Are Dogs Pack Animals?
How many times have you heard that dogs are pack animals? Propagated by autodidact reality television show business hosts, the term “pack animals” is used so often that most people don’t question it. It is ingrained in our social lexicon and used incorrectly. Many people recite parlance they hear in the grocery store isles, read on questionable blogs, see on reality TV shows or hear from their dog loving neighbor Joe. When in actuality, these “experts” offer nothing more than myth, hypothetical constructs and conventional wisdom. Dog behavior is a science. Cultural fog is deep surrounding some notions such as: dogs are pack animals, you must be a dog’s alpha, and dominance theory. However, nothing could be further from the truth.
Let’s examine the evidence and see what science has to say. Dr. Ian Dunbar has called dogs “loose, transitory associations” rather than packs. However, family members are much more appropriate. I wouldn’t call my son, daughter or family member submissive/dominant to me any more than I would claim they are members of my pack. They are members of my family. Regardless of similar DNA, dogs are not wolves just as humans are not bonobos or chimpanzees.
Though this post is about domesticated dogs, not wolves, wild canids or free ranging wild dogs, it is important to mention wolves because most antiquated theories about domesticated dogs are derived from people’s misguided connection between dog and wolf behavior. Families living with dogs do not constitute pack animals (sorry Cesar Millan) nor should they be treated that way. Contemporary behaviorists, experts, professionals and scientists refer to dogs as family members.
Differences Between Wild/Non-Captive Wolf Packs and Family Domesticated Dogs:
- Male wolves participate in the rearing of puppies. The pack must cooperate to provide enough resources for the offspring to survive and consequently generally only the mother and father pack members mate and have puppies.
A dog sire does not participate in the rearing of puppies and dogs have a promiscuous mating system.
- For a wolf, hunting is the primary source of food acquisition.
Dogs are primarily scavengers and foragers.
- Wolves hunt in coordinated, cooperative packs.
Dogs forage individually and independently.
- Wolves have large native roaming areas, are autonomous and have absolute freedom to manage their environment and social relationships.
Dogs have been domesticated for tens of thousands of years, have (human) parents, are not autonomous, have limited free space, roaming areas and often do not choose their social relations and environment.
- Pack animals have to fight off potential threats both environmental and/or predator and compete for mates.
Domesticated dogs rarely ever have to fight off predators, environmental threats or compete for mates.
- Pack animals are born into their nuclear family, where the mother gave birth to her offspring.
It goes without saying that humans did not give birth to or breast feed their dogs. Our dogs are all adopted into our extended family.
- Wolves live in a pack of up to 42. Wolves are typically territorial and as David Mech states “may migrate hundreds of kilometers between where they raise their pups and where they take those pups in winter to follow their prey.” There is enormous variation in the wolves’ environment.
Domesticated dogs clearly do not migrate these distances nor fit these migration patterns, and do not share these character traits.
- Pack animals offspring, when mature, will go off and create their own pack.
Dogs do not leave their family after they reach maturity to go off and create their own. (That would suck)
It is tempting to use terms and claims we hear on TV or from neighbors and interpret them as science but the notion that domesticated family dogs are pack animals is not only incorrect but confers other vagaries as well. To draw an oversimplified generalization based on the misguided “wolf is a dog” notion, is archaic and as silly as it is to say a “chimpanzee is a human”.
Dogs are not wolves or pack animals.