That stupid Pack Leader myth

Who's the boss?
Who’s the boss?

The dog world is having the hardest time freeing itself from the pervasive myth of Dominance Theory. Not even positive trainers get it right all the time. The first reward-based training class I took began like this:

The trainer explained that all our dogs’ problems began at home. “Does this sound familiar to anyone? Your dog free-feeds, meaning he eats whenever he wants. The bowl is always full.”


“He can go outside whenever he wants, through a doggie door…”

Not at our house.

“There are toys all over the place. He decides when to play, with what, and gets your attention with a nudge or a bark or a whine.”


“Maybe your dog nudges you with his nose. ‘Hey, I’m here. Look how cute I am.’ And you play with him.”


This was a problem, according to that trainer, because our dog thought she was the boss of us. The trainer went on to forbid us to allow our dogs on the furniture, a mandate Rob and I couldn’t stick to for 24 hours.

To my great disappointment, I recently read a similar scene in a book called Fetching by Kiera Stewart:

Corny is asking him questions. “What kind of rules do you have for her?”

“Rules?” Mr. Dewey looks confused. “Well, I’d prefer of course, that she’d go outside to relieve herself.”

I know Corny doesn’t like that answer.

“And is she allowed to jump on the furniture?”

He laughs. “Allowed? Well, I don’t allow it really, but she has her own mind about that. But then she’s not a shedder, so it’s not too big of a problem.”

Mr. Dewey doesn’t know it, but he’s failing this interview. Miserably.

“How much exercise is she getting?”

He looks down again. “Well, I used to take her on walks, but now she’s gotten a lot more difficult to manage.”

F, Mr. Dewey. F. You have officially earned an F on this interview. Even I can see that.

“Mealtimes? When are they?”

“Well, I just feed her when she’s hungry. She gets a little antsy if she has to wait.” He chuckles a little, but I notice his fingers go up to his lip scar.

I sort of wish I could stop him from talking now. It’s like watching a train wreck happen. Thankfully, Corny stops questioning him. “The problem,” she says, “is that Kisses thinks she’s in charge.

“… Look, I know you love your dog. But right now Kisses is in charge, and as bossy as she may get sometimes, she doesn’t really want all that responsibility. Someone’s got to be a pack leader – and if you won’t take over that role, Kisses will, whether she wants to or not. It’s instinct.”

No! It’s not instinct! Dogs do not think they are the bosses of us!

Let me interject that I’ve quit more books than I’ve finished lately. Notably, The Dog Master, which I was really looking forward to, because it was written by the author of A Dog’s Purpose and is about the domestication of the first dog, something I requested someone write a book about. I just didn’t buy the relationship between man and dog in the early pages and gave up on it.

Once it became clear that Fetching, a young adult book published by Disney, was using Cesar Millan as its reference text, you’d think I’d quit this one too, wouldn’t you?

Not yet. I’m still intrigued by the synopsis: Olivia has just about had it with the popular kids at school… If only Olivia’s classmates were more like the adorable dogs she helps her grandmother train—poorly behaved, but improvable. Wait…what if her tormentors’ behavior actually could be modified using the same type of training that works on dogs?

Olivia and her friends start innocuously enough by changing their body language to “train” their classmates, and I’m pretty sure the book won’t endorse using shock collars on people.

What’s frustrating though, is that no matter how positive the rest of the training methods are, readers are going to walk away thinking dogs need their people to be Pack Leaders.

I again quote from Victoria Stilwell’s book, Train Your Dog Positively:

The irony is that to believe dogs see us as their pack leaders actually requires that we first anthropomorphize dogs by assuming they share our human concern regarding rank and what others think of us.

… the entire concept that we must assert our claim to the throne of pack leader before our dogs is based on a mirage. For the sake of argument, though, let’s say that dogs are completely motivated by a burning desire to become pack leader over their human counterparts. At some point in this theoretical exercise we must necessarily decide to disregard the simple truth – that dogs are well aware that we are not, in fact, dogs.

… It is time, therefore, to finally retire the term pack leader – especially when it refers to humans interacting with dogs. Domestic dogs don’t live in true packs, and even if they did, we, as a different species, wouldn’t be a part of them.

Positive TrainingThis post is part of the Positive Pet Training blog hop, hosted by Cascadian Nomads, Rubicon Days & Tenacious Little Terrier.

This month’s theme is National Train Your Dog Month. To learn more about my journey to understanding Positive Training, read my book Bark and Lunge, winner of three national book awards.

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Published by Kari Neumeyer

Writer, editor, dog mom, ovarian cancer survivor

10 thoughts on “That stupid Pack Leader myth

  1. I’m pretty sure my dogs don’t think they’re the boss of me. Because if they did, I’d never be allowed leave the house. Rather than looking disappointed, they would bar my exit!

  2. Yes, yes–totally. I quit watching or reading anything anything by Cesar Millan because he always stressed the pack leader mentality and I just don’t buy it. I think a lot of training mistakes are because people are trying to dominate dogs, instead of understanding their instincts and normal behavior traits. I also think that a lot of what people refer to as training mistakes are simply the result of dogs not being exercised or stimulated enough. Dogs need to walk, and run. They need enough stimuli to ward off boredom. It’s kind of shocking how many people have dogs and yet don’t walk them daily. And then they wonder why their dogs misbehave and it’s like: hello, what do you expect?

  3. I guess we would “fail” on the basis of nudging being allowed. Teddy nudges me all the time as a way of communicating with me and I’m totally ok with that! Interesting post, Kari! Thanks for sharing it!

  4. Wait. What? My dogs don’t think I am a dog?!?


    What is needed in the dog training world is a replacement for this ridiculous and completely dis-proven pack leader theory. To me and a few awesome positive reinforcement training instructors I have had, it is that dogs consider humans teammates. When humans treat dogs as teammates, instead of as subordinates, amazing things happen for the team from jaw dropping canine musical freestyle routines to fun walks around the neighborhood (as pictured above.)

    Thanks for joining the hop and Happy New Year!

  5. Oh, boy. I would probably quit reading–is she going to stare at her classmates and lean into their space and take their sandwiches? I don’t think I could stand to read the awkward that would ensue!

    It really frustrates me that reward based trainers do this stuff too. Besides, if cuddling my dog on the bed when she requests some love is wrong, I just don’t think being right is worth it.

    1. I read til the end. While most of the dog scenes rang false, the middle school angst was dead on. And there was one great scene where the main character correctly assesses that a dog owner triggered a reaction to a bicycle by being anxious herself.

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