The Outdated Methodology of Pack Theory and Its Influence on Modern Dog Training

Publishing Author : Cheyenne Babaco

Date Published : 27/10/18


Over the past several decades, a common methodology of canine socialization has influenced biologists, professional dog trainers and dog owners all over the world. This concept, known as pack theory, has become widely known especially due to televised dog trainers such as Cesar Millan. Unfortunately, due to more modern research of canine psychology and socialization, it has become increasingly obvious that pack theory is not accurate for a multitude of reasons.

Pack theory originated from Robert Schenkel in 1947, a Swiss Animal Behaviorist. Schenkel studied interactions between a pack of wolves at the Zoological Institute at the University of Basel. While his observations depicted a clear hierarchy in the wolf pack, it was extremely limited due to the fact that the pack was not in the wild and also that the so-called Alpha male and female were actually a breeding pair. Their “pack” was, therefore, actually just their family and offspring.

Almost forty years later, a Wolf Behavior Expert and Biologist known as Robert Mech proved much of Schenkel’s work wrong. Over a course of thirteen years, Mech studied wolves in their natural habitat in Canada. He found that wolf packs behave more like a family than a hierarchal dictatorship and the so called Alpha pair were actually the breeding pair of the offspring. The rest of the pack naturally recognized the breeding pair’s right to reproduce, which prevented inbreeding among the rest of the pack. During meal time, the entire pack ate together, and at the end of the meal the alpha pair took the remaining meal and hid it for the young pups.

Wolves and domestic dogs share a very close genetic makeup, however due to the many differences in their worlds they are not as close as many believe. Variables such as where they live and how and what they are fed play a major role in understanding the differences. For example, dogs are social opportunists. This means they are perfectly happy to live solitary lives but may come together with other dogs if they are likely to benefit from it.

Unfortunately, many of today’s professional dog trainers are self-taught and do not seek to learn the more modern methods of dog training. Many self-proclaimed professional dog trainers, such as Cesar Milan, still use pack theory as their main method. Because domestic dogs do not follow pack theory, they often have no idea what is happening when humans try to act as Alpha over them.

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, socialization is defined as “the process of preparing a dog or cat to enjoy interactions and be comfortable with other animals, people, places and activities” (n.d.). This involves finding your dog’s threshold, otherwise known as their comfort level among distractions. Socialization does not strictly involve meeting other animals and a proper dog trainer will do the opposite when socializing their dog. Instead of meeting new dogs and people, the trainer should first teach the dog to ignore them and focus on the trainer. This is done by the trainer offering a reward for ignoring the distraction. By allowing dogs to meet, the dog learns to self-reward. Meeting another dog or human can be exciting, causing a release of dopamine and oxytocin (also known as the “feel-good” hormone). Excitement, of any kind, feels good. This in turn teaches the dog that ignoring the handler and getting overly excited is rewarding.

According to Jay Gray from The British Institute of Canine Science, “correct socialization is actually partially a lack of socialization unless in a certain state, so to teach correct socialization it is important for the dog to associate other dogs with either nothing, or engagement with the handler/owner” (n.d.). Again, this is may not strictly include just other dogs, but humans, loud noises, cats and other animals as well.

In an article on his website, Cesar Milan states that using a muzzle while introducing dogs to one another will “make both dogs calmer so they’ll be more receptive to meeting and have a more positive experience” (2015). Firstly, Milan never explains the benefits of slowly socializing a dog to teach them that it is more rewarding to ignore. There is a far less chance of the possibility of a dog fight if at least one of the dogs is taught to just ignore the other. Also, the idea of placing a muzzle on a dog without first mentioning that the dog should be trained to wear a muzzle. If not, then the dog will feel less safe for a couple reasons. First, he is on a lead and cannot run. Second, he now has a muzzle on and cannot protect himself. This can cause quite the opposite of a calm meeting.

Many dog owners believe that group puppy classes are the best way to socialize their dogs. While group classes are not all bad, they may not always be the right fit for every dog. In the case of a dog who is reactive to other dogs, group classes may do more harm than good. It is best to start a reactive dog at a distance which the dog is able to see another dog but does not react or is easily corrected upon reaction. Eventually, the dog’s threshold with change and the distance will grow smaller.

The prefrontal cortex in the human brain is responsible for understanding right from wrong. Dogs do have a prefrontal cortex but it is considerably under developed, they learn by association. Because of this, they require consistent repetition in order to shape a particular behavior that is desired. When a dog realizes a reward and is made to feel good, they will seek to repeat the behavior that gave them that reward. That is why the best form of socialization is to teach the dog that all good things come from the handler.



Gray, J. (n.d.). The Study of Canis Lupus Familiaris And the Pack Theory


Gray, J. (n.d.). What Is Socialisation and How Do We Socialise Dogs?


Socialization of Dogs and Cats. (n.d.). Retrieved October 15, 2018, from


VanArendonk Baugh, L. (2013, February 04). Don’t Socialize the Dog! Retrieved October 15, 2018, from


Weiss-Roessler, J. (2015, September 29). How to socialize an adult dog. Retrieved October 15, 2018, from

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