What is a Pack?
“Pack” refers to a family group of wolves, consisting of a male and female and their offspring of various ages. Only the original parents reproduce and the older pups, not yet ready to leave and find mates of their own, help raise their new siblings. That’s all there is to it. Wolves don’t fight to lead the pack; the dad and mom lead the family. Listen to what Dr. David Mech has to say about the topic. And dogs are not wolves.
Dogs are Not Pack Animals, but They May Do Things in Groups
Think of when you’ve seen stray dogs. Unfortunately, here in the Houston, Texas area, there are plenty of opportunities. You’ll see one dog, or perhaps two. If you see three or more dogs together, seemingly engaged in somewhat coordinated activity, it’s most likely two or three males following a female in heat. In their aroused state, the males may engage in fights over access to the female, but as you may know, several males may get the chance to mate with her over the period during which she’s receptive, and the result is a litter of puppies with a whole group of different fathers. This behavior is certainly not pack behavior. It’s just some male dogs, all attracted to a resource that is extremely valuable to them. The female is attracted to them, too, but every dog in this scenario is most likely intent on his or her own benefit, not benefit for a group of any kind.
Another time you may see dogs behaving as a group is when a small furry animal runs, one dog begins chasing, and other nearby dogs join in. Arousal, a form of stress, plays a role in this type of activity. Imagine a child excited about a party with balloons, running around to chase and grab them. Once this behavior begins, what happens to the other children at the party? They join in, and all the kids begin to increase their level of frantic, impulsive, out of control behavior. Read more here.
This is similar to what happens when a rabbit makes the poor decision to come into a back yard containing two or three large dogs. The dogs all individually respond to the fun, fast-moving prey by running after it – a natural thing for dogs to do. This may not turn out well for the rabbit, who is doing everything it can to survive the consequences of the choice it just made. Nonetheless, the dogs are not behaving as a pack, coordinating their hunting behavior to secure a meal for the family. This is an individual activity that a group of dogs are all participating in.
Dogs Don’t Live in Packs Like Wolves Do
There are not packs of stray dogs on the streets, anywhere people have studied feral dog populations. The dogs may hang out alone or they may have a companion or two, but those companions are more like buddies to hang out with for a while than the family members that make up a pack of wolves (Donaldson, 2009).
That said, there are isolated situations in which feral dogs do form temporary packs. Feral dogs are defined as domestic dogs that have lived away from humans and with other feral dogs for enough generations to allow them to change anatomically, physiologically, and behaviorally (Beaver, 2009). The groups are short-lived, no more than a couple of weeks at most, and they are formed in cases where the feral dogs need to hunt in order to survive.
Stray dogs, defined as unowned but not yet feral dogs, appear to be even more flexible in their social arrangements, drifting into and out of groups easily.
Free-ranging dogs, those that are technically owned but don’t stay home, may remind you of a group of free-ranging adolescent humans: a bit cocky, kind of “looking for trouble,” easily aroused, not really a pack but all ready to respond to the same stimulus when it occurs. This can be dangerous if the stimulus is an unaware human, small dog, or elderly cat.
What Does This Mean for You and Your Dogs?
So many people refer to their dogs as “their pack.” As a trainer who is called in to deal with behavior problems, I often see the detrimental outcomes of that way of thinking. Believing that your dogs are a “pack” can lead to allowing your dogs to set up their own social structures that you may not end up liking. Remember dogs’ social structures are transient; they hang out with a doggy companion for a while, and then they don’t. They may even decide they don’t like another dog; though this may also be transient, bad experiences for both dogs may occur during this time so that it will be very hard for the two dogs to learn to be in close proximity again later. This is simply because of the ways dogs (and other organisms) learn. Remember that they are learning all the time from the associations they make between stimuli (like other dogs) and their emotions (having fun or feeling threatened) and from the consequences of their behavior (sniffing that dog caused him to bite me!)
Behaviorally, Dogs are Dogs
Think about those dogs living on the street: they make daily choices about which dogs to hang out with and which ones they want to “go away”. If they don’t like another dog, they’re not likely to consider that they should “drive him away politely, because someone else may care about him.” That’s just not how dogs behave. They want the dog out of their personal space, they learn what makes that happen, they do it regularly, and they get better and better at doing it. Whatever your dog is doing often, he’s getting better at.
This is where the humans come in. You’re the one with the power to set up the environment so that your dogs are performing behaviors and handling situations in ways that you approve of. You’re the one who brought multiple dogs into your home; the dogs didn’t really get a choice, most likely; so it’s your job to make sure everyone has everything they need to thrive. Multiple dogs in a home can certainly work – but success requires your input. It deserves repeating: whatever a dog is doing often, he’s getting better at – “good behaviors” or “bad behaviors.”
Every One of Your Dogs Needs YOU
Your dogs are not a pack. They are a group of individuals, each of whom needs time with you. It’s likely that time with you looks different for each dog, based on the things they like to do as well as your goals for them. This may not be what you see from guidelines you find online.
You’ll find plenty of pictures of people walking while holding a handful of leashes while dogs lead the way. I have two biases about this: First, it’s not safe, unless every step of the walk goes completely perfectly. If something untoward happens, the human doesn’t have much control over the situation unless the dogs are trained to stop, stand still, and check in with you when needed. Second, don’t dogs deserve some time alone with their mom or dad? How else will you get to know each of your dog’s likes and dislikes or the cute or funny responses he or she offers? How will your dog get to know you and how to depend on you to provide safety and companionship for him or her? How will you catch the early signs of a fear your dog is developing and be able to help him change his response? When your dog is always in a group, these individual details can be masked as the dog uses the other dogs as a crutch for support or a curtain to hide behind. When a dog is alone, both desirable and dangerous behaviors can show themselves more clearly.
Adopt Dogs One at a Time
For all these reasons, it is best to get one dog at a time, acclimate and adjust to your new family member and allow him or her to do the same, then consider getting another dog. Whether you get your dog from a breeder, shelter, or rescue group, the people who place the dog with you should understand the benefits of giving every dog the opportunity to become the best dog he or she can be; that means giving the dog and her new owner time together to start creating their future. Any breeder who encourages you to get 2 puppies instead of one is not on your side, nor the dogs’ side. Ditto for shelters and rescue groups.
Dogs are Dogs and We Love Them for That!
Dogs naturally have a greater affinity for dogs than for people. After all, they were born of a dog and raised in a litter of dogs, in some cases before they ever met a human. More about litters here.
They are dogs, and they will always “get” dogs to a greater extent than they “get” humans unless the humans follow protocols to build dogs’ ability to make good associations with humans and experience good consequences as a result of their behaviors toward humans. This is training, and it’s required for individual dogs to live in a human household, no matter how many dogs you have. Otherwise, you end up with dogs who are more strongly attached to dogs than to you. Note that some people acquire a new dog hoping that dog will “train” their current dog, who has developed some behaviors they don’t like. After reading all this, I hope you understand why that is not a logical decision. Dogs are not very good dog trainers, and you can never be sure what their goals are. Don’t leave training up to the dogs.
Why are “Doggy” Dogs a Problem?
Unless you are running a household that is meant for you to simply watch the animals do what they do and not really participate, you probably chose to have dogs so that you can have relationships with them. Having individual relationships with each of your dogs, with the relationships between the dogs being second to those, is the most fulfilling way to live with dogs.
It’s great for your dogs to play together! When done well, dog-to-dog play provides mental stimulation and benefits the dogs’ social skills. It can be beneficial for you, too, as you learn about how they operate and enjoy seeing them have fun. But when they “live to play with dogs” at the expense of having any relationship with you, it’s not as much fun. It also creates situations in which you have little control. You need good ways to control your dogs; you need to be able to stop play when needed, to get them where you need them to be, and to aid them in having a good experience instead of a bad one. Remember, they’re learning all the time and they don’t seem to care about any fallout along the way; dogs don’t seem to consider tomorrow or next year.
Why do Dogs Need Great Relationships with Humans?
Dogs need, at a minimum, to go to the vet at some point in their lives, to be groomed either by you or someone else, and probably to ride in a car to do one or both of those things. You or someone else must be able to handle your dogs in order to help in an emergency situation and dogs need to learn how to cooperate with handling before those skills are needed. Dogs can get injured or ill and may need medications or bandage changes at home. There are emergencies in which you need to step in and help your dogs get out of a situation. Suppose a fight is brewing between your dog and another. Separating the dogs requires them to be OK with being touched and handled to minimize redirected attacks on you. What if something happens to your dog while you’re out for a walk? You need to be able to get a thorn out of his paw or check his body for injuries if he is distressed. As with everything you see on The Mannerly Dog’s blog, you need to practice the skills you and your dog may need, way ahead of the time you need them.
Relationship-Building Starts Now
Building that relationship between yourself and each of your dogs should begin the moment you meet your new dog, even before you’ve decided to bring him home. If you don’t end up adopting him and someone else does, how did meeting you affect his future? What did he learn when he was with you for that short time? It will stay with him.
Relationships Require Care and Maintenance
The more dogs you have, the more time it will take to develop these relationships with each dog. During the periods when you’re not spending time with a dog, he or she will be bolstering that already-strong relationship between dog and dog. So you end up with more work to do. Yes, you’re competing in a way – and the dog-to-dog relationship starts out on top, so you’re always catching up. The good news is that it’s likely that one reason you got a dog was your dream of spending time with him! Being efficient in how you use your time with each dog is helpful, and The Mannerly Dog can help with that.
Build Your Relationship, Then Get Another Dog and Do It Again!
One dog at a time, build the foundation skills you need for yourself and your dog, and then add another dog – that’s the best way to ensure you don’t have overwhelming pressures on your time and energy. Puppies, especially, require oodles of time and energy as they really have EVERYTHING to learn! You have to provide socialization, which is an inaccurate word used to describe the essential process of really positive exposures to everything in the world, before a puppy reaches 4 months of age. You have serious potty training to do, plus you have to constantly corral puppies to help them manage their appetites for chewing furniture and rugs while you teach them self-control. Trying to do all this with 2 puppies at the same time will, at a minimum, leave some gaps in their skill sets; and it may just eat your lunch!
Getting 2 rescue dogs at one time presents a similar challenge. You will be trying to get to know them and their needs while they are taking comfort in each other over you, creating more problems for you to solve. Once you have incorporated one dog into your life, then look into getting another if you want to. Use proper introduction procedures to ensure that both dogs’ needs are met and that they feel secure and comfortable with their new reality, put the work in up front, and reap the benefits of a peaceful, harmonious household later.
Read More About Group Arousal
There are certainly situations we can set up, both for children and dogs, in which they can “run crazy” a little, express themselves, and have fun; however, it is essential that they know how to calm themselves fairly quickly or else these activities are detrimental. They learn to behave impulsively and reactively, learning to have fun while maintaining a sense of self-control and the ability to think about what’s going on around them. It’s so important not to put anyone, human or non-human, into a situation they don’t yet have the skills to navigate successfully.
More About Litters
Dogs were domesticated by humans to live with humans, and they have some innate capabilities to do so. Good breeders only breed adult dogs who are social and pleasant to be around, as the start of creating puppies with temperaments conducive to great relationships with humans. Good breeders begin socializing puppies to humans just after they are born, and also to different kinds of touch, surfaces, sounds, and smells – even to the point of beginning house training while the puppies are in their litter. The puppies get a head start on connecting with humans in all these ways. The puppy you bring home may not have had all this great introduction to life with humans. The domestication piece is still there, but the puppy’s connection with dogs is already much greater than his connection with humans, making your job just a little more difficult.
Beaver, B. V. (2009). Canine Behavior (Second Edition), pp. 133-192. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-1-4160-5419-1.00004-3 See this website for a portion of the chapter: https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/immunology-and-microbiology/feral-dog
Donaldson, J. (2009). Are Dogs Pack Animals? https://www.academyfordogtrainers.com/blog/are-dogs-pack-animals/