The Wolf Pack Theory can be described as using the behaviour of wild wolves to explain the behaviour of domestic dogs in a family setting. Wolves in the wild live in packs, where each individual fits into the social hierarchy, constantly trying to advance in social status. The Dominant wolves become the alpha males and females, and challenging their position is what causes fighting and aggression within the pack. Wild wolves are competing to advance up the social hierarchy for a number of reasons including food resources and breeding opportunities. It makes sense that the bravest of the pack will have access to the best food and mates, ensuring their survival over the more passive wolves. This article will compare the feeding and breeding patterns of domestic dogs and wild wolf packs, hoping to highlight that the vast genetic and environmental differences between the two. Ultimately I want to show that a heavy reliance on the Wolf Pack Theory in dog behaviour can be detrimental to dog training in the Modern family home.

Wolf Pack enthusiasts like Cesar Milan maintain domestic dogs are trying to challenge their owners to the position of pack leader, when the display certain ‘dominant’ behaviours. If the basic instincts of domestic dogs are to be likened to that of wolves, we can presume what is considered dominant canine behaviour, is a result of the instinct to feed and breed. Most modern day dog owners decide to get their dogs neutered/spayed, unless they are used for breeding purposes. In this case the dogs will have ample access to mates, without having to compete amongst their peers for the opportunity. Additionally, owners usually feed their dogs at regular intervals, meaning the instinct to hunt and compete for food is somewhat diminished. Of course dogs will be dogs, and they will beg for tasty tit bits from the table, but can this be described as normal Wild Wolf Pack behaviour? Studies have shown that both wild wolf packs and those in captivity show different pack mentalities. Also that captive wolves and feral dogs show different behaviour in their groups (Mech, 1999). Therefore, we should assume that domestic dogs can show further deviations in behaviour to their wild ancestors. Just because a dog seems very interested in filling his belly, does not mean he is seeking household domination.

It cannot be denied that domestic dogs could be perceived as displaying wolf-like behaviour. Dogs who have received little obedience training will appear to become bossy and can sometimes control the way their owners behave. Then again, certain dog breeds are known for being naturally more boisterous than others. A Staffordshire Bull Terrier is going to be more prone to jumping up than a Pug for example. This in itself throws another light on how domestic dogs will automatically differ from wild wolves: thousands of years of selective breeding has created many complex variations in wolf and dog genetics. Does this mean that certain dog breeds are more prone to behave in stereotypical wolf like ways, or is it more likely that humans have selected these characteristics to make them more successful in their breed categories?

In simple terms, just because a blood hound may have excellent nose skills, does not mean this is directly related to the nose skills a wolf uses to hunt prey. These nose skills will have been picked by people, for the purpose of specific jobs. A blood hound will also be bred to work to his handler’s command, a characteristic which is alien to a wild wolf. Equally, other blood hounds may be simple family pets, and never used in a hunting setting. This illustrates how environment creates vast differences between domestic dogs and wolves. A dog that lives in a warm, cosy house cannot be compared to a wolf in the wild, constantly on guard from outside predators. Animals, as with humans are products of their environment and genes. It seems that the vast differences in these two things alone, show that wolves and domestic dogs could never be described as instinctively the same.

Despite the clear differences between wild wolf packs, and domestic dogs within a family home, the Wolf Pack Theory is continued to be endorsed by traditional dog trainers. Perhaps this is partly because it is easier to teach a handler to assert their authority over a dog, than it is to train a dog to perform a behaviour of their own accord. The Dog Whisperer programmes appear to achieve results fast, without little knowledge other than a dog learns best when the human is in charge. It also removes responsibility from the trainers and owners as they cannot be fully blamed for the behaviour of a dog with pre-determined wolf like tendencies. Ultimately it provides a ‘sexy sell’ for dog trainers who are looking for fast results and a high turnover. Nevertheless, the dog will gradually learn escape and avoidance techniques to avoid your tugs on his lead. You even run the risk of reinforcing learned behaviour patterns, i.e. Rover learns that if he growls when you yank his lead, you will hesitate before doing it again. I believe when handlers become rigid and transfixed with remaining the pack leader, they become unattractive to their dog, and training becomes a negative experience. Common sense tells us that all beings, dog and human alike, learn better through positive experiences.

Modern dog trainers like myself, believe that domestic dog breeds are too selectively bred, too dependent on human interaction and too far removed from nature, for the Wolf Pack Theory to uphold much relevance to effective training. Jane Killon (2007) explains how even the most wolf like dog breeds can be trained using Classical and Operant Conditioning, relying on constant positive reinforcers and negative punishments to establish desired behaviours. Therefore it is not the human asserting their authority, but the dog associating certain environments and behaviours with a reward that teaches the dog. In order to make training even more memorable, each little step your dog takes in the right direction should be marked and rewarded. This is key to conditioning, and a much more effective way of making your dog eager to learn. Whilst these methods can be more time consuming than simply exerting some kind of force over your dog, they will be best at improving the dog/owner bond as they are more enjoyable for all parties. They also allow each dog trainer to be flexible to each individual dogs characteristics and needs. As a dog trainer myself I always adopt this modern approach in my group classes and 1-2-1 sessions. If you are interested in reading a bit more about Training services in Greater London, please visit or email me on

Source by Lucy Dunleavy