Are Dogs Pack Animals? Challenging a Popular Myth

dogs running in a pack

Dogs are naturally pack animals. Dogs are descendants of wolves who are part of packs to ensure safety, comfort, and protection. A pack of animals, like wolves, live together for survival. When you bring a dog home, they view you as part of their pack. 

But we would like to challenge that thought process. Although wolves are pack animals, have dogs lost their “pack” mentality over the years?

The idea that dogs have a “pack animal mentality” can cause a series of problems when trying to train them. 

Part of the confusion around dogs in a “pack” centers around the term “pack animal” itself. A pack animal can mean different things to different people. 

For many, pack animals are animals that will blindly follow their leader. The emotional connections that dogs form with other beings are unquestionable. 

Dogs bond with humans and each other strongly, to the point where they can even develop behavioral disorders such as separation anxiety if they miss their friends. But this does not mean they are “in a pack”. 

Alpha Dogs and Humans

The concept of dogs being members of a “pack” has subsequently led to the idea that their owners need to fill the “alpha” role within said pack. 

While the concept of being your dog’s alpha may come from a good place, it is very misguided. Trying to be the “alpha” over your dog can confuse and upset your pooch, who does not know what relationship you are trying to create. 

The basis of relationships in the dog world is centered on short-term, often changing associations between dogs. This is very different from the lifelong membership that wolves have within their packs. 

The confusion about dogs being pack animals stems from looking at the behavior of wild wolves and trying to force an analogy into how domesticated dogs live. The two lifestyles are entirely incompatible, so any conclusion about both wolves and dogs must be taken with a grain of salt.

Differences Between Wolves and Dogs

Wolves and dogs may have the same ancestor, but that does not mean they are the same animal. 

Differences in the environment, lifestyle, and bonding clearly differentiate the two species. To say that dogs are pack animals because wolves are pack animals would be like saying that household parakeets have the same needs as wild eagles. It simply does not work.

Territory

The first difference between wolves and dogs is where they live. Wolves live out in the wild, often in areas such as national parks. 

In their territories, wolves roam around, following prey and choosing what wolves to interact with. 

On the other hand, dogs often have a big yard to run around and play in, but this is not even close to the territory that wolves live in. 

Dogs are also forced to form relationships with creatures they see every day, while wolves can choose who to interact with. This creates a divide in behavior between dogs and wolves. 

Dogs Don’t Hunt

Another key difference between wolves (who live in packs) and dogs (who do not) is their feeding habits. 

Wolves live in packs so that they can hunt down their prey in a large, coordinated group. They work together on a sizable scale to bring down animals that are often larger than them. 

Compare this to the life of a dog. Dogs do not hunt, they scavenge. They do not coordinate with a large group of other dogs to chase and kill what they want to eat, they just go looking around for something tasty and have learned to check their bowls first. 

There are some breeds that are bred for hunting. Still, they do not take down prey except in exceedingly rare cases. 

Instead, our hunting buddies will “point” and retrieve the bodies of animals that their owners have killed. 

External Threats

Pack animals, such as wolves, have become pack animals because it was necessary for their survival. 

A pack can work together to fight off larger threats. Wolves know that if something threatens one of them today, it may attack another wolf tomorrow. 

To stop this from happening, the pack defends each member, and the might of the wolves together is enough to fight off threats that could kill a wolf on its own. 

Dogs do not face the same threats that wolves do. They do not have to worry about predators and do not band together with other dogs and humans to form groups to defend themselves.

In most cases, dogs fight alone, and their defense of their owner comes from realizing that they are entirely dependent on their humans for food, shelter, and water. 

Family Matters

Wolves in a pack also prove their differences from dogs through their family dynamics. Wolves give birth to wolves, which are then part of the pack. 

Humans do not give birth to dogs, we adopt them from breeders or shelters. When wolves mature, they leave their family and often start their own packs. Fortunately, our dogs do not leave us once they mature. Instead, they stay with us for life when. 

Their sexual habits also set them apart. The father and mother wolf will mate, but they will instinctually not breed with other family members to keep their genetic diversity. 

On the other hand, dogs will mate with any dog in heat unless it has been fixed. This brings to light a significant difference between the social habits of dogs and the social habits of wolves.

Playtime Specifics

Wolves play within their packs. They do not like to play alone, with humans, or with toys. 

Wolf packs have their own playtime rules that do not include many of the things that we provide for our dogs to play with. 

Your dog probably loves playing with you, though this is a behavior that wild wolves will not exhibit. 

The colorful, bouncy toys that you give your dog for enrichment and playtime do not hold the same appeal for wolves. 

Even when playing with others of the same species, dogs prefer to play in pairs, whereas wolves in a pack will play with the whole pack. 

Dogs Are Not Pack Animals

The psychological and behavioral differences between dogs and actual pack animals such as wolves discredit any claim that they are the same. 

Dogs and wolves are born into and live in entirely different environments. As a result, their social lives are dramatically different. 

While many television personalities and dog trainers may claim that dogs are pack animals, we have no evidence to support that claim. 

To treat dogs as pack animals is to ignore their basic needs. Your dog is a loving and social creature that depends on you to fulfill its needs. It’s not a member of a broader pack that hunts and fights for survival on a regular basis. 

Behavior problems can always be corrected, but approaching them from a “pack animal” mentality will not solve the root of the issue. In fact, treating your dog as a pack animal when you are trying to discipline it can make the behavior worse. 

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