist, keeping every single member of the pack in line.

Today I know that none of this is true. Yes, there is a main couple in a wolf pack, but they are usually the parents or siblings of all the other wolves in the pack. They do not rule with an iron hand, but they are in charge, as parents often are. In a wolf pack every one has their tasks and their duties. If there are puppies, every one pitches in, even the males. If somebody has food, anybody, they have the right to defend it.

Although you’d think just this discovery would change the way people view their dogs, there is another little thing that people sometimes just do not think about. And it is this: Dogs are not wolves. Dogs have been domesticated for at least 12’000 years. Now that’s a long time. Even though they are gentically identical, they are different species. One could argue that we share more than 99 % of our DNA with a chimpanzee. We are similar in many ways, but we are not the same animal. We have all heard the phrase “dogs are pack animals.” Turns out, they are not even when they go feral. All research show that dogs will not create packs when they go feral, however they create short lived social bonds when there’s food or another resource to be had.

There are a lot of myths surrounding leadership and how best to attain it. Some of my favorites are these:

  • A dog must never walk out the door in front of its leader
  • Your dog must always walk behind you on walks
  • People eat first, then the dog, because that’s how they do it in a wolf pack
  • A dog must be O.K with having its food taken from it at any given moment, because that’s what the alpha in a wolf pack does

And my all time favorite:

  • A woman can never be master of a male dog because she can’t pee higher up on the pole/tree

Numbers two and three are because, again, dogs aren’t wolves and dogs aren’t pack animals. And in a wolf pack, everybody eats when there’s food, and everyone has the right to protect their own food. Even so, the “taking food away from the dog” is often practiced on small puppies, and in a wolf pack they always get what they want when it comes to food.

The first and second ones, I suppose go together a bit. I really do not understand this one. I suppose it is that the leader leads the way, and that nobody crosses in front of him/her, though I’m having a hard time understanding it. That said, the first one can be a good precaution to teach a dog, so it doesn’t suddenly run out the front door.

Is a dog always planning a coup d’état? Is a dog that has just enjoyed a couple of hours at the dog park, now lying there dreaming of world domination? When we control every aspect of our dog’s life, is it really necessary to keep using force to keep it down when there are better alternatives? I once read in a book by a noted hunting dog trainer that he would suddenly take the resting dog by the scruff and put it on its back by force, just so it knew who was boss. I know this is in the extreme, but there are several “experts” out there using daily force to train dogs. Wether it’s through pressure or through a choke chain.

I believe we are a sort of leader for our dogs, but more in the sort of way that a leader pair of wolves leads a pack. We take on a sort of parenting role in our dogs life. We control everything in their life, throuhgout their life. Eating, sleeping, bathroom time, play time and cuddling. All this adds up to us being parents for a rather self sufficient, somewhat stunted, two year old. Self sufficient because we can leave it alone for long periods of time, some of them run off at times, but all of them are completely reliant on us.

Being a good leader for a dog does not involve eating before it, walking in front of it, or regulary throwing the dog on its back, but rather respecting the dogs boundaries, setting groundrules that mean something to you as a person. If they mean something to you, they will mean something to your dog. A dog that is not allowed to sniff on walks, is a dog that is not allowed to use its best developed sense. It is more than possible to teach a dog not to pull on the leash without having it walk behind you for the enitre walk. In my oppinion, being a good leader means respecting the dog, having fun with the dog and not hurting the dog. It also means that you set your groundrules from the beginning, keep to them and don’t change them to often. Dogs are uniquely adapted to live with humans, and so they are adapted to create a long lived bond with a human. Let’s not ruin the most fantastic and fascinating relationship we have by using  force.


Leave a Comment
  1. Jen / Jun 9 2011 04:27

    Good post! I’ve been in discussion about the various “dominance” and “pack leader” myths lately, and it’s nice to see somebody discussing it at length. I definitely agree that it’s important to remember that 1. wolves are not how people thought they were 2. dogs are not wolves 3. it’s up to people to be responsible, clear about rules, and fair.

  2. Jen / Jun 17 2011 19:59

    Sorry for the double commenting, but wanted to stop by and let you know that somebody passed a blog award on to me, and I passed the blog award on to you:

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