Understanding Pack Behavior in Your Small Dog

We’ve all done it. Referred to our little dogs as our “furry children”. After all, our pets want to be and should be a part of our families. We treat them like babies, dress them, dote on them, and give them endless love and attention. This must be what they want. Unfortunately, dogs can’t tell us differently and don’t come with instruction manuals. So how do we know what they really want?


The fact is, our dogs really don’t want to be treated as furry children. They are not humans: they are descendants of wolves. In fact, scientific studies have proven that domestic dogs are 99.9% genetically identical to the gray wolf. Pack instincts, being survival behaviors, are too deeply rooted in the primitive brain to prevent them from passing on.


It is obvious that dogs are social animals and want to feel a part of our family “pack”. So, how are their needs different from humans?

As pack animals, dogs feel most comfortable in a well-defined social structure where they each know their place in a hierarchy. They express these tendencies with both their human pack and in groups of dogs.


Dogs in a human pack must always be subordinate. As a dog owner, it is imperative to establish yourself as the clear Pack Leader. Dogs look to us to define which behaviors are acceptable and which aren’t so they can please us.  Being subordinate to their humans allows them to feel protected, accepted and guided. It is up to us to communicate both allowed and unwanted behaviors to them. And, there must be consequences for violating the rules. Each time a member of our pack is allowed to misbehave with no consequences from the Pack Leader, the more trust in his leadership is lost.


When we don’t honor these needs, a dog suffers from extreme confusion, frustration and feelings of instability. If there is no clear leader, he may feel his very survival is threatened, and will feel compelled to fill the void and become Pack Leader.  Once your dog feels he is Pack Leader, be prepared for many adverse consequences: misbehavior, disobedience and signs of disrespect. This situation should be avoided at all costs.


How do you know if your dog has taken on the leadership role?

If your dog exhibits any of these classic behaviors, he is the Pack Leader of your family:  (Use of the male pronoun is for simplicity, refers to both genders).


  1. He races out of doors and doorways ahead of you.
  2. He completely ignores your commands.
  3. He gives you a blank stare or walks away when you call his name.
  4. He humps you or your guests.
  5. He demands your constant attention through nudges, leaning on you, sitting on your foot or whining
  6. He barks excessively, especially if you leave the house (since no one leaves the Pack Leader!)
  7. He lacks respect for your territory: He refuses to move out of your way. He gets on furniture or the bed (your territory) without permission.
  8. He lacks respect for your personal space: he walks on top of you, gets too close, gets between you and another person.
  9. He stares at you and won’t avert his eyes. Dogs use eye contact to demonstrate dominance.

10.He bares his teeth and/or growls at you; This is the ultimate   disrespect. Such behavior should never be tolerated.


If your dog exhibits these signs, how do you take back control and establish yourself as Pack Leader? Here are some Do’s and Don’ts.



  • Lead through example. Do what pack leaders do: eat first, take the best sleeping spots, go through a doorway first, and “move” a dog out of your way instead of walking around or stepping over him.
  • Be calm and assertive. Adopt a dominant posture, energy, attitude and tone of voice. Showing leadership is as much an attitude as it is a set of behaviors.
  • Let your dog know what he can and cannot do. Use “corrections” to discourage bad behaviors. Catch him in the act, then give a one word stern command or do a quick pull on his leash. The point is to startle him, then re-direct his behavior.
  • You can also try techniques used by wolf packs to communicate in your dog’s language. The alpha female placed unruly pups on their backs and held them until they stopped resisting to force them to realize they are subordinate.



  • Never get angry, yell or hit your dog. This will only scare him.
  • Don’t use sentences to correct him. The point is to get his attention, not have a conversation with him.


Becoming Pack Leader is neither an immediate nor a simple process. You have to prove yourself and earn the respect and trust of your dog. You also have to “unteach” his bad behaviors and start rewarding more desirable ones. Once he accepts you as Pack Leader and knows his boundaries, he will be the obedient pooch you desire.


If you are going to take on the responsibility of pet ownership, it is imperative to understand the workings of a dog pack mentality. Not knowing this causes nothing but problems. You owe it to yourself and to your dog to understand your differences so you will enjoy a happy, healthy relationship with one another. It’s worth the effort!


By Julie Ruggles, Julie’s Pooch Pad



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