Humans long ago labeled dogs as man’s best friend. After all, you wouldn’t find many wolves and humans interacting socially. When dog domestication began, pack hierarchy did not cease to exist, but do dogs think we are part of their pack?
Yes, dogs think of humans as part of their pack and treat them as such. Some vets argue that dogs only recognize other dogs as part of the actual pack, while Caesar Milan holds to a two-pack theory with humans recognized as the dominant pack. Either way, pack hierarchy is significant, and you want to make sure you’re the alpha.
This article will discuss pack mentality, hierarchy, where dogs place their human members, and the best way to achieve alpha status.
What Is a Pack?
In the world of canines, nothing is more important than their pack. Dictionaries, such as the Oxford online dictionary Lexico, define a pack as a group of wild animals, especially wolves, living and hunting together (source).
A pack is a working family group with a hierarchy in which every member knows their social status. The pack functions together based on social structure. Wild dogs and wolves form packs to protect their territory, care for and protect the young, and to hunt large prey (source).
Dogs were once kin to wolves, specifically, the grey wolf. Although they took the domestication path alongside humans, they have never lost the need for the comfort a pack provides. A pack is vital to its members’ survival, whether wolf, wild dog, or domestic dog.
Social Order of Dog Packs
As mentioned above, a wolf pack consists of one or two alphas, often a male and female, who mate and give direction to the rest of the pack.
The alpha is the strongest and is not submissive. The alpha is the one all the other dogs go to for direction. It is their job to protect and direct.
The beta is the middle dog, second only to the alpha. The beta has a unique sense of hierarchy, displaying assertive and submissive traits. Their job is mediation and, no matter what role they need to fill, they maintain their rank.
The omega dog is at the bottom, and the omega dog will always display submissive behavior. Their job is to warn the pack of danger. In the dog pack, they’ll be the ones with their belly up and their backs on the ground.
Feral Dogs and Social Order
Dogs broke away from the grey wolf millions of years ago. While studying the hierarchy in a wolf pack is helpful, it is not the best model to base where humans fit in the domestic dog’s pack.
Feral dogs are domesticated dogs that have returned to a more wild existence. In a feral dog pack, rules are made and enforced by consensus with variable leadership.
In a study conducted by Simona Cafazzo and published in Animal Behavior in 2010, she observed, especially in larger groups, decisions were made by consensus. In larger groups, there were at least three dogs.
She reported that the dogs who attained leadership positions did so through formal dominance and not agonistic dominance. Formal dominance occurs when a dog takes over and maintains control with calm-assertive energy. Agonistic dominance achieves control through aggression.
Therefore, she concluded that dominance did not depend solely on rank but, rather, on affiliation. Basically, if you’re the leader, the thinking is, “What can you do for me?” (source).
Social Order of the Dog/Human Pack
As humans, we automatically think of ourselves as the leader of the pack. It is never good to assume anything.
Can Humans Be Members of the Pack?
For many years, trainers have insisted on establishing clear dominance, often through aggression and intimidation. Dogs must never be allowed the position of alpha.
While you want to be your dog’s leader, there are ways to establish yourself as the alpha and have a loving relationship based on your dog’s mutual respect.
As stated in the above research study, the alpha is respected, not merely feared. If you’re the person that yells forcefully to establish being in charge, you’ll never gain the alpha position, and your children won’t listen to you either.
Just about anyone who has ever had the honor of owning a dog knows, without a doubt, they are members of the dog’s pack, usually as alpha.
Unfortunately, this is hard to prove scientifically as there is little available research on the subject. Interspecies packs do not exist or, at the very least, have never been observed in the wild (source).
Some animal behaviorists firmly believe dogs don’t include humans in their pack, even in one-dog households, and that dogs know humans are a different species. They say that humans can’t be part of a dog pack because humans can’t effectively communicate with dogs.
In the case of multi-dog households, dogs establish social order and choose an alpha through effective communication with one another. Since you don’t speak dog, you’ll have to find other ways to become the pack leader, like controlling resources.
A Different Approach
Caesar Milan, a well-respected trainer, has an interesting approach to this controversy. In a home with one dog, every human right down to the baby is a pack leader, and the dog is submissive to them. If not, it’s time to do some training.
However, multi-dog homes have two packs. One is humans and dogs, where humans are the alpha. The second is dogs only. They establish a hierarchy without human interference (source).
Always honor pack positions if you have more than one dog. The alpha always goes first — first for walks, treats, etc. — to maintain harmony. As human alpha, it is your job to maintain balance.
Establishing Human Alpha Status
To establish yourself in the role of alpha, establish clear rules, boundaries, and limitations. Never use aggression or display nervous energy. Be calm, quiet, and display assertive energy. You’re showing your dog why it benefits them to follow you.
Dogs don’t take well to aggression, where they only listen because they fear the consequences. Over time, you run the risk of your dog running off, or worse, becoming aggressive toward you.
The alpha also expects those under them to earn what they get. An image of a dog leaving every morning with a little briefcase comes to mind and, while this is not realistic, they have a need to earn their place.
In the wild, they have to hunt for their food and eat according to the social order. Therefore, by giving them a task, such as sit and wait or shake hands/paws, you satisfy a primal need. It doesn’t matter if it is psychological rather than physical.
Your goal is to achieve balance within the pack, whatever that means for your household.
Researchers say dogs know humans are a different species and, unless we can communicate effectively, will never think humans are part of their pack. Most dog owners would say that’s a bunch of malarkey — they are indeed included in their dog’s pack.
Caesar Milan’s theory of pack mentality ascribes to there being two packs. One for dogs only and one allowing humans. His theory gives credence to skeptics and believers.
There is one truth that cannot be argued, though, and that is the relationship between dogs and humans is unparalleled to any in nature.