Lies About Wolf Behavior

Lies About Wolf Behavior

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Sam Basso
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Lately, I’ve been reading articles and hearing from behaviorists that say there is no such thing as dominance in the wolf pack, or saying there is no dominance in domestic dogs, or both. This is being promoted by animal rights activists, operant conditiioning/ clicker trainer advocates, veterinary organizations, and anti-Cesar Millan groups. There is a politically correct school of dog training out there now that advocates calming techniques and “purely positive”, meaning mostly treat (food) / toy training, and denigrating any kind of leadership or corrections at all in animal training. Now, the latest is to claim that there is no pack related dominance behaviors of any sort between members of a wolf pack. This stuff is hogwash.

Leadership in the home is going to revolve around (a.) creating a peck order in the home with the humans being the clear leaders; (b.) human directed activities; (c.) initiative by the humans in the home regarding how the home is to operate; (d.) privilege rules, coming out of the obedience training and manners enforced daily in the home; (e.) the way the humans walk, talk, use facial expressions, eye contact and other behaviors that communicate their “parental” status.

The current experts in wolf behavior agree that wolves kept in captivity form dominance hierarchies. A behavior can’t spontaneously happen unless that behavior is programmed into that animal. Dogs kept in homes, meaning in captivity, can sometimes form dominance hierarchies. Wolves in the wild, not compressed into a fixed space, and not stressed by drought, famine, or overpopulation, will behave like a benevolent family, and dominance behaviors will be less readily observable, if at all. Wolves that are stressed in the wild have been known to attack and kill rival packs or intruding lone wolves and even kill domestic dogs in their territory. Dogs that are cooped up in the home, with little stimulation, and with improper guidance from their human “parents”, can start to compete with one another, get irritated with one another, and fight with one another, and even defy or attack their human companions.

Dominance and aggression in the pack are directly linked to sexual breeding rights within the pack. This is one reason why male dogs are castrated, to help tone down fights in the home. It is not uncommon for a breeder to have to separate two intact male breeding dogs in their facility, to prevent one male from killing the other. Again, a behavioral pattern cannot express itself if it isn’t already programmed into the animal. The fullest expression of these drives is in the wild animal, meaning the wolf, which is why we see such a rigid peck order when wolves are in captivity. Through a clouded history of the domestic dog that we don’t understand, and later through selective breeding by humans, we have a domestic wolf called the dog. A wolf has all the essential elements needed to survive on its own in the wild without help from humans. Our dogs, on the other hand, can’t survive in the wild on their own. By domesticating dogs, we have made it possible for dogs to live together more harmoniously, and normally they don’t form rigid pack orders in our homes. We have created different breeds that have only “slices” of these wild behaviors. Retrievers hunt on command, chase after downed birds, and bring them back to their owners. The don’t eat the birds they capture. Wolves normally would not work with a human to hunt for birds in this way, though some people have trained wolves to act like hunting dogs. Wolves won’t playfully retrieve balls (a dummy, that represents live prey) like a Retriever, they will chase a moving bird, they would more likely kill it if it was still alive, and they would eat it than a Retriever. Border collies will herd sheep, assisted by the directions of a human handler, using stalking behaviors. But, they don’t hunt and kill sheep like a wolf would if put in the same situation. A police dog is typically a pretty dominant dog, they can be commanded to do a building search, and attack an intruder, biting and holding them. Police dogs are generally pretty dominant dogs, and you can see that in their aggression towards other male dogs, strangers that fight with them, and sometimes even with their handlers. They will assert social status with regards to a human. It takes a certain type of person to safely manage and lead a police dog without being hurt themselves, and it is not uncommon for a human female officer to have trouble managing an intact male police dog. A wolf could never do police work. They won’t do any of these protection tasks if it was a human they were confronting, but they will do it to a trespassing wolf that is not part of their pack.

Similarly, we have selectively bred for specific “slices” of dominance in our domestic dogs. Different breeds show pack behavior / dominance in certain situations but not in others. Flock guards, for example, are allowed to bond to their sheep herd, and then guard that herd from predators as if those sheep were subordinate pack members. But, these dogs are not designed to guard people, and are thus not suitable for guard dogs. We have selectively bred them to exercise dominance over herding animals, yet not selectively bred them to exercise dominance over humans.

It is no wonder that we find we have to correct certain types of bratty behaviors in our domestic canines, the dog, since they are dilute versions of this set of encoded behavioral directions designed to ensure the survival of the fittest in the wolf pack.

In the wolf pack there is a peck order, but it is subdued, which becomes more pronounced during breeding times and during times of stress, such as when food or territory is limited. Yet, almost always, behavioral control of the subordinate pack members is settled by the breeding pair if there is a conflict, the dominant (alpha) male or female, with some posturing and a snarl or snaps of the teeth, and sometimes by some outright punishment, just like we see it between the dogs in our own homes. Submissive wolves are also known to slink on by the dominant ones, and go into flight especially after such a confrontation. The most common outright display is of the dominant male or female on top of another wolf, with the one on the bottom submissively rolling over onto it’s back. When a male has taken on a new mate, he does a lot more assertive behaviors with the rest of the pack, as well as a lot more urine scent marking around his territory. The alpha female also regularly disciplines her pups. Not all females accept other females, nor males accepting other males… and some pack members are driven away by aggression within the pack.

How is all this explained away by these folks? A lot of this new “breed” of dog trainer / behaviorist is sold on not using leadership or corrections in their dog training. Fine. That is their choice. Yet, because of this, and because there is money involved if they are wrong or right, they must then denigrate those who don’t agree with them. Their latest target is Cesar Milan.

I, too, have my problems with Cesar Milan. I assert he is no more balanced in his approach than this other crop of dog behaviorists / trainers. I think he makes up a lot of his own terminology. I don’t think he is very well read regarding animal behavior and is missing huge chunks of knowledge. I think he blames most behavioral problems on dominance issues, when most other trainers I know can see that isn’t always the answer. I think he makes a huge mistake by not training dogs, and only dealing with things from a pack oriented perspective. Yet, I do think that some of what he says and does is valid, and that many of his critics have agendas and are jealous of his success.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, we see various degrees of dominance and submission in our dogs, and it is our job to manage those behaviors.

We are living in crazy times these days, where up is down, and wrong is called right.

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