Has “pack leader” become a bad term in the dog world?

Post updated: August 2018.

I like the term “pack leader.”

It implies dogs and humans work well together in groups, learning from and supporting and protecting one another.

And yes, looking at one or a few individuals as decision makers.

I like thinking of myself as a leader to my dog. A fun and positive leader, hopefully, but still a leader. Someone my dog can look to for guidance and safety and consistency.

The term “fur mom” doesn’t work well for me personally, but is “pack leader” all that different than “fur mom?” or even “pet guardian?” Probably not for most of us.

Yet, if I mention I’m a leader to my dog, it’s almost certain someone will say, “No, actually ‘pack theory’ is wrong. You don’t have to show your dog who’s boss to get what you want.”

Yikes! OK …

Five dogs and two humans

I have to say, I don’t care about the details of “dominance theory” or “pack theory” and how it applies to dogs and wolves and other animals or not. I just want a nice dog.

Of course “dominance” comes into play in subtle ways when humans or dogs or cats are competing for “resources.” A good example is when I set my purse down at the bar to “claim” my area. Or when my cat Beamer casually takes the best dog bed from the other pets.

Seems like “dominance” to me, but who cares?

Living peacefully with dogs

What I care about is living peacefully with my powerful klutz of a dog. Doing so requires some rules and structure. I know having multiple dogs can easily turn into chaos if there is no leadership.

(Ever notice how a household gets more and more out of control as people add more dogs? I notice.)

For this reason, I have rules in place for my dog. I do not allow him to barge ahead of me through doors, for example. He chooses to yield to me most of the time. Does that make me dominant in those situations? I don’t know, but I can walk through the door while holding a leash in one hand and the trash in the other without getting pulled down.

Another example: I ask my dog to sit or wait before he approaches his bowl at meals. He knows not to grab food until I give permission. This isn’t about me being dominant. It’s about teaching my dog to be polite and patient.

Ace also waits for permission before jumping into or out of the car. He is not allowed on the couch or the bed. He knows there are limits to how many times I will throw his ball. (2018 update: Ace has passed away.)

These are the rituals we work on every day.

Yeah, I think I am a ‘pack leader’

Since pretty much all training is a game to my dog, it makes sense that I feel like the fun “pack leader.” I don’t see anything wrong with that.

Heck, look at it this way:

Replace “pack leader” with “Girl Scout leader.”

I’m a former Girl Scout, and you can bet our “troop leaders” had rules in place for us girls. We would’ve been out of control otherwise. 🙂

I don’t know when we became so sensitive to this type of language just because we’re talking about dogs, but at some point we did.

What matters to me and to my relationship with my dog is that he trusts me and feels safe and happy around me. I believe leadership is important, as well as having a dog who is calm and under control.

Yeah, I think I’ll keep using the term “pack leader.” It works for me.

Kona, Ace and Koa

Do you consider yourself a pack leader?

18 thoughts on “Has “pack leader” become a bad term in the dog world?”

  1. Absolutely! I’ve taken flack from people who like to correct my terminology and remind me how important words are, but in this case, I think that the term is correct. I love watching our 4 dogs interact with one another; it’s interesting seeing their dynamic, who’s ahead of whom. And it makes sense, to me, that my boyfriend and I are pack leaders. Our dogs look to us to lead them.

    When I use the term, I’m not thinking of coyotes or wolves, I’m thinking of our family.

    1. Lindsay Stordahl

      Yes, that’s such a good way to put it. By being “pack leaders” you and your boyfriend are leaders of your family. That’s how I see it, too.

  2. We joke that Misty is the alpha dog, but I am the leader of the pack. she might control the dogs, but she is not very good as a trainer. I could never be a fur mommy.

    I think the anti-Caesar faction (and I am not one of them) have misunderstood his use of the term and think they can correct the rest of us. I try to avoid anyone who corrects me.

  3. Pack leader, alpha, boss, etc. CV says go get Mom and I say go find Dad. But all in all, we are the boss. CV more so than me. The dogs listen better to him then me. But we constantly work on it. Rules, structures, and having a leader, make the dynamics in a house much more agreeable. Dogs listen better to the “leader” than they do someone who lets things slide. And truly, like training its an everyday thing. And you have to have those rules and boundaries, it makes for a much stabler dog. Belle is a great case in point. We have a routine, she knows her place and she is a much more relaxed, happy dog than she used to be. She will now walk into the garage, lie down in the front yard and hang out. She didn’t do this the first two years we had her. She was always looking for an escape. Now she knows that there are romps, walks and time to hang in the yard.

    So am I the alfa pack leader… you betcha! It makes everyone less stressed and happier!

    1. Lindsay Stordahl

      Yep, I’m with you. You have to have those rules and boundaries, and dogs are generally much happier and calmer with those rules in place.

  4. I see a lot of people on dog blogs hate Cesar Milan and the pack leader way of training. I think it works well and seems natural. I also think many critics have no idea what it means.

  5. Mom is our pack leader, although on walks, sometimes I take on that role. Nothing wrong with pack leader as long as the leader’s behavior is appropriate.

  6. I think it got a bad rap because of Cesar Milan…he used it. But I think of myself that way – we’re like a parent, teaching our dogs proper behavior. My dogs have similar rules to yours and with my 80lb Jack, I need to have some space rules for him. I say don’t worry about what other people say and call yourself whatever you want.

  7. I don’t have a problem with people using the phrase “pack leader.” To me, it’s better than gag inducing phrases like fur-parents (I am not my dog’s daddy, because I’m not a dog, though I am very curious about what my dog’s actual dog parents were like.) It’s just a phrase, and usually people know exactly what you mean and just want to argue to talk about what they want to talk about. If I called myself the “head of household” for my humans and dogs, no one would lecture me about what that means for the IRS and taxes, which don’t consider dogs dependents.

    However, when I see or hear someone say “pack leader,” my antenna does go up for other terms that I associate either with outdated & old school training methods or for someone who uses enough phrases that suggest they have learned all they know about dogs from television shows. So I understand how it’s started to become a code that makes people wary.

    My personal pet peeve (ha-ha!) is wanting to be able to use the term correction properly. People think it means a caesar millan correction or hitting your dog or something, even if the same people say “no” to their own young children without getting that they are using a verbal correction.

    1. Lindsay Stordahl

      Yep, the “correction” word is another good example. I correct my dog every day. Usually it’s just a simple “hey” or “no” or stepping in front of him to block him.

  8. Yeah, I do think that the term “pack leader” has become a bad term. I agree with you – I just want a nice dog.

    I do admit I consider myself more of a mom than a leader. Is there a difference? Who knows. I don’t like impose my will on anybody, though. I prefer persuasion.

    I think the theory that “dogs do what works” and the training derived from that does have merit, though. I’m tired trying to sift through the terminology. I try to make sure that what works is what I want to work.

  9. The “pack leader” term has become to closely associated to dominance, so for me it has been poisoned. While it can have positive connotations like you point out, all to often like you say, it’s too easy to think of the two together. I don’t think of myself as a dog mom either. No.

    But I do think a far bit of us have relationships with our dogs where we take on a nurturing role. The labels don’t matter as long as the human and the dog are happy 🙂

  10. As much as I try to be a kind, gentle pack leader, I do in fact sometimes have to show strict dominance over my 3 year old Weimaraner. He has possession issues (which have thankfully gotten considerably better, but are still a problem), and tests me every day to make sure I’m not going to let him be in charge. If I do step down and let him have his way, he will very quickly take position of the Alpha Male. I do consider myself a “pack leader”, and sometimes I do have to dominate him and make him submit to me, simply so that he knows who’s boss, not because I want to be strict and mean.

  11. I definitely consider myself the pack leader of our 2 pups as opposed to their “fur-mom”. Structure & rules are absolutely necessary when raising and training your dogs to become polite K9s who respect you.

    It’s too bad that the word “discipline” seems to have a bad connotation when used in connection with dogs. It simply means setting rules & enforcing them: just like you, I go through any doorway before my pups do, they calmly wait in their (open) crates until they’re released to eat (they go for walks before feeding time), they are not allowed on beds, and are only allowed on our couches when we give them the ok to do so.

    A little discipline goes a long way, as is the case with so many things in life!

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