Why dogs are not domesticated wolves

Supporters of the Dominance/alpha theory in dogs argue that

  • Wolves form and live in packs where there is a structured hierarchy with an alpha and subordinates, the alpha responsible for the survival of “his/her” pack and enforcing his position through violence, rules and a pecking order.
  • As Dogs are tame, domesticated wolves, they are also “pack” animals who cannot survive without a pack. They therefore form packs not only with other dogs but also with their owner and try to apply their natural instinct to domineer and become an alpha by raising their status over everyone, including the owner.
  • Dog training systems have to ensure the alpha position of the human within this pack (either through punishment or Rank Reducing programmes).

Whilst I am obviously extremely concerned about the use of punishment in any form – the removal of many expected rewards as is done in a ‘rank reduction programme’ must feel incredibly punishing for the dog. A dog that expects a reward will work harder to get it. When removed he or she will feel extremely frustrated, and consequently will defend it if necessary. Et voila – the supporter’s theory has been proven! But does this form a healthy relationship with your companion dog?

It has been well reported that this ‘dominance theory’ is based on observations of wolves in captivity, where wolves from different families have been “thrown” together and consequently will influence their natural behaviour and sociability.

Research proves that a wolf pack in freedom consists of a breeding pair and their offspring and would be formed to increase the chance of survival and spreading their genes. Barry Eaton states Mech (1999) “The typical wolf pack should be viewed as a family with the adult parents guiding the activities of the group and sharing group leadership in a division of labour… If the kill were small, the breeders would eat first, but if food were scarce, the pups would be fed first. If the kill were big enough, all pack members, regardless of rank, feed together.” This indicates that there is no such pecking order in wild wolf packs, as this also could inhibit the survival of their offspring and therefore their genes.

The domestication of our companion dogs: this evolutionary process began around 14000 years ago, when humans started building villages. Wolves, attracted by the garbage dumps, started scavenging from there dumps. The dumps provided enough energy, so that the animals didn’t have to hunt anymore. Humans on the other side saw the advantage of these animals as guardians against predators. This suggests that this was the starting point of a dependency between man and these new emerging species. Next to the evolutionary process, humans have since then developed dogs in all different shapes and sizes. The wolf on the other hand has remained the same body shape and size. For example, compared to those of the wolf, dog’s teeth are smaller even though they have the same number of teeth, and the dogs scull and brain is smaller. Another example is the predatory motor pattern of the wolf, which has never changed (Orient/eye/stalk/chase/grab-bite/kill-bite/dissect/eat); he needs this in order to survive. Barry Eaton states about dogs “…, we have domestic dogs of different breeds or breed types with dormant or hypertrophied motor patterns that have been influenced by breeders whether of pet/companion dogs or working dogs”.

What do I conclude? Each dog has his or her own traits and needs and different learning abilities. Their behaviour will be influenced by genes – which you hopefully have researched before you bought your companion (e.g. Labrador vs Border Collie vs Bichon) -, their emotional systems, their learning history, their daily routine, and potentially medical conditions.

Tip: If your dog is growling at you, seek immediate advice from a vet or a professional who has studied behaviour in depth! Please feel free to contact me or your vet for a referral to help you and your lovely companion. Good luck!

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