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The death of pack structure?

Now before you switch off because you don’t believe in pack structure, theory, previous explanations, or experiences, or indeed you are totally pro pack structure thinking and don’t want to hear anything said against it, before you decide in advance what your view is, I implore you, please read this.


Open your mind to an experience that my help bring clarity to us all, about pack behaviour, whether it exists or not, and whether there are leaders, dominant behaviour or not and whether we as humans can or should use this knowledge to help us in our relationships with our own dogs, the dogs that we teach or whose owners we help. A few months ago, after over 25 years in dog training and behaviour, my entire viewpoint on the meaning, background, beliefs and “facts” abounding to the validity or otherwise of packs, leaders, followers, or independent free thinking, structure less groups of dogs, changed.


It changed when one of my dogs died. A dog that is without doubt the single most biggest influence in my life. And indeed in the lives of many people, and dogs, whose lives she changed, or even saved.


Now I haven’t got my head up my own backside, but I do genuinely believe that compared to the average dog enthusiast and indeed to many practising trainers or behaviour people, I have been lucky enough to have had what most would describe as very extensive experience with dogs, individually and in groups, dog training and their behaviour. For sometime now, I have watched with interest and sometimes bewilderment, the dog training and behaviour world tear itself inside out exchanging viewpoints and changing viewpoints over and over again, with relation to dogs and “pack structure”. Having been around rather a long time, I have read the early stuff on wolf packs and like many at the time, found solace in the fact that we were beginning to get to understand the sociable behaviour of some canids, in an interesting and plausible way. I watched and read with enthusiasm the earliest TV documentaries and writings, about wolves and dogs. Wild dogs and domesticated ones! What I perceived mostly from these earlier works, was an understanding that for some things, pack thinking made sense and for some other things, it didn’t.


Then started the dog pack leadership initiatives to change behaviour. Many of which worked, some of which had horrific consequences. Walking through doors first, eating first, sitting in a dogs bed, keeping them off our beds, ignoring them when you came home, taking a dogs food away, to check for “leadership” even growling at them, rolling them over, pinning them down, or even yawning at them, mimicking their behaviour or trying to get them to mimic ours etc. And worse still, in my view, was the thinking that fearful dogs could have their fear relieved by your showing them, as their “pack leader”, that you were not afraid, by ignoring their fearful behaviour, or denying them the opportunity to seek solace or comfort from their owners.


“Pack leadership” and “Dominance” and “Leadership” and “dominance theories” abounded. But at the same time, some of the studies of feral and wild dogs or captive dog groups, offered opposing views, that some dogs, living wild or in captivity, offered no or little traditional “pack behaviour”.


Then came internet forums in a big way and with them massive heated and sometimes aggressive forum debates about the various views and experiences. Things people had seen, things they had read and things they had been taught in education. As this was happening, the world of dog behaviour “experience” and that of dog behaviour “science”, each offered yet more alternatives to the original and the revised thinking.


Predictably, privately and sometimes publicly, people like me, sided with and endorsed the opinions of people who had experiences like mine. And because we had reams of experience, many of us thought we were right! Predictably, privately and sometimes publicly, people who weren’t like me, or hadn’t had experiences like mine, sided and endorsed the opinions of people who had similar shared experiences to their own. And many of them thought they were right too! Some people, with little personal experience, started to adopt and believe whichever view made the most sense to them, given what experience they did have or who appeared to offer the most viable and understandable explanation. Or they began to adopt the direct view of whichever book they had read or film they had seen. Or the thinking of whichever course they had been on. Or a person who had impressed them the most. The dog world was divided in a myriad of ways. And no one seems to know the answer.


Then came semi withdrawals of opinion from some of the original writers of pack structure thinking. Counter arguments by others well thought of. Some of these withdrawals were in themselves misinterpreted and counter arguments too where misreported and misrepresented. And I for one wondered what the heck was going on?


The dog behaviour world was split and heated arguments and discussions prevailed as people unfriended each other on facebook, or blocked them, or called people names, or alienated themselves from friendly, helpful folk, got thrown off forums, or in some cases made complete asses of themselves in efforts to defend or destroy, a viewpoint. I too got embroiled in this time and made an ass of myself. Their viewpoint. My viewpoint, The viewpoint, What each of us thought was RIGHT, became for some moments, all consuming. TV trainers and “famous” behaviour folk too, were and still are, split as to their approaches and viewpoints.


Shame really, because from what I can see, we ALL want to just understand dogs better. In order that we can help them have better lives. Same motive. Different life experience.


There has been the general disbanding in many quarters of “pack theory”. It seemed to me that the general distaste toward pack theory though was based on its reference to people “using” pack theory or “being a pack leader” in unethical, or ineffective or indeed damaging ways. And it all got very confusing. For everyone.


But for me, it was even more confusing, because what many of those high ranking dog experts and some of the science was saying and reporting, was not what I was observing on a daily basis. And it wasn’t just me either, there were a team of experienced dog trainers and enthusiasts who bore witness to a very structured pack of dogs, who had specific roles and functions, shared aims and behaved very, very, differently to some other groups.


The groups that I saw that behaved as a pack, had Cloud in it. And before her Clouds “mum”, and teacher, Lace. And whilst some groups behaved like structured communicating “packs” others that again I personally observed, didn’t. Why? So what was the answer?


So “Are dog’s Pack animals?” Or not?


This is a question to which I have devoted many hundreds of hours of contemplation in my own personal search for a defining answer or understanding. I think the problem with this question and the answer that we seek, is that it is unclear as to what it is actually asking, in the first place. I get the impression that in many ways the scientific community at least have tried to determine through observation, study and testing whether dogs (or indeed wolves), were “Inherently” pack animals. ie are they born with an inbuilt make up that will provide instinctual behaviour that will lead them to behave as part of a STRUCTURED group. Or not? I think many quarters want a yes or no answer to this question.


For me, this was and is a very confusing question. And the way it is approached is unhelpful, I feel. I’m not sure that the answers that we all really wanted to get to, could be gathered from this approach. From this question. I think that by asking the question “Are dogs pack animals?”, what we seem to be missing is that to this question, the only answer can only ever be, a variable. There can not be a yes or no answer.


The answer to the questions “Are dogs pack animals?” can only ever be “It depends .........”


If we were to ask as comparison, “Are humans sociable animals?” If a human child is abandoned in a forest, and never sees a human again for the rest of his days, would he be a social animal, or not? Well it depends. He might seek out other companions other animals perhaps. He might not. He might retain thoughts or feelings which mean that in his mind he has remained social. Or he might not. But does physical behaviour determine whether sociability is present? If there is no-one to be sociable with, does that mean you are not sociable? If there is no motivation to be sociable, does that mean you are not sociable? Does it mean you are not part of a structure? If the boy in the woods doesn’t have adequate opportunity early on to learn sociable behaviour, does that mean he isn’t sociable? Does it mean he couldn’t ever fit into a structured society? Does it mean anything? If he is or is not, does it mean that all humans are or are not? If he was raised as an average town dwelling, middle class citizen, but always remained aloof, would that mean he wasn’t sociable? If you have no need or desire to be sociable, does that mean you are not a social animal? And then the question arises, was he sociable before he was abandoned? Well that depends too. On many other variables.


At that time, when the arguments began to rage and people made declarations as far reaching as “Dogs are NOT pack animals” I began to think deeper. I began to think that in fact the ENVIRONMENTAL influences on any groups of dogs were the most determining factor, as to whether a group of dogs would form some kind of dominant/submissive/coercive/cooperative, structured group or not. It appeared to me, that If there was a common aim amongst a group or if there were clear genetic relationships, or most significantly if the environment in which a current group was operating dictated it worthwhile, then clearer lines of talent and experience, would become more pronounced. There were some dogs that other dogs would mimic, follow, hang around with, run to when trouble was afoot, or get away from when trouble was afoot. And there were other dogs who no one seemed to even notice.


I thought for a long time about these things and I began to think that what the most common thinking and discussion on much of the pack stuff was missing, was the explanation that external influences where one of the strongest determining factors as to whether or not a group of dogs or indeed canids, became a structured pack or group.


The answer to the question “Are dogs pack animals” was “It depends, mostly on the environment, within which the group operate”. Or so I had started to think. For instance if a group of dogs have easy access to an abundant food supply, then they have no need to hunt together, or fight over food. If however, food was scarce then depending on the environment and the likely food sources, they had one of two options.... They either hunt together to bring in better food resources for the whole group, which would create a tendency toward creating structure. Or, perhaps in the case of feral, city dogs, they would AVOID operating in groups and become much more insular, so they did not have to share or fight over their findings with others. Environmental and resource specific structures or isolations, would begin to prevail. And that was my thinking until recently, when rather suddenly and heartbreakingly, my beloved Cloud became suddenly ill and was put to sleep just 17 hours later. My heart was, and still is, broken.


With this sudden change, A burst of different thinking has come forth for me and I have observed, indeed we all have observed, the effect of her loss on the group of dogs with which she spent a lot of her time. And with whom she often worked alongside in the rehabilitation of dozens of dog reactive and aggressive dogs, as well as nervy or otherwise troubled dogs.


Cloud was a teaching dog of extraordinary quality. She was also the clear and observable controller and teacher of whichever group of dogs she was in.


Immediately after Clouds death, indeed the very day she died, fights began to break out at the classes where she would normally have attended. Even though for most of the time she would have been kept in the next room, resting with the instructors dogs. Her presence in the BUILDING it seems, had an effect on any dog she had encountered. Dogs that normally got on, started to fall out, and the group of dogs who usually shared the kitchen, the instructors dogs, appeared lost. Clouds self appointed “enforcer” Kaiden, who had seen her as his “mum” and teacher from a puppy, didn’t even want to be in the room that he normally “enforced confidently” and wanted instead to go back to the car. I wasn’t there to witness this. But each of the team at work reported problems that day.


Now, after Clouds departure, I can completely see how so many people can live and work with groups of dogs day in and day out and come to conclude that there is no pack leader, no pack structure and no pack processes. I can see that because that is how it is now, for the group of dogs that Cloud leaves behind. Not one dog is showing any signs so far of providing any kind of education or leadership to the other dogs. No one seems to know what to do. And no one appears to be mimicking anyone else. There most certainly is not a “pack leader” amongst them. The “weakest” more nervy dogs amongst them have become more weak and nervy. The stronger characters have become mildly more assertive but so far in an apparently disruptive way. My thoughts are now changed. For some time, some of the dog behaviour world has missed one glaringly obvious fact, that is crucial to understanding the presence or absence of pack behaviour and structure in domestic captive kept dogs, the sort that most of us interact with and are interested in.


I know believe that Pack leadership does exist in the dog world, but only if there is an animal with the capacity and motivation to be a leader, present.


Its obvious isn’t it? The presence of a pack structure, is not necessarily determined by genetic predisposition, i.e its not about whether dogs either are or are not, pack animals. Moreover it is about whether there is a dog that can lead available to lead? A dog whose behaviour or presence, kicks into action the instinctive capacity to develop complex social bonds and behaviours, an instinct present I would suggest in MOST, but not all Canids.


If we look at the comparisons in the human world, would there ever have been World War 2 if there had been no Hitler? It is widely acknowledged I believe that it was Hitler’s Leadership Skills that brought about a verment and unquestioned following. Natural leadership qualities. Would the positive influences of Nelson Mandela’s views, have come about had there been no Nelson Mandela? Would these structures have ever evolved without their particular leaders at the helm? I believe it is the same with dogs.


I believe that dogs form structures when a) there is reason to form structures so that the animals within said structure can perceive a benefit, eg. In the case of bringing down large prey that a single canid could not manage, or where successful rearing of young requires more than one adult dog. Or where multiple eyes and ears will aid survival for all. And b) where there is a character who has the potential ability, either genetic, learned or both, AND the desire or motivation, to lead in some, or all circumstances. And by “lead”, I mean to create rules and boundaries and to maintain and police them, or else teach others to control and police them, to provide behaviour as a role model to those who chose to mimic it or become involved in some way, in order that the group can operate with overall benefit to all or most members of the group.


When Cloud was present no other dogs would fight. No other dogs would jump up people or on other dogs or play fight or play too vehemently. Some dogs where allowed to and encouraged to take on some of her former responsibilities, and some dogs appeared to have special privileges afforded to them, by her. Those dogs in turn, appeared to “look after” her.


What is clear to me I feel is that those dogs who had accepted Cloud as their Leader/protector/advisor/talent/hunt leader/peacekeeper/enforcer/mum/role model/ inspiration, whatever they saw her as.... For those dogs, there is now a gaping hole in their world. Between them they remain incomplete.


And for me too. Despite the hole in my heart which I can feel and perceive all too well, I have been shocked and surprised to realise that as a dog trainer and behaviourist who has worked a great deal in dog to dog reactivity and aggression, I have only just realised that when out walking my own dogs, I have not for a very long time, had to worry about an incoming potentially aggressive or rude dog. I’ve never had to learn how to deal with such an array of threats, not for years. Cloud was 10 and had been a manger of other dogs, from very early on. Her “mum” before her, Lace, was also a hugely assertive dog and always dealt with incoming aggressors usually with no input from me. For the last 19 years one or other of my bitches had resolved nearly every dog to dog situation that we had encounter. Thousands of encounters, without my input.


So without realising it until Cloud died, even I, had given over to Cloud and before her Lace, near 100% responsibility for dealing with incomers and aggressors. And I hadn’t even realised it! She had led me through those scenarios, safely and with a great deal more understanding than I can ever have. She had been my leader too in some ways! I too have a gaping hole in my skill set, which I must now develop without her guidance. I too have lost my leader when it comes to dealing with dog aggression cases, and I too am struggling to rise to replace the loss which we all feel since she left us.


It will be fascinating to see how the group of dogs she leaves behind, adapts and copes with the changes they now face. It will be interesting to see how they develop as characters.


To my Darling Cloud, thank you for teaching me, teaching us, that which you have and for being my bestest friend ever.


Run free my baby Girl.


Denise Mcleod


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