Who says dogs are “pack animals?”

Well, there’s always this guy. And many laypeople believe that dogs are pack animals. The logic goes like this:

  1. wolves are pack animals;
  2. dogs descended from wolves; thus
  3. dogs are pack animals (with maybe a bit of their wolf-ish tendencies bred out of them by generations of domestication).

But, uh…

Wolves aren’t really pack animals. The concept of the wolf-pack suggests that wolves come together to patrol a certain territory, compete for their place in a rigid hierarchy, and are ruled over by an “alpha wolf.” Recent research repeatedly shows that wolves in the wild do not live in these sorts of packs at all, but instead live in extended family units (where the “alphas” are just the parents). One leader in the study of wolves now calls the very notion of an alpha wolf “outmoded” and “outdated”.*

Dogs did not descend from wolves. It is a popular notion that dogs descended from wolves, but it is not supported by genetic research. Dogs and wolves share a common ancestor, but dogs and wolves are two different species that split from that common ancestor a long time ago like 30,000 years ago. Saying that dogs descended from wolves is about as accurate as saying chimpanzees descended from humans.

Dogs are not pack animals. Dogs – observed living wild in cities and the country-sidedon’t assemble into packs. They tend to form small groups (2-3 dogs) that come together easily and last for very short periods of time, with no clear leader or hierarchy.

In ideal situations, dogs are family animals. They are very good at picking up delicate clues about behavior, modifying their actions based on what is happening in the family around them, learning norms (like house-training), figuring out boundaries (I can lick the forks in the dishwasher when there are people in the kitchen, but if I want to grab raw hamburger off the counter I need to do that when people are not around), and tolerating the occasional clumsy violation of personal space by humans – especially children.

These domestic situations all require subtle reads and an elastic sense of social order. A rigid pack hierarchy, as imagined in early wolf studies, wouldn’t help you here. What we imagine as normal pack behavior – snarling and snapping at a smaller pack member (like, say, a toddler) who starts eating your dog-food – might well get a domestic dog euthanized.

The point is that the “dogs as pack animals” mumpsimus is worse than inaccurate. It threatens to blind us to the astuteness and flexibility that makes domestic dogs so wonderful.

* Wolf packs do exist in zoos, like prison gangs exist in penitentiaries. But  to say that wolves are “pack animals” is like saying that all humans outside of prisons sort themselves into violent gangs and compete over control of drug trafficking. Not always untrue, but it wouldn’t help you understand how to navigate your way through normal life in, say, Bethesda, Maryland.
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