Most experts agree that dogs descended from wolves.
We've all heard about wolf packs. Behavior of wolves in the wild is governed by their position in the pack (like the alpha). Those ideas seem to be generally accepted in the domesticated dog world as well, but exactly how similar they are is still widely debated.
Wild Wolf Packs
Wolf packs in the wild consist of a mated couple and their offspring from up to three prior years. As the wolves mature, they leave and form their own packs. Much of the study of wolf behavior, though, came as a result of watching captive wolves where multiple adults of the same age were housed together. Since this is a situation that would never arise in the wild, there's some question as to how valid this research truly is.
There's a school of thought that since dogs are descended from wolves, they also have a pack mentality. But that's not universally believed, either. And since the information we have on wolf pack behavior may be somewhat erroneous, can we apply any of those beliefs to dog behavior anyway?
A Human's Place in “The Pack”
Many people contend that dogs consider themselves and humans part of the same pack. But others contend dogs know full well their humans aren't other dogs. Humans don't look like dogs, they don't smell like dogs, they don't act like dogs, and they certainly don't communicate like dogs.
However, most agree there is definitely a social hierarchy among dogs. Whether this exists separately from a pack mentality, in addition to it, or is simply another name for the same thing, one thing is certain: you can use it to your advantage when living with your dog.
Dogs acknowledge a leader. In a one-dog family, the dog can (and should) recognize one of the humans as the leader. If the dog lives in a household with a mother, a father, and some children, the dog will often accept the parent that the children go to for guidance and permission as the leader.
In families with multiple dogs, there will be an alpha dog for dog dealings, although the alpha may vary from day to day, or based on the circumstances. But they should still acknowledge a human in the family as their leader.
Inducting A New Member to the Pack
When you bring a puppy home, you need to establish yourself as the leader. Set rules and expect him to abide by them. Puppies are taught that there are rules and that breaking rules have consequences by their dog mothers. You can build on that teaching by establishing and enforcing the rules. However, from humans, dogs respond better to positive reinforcement than negative, so try to praise and reward your puppy for his positive behavior more than you punish him for bad behavior.
You can show your dog you're the leader by feeding him on a schedule you set, not when your dog requests food (unless he's just reminding you that suppertime was at 7:00 and it's now 7:15). You tell your dog where to sleep and whether or not he can get on the furniture. If he's lying in the middle of the floor, nudge him out of the way or tell him to move instead of walking around him or stepping over him. Make it clear in a loving but consistent fashion that he will obey your rules.
Older children should be taught the rules the dog is to follow, so they also reinforce the rules when an adult is not around. Young children should not be left alone with a maturing dog until you are certain the dog understands that even this small human has a higher standing in the social hierarchy than the dog.
Dogs want to please their humans and love being part of a human family. They are social creatures and prefer being part of a group, which is why they are such loyal companions. By giving your dog boundaries, leadership, guidance, and love, both you and your dog will have the relationship you desire.
Pam Hair is a pet industry copywriter with Fuzzy Friends Writer, where she combines her three passions: a love of animals, a strong desire to help other people, and the joy of writing. She has been a pet parent over the years to dogs, cats, and a variety of rodents. Currently she and her husband share their home with two guinea pigs.