Are Dogs Pack Animals?

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(Updated 2020)

How many times have you heard that dogs are pack animals?

This misinformation is propagated by autodidact reality television show hosts and “trainers” who don’t understand and are confused about pack animals and canine behavior. 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.

Dog behavior is a science. Cultural fog is deep surrounding some notions such as dogs are pack animals, dominance aggression, you must be a dog’s alpha and dominance theory.

However, dogs are not pack animals, wolves, or carnivores, trying to be your Alpha, or attempting to dominate you.

Is Your Pet The Alpha Dog?

Let’s examine the evidence and see what science has to say. Veterinarian behaviorist, Dr. Ian Dunbar has called dogs “loose, transitory associations” rather than packs. However, family members are much more appropriate. Just as 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 even though we share nearly identical DNA, 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 certified dog behaviorists, experts, professionals, and scientists refer to dogs as family members.

Differences Between Wild/Non-Captive Wolf Packs and Family Domesticated Dogs (Canis lupus familiaris)

There are many differences between wolves and dogs. Perhaps more differences than similarities. Listed below are some of the differences between wolves and dogs and why dogs are not pack animals, Alpha, and do not dominate people.

  • 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. Dogs are recommended to get their meals fed to them in these food extracting dog toys or if that’s not available, in maze dog bowls but not in a traditional type of dog bowl.
Wolf eating prey

Wolfpack eating prey

  • Wolves hunt in coordinated, cooperative packs and are designed to take down prey much larger than themselves.
  • Canis lupus familiaris, AKA domesticated dogs don’t hunt, they scavenge and forage for food individually and independently. Dog’s are selectively bred to be dependent on people and have been for millennia. Hence there has not been a need to hunt (or even scavenge or forage) since the days of cavemen. Chihuahuas, Yorkies, Golden Retrievers Oh My! And the vast majority of pet dogs are not preying on or killing anyone for food acquisition. The only thing dogs “take-down” is food off the kitchen countertop, so perhaps don’t let dogs in the kitchen.

Yes, some dogs are bred specifically for hunting with people, and may even retrieve, but even these dogs are not killing prey three times their size. In addition, dogs that would or actually could take down prey are the overwhelming minority. But in the United States and most of the Western world, dogs are not self-reliant and their survival mechanism has long been bred-out of their DNA. Many breeds can’t even procreate on their own without human intervention, nevertheless hunt!

Dogs are completely dependent upon humans. This is exactly what I explained in my interview with The New York Times – Wirecutter, why not to use an automatic pet feeder instead of hiring a competent pet sitter or a luxury dog boarding facility when going on vacation. Dogs are dependent upon people for survival and health. Dogs are not pack animals, wolves, carnivores, or self-sufficient hunting machines. Dogs are omnivores, foragers, and scavengers but in most cases would die on their own or live much shorter lives.

  • Wolves have large native roaming areas (76 Km), 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.
wind in dogs face

This is the only roaming I do

  • 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.

Dog Training Miami

I don’t fight off anything

  • Pack animals are born into their nuclear family, where the mother gave birth to her offspring. 
  • It goes without saying that humans do not give birth to or breastfeed 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.
Dogs in pool

The only variation in my environment is the pool temperature

  • Pack animals offspring, when mature, will go off and create their own pack and wolves only live on an average of 5.94 years (MacNulty et al. 2009a)  
  • Dogs do not leave their human families after they reach maturity to go off and create their own. (That would suck) and even the largest dog breeds live far longer than that.
  • Wolves in the wild generally don’t play with toys, with people or by themselves. Instead, they would prefer to play with and engage in pack animal activities with conspecifics. (OK, this is technically the 9th reason)
  • Domesticated dogs are dyadic and play best in pairs of twos, not packs. Hence the reason most dog daycares and dog boarding kennels are fundamentally flawed. Scalability, volume (aka packs) are indirectly correlated with a dog’s health and species-specific optimal care. What is optimal for a dog is not typically a profitable, scalable business model. Dogs have a plastic social phenotype which varies greatly based on the social environment. Also, pet dogs sure love people, dog toys and even playing by themselves at times. Your dog likely loves all types of dog toys. And if your dog isn’t interested in toys, here’s how to help your dog rekindle their love for toys. Especially food extracting toys. Rejoice, your dog will love toys again!

Dog’s Are Pack Animals Conclusion

Debunked. 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, alpha, or pack animals.    

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Dog and Chimp

Humans are not chimps and dogs are not wolf pack animals

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