Pack: another dangerous word (why dogs are pack animals)

6 dogs trained to stay

Dogs are pack animals, and humans are not. It is en vogue these days, especially among progressive dog trainers, to say that dogs are not pack animals. The problem with this is that they are, and that to say otherwise is factually wrong. As caretakers for our dogs, it is our responsibility to have, or at least seek, a basic understanding of who and what dogs are. Who and what dogs are must be defined by how dogs behave, both alone and in groups, not by the technical name for congregations within their genus. Acknowledging that dogs are pack animals is only inaccurate if we are inaccurate about what it means, for dogs, to be pack animals. Being a pack animal doesn’t mean that dogs behave like any other pack animal.

Animal trainers don’t get to decide what groups or gatherings of a given genus are called. It happens when the genus is identified, because all members of a given genus have the same name for groups within their genus. Avoiding the word “pack,” or saying dogs aren’t pack animals, leads to conversations about semantics, or makes it seem we don’t even know congregations of dogs are called packs. What faster way to lose credibility than seem to not know what genus dogs belong to? Worst of all, it avoids the whole topic that causes the problem in the first place: what is the most humane and appropriate way to modify a dog’s behavior?  Is it to be a pack leader? No. Are dogs pack animals? Yes.

There are other words in (rare) usage for groups of dogs – there are references in old books to a “cry” of hounds, and a “cowardice” of curs. Sometimes certain groups of carefully bred dogs are called a “kennel.”  Sled dogs are referred to as a “team.” Each of these terms, however, refers to a specific breed or type, and not to dogs in general. Groups of dogs, whether permanent (as with dogs who live together) or temporary (as in day care or even dog parks), like most Canids, and all Canis, are rightly called packs.

The correct term in English for groups of most Canids is “pack.” The correct term follows the genus, not the species or subspecies. This means if wolves are pack animals, dogs are, too; that word, however, does not define the behavior of dogs, or any other pack animal. Groups of foxes (Vulpes) are sometimes called a “skulk,” sometimes an “earth,”and sometimes a “charm.” Most references to groups of foxes, though, are to a “skulk.” It is interesting that foxes are usually considered solitary, but apparently congregate often enough to have names for the groups that are seen. Groups of dholes (Cuon) are referred to as either a “clan” or a “pack.” Apparently, there is no name for groups of maned wolves (Chrysocyon), Argentinian foxes (Lycalopex), or short-eared dogs (Atelocynus) – presumably because they are never seen in groups at all. Every other type of canid is called a “pack” when referring to groups of 3 or more – even bush dogs (Speothos), African wild dogs (Lycaon) and, most relevant to our topic, all members of the genus Canis (wolves, coyotes, jackals, dingoes, and dogs). The question of which among these animals is its own species, and which are subspecies, deserves its own essay, and is not the topic of this one. The important thing is all members of the genus Canis are seen in groups at least sometimes, and those groups, as designated by their genus, are called “packs.”

Instead of saying to others, or ourselves, “dogs aren’t pack animals,” it is much more accurate, and useful, to say that dogs don’t act like other Canids, or even other members of the Canis genus. In fact, all Canids act differently, and all members of the Canis genus act differently. Being a good animal trainer (professional or personal) combines the principals of behavioral science and the ethology of the animal one is working with. It is important that dogs feel part of the human family. Does it matter to coyotes? Dogs evolved to eat human garbage. What did Arabian wolves evolve to eat? Among the many ways most dogs are different from most wolves is in their pack structure. Wolf packs tend to be permanent, and dog packs tend to be mercurial, or, often, not really packs at all. What appears to be a pack of feral dogs is more likely several, or even a hundred+, individuals or small groups (called packs), congregating at a resource to make a really big, temporary group (also called a pack). It is confusing. Fifty dogs at the dump isn’t a family any more than 50 humans at a restaurant is a family. They get along because they are social; but they aren’t one big family, like a pack of wolves would be, travelling together and living together from birth to death.

Acknowledging that dogs are pack animals is only inaccurate if we are inaccurate about what it means, for dogs, to be pack animals.

1) Wolves aren’t dogs, and dogs aren’t wolves. Their innumerable differences include diet, social structure, heat cycle frequency, litter size, and instinctual behaviors (a wolf can be taught to retrieve, but would the wolf enjoy it enough to fetch all day with no other reinforcement than the retrieving itself?), etc.

2) We were wrong about wolves, anyway. What we thought were pack leaders were parents, and what we thought was a “pack” was a family – still called a pack, but the hierarchy and competition which was observed was actually more akin to human family dynamics than to some kind of Lords of the Flies / Highlander scenario in which everyone fights for the top position because “There can be only one!”

3) Dogs wouldn’t exist without humans, but wolves do better without us. This is the most important reason we shouldn’t think about wolves when we are learning about how to live with dogs. Where humans live, wolf populations decline. Where humans live, dog populations rise. If dogs acted like wolves, we would eradicate them. Dogs don’t act like wolves, so we don’t eradicate them. Being a pack animal doesn’t mean that dogs act like any other pack animals do, or that they should act like another kind of pack animal.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, while dogs are pack animals, humans definitely are not. Our genus is Homo, as in Homo Sapien. We are the only surviving member of our genus, which included Homo Neanderthalensis, Homo Erectus, and Homo Habilis. We are here, while they are not, because we were smarter. Theoretically. Dogs are smart, too. They can tell the difference between humans and dogs by 6-8 weeks old (probably earlier, but that is when experiments can prove it). Dogs are neither fooled or impressed by our attempts to be dogs. They are probably just confused and frightened by us when we act that way. Dogs wouldn’t exist without humans, so to be good with dogs, learn about dogs and humans both. Humans, unlike dogs, are not pack animals, and we shouldn’t pretend we are. We also shouldn’t pretend dogs are not pack animals, but it is very important to define what pack means in reference to dogs.

One thought on “Pack: another dangerous word (why dogs are pack animals)

  1. Sorry but I have to disagree. Packs have strict hierarchies and rules and dog social groups don’t. You could say that dogs form pack but of a different kind but would that not be like calling me black but a different, extremely pale kind of black, instead of just calling me white? Also, since the “pack leader”, “alpha dog” and “dominance” theories have done a huge amount of damage to dogs it is much easier to explain why these things are not true by stating that dogs are not pack animals….it would be confusing to try to explain, yes, it is a pack, but a different kind of pack …

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