The dog is a pack animal this means that dogs are hardwired to live within a group. Therefore for the dog to develop a balanced temperament they need to feel part of your pack.
It is then logical that if we can understand how the pack system works then we have an insight into the working of the dogs mind.
The Pack Mentality -
Like in many families, the Leader will determine the general behaviour of the pack. If the Leader is erratic and wild then the rest of the pack will follow suit. Dogs have a pack mentality and are susceptible to strong leaders they are also very social animals and if domestic dogs wander, they may join up with other dogs and ‘pack’. Then one of the dogs takes charge and asserts his influence upon the others in the group. Even the most normally placid family pet can join a pack and start chasing and killing sheep.
The Pack Leader -
When observations are made of wolf packs in the wild or in feral dog groups there is generally a Leader. In our human world our Leaders are generally male however K9 Packs are equal opportunity employers and so it is common to see either male or females take on the leadership roles.
Back in the 1970’s animal behaviourist liked to refer to the Pack Leader as the “Alpha” however this term can falsely imply that a dog is ‘dominant’. Both of these words are so open to incorrect interpretation and generally these terms are seen in a negative light. Instead I prefer to think of the Leader as being the dog who takes on the lead role of ‘decision maker’ for the pack.
Dogs within the pack will display varied degrees of these skills and these are the dogs that can develop great self-confidence. Dogs also enjoy having a natural order within their pack therefore each animal has their place, first, second, third, etc.
One way this can be seen is how the pack feeds. The Leader takes the first choice and then each dog down through the order.
Changes in the Ranks -
The pack order does not remain constant. As the Leader ages, becomes sick or is injured another dog may ‘challenge’ for the position. Also as youngsters mature they may attempt to move up the order.
We often see these challenges as games, or play fighting. Sometimes the play can get out of hand and conflict can develop however it is more usual for the challenge to be made during quiet activities with the use of eye contact. Challenges through eye contact are extremely effective and often so subtle that the humans are unaware that anything is happening. This form of challenge may last anything from a few seconds to few minutes and may finish when one dog backs off the contact and turns away.