This 2009 piece is from a now-defunct previous blog.

When I first got into dog training, the mantra was “dogs are pack animals.” It was never questioned: dogs were strong bonding animals and fit into human families so well, sometimes to the point of developing bona fide disorders like separation anxiety. And a lot of behavior was deconstructed with social hierarchies in mind. Nobody examined what dogs do when they are not inserted into human families, i.e. are free-ranging. So a while ago I took a look at what is known about feral or semi-feral populations of dogs around the world. It turns out there are many such populations.

During the tenure of dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu, a poorly thought out reconstruction effort in Romania resulted in the demolition of thousands of houses and the relocation of thousands of families into small apartments throughout the country. For family dogs, this meant being turned out onto the street, where they have multiplied and eked out a marginal existence ever since.

A sad situation from every possible angle, the explosion of free-ranging dogs in Romania is an unintended experiment that challenges one of the most taken for granted aphorisms in the dog behavior world: that dogs are “pack animals.” The dogs in Romania have not formed packs.  Their associations with one another are brief and casual: a couple of dogs may hang out together temporarily and then part company. Dogs are often drawn together by a scarce resource like a food source or estrous female but once this magnet is gone, they go their separate ways.

This contrasts with wolves who, while a genetically identical species to dogs, live in packs. As explained by University of Minnesota biologist David Mech, each pack is a nuclear family consisting of a breeding pair and their offspring. When the offspring reach
maturity around two years of age, they disperse to avoid inbreeding depression and, if they live long enough, mate up and start their own packs.

The social lives of Romanian dogs may be the exception that proves the rule, so it’s necessary to examine all free-ranging populations in order to formulate a stronger hypothesis about dog social behavior.

Significant populations of free-ranging domestic dogs exist in sub-Saharan Africa, South America, India, Mexico, on the Cook Islands, Hawaii, Bangkok and, in a situation paralleling that of Romania, in Moscow. Pariah dogs on the Indian subcontinent are thought to be the longest-running continuous population of feral dogs – on the order of 14,000 years.

There are cases of dogs buddying up with one or more dogs for days at a time, and dogs being drawn into proximity to each other by food sources, however none of the above populations form packs the way wolves do. Males, in fact, do not participate in the rearing of puppies, which is the foundation of a wolf pack. And, scavenging far outpaces hunting as primary food-acquisition activity, another difference from wolves, who hunt much more.

By contrast, the accounts regarding the social behavior of Dingoes are much more conflicting. Often the same source will in one paragraph say that Dingoes are primarily loners that only occasionally pack up with a few others to take down a large prey item and later state that Dingoes are pack animals with stable hierarchies, a la Gray Wolf. Recent genetics research has allowed for the teasing out of pure Dingoes from Dingo-dog hybrids most of the time.  Interestingly, hybrids are often outwardly indistinguishable from pure Dingoes to an untrained eye. So to be generous, it could be that the disagreement between (and within) sources is partially due to some observations being of mixed ancestry animals and some of pure Dingoes.

A colleague of mine who has made trips to the Cook Islands to provide veterinary care to the feral dog population was struck by two things: the large numbers of short-legged dogs, and the absence of social cohesiveness. She fully expected and looked for packs, having heard and parroted for years, as have I, the party line of “dogs are pack animals.” Again and again, she witnessed what Dunbar has termed “loose, transitory associations” rather than packs.

If we are to support our contention that dogs are pack animals, we will need to account for these many populations where dogs, in the absence of the glue of human confinement and husbandry, simply do their own thing.