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How Pack Instincts Affect Your Dog's Behavior

By Rebecca Sweat

Does Bowser growl if you approach him while he is chewing on a bone? When strangers walk by your front yard, does Rover bark ferociously? How does Fido react when left home by himself - does he howl and whine? Behaviors such as protecting valued re-sources, defending territory and not want-ing to be alone are typical for dogs, but they are also common behaviors for wolves.

It's not just a coincidence that dogs and wolves share many of the same behaviors. Most re-searchers believe the domestic dog descended from an animal similar to the gray wolf. Even the most docile house pet inherits certain genetic responses and programmed behaviors that are "wolf-like."

Perhaps the strongest of the wolf's instincts is the desire to live in group structures known as packs. In a pack, wolves bond together for the purpose of survival and procreation, for holding onto territory in which they live and hunt, and to feed, nurture and protect their young.

"Within a pack a social hierarchy develops; there's a number one, a number two, a number three, and down the line," says Bonnie Beaver, D.V.M., professor of animal behavior at Texas A & M University School of Veterinary Medicine. Pack members earn a place in the social structure based on leadership skills. The animal with the strongest abilities becomes the alpha or pack leader.

The alpha wolf maintains his position not by aggression, but by controlling the pack's re-sources. "Pack leadership has to do with the ability to procure and distribute food," says Nicholas Dodman, B.V.M.S., director of the Behavior Clinic at Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine. "The alpha dog and alpha bitch do the hunting; they get the first shot at eating, and then subsequently the others." One of the few situations where there might be aggression is if the dog thinks he's going to get first dibs at eating and is then challenged by another pack member whom the dog sees as an underling, and then the dog will growl.

What does all this mean in terms of your own pet dog? Like wolves, dogs are social creatures and naturally want companionship. "This need for social interaction can facilitate training," says Wayne Hunthausen, D.V.M., a veterinary behavior consultant in Westwood, Kansas. "If the dog finds doing a certain behavior results in him getting the positive interaction he wants, then he's going to be more likely to perform that behavior again."

The pet dog sees the human family in which he lives as a substitute for the    pack structure. This is true even if the household consists of just one human and one dog. It is important that each person in the household take a position above the dog. "We traditionally think of the human members as being numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, etc., and then the dog is the lowest on the totem pole. That's really where the dog is most comfortable," Beaver says. Dogs feel secure when they know there are rules and the owner is in charge.

As in a pack, a dog will accept the authority of those in the household who behave in a dominant manner. "When no one in the family is perceived by the dog as dominant, he will assume the role of the pack leader," says Sandy Myers, an animal behavior consultant with Narnia Pet Behavior Clinic in Naperville, Illinois. "From a dog's point of view, having a leader is matter of survival and he will take that position if no one else does." Here are five ways you can establish leadership and motivate the dog to follow you:

[1] Have your dog earn valued items

From a dog's or wolf's standpoint, whoever controls the resources is the leader. Establish dominance by making your dog earn valued items such as food treats, toys and other opportunities. "Have your puppy earn at least a third of its daily food through a piecemeal kibble," suggests Steve Lindsay, a dog behavior consultant in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. "Measure off a third of your puppy's diet and divide it among family members. Require him to sit, stay, come or lie down at various times during the day. Doing so helps to promote cooperative behavior in an enjoyable way." The dog learns that the owner has everything he needs and wants, and that he doesn't get those things unless he does something to please the owner.

[2] Be consistent

Another key to leadership is consistency. "Dogs understand pack order well, but we humans tend to make it confusing for them because we allow them to be in charge of us at times and then at other times we expect to be in charge of them and that sends a mixed signal," Myers says. Your dog will be confused if you expect him to sit before he gets his food bowl one day, but the next day, you just put the bowl down without first making him sit. "If you're inconsistent, the dog will periodically challenge you to see if you're still in charge or

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Should you have a concern regarding the health of your Beagle(s), you should contact your veterinarian. All information on this site is presented solely for educational and informational purposes and should not, at any time, be considered a substitute for seeking or receiving veterinary care for your Beagle(s).