Re-Arranging Metaphors for Dogs

The problems with the wolf pack metaphor go deeper than you think.

Two Basenjis on a sofa looking squashed together

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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One of the metaphors many dog trainers despair of is that of the wolf pack. According to this, you are supposed to be ‘leader of the pack’ to your dog, who is trying all the time to be ‘dominant’. The way you stop this is to be ‘dominant’ yourself which involves awful things like ‘alpha rolls’. It’s surprisingly pervasive. 

It is not really based on science but on a kind of folk science, of how wolf packs are believed to be, which does not bear much relation to reality.

The obvious problem with this is that being violent to your dog is not humane. Numerous studies show a correlation with the use of aversive training techniques and behaviour problems in dogs (e.g. Deldalle and Gaunet 2014; Herron, Shofer and Reisner 2009; Blackwell et al 2008). There are better ways to train than pinning your dog to the floor or hitting him on the nose.

Another problem is insidious in the way it affects people’s relationship with their dog. According to some of the people who use this metaphor, you are not supposed to let your dog on the bed or settee, or even get ahead of you on a walk, because then your dog would be ‘dominant’. What if you want your dog to sleep on the bed or cuddle on the settee with you? Isn’t it up to you?

The problem goes deeper still because metaphor is not just a figure of speech. It actually shapes our thoughts. Cognitive linguists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson say, “metaphor is pervasive in everyday life, not just in language but in thought and action. Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature.” 

Eva Feder Kittay writes of metaphor as “re-arranging the furniture of the mind.” If we change the metaphor, we change how people think. 

The pack metaphor for dogs is outdated, as illustrated by a happy dog rolling on the carpet
Photo: Stockimo; top, Zanna Holstova (both Shutterstock)

So how might the pack metaphor affect our thinking? Not only are we equating dogs to wolves, but also ourselves as 'leader of the pack'. This is an example of the conceptual metaphor HUMANS ARE ANIMALS.

Being the pack leader seems to be a personal quality, a way of being that is akin to charisma. The pack leader is not a modern, transformational leader who leads by inspiration, but an old-fashioned one who relies on punishment when subordinates step out of line. Or even stares, growls at or pins a puppy preemptively. 

This is especially serious because you must never terrify a puppy; puppies need lots of positive socialization experiences.

The pack metaphor implies that sudden actions to assert dominance will make our dogs behave, when in reality training takes time and effort and food. The idea of a pack leader implies dogs must obey when we should give them choices in life (see The Right to Walk Away). And it seems to blame the victim if someone is having trouble with their dog; ‘they just aren’t assertive enough.’

We feel love and affection for our dogs, but this is missing from the pack metaphor.  And so is fun, because in pack-world you must either never play tug or never let your dog win. 

In contrast the family metaphor, by which we are dog moms and dads, puts love at the centre of our relationship with dogs. It implies we will take the time to teach our dogs how to behave. It implies our relationship is one of nurturing them and that even if we have problems, we will solve them – because we’re family. 

Some readers will say this is not a metaphor for them but literal, even if they are not implying personhood for their dogs. 

It’s time to ditch the language of packs. We need to re-arrange the furniture and consign the pack metaphor to gather dust in the attic. We can pick a different metaphor instead, and talk about the fact it takes a plan and practice and tasty treats to train a dog well. Because dogs are family, and our furry family members need love, training and walkies, not dominance

How do you like to think of your relationship with your dog?

If you liked this post, check out my book Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy. Modern Dog magazine calls it "The must-have guide to improving your dog's life."

Further Reading

Bradshaw, J.W.S., Blackwell E.J. and Casey, R.A. (2009) Dominance in dogs – useful construct or bad habit? Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 4(3), 135-144
Bradshaw, J. (2011) Why dog trainers will have to change their ways. The Guardian 17th July 2011
Donaldson, J. (2009) Are dogs pack animals? The Academy for Dog Trainers Blog 
Eaton, B. (2011) Dominance in Dogs: Fact or Fiction?. Dogwise Publishing.
van Kerkhove, W. (2004) A fresh look at the wolf-pack theory of companion-animal dog social behavior. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 7(4), 279-85.

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Blackwell, E. J., Twells, C., Seawright, A., & Casey, R. A. (2008). The relationship between training methods and the occurrence of behavior problems, as reported by owners, in a population of domestic dogs. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 3(5), 207-217. 
 Deldalle, S., & Gaunet, F. (2014). Effects of 2 training methods on stress-related behaviors of the dog (Canis familiaris) and on the dog–owner relationship Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 9 (2), 58-65 
Herron, M., Shofer, F., & Reisner, I. (2009). Survey of the use and outcome of confrontational and non-confrontational training methods in client-owned dogs showing undesired behaviors Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 117 (1-2), 47-54 
Kittay, E.F. (1987) Metaphor: Its Cognitive Force and Linguistic Structure (Clarendon Library of Logic and Philosophy). New York: Oxford University Press.
Lakoff, G. and Johnson, M. (1980) Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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