Pack Theory Debunked – the nonsense of dominance

The pack or dominance theory came about due to the work of firstly Rudolph Schenkel in the 1930’s and later Dr David Mech in the 1960s. For years he studied a group of wild caught captive wolves, these were literally wolves that had never met, mostly adolescent and put together in an enclosure. No one stopped to consider that the environment had an influence on the results of the study. Of course the wolves fought for every resource and the dominance theory was formed. In the years that followed Dr David Mech then discovered a vast difference between wolves in the wild from those in captivity and has renounced the results of his earlier studies. Captive wolves with no choice but to live in unrelated groups behave very differently from members of what we now know to be true wolf packs. He later corrected this as part of later studies (Mech, 2000), “Attempting to apply information about the behaviour of assemblages of unrelated captive wolves to the familial structure of natural packs has resulted in considerable confusion. Such an approach is analogous to trying to draw inferences about human family dynamics by studying humans in refugee camps. The concept of the alpha wolf as a ‘top dog’ ruling a group of similar-aged compatriots (Schenkel 1947; Rabb et al. 1967; Fox 1971a; Zimen 1975, 1982; Lockwood 1979; van Hooff et al. 1987) is particularly misleading.”

The theory of Nuclear Families has become the more popular explanation for pack hierarchy. It has been discovered that a wolf pack consists of a single family of wolves made up of a father, mother, and any number of children. Very rarely would a pack of wolves allow an outsider into their pack, because they do not share a similar bloodline. The Alpha male is no longer seen as the dominator, but rather the father figure, doing what it needs to do to protect its family and survive.

For years, there has been debate amongst dog trainers over the practices of dominance theory (aka pack theory) and its use in dog training, often coupled with hands on and punishment based methods with techniques, at best aversive and at worst violent; involving pinching ears, strangulation and alpha rolls . Many dog trainers 15-20 years ago thought that dominance was part of the training process, and that dogs resource guarding, sitting on the sofa or jumping up were being ‘dominant’ or asserting their dominance but this concept has been radically disproved and a more positive approach to dog training has emerged. Luckily for our dogs these forceful methods are becoming less popular with modern science based trainers now using reward based/positive reinforcement methods. The armed forces, police and assistance dogs are being trained in this way more and more too. 


Dogs and wolves are separated by thousands of years of evolution. Humans domesticated wolves as counterparts, not for food or transport like other species. Domestication has affected everything from the way a dog looks, to how they act and communicate and what they eat, all because of the need to adapt to the human environment.

Dogs have developed different behavioural tendencies and are quite different from their wolf counterparts including:

  • Wolves tend to be smarter and more aware of their surroundings, because of the dangers of their environment.
  • Dogs tend to be more socialised because of the need to be around other dogs. 
  • Dogs exhibit more puppy like behaviours into adulthood, like whimpering, whining and playing because of the attention it gets from humans.
  • Dogs have a lower bite inhibition making it harder for them to control the pressure of their bites. Wolves use bites as a form of communication and can better differentiate between a bite to correct and a bite to do harm.

Wolves, in the wild, do not jump or bark excessively. These are behaviours that have developed in dogs to get attention. The majority of unwanted behaviours we see in dogs today are driven by a lifestyle that doesn’t meet their needs, fear, anxiety, stress, lack of appropriate socialisation, lack of training or using poor training methods. Understanding the motivators or triggers behind any unwanted behaviour is the first step to addressing the problem, rather than thinking our dog is trying to be dominant or get one over on us. Today, educated trainers are aware that canine-human interactions are not driven by social rank, but rather by reinforcement. Behaviours that are reinforced are repeated, this builds pathways in the dogs brain and they quickly become our dogs go to behaviour. If your dog repeats an inappropriate behaviour such as counter surfing it’s not because he’s trying to take over the world; it’s just because he’s been reinforced by finding food on the counter. He’s a scavenger and an opportunist, and the goods are there for the taking. Prevent him from being reinforced for the behaviours you don’t want by control and management( in this instance putting food away), and reinforce him  well for the ones you do, and you’re on your way to having the relationship based on understanding, respect, communication and learning.