The Study of Canis Lupus Familiaris And the Pack Theory

Publishing Author : Jay Gray

Date Published : 10/10/18


The Ongoing Issue with Television Taught Trainers

A long-standing debate and clash of theories within the Canine World is the debate of the Pack Theory, Dominance and the Alpha Theory.  In this paper I will roll these three discussions into one for the sake of condensation.  The principles of all three arguments are based on the same corner stones and the outcome to said arguments is much the same across the board.

These theories have become increasingly more common and accepted due to the popularity rise of TV’s Cesar Millan also known as ‘The Dog Whisperer’.  Millan has no formal training in Canine Behaviour or Training or any field closely relating to these fields.  He is a self-taught dog trainer who entered the USA illegally many years ago and continued his journey walking dogs, then grooming dogs and finally training dogs because of his seeming supernatural understanding of the animal.  It is true that Cesar Milan is clearly dedicated to the rehabilitation of problem dogs across the United States of America and now across many countries around the world but that doesn’t dismiss the fact that the training foundations and philosophies he uses are not only sometimes abusive but also completely untrue in the modern studies of the psychological social habits of dogs.   There is also no doubt that Millan has brought Dog Training into a much more public light, but the unfortunate truth is that the Dog Training he has made popular is incorrect in proven scientific studies and can be cruel for the dog in training.  Millan has been involved in multiple lawsuits including that filed by ‘8 Simple Rules’ producer Flody Suarez after he claimed that his Labrador was subjected to inhumane and cruel treatment at Millan’s facility in California, USA.  The dog was rushed to the vet just hours after arriving at Millan’s facility with bruises and struggle for breath after being over run on a treadmill and excessive force used with a correction chain.  Suarez said that Gator’s (the dog in question) oesophagus was damaged to the point of needing surgery to fix the damage totalling twenty-five thousand dollars.

The method that Millan commonly uses is based in a behavioural technique commonly known as shut down.  This is where the dog’s behaviour is diminished to the point of the dog entirely or partially shutting down.  These kinds of methods are fast and impressive to watch but unfortunately do not deal with the underlying issues and psychology behind the problems that owners are facing with their dogs.

Many other trainers have come forward in the recent years after watching Cesar Millan’s television programme and this has only escalated the problem and further instilled into the public eye that they must be the pack leader, or they must be the Alpha of their pack.  In truth, as we will discuss in this paper, there is no pack in the terminology that people commonly understand, but there is a loose social hierarchy and there is certainly no need for excessive force, excessive pain or any alpha male like behaviour to train any behaviour, especially these very simple behaviours that many of these television trained Dog Trainers will be performing.


Exemplary Proof of Social Constructs Disparaging the Dominance Theory

There are ongoing discussions from multiple dominance-based theorists about certain constructs that their dogs should and should not follow.  Unfortunately, there is no proof that any of these behaviours have any negative effect on training, nor increase the dominance of the dog, nor remove alpha status from the human training the animal.  These trainers will attest that dogs should go out of the door after their leader, so they understand their place in the pack, or that they should eat last because the Alpha wolf always eats first, and the rest of the pack eats afterwards.

These examples can be broken down individually and attached to Social Construct to disprove their validity.  Firstly, as we will discuss later in this paper, dogs are not pack animals, so there is no Alpha of the pack, and even if there were, it would not be a human, much in the same manner that a human cannot go and lead a school of fish, because they are not a fish.  The dog is completely aware that the human is a different entity even though they cannot rationalise this thought.  We can prove this by observing a dog’s behaviour to another dog and then observing a dog’s behaviour to a human.  They are very different behaviours and social structures down to the most obvious foundational behaviours like the way dogs greet, or the way dogs play with one another compared to these behaviours when directed at humans.

For the sake of this paper, the example regarding the dog exiting through a door second is the example that will be used.  The trainers still believing in and teaching the dominance and pack theory will state that the dog must leave second to know that the human is the Alpha of the pack and that the dog will remain in a position lower.  This belief was born because of Western cultural norms based on a respectful entrance or exit over a threshold.  If a person is in the company of somebody hierarchically superior to them, or an elder that they respect, then they should offer said person to enter or exit through the threshold before them as a sign of respect.  This is only because of our societal beliefs in the Western World.  If our societal constructs were flipped upside down and it was polite and respectful to go through the door first, then these trainers would be preaching a different story because their beliefs and lessons are not based out of any canine psychology but merely their outward perception of their own outside world.


The Early Studies on Wolf Pack Structure

Over the past years, there have been multiple conflicting theories and studies around the hierarchy and pack structure among Canis Lupus (the wild wolf).  One of the earliest theories with any scientific merit was done by Animal Behaviourist Robert Schenkel.  This study was called ‘Expressions Studies On Wolves’ back in 1947 and was a study in which Schenkel very carefully observed countless interactions between the members in a wolf pack at the Zoological Institute of the University of Basel in Switzerland.

He observed many key points but some of the essential information that was gathered from this study was that there was a very clear hierarchical structure among the group of wolves in captivity.  His observations strongly suggested that the pack was led by two wolves, the Alpha male and the Alpha female.  This would later be proven to be nothing more and nothing less than the breeding pair of a family, otherwise known as the parents of the group of animals.  During this time, our understanding of domestic canine genetics suggested that the wild wolf and the domestic dog were so closely related that it seemed logical for the domestic dog to share these behaviours even when in a family home with humans and not other dogs.  The wolves were seen to gain control over one another with physical pressure that trainers would later manipulate into an alpha roll which is unfortunately still commonly used among trainers today.  The premise and ongoing result of these early studies were that the best way to attain rank and control with any canine was to gain rank within the pack and force the lower pack members into a state of submission.


The Studies of Dr David Mech

As the years passed in the history of the study of wolf behaviour, more advanced, accurate and extensive research studies were conducted, namely by the American Biologist and Wolf Behaviour Expert Dr David Mech.  His studies started many years later than Schenkel’s in 1986 but instead of studying wolves in captivity he studied them in their natural settings in North-West Canada in a place called Ellesmere Island.  Dr Mech spent thirteen summers there in total and carefully observed the interactions between the pack.  In his time spent there he came to new and interesting conclusions relating to wolf behaviour and the hierarchal context of the wolf in the wild.

Whilst concluding his studies undertaken at Ellesmere Island, Dr Mech compared Schenkel’s study to that of studying human behaviour whilst in a refugee camp.  It was an inaccurate conclusion made by Schenkel who failed to consider the natural habitat of the animal he was studying.  Variables like food, space and shelter would all play a part in the ending conclusion into the studies for Dr Mech.  He understood after observing the wild wolf that they behaved far more like a natural family rather than an autocratic dictatorship as was once understood in the years previously.  The pack did not appear as hierarchical and this was the moment that humans understood that the alpha pair were nothing more than the parents of younger offspring.

Dr Mech carefully observed the Alpha pair across the entire thirteen summers and found that the main focus of the female was to protect and take care of the young, whereas the male’s primary focus was on hunting and providing food for the rest of the ‘pack’.  The mutual goal for the breeding pair was to take care of and raise the pups successfully until they were mature enough to leave the pack and continue on their own journey.

Whilst studying the pack Dr Mech observed that the pack automatically recognised that only the breeding pair had the right to reproduce.  He concluded that because of this, most young wolves left the pack by choice to start their own pack elsewhere by around the age of three.  This seems to be a naturally inbuilt mechanism to prevent close inbreeding and seems to work well for the wolves.

As much as Dr Mech understood that these wolves did not have as much of an autocratic dictatorship structure as Schenkel once thought he still observed that the entire pack, including the Alpha female would assume active and passive submissive postures towards the Alpha male.  During the active submission, Dr Mech observed that the wolves would greet the higher-ranking male with their head held low, tail wagging, ears down and lip licking.  Behaviours that we would now sometimes refer to as appeasement behaviours.

When the wolves were observed hunting, it was always the Alpha male and female that would initiate the attack on prey animals, presumed because they were the most experienced in this act.  This was observed among new packs as well.  During mealtime however, the entire pack would eat together, unlike the initial thoughts of Dominance based dog trainers of today.   The only time the alpha male and female would take control of the meal was after the meal.  The alpha pair would take control of the carcass to ensure that they could take extra food to hide and feed to the young.  This appears to be an act of survival and the continuation of reproduction rather than an act of power as it has been manipulated in later teachings.

Dr Mech concluded that being an alpha has little to do with a young animal being dominant as previously thought but rather he concludes that all male pups will become alpha of their own pack as they mature, which in overview just states that they have the breeding right within a group of wolves younger than them.


Concluding Factors

Dr Mech’s studies are the reason that we started to further understand the behaviour of our domestic dogs.  The ultimate falsification of the dominance theory (or pack theory) was to directly compare the genetic makeup and behavioural habits of Canis Lupus and Canis Lupus Familiaris.  Although genetically they are incredibly close, this does not directly correlate to the behaviours of these animals especially when the domestic dog is living in a human based construct and home.  The Grey wolf and the domestic dog are 99.96% genetically similar but their behaviours have variables beyond genetic makeup such as where they live, how they are fed and the make up of their normal day.

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