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"Do not make the mistake of treating your dogs like humans or they will treat you like dogs" - M. Scott

Pack leader in a Human/Canine pack

There are some dog-owners who strongly support the idea that having dogs creates a "pack" environment, and others who do not. I found this introduction to the idea of a pack-structure to be very informative.

Written by Katie Rourke for the Canine Human Interface Course run by the John Fisher at the Animal Care College, United Kingdom on the 27th October 1992

Introduction - Pack Structure

Any group of people and dogs residing in a house will result in the formation of a pack. A pecking order will naturally establish itself, the bossiest and most persistent usually ending up as a pack leader. The dogs see their position simply as "we are one pack united", humans tend to think "we are one family and a few dogs". This difference of opinion causes confusion and sometimes disharmony. Many humans cannot see that the dogs' pecking order is closely integrated with their own. The highest ranking dog or human is granted the most privileges by the rest of the pack and becomes the pack leader, the less persistent less dominant individuals slide down the ranks in order of ability to be persistent and/or dominant and have either fewer privileges or none at all.

Although pack status is usually decided through play, fights may ensue when two dogs see themselves as being the same (or very similar) rank within the pack. This does not necessarily mean they are both vying for pack leadership, indeed, they may be vying for the 'next up from bottom' position.


From observation of our own set-up (seven dogs and a family of four - plus a few 'rent-a-kids' which are near-permanent pack-members) plus the frequent borders we have in, I have witnessed pack hierarchy first-hand. With the arrival of each new border comes a subtle struggle within the pack, the border eventually finding a place within it. Prime spots such as the kitchen gate, the back door and individual crates are guarded from borders so that regulars do not loose rank. Interestingly, two of our bitches seem to hold the same rank (No. 5). Chess is a 'daily' border and each morning there is a 'battle' where Daisy, the permanent resident, will try to force the her to submit with a paw or chin over the shoulder. Some days she wins and is No. 5 (though only just) for the rest of the day, other times she is resisted and ends up being pinned to the floor by Chess and ends up being No. 6 (though only just) for the rest of the day.

From watching the interaction between our 'pack' I have concluded that the pack leader is the human or dog which holds the greatest respect from each and every member of the pack, carries the weight of responsibility for the entire pack and has the largest 'Bill-of-Rights'.

How I would set about achieving the position

If we define this 'Bill-of-Rights' first, then it becomes very obvious how to achieve the position of Pack Leader.

Pack Leader 'Bill of Rights'

  • To eat first, gorge themselves, and have any pickings left over
  • To stand, sit, or lie-down or have access to the 'prime' spots within the household
  • To control entry to, or exit from any room in the house
  • To proceed through all narrow openings first
  • To initiate the hunt and dictate where to hunt
  • To make the 'kill' at the end of the hunt
  • To demand 'care-giving' behavior from subordinate pack members
  • To ignore or actively discourage unwanted attention
  • To restrict the movements of lesser ranking dogs
  • To win all tug of war games

By examining all the above points and using our natural advantage (superior brain power) becoming Pack Leader becomes a piece of cake. Theoretically!

  1. To eat first, gorge themselves, and have any pickings left over

    Since there are very few dogs around that have mastered the technique of using a manual can-opener to open their dog food, it becomes relatively easy to master the first point. After eating your breakfast you can feed the dogs. (Pack Leader (you) eats first).

  2. To stand, sit, or lie-down or have access to the 'prime' spots within the household

    Ensure you can have free access to all the places within the household that your dogs view with great esteem. A cup of tea sitting in the dog's bed will no doubt confirm your neighbors suspicions that you are indeed completely potty, the dogs however will view the situation very differently - you can 'occupy' their spot. If you take this one stage further and restrict access to the upper floor of your house, or your bedroom it reinforces the point that your 'superior' sleeping spot is inviolate, theirs is not.

  3. To control entry to, or exit from any room in the house

    A closed door effectively restricts the access to other parts of the house, but should any of your dogs take to 'sleeping' in front of doorways it should be actively discouraged by removing the dog from that spot with a firm command of "move!". Do not step over the dog which is constantly in your way - take the shortest route to your destination and move the dog.

  4. To proceed through all narrow openings first

    If the pack leader has the right to proceed through all narrow openings first, start with a doorway. You should proceed first through the door. This also applies to getting into and out of the car or entering any narrow passageway.

  5. To initiate the hunt and dictate where to hunt

    If the dog is on a lead it becomes very difficult to initiate a hunt. However, should the dog be off lead and heading for the hills on the trail a rabbit, the situation becomes more tricky. Chasing the dog yelling "come!" will only confirm his hunch that its just fine to initiate a hunt. A piercing whistle (or what ever you can use to get his attention) followed by rapid movement in the opposite direction should be enough to make him realize his mistake, especially if points 1 to 4 have been carefully adhered to for some time.

  6. To make the 'kill' at the end of the hunt

    Ideally you should not let your dogs kill anything. If they are rabbit/cat/sheep killers/chasers then they should be kept out of the way of temptation until enough training has been given for you to be able to stop the dogs mid flight and recall them to you EVERY time. (no mean feat). However, there are times when dogs are specifically used for hunting small game, especially if you live on a farm and are over-run with rabbits or vermin. I have found the best way to maintain pack leadership in this circumstance is to call the dog to you (praising the recall, not the kill) remove the kill and carry it back to a safe place for disposal. (An incinerator preempts any attempt to steal it when your back is turned). This way you are still claiming the kill, it is your right to take it back to the den for 'consumption' later.

  7. To demand 'care-giving' behavior from subordinate pack members

    Infrequently and erratically call the dogs over when you want to give them affection. Make them respond - don't give in to a sleepy grunt by ignoring it.

  8. To ignore or actively discourage unwanted attention

    Totally ignore pawing, nudging, whining etc. If the behavior is really persistent you should resort to a piercing icy glare and a firm command "OFF!" to which can be added a firm shaking of the dog by the scruff on either side of the dogs head.

  9. To restrict the movements of lesser ranking dogs

    Using an exercise called the 'Long Down' you can effectively restrict the dog's movements for a period of time. Placing the dog on the floor or commanding it to "Down!" you maintain the position of the dog by constantly replacing it every time it gets up. Each dog's mother will have done this until the puppy submitted during its early development, and by following her example you are speaking to the dog in a language it definitely understands, and you are saying that YOU are the boss. This exercise necessitates endless patience on the part of the handler. I would suggest the initial period of time for the 'Long Down' exercise to be half an hour, with the handler sitting on the floor adjacent to, but not touching the dog.

  10. To win all tug of war games

    If you HAVE to play tug of war games with your dogs and are struggling for pack leadership yourself, make sure you win each and every game. If you can't, don't enter into them in the first place.


    A dog in a pack environment is much happier than a solitary dog. Each and every dog has a place within the pack. Ideally the Pack Leader should be a human.

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