Do Pack Instincts Influence Dog Behavior?

May 26, 2014

By Linda Cole

Humans are a complex species; we have different views on issues, which at times can turn into heated arguments that divide us. We also have the ability to evaluate different situations to make our own choices. Dogs on the other hand, react to situations based on pack instincts that were hardwired into them eons ago during the domestication process. These innate pack instincts guide and influence the behavior of dogs in their everyday lives.

Instinct isn’t knowledge that needs to be learned. It’s an automatic intelligence present at birth in all living species. It’s what guides migrating birds and butterflies on marathon flights in the fall and spring, and it’s how squirrels and other animals know when it’s time to stockpile food for the winter. It’s the survival instinct that ensures continuation of the species.

The variety of jobs canines have been bred to do is based on their natural abilities and pack instincts. A sled dog team is able to function because they work together as a team. Each member knows his place in the group, and follows instructions from their human leader. One reason why our relationship with dogs has been so successful is because we share the importance of the family unit and the social bond that binds members together.

Because dogs are social animals, they put their trust in a competent leader. Every interaction we have with canines is based on their perception of how a pack should operate. The leader makes all of the decisions, provides fair discipline, makes and enforces rules and controls resources. The pack works together to give the family unit the best chance of survival. Collectively, they protect their home, care for the young and older members and provide each other with social fulfillment.

From a dog’s perspective, there must always be a leader and if he doesn’t see his human stepping up to lead, he will take the top spot to make sure his “pack” survives. However, most dogs are more comfortable following rather than leading. A canine without a leader is thrown out of balance. He’s confused, anxious and unsure about what’s expected of him, and will likely act out with bad behavior. Small dogs are at risk of developing small dog syndrome if they feel leaderless.

When we are the head of the pack, dogs expect us to control when they eat their CANIDAE food, when it’s time for a walk, affection, playtime or discipline. Inconsistency, lack of discipline and not being decisive goes against a dog’s pack instinct of balance and security.

Pack instincts are emotional as much as they are social. Loyalty is driven by pack instinct, and is much stronger in dogs than it is in humans. Once a dog has bonded with someone, his devotion to that person will not waver. If he loses his owner, it can take some time for him to transfer his loyalty to someone else. However, dogs are resilient and can adapt to a new person who takes the lead, is fair minded, understanding, empathetic and consistent. An emotional bond is built with trust and mutual respect.

Dogs use their voice to communicate how they feel. Each yip, growl, bark and howl has a meaning. A wolf howl can be heard over long distances and it’s how they stay in contact with each other to call everyone together, let other members know when food is found, or send a warning of danger. Each individual voice is recognized by the pack. Dogs may not understand what all of our words mean, but they can pick up on our tone and individual voice.

In a wolf pack, everything the leader does is for the safety, security and survival of the pack. We enter into that same social contract with dogs, and how they behave is a reflection of our leadership skills. Pack instincts are what guide dogs, and our job is to educate canines to live in our world by making sure they’re socialized and understand basic commands. The bond we develop gives them confidence and a feeling of belonging – a rightful place in the pack. To understand why canines do things that get them into trouble, it’s essential to understand the instincts that bind a pack together. Dogs want and need to be with their human pack, not left alone in the backyard.

Wolves are by nature wary of humans and put their trust in the pack. Without the family, their chances of survival are slim. Instincts inherited from the wolf influence dog behavior and their need to feel secure with a competent leader to look up to. Dogs don’t want us to cater to their wishes, they want us to lead and maintain the natural order of the pack.

Top photo by Eirik Newth
Middle photo by carterse
Bottom photo by thecoolspringpack

Read more articles by Linda Cole

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