"Unified Dog Theory 19: Alpha Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing?"

Are Wolf Packs a) Families, b) Dominance Hierarchies, or c) Other?

Originally published in slightly different form on June 13, 2011 at PsychologyToday.com.

Dominant Behaviors or Positive Reinforcements?

As we reach the inevitable end of this series, I’d like for us to think about two questions: how accurate and important is it to a) see dogs as dominant/submissive players in a pack hierarchy, and b) see dogs as being motivated primarily by positive reinforcements?

As for the first question, the last several articles in this series have covered this area in great detail. In a recent NPR interview, fellow PT blogger John Bradshaw very aptly sums up the current spin being put on pack formation: “The new picture of wolf society is that wolves live in family groups. They get along really well together, and they’re almost never aggressive. They have strong family ties.”

This idea of the wolf pack as an extended family has been cleverly co-opted by the positive training movement, who are now using the term pack “parent” as a replacement for pack leader, telling us that we need to be our dog’s “pack parent,” or take our dogs to puppy “parenting” classes.

But isn’t this just the alpha wolf in sheep’s clothing? Evolutionary biologist Raymond Coppinger, who’s studied wolves and village dogs in various locations around the world, tells us that “packing behavior has been very over-rated” and that it “seems to be a social construct depending on other variables, like prey size. So, in areas where prey might be garbage in the dump, you find wolves in very loose social arrangements. They have them, but they’re not a pack.” Coppinger notes that coyotes also form packs, but only when they need to hunt large prey. And, “When we enter into a social relationship with our dogs its because dogs can make social relationships, and a huge number of them.” [1]

If pack formation is based on prey size, this suggests that the pack is not a dominance hierarchy nor an extended family, but a hunting unit, designed solely for the purpose of hunting large prey, an enterprise which also requires an ability to form a large number of social ties.

Another Myth

This brings up another myth that’s surfaced in the last ten years or so, which is that dogs are more sensitive to human social cues (i.e., pointing at an object, or knowing when a human can or can’t see them), than wolves, suggesting that these aspects of the dog’s social intelligence are solely the result of domestication.

However, newer studies disprove this idea.

Researchers from Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest write, “Wolves socialized at a comparable level to dogs are able to use simple human-given cues spontaneously” when trained to do so. [2]

An even newer study, done this year at the University of Florida, shows not only that wolves can and will pay attention to human social cues at a level similar to dogs, but that shelter dogs are less likely to do so. [3]

This suggests that the domestication process is not a key factor in a dog’s ability to pay attention to human social cues. However, it doesn’t explain why dogs and wolves can follow human cues yet chimpanzees, who have much bigger brains, can’t be trained to do this at all. Nor does it explain why wolves might need to have these abilities but chimps wouldn’t.

Could it be because while we share 98% of our DNA with chimps, we share a unique bond with wolves: we’re both group predators who target animals that are larger and more dangerous than ourselves?

Anthropologist Pat Shipman thinks the first phase of domestication took place over 2½ million years ago, and was based on shared hunting patterns between humans and wolves.4 Again, this is probably because both species are social hunters who target animals that are larger and more dangerous than themselves. If Shipman’s timeline is right, then humans were co-hunters with canines long before we began thinking about domesticating dogs, let alone dominating them or being their pack parents.

Reading Changing Patterns in the Environment

One of the key cognitive elements necessary for a wolf to be a successful predator is the ability to read changing patterns in the prey’s movement, changing patterns in the terrain, and changing patterns in the positions of other pack members, relative to himself and to the prey. And all of this has to be done in real time, on the fly. And speaking of theories of mind, it has been hypothesized that during the hunt each member of the pack is able to feel what the rest of the pack is feeling. [5]

Border collies are often at the top of the IQ list when it comes to canine intelligence. Yet when we think about what it takes for these dogs do their jobs it’s primarily a mixture of the eye-stalk aspect of the wolf’s prey drive, and an amazing gift for paying attention to the changing patterns inherent to the flock’s movement across various types of terrain.

So the ability to pay close attention to changing patterns in the environment, and the ability to form a large number of social bonds are the real keys to canine intelligence.

This brings up one of the basic tenets of learning theory, which is that an animal’s responsiveness grows weaker with its ability to predict a pattern of reward, and that changing the pattern, through variable reinforcement ratios, etc., tends to increase response strength. This directly contradicts the idea that animals learn through positive reinforcement because if +R were the only, or even the primary mechanism at play, there would be no need to change the pattern of reinforcement.

Meanwhile, modern research has shown that dopamine—long thought to be part of the brain’s “reward system”—is not necessarily released when something good or pleasurable happens, but whenever there’s a salient change of pattern in an organism’s environment, positive or negative. Dopamine wants us to pay attention to and remember such changes. This is why neuroscientists are now starting to refer to dopaminergic pathways as the brain’s attentional system, rather than its “reward system.” [6, 7]

New research with school kids also suggests that the ability to pay attention to changing patterns may be related to improved intelligence and impulse control as well.

Learning to Think Better?

Jonah Lehrer, who studied neuroscience at Columbia and Oxford (as a Rhodes scholar), writes for the Wall Street Journal. In a recent article there he states: “Researchers at the University of Michigan found that it’s possible to boost a core feature of human intelligence through a simple mental training exercise. For the kids in the experiment, the cue was the precise location of a cartoon character. In the next round, the cue is altered—the cartoon character has moved to a new location. The job of the child is to press the space bar whenever the character returns to a spot where it has previously been, and to ignore the other irrelevant locations.”

According to Lehrer, “These kids weren’t learning facts they would soon forget. They were learning how to think better.” And the primary mechanism for improving the kids’ intelligence was through playing a game that involved paying attention to changing patterns on a video screen.8

Research from Angela Duckworth at the University of Pennsylvania suggests that there’s also a connection between the ability to control one’s attention and the ability to exert impulse-control, one of the key ingredients in training dogs for obedience.

Four Points

1) Dopamine rewards us when we pay attention to changing patterns. 2) For a wolf to be a successful group predator, he has to a) form strong social bonds with others, b) be able to pay close attention to changing patterns, and c) hypothetically feel what his packmates are feeling. 3) Dogs seem to have expanded on these abilities in how they form relationships with and pay attention to us. 4) Getting a dog to pay attention is a primary goal of obedience training.

The Unified Dog Theory series is about two things: 1) acknowledging the best aspects of all three training models (the pack leader model, behavioral science, and drive training) and 2) giving dog trainers and owners better, and more effective, training options.

Dogs need structure, and they need to feel rewarded for good behavior, and for their relationships with us. But if you want a smarter, more obedient dog, the first step isn’t to be the “pack leader” or a “pack parent.” It’s to become your dog’s hunting partner. And the best way to do that is to get down on your dog’s level and play with her.9, 10


“Life Is an Adventure—Where Will Your Dog Take You?” Join Me on Facebook! Follow Me on Twitter! Join the Rescue Dog Owners Support Group!


1) Washington Post, online discussion, February, 2004.

2) “Comprehension of human pointing gestures in young human-reared wolves (Canis lupus) and dogs (Canis familiaris),Animal Cognition, July, 2008),

3) “Can your dog read your mind? Understanding the causes of canine perspective taking,” Udell et al, Learning & Behavior, June 4, 2011.)

4) Current Anthropology, August, 2010.

5) Natural Dog Training, Kevin Behan. (William Morrow, 1992, pgs. 47-50)

6) “Unified Dog Theory 1: Understanding Pattern Recognition.”

7) “Unified Dog Theory 2: Pattern Recognition and Dog Training.”

8) “Boot Camp for Boosting IQ,” The Wall Street Journal, June 11, 2011.

9) Wolf parents don’t engage in formal obedience training with their offspring. They don’t hold classes in the park or at the local PetSmart. At most, a mother or father wolf may teach the youngsters how to hunt. But it’s not done through dominance nor through doling out positive reinforcements. It’s done by playing with the pups, down on their level, and by immersing the youngsters in the act of hunting itself.

Featured Posts
Posts are coming soon
Stay tuned...
Recent Posts