How Pack Instinct Affects Your Dog´s Behavior

    By Rebecca Sweat
Article and photos © 2001 Pet Life

Does Bowser growl if you approach him while he is chewing on a bone? When strangers walk by your front yard, does Rover bark ferociously? How does Fido react when left home by himself - does he howl and whine? Behaviors such as protecting valued resources, defending territory and not wanting to be alone are typical for dogs, but they are also common behaviors for wolves.

It's not just a coincidence that dogs and wolves share many of the same behaviors. Most researchers believe the domestic dog descended from an animal similar to the gray wolf. Even the most docile house pet inherits certain genetic responses and programmed behaviors that are "wolf-like."

Perhaps the strongest of the wolf's instincts is the desire to live in group structures known as packs. In a pack, wolves bond together for the purpose of survival and procreation, for holding onto territory in which they live and hunt, and to feed, nurture and protect their young.

"Within a pack a social hierarchy develops; there's a No. 1, No. 2, No. 3, and down the line," says Bonnie Beaver, D.V.M., professor of animal behavior at Texas A & M University School of Veterinary Medicine. Pack members earn a place in the social structure based on leadership skills. The animal with the strongest abilities becomes the alpha or pack leader.

The alpha wolf maintains his position not by aggression, but by controlling the pack's resources. "Pack leadership has to do with the ability to procure and distribute food," says Nicolas Dodman, B.V.M.S., director of the Behavior Clinic at Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine. "The alpha dog and alpha bitch do the hunting; they get the first shot at eating, and then subsequently, the others." One of the few situations where there might be aggression is if the dog thinks he's going to get first dibs at eating and is then challenged by another pack member whom the dog sees as an underling, and then the dog will growl.

What does all this mean in terms of your own pet dog? Like wolves, dogs are social creatures and naturally want companionship. "Their need for social interaction can facilitate training," says Wayne Hunthausen, D.V.M., a veterinary behavior consultant in Westwood, Kansas. "If the dog finds doing a certain behavior results in him getting the positive interaction he wants, then he's going to be more likely to perform that behavior again."

The pet dog sees the human family in which he lives as a substitute for the pack structure. This is true even if the household consists of just one human and one dog. It is important that each person in the household take a position above the dog. "We traditionally think of the human members as being No. 1, 2, 3, 4, etc., and then the dog is the lowest on the totem pole. That's really where the dog is most comfortable," Beaver says. Dogs feel secure when they know there are rules and the owner is in charge. As in a pack, a dog will accept the authority of those in the household who behave in a dominant manner. "When no one in the family is perceived by the dog as dominant, he will assume the role of the pack leader," says Andy Myers, an animal behavior consultant with Narnia Pet Behavior Clinic in Naperville, Illinois. "From a dog's point of view, having a leader is a matter of survival and he will take that position if no one else does." Here are five ways you can establish leadership and motivate the dog to follow you:

Have Your Dog Earn Valued Items

From a dog's or wolf's standpoint, whoever controls the resources is the leader. Establish dominance by making your dog earn valued items such as food treats, toys and other opportunities. "Have your puppy earn at least a third of its daily food through a piecemeal kibble," suggests Steve Lindsay, a dog behavior consultant in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. "Measure off a third of your puppy's diet and divide it among family members. Require him to sit, stay, come or lie down at various times during the day. Doing so helps to promote cooperative behavior in an enjoyable way." The dog learns that the owner has everything he needs and wants, and that he doesn't get those things unless he does something to please the owner.

Be Consistent

Another key to leadership is consistency. "Dogs understand pack order well, but we humans tend to make it confusing for them because we allow them to be in charge of us at times and then at other times we expect to be in charge of them and that sends a mixed signal," Myers says. Your dog will be confused if you expect him to sit before he gets his food bowl one day, but the next day, you just put the bowl down without first making him sit. "If you're inconsistent, the dog will periodically challenge you to see if you're still in charge or if you're willing to set aside and let him take over," Myers says. When you are consistent, your dog will rarely challenge your authority.

Know Your Dog's Temperament

Tailor your corrections to your dog's personality. "Dogs are born with tendencies toward certain temperaments: Some are more submissive, some are more dominant or assertive," Hunthausen says. Some dogs may need a loud "no" as a correction, but the same correction might frighten a dog that is insecure or timid. Try to evaluate your dog's temperament. You don't have to be as strict with a dog that has no desire to be in charge.

Play Constructively

Play is an ideal way to show your dog that you are tbe leader. You are the one tossing the ball, throwing the stick, in control of the toys, and responsible for initiating action. Your dog focuses his attention on you and sees you as the one in charge. Leadership is established in a fun and relaxed setting. One form of play, however, that can be destructive is tug-of-war. "A mistake made by owners is allowing the dog to struggle until the tug toy is forced out of their hand and then letting the dog run away with the prize in his mouth," Lindsay says. "From the standpoint of the dog you were engaged in a contest of strength over a valued item, otherwise what's the point of tugging on it? When you let go, the dog is encouraged to believe that he has the ability to win under such circumstances - an outcome which doesn't support your image as a dominant figure."

If you play tug games, always insist your dog drop the tug toy from time to time. After building a gentle excitement towards the toy, throw it for the dog to fetch. When the dog takes the toy into his mouth, call him to "come" and encourage him to bring it back. "By structuring tug games, the potentially negative competitive interaction is turned into something more cooperative and constructive," Lindsay says. Such games should be initiated by the owner. By imitating, controlling and ending the game, the owner's role as leader is emphasized and enhanced.

Don't Be a Bully

While it's important to establish leadership, don't put your dog in his place using physical force or oppression. "Your dog needs rules, but don't enforce those rules by barking orders, forcing him to cow-tow, or frightening him with your ability to inflict punishment," Dodman says. That's putting your dog into the No. 50 category instead of the No. 2, or 3, or 4 (or however many people are in your family).

Certainly there will be times when your dog needs to be disciplined. But don't make that your focus. Show your dog the proper way to behave, and when he does as you ask, shower him with praise and affection. Your dog needs to know you're in charge and he needs to know his boundaries. But by adding kindness and affection to the equation, you become a loving leader rather than an oppressor.

How Territorial Instincts Influence Your Dog

Territorial instincts cause dogs to claim territory by marking it with urine and feces. "Whenever the dog finds the scent of urine, whether on trees or on soiled spots inside the house, the dog will want to leave his own mark," Beaver says. If you see your dog sniffing where another dog has been or lifting his leg to mark territory, you can correct the problem before it becomes a habit.

Another aspect of territory is the dog's need for a den. Within the pack's boundaries pack members establish a den where they will sleep. Likewise, a pet dog needs his own bed or crate to use as a den. Place the dog's bed in a part of your home that is secluded, so that your dog can have a quiet retreat when he needs it. "In the wild, pack members sleep together in the same location, so if possible, put the dog's bed in your bedroom," Myers suggests.

Territorial instincts motivate dogs to protect their turf. "If an intruder comes, the dog will respond with varying degrees of aggression - anything from an alarm bark to an actual attack,' Hunthausen says. Discourage territorial barking by taking your dog out of an environment where he is seeing "intruders." If there's activity in front of your house, put the dog indoors or in a different part of the yard. Because defense is a natural canine instinct, you won't be able to totally stop territorial barking. However, you can feel secure knowing you have a good watch dog.

Rebecca Sweat