‘I am pack leader’ came the all too familiar phrase from a new client. I asked what she meant by that phrase and was told that the dogs ‘needed to know who’s boss’. They needed to be ‘kept in their place’ and needed to ‘obey’, just like they would in the wild. My client believed that her dogs were part of her pack, with her assuming the role of the alpha pack member.
In this case, the term ‘alpha’ could be easily translated to mean ‘bully’. The dogs were shouted at, smacked, yanked on the lead and in a state of utter confusion. I was called in because, as with a lot of bullies, one of the bullied group members decided to fight back. It’s well documented that in any social construct, aggression leads to more aggression. The oxymoron, ‘fighting for peace’, came to my mind as I was faced with a woman who actually just wanted to enjoy living with her three dogs. She explained that she wanted a harmonious, peaceful life and being ‘the dominant pack leader’, which is what she believed she needed to be, was exhausting.
Studies have shown that the most common understanding of dog behaviour, that of direct lineage from wolves, isn’t as simple as people like to believe. There is certainly a scientific argument that shows dogs and wolves share 99.8% of their genetic makeup. But what does that actually tell us? Studies have also shown that humans and chimps have eighteen pairs of chromosomes that are ‘virtually identical’ (1) and just for fun, we share around 70% of our DNA with slugs and around 50% with bananas. Rather than getting caught up in how closely related our beloved dogs are to their wolf friends, we need to concentrate on what we do know about the evolution of dogs to give us the background information on their current instincts and behaviour traits.
My client explained that she felt she needed to be ‘dominant’ and ‘in charge’. Let’s just look at that as a concept as it is the most common misunderstanding that leads to both humans and their dogs having a mutually miserable existence under the same roof. The most eloquent of explanations comes from Barry Eaton in his book, ‘Dominance in Dogs: Fact or Fiction (p6):
‘Many leading authorities on dog behaviour now realise that a dog will not try to raise status over his owner. The term ‘dominance’ as in rising status, is not a characteristic trait a dog has. A study by Bradshaw et al., (2009) has questioned whether the term ‘dominance’ should be used in the context of dog/human aggression. Instead, the author suggests that inappropriate social interaction between owner and dog, resulting in the dog fearing his owner, is the reason for aggression’.
As dogs have been domesticated by humans and particular traits have been encouraged through breeding for specific purposes, we can only describe our mutual habitation as a social group. Dogs have evolved with humans over centuries. Domestication, as it is termed, is believed to have begun in the Mesolithic period, 10,000-14,000 years ago (5). Rather than being a process instigated by humans, it is more likely that over a period of time, the wolves and their descendants realised that the regular food source from the disregarded food of the human communities was worth hanging around for. In doing so, humans became less frightening and so the process of change began. Through the generations, there was less fear and less of a chemical ‘fight or flight’ response at the sight of a human. They became a source of sustenance and relative safety, not a community that Mr Wolf decided he had to take charge of. We cannot examine the evolution of dogs in isolation as their behaviour and genetic changes have come about as a direct result of their relationship with humans. We have encouraged dogs into our homes, we have decided when they’ll eat, what they’ll eat and when they can go out for a walk. We have decided who they will mix with, which other animals and humans they will interact with. It seems that we have done our best to remove as many traces of ‘dog’ as we can, in order to create the perfect housemate. Then, we often shout at them for their enthusiasm of exploring their natural instincts. These incredible beings are the animals we have chosen as our ‘best friends’.
Within every social group, there are dynamics that change depending on the situation. The client who was having a miserable time maintaining her role as ‘pack leader’ was also a teacher. She worked in a secondary school with an eclectic mix of young people. I asked how she managed the classes she taught and as she told me about her role, her whole demeanour changed. She obviously loved her job and she instantly sat up with her eyes bright as she explained that she had to remain calm to ensure the young people had the environment they needed to learn effectively. She showed me some of her meticulously planned lessons with variations for different students who learn in different ways and her reward chart to measure the students’ success. She laughed as she told me that even the coolest teenage boy would smile as he reached the next level of reward and held his head up high as he received praise from her and applause from his peers. She said that she respected them and in turn, they respected her. She was a leader within the classroom and that meant she did her best to remain calm, to be confident in what she was teaching and to be aware of what the students were experiencing. She said that it was privilege to learn with them.
The penny dropped.
Is that not the most beautiful description of how we can aspire to engage with our dogs? We have chosen to bring these creatures into our lives and it is our duty and our responsibility to embrace their innate ‘dog-ness’. We know that dogs are not spending their days trying to plot our downfall, they are simply trying to understand the social circle we have brought them into. Just like the students, they need a safe environment in which to learn, they need to have a circle of friends, a place to burn off their energy and their canine needs met; food, water, warmth, veterinary care and all of the other elements as described in Linda Michaels Hierarchy of Dog Needs. (4)
It is vital that we, as the teachers of our dog friends, know how to bring out the best in them, while remaining a calm and confident influence. A good teacher inspires, is approachable and is trusted. It is only through trust, safety and reward that our friend’s ancestors decided they’d hang out with us in the first place. A good teacher is respected, not feared and they bring out the best in their student. Our canine students and friends need us to be good teachers.
To note… the client in question has read this, laughed and approved it’s publication, hoping that more dog loving folk will take her approach to teaching into their lives!
- Gibbons, A. 1998. ‘Which of our genes make us human?’ Science 281:1432-1434.
- Eaton, Barry. 2010. ‘Dominance in Dogs: Fact or Fiction. Dogwise Publishing
- Bradshaw, John W.S et al. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research Volume 4, Issue 3, May–June 2009, Pages 135–144
- Michaels, Linda. 2015-16. dogpsychologistoncall.com/hierarchy-of-dog-needs-tm
- Neville, Peter. 1991. Dog Behaviour Explained. Paragon Publishing.