The use of pack rules for enforcing dominance is a training technique based on the extrapolation that because dogs are descendant from wolves they must behave similarly. Although dogs and wolves are descendant from a common ancestor, dogs do not necessarily behave the same way (Coppinger & Coppinger, 2001; Eaton, 2010).
Most of the studies of pack theory were conducted on wolves in captivity (Eaton, 2010). Scientific studies have since found that wolves in the wild behave differently to those in captivity and do not have a dominance hierarchy. A wild wolf pack is a family of parents and one or two sets of offspring. There is leadership from the parents, but there is no alpha dog (Mech, 1999 cited in Eaton, 2010).
With that in mind, let's review some of the pack rules and discuss them in terms of wolf and dog behaviour.
Eat before you feed your dog: (Supposedly the alpha eats first.) In a wild wolf pack puppies eat first when food is scarce and not the “alpha”. Additionally, if there is plenty of food available, all wolves eat at simultaneously. Therefore, it does not make sense to apply this rule to dogs, and it is cruel to deny a dog food when it is hungry (Eaton, 2010).
Don't allow your dog on the couch or bed: (Purportedly because the alpha wolf sleeps in a higher position to other wolves hence proving that your dog is trying to dominate you.) In reality however, wolves do not choose sleeping places by elevation, they are chosen for comfort or vantage point (Eaton, 2010). In the same way, your dog chooses a sleeping place for comfort. Suddenly, disallowing your dog from the bed or couch can create issues such as resource guarding because the dog does not want to leave the comfortable spot, which is unrelated to dominance. To curb resource guarding it is good practice to train your dog to get on and off of furniture on command from early on (Eaton, 2010).
Do not let your dog initiate play or affection: (Because supposedly only the alpha can initiate play.) In a real wolf pack any member of of the pack can initiate play which means this rule does not reflect reality. The physical contact of play within a wolf pack strengthens the psychological bonds between the members of the pack (Mech, 2003, cited in Eaton, 2010). In the same way, allowing your dog to initiate play can strengthen the bond between you and your dog. However, this can lead to some unwanted behaviour such as barking for attention and this may be one of the reasons you may not want to allow your dog to initiate play (Eaton, 2010).
Rank reduction programmes (RRPs), are they effective?
People often seek assistance with a behavioural problem their dogs are having. Instead of focusing on the problem, it's cause, and the underlying emotional state, an RRP is implemented as the problem is put down to dominance. Therefore, pack rules are instituted and the dog is denied rewards such as play time, comfortable sleeping, and so forth. RRPs do often work. However, even though a RRP can stop certain behaviour from occurring, it does so by causing the dog to mentally shut down and does not teach the dog anything (Coppinger & Coppinger, 2001 and Eaton, 2010). RRPs often include aversive methods using pack rules as a rationale and this can amount to cruelty. Such methods could result in the dog developing other emotional and behavioural problems such as nervousness and aggression - punishment always has fallout (Burch & Bailey, 1999; Donaldson, 2008; and Eaton, 2010). Furthermore, by harming the dog psychologically and/or physically, the relationship between the owner and the dog is broken down (Eaton, 2010).
To put it all in perspective, humans share 70% of the same genes as a sea urchin (Bryner, 2006)! We also share 98.8% DNA with chimpanzees, but we are drastically more intelligent than these animals (American Museum of Natural History, n.d.). Similarly, dogs share 98.8% DNA with wolves. Despite the similarities, dogs are not wolves, and we should not treat them as such (Linda, 2011).
In short: pack rules are outdated, unsubstantiated, and can be harmful to your dog.
American Museum of Natural History. (n.d.). DNA: Comparing humans and chimps. [online] Available at: http://www.amnh.org/exhibitions/permanent-exhibitions/human-origins-and-cultural-halls/anne-and-bernard-spitzer-hall-of-human-origins/understanding-our-past/dna-comparing-humans-and-chimps [Accessed 17 Dec. 2014].
Bryner, J. (2006). Surprise! Your cousin's a sea urchin. [online] Live Science. Available at: http://www.livescience.com/1103-surprise-cousin-sea-urchin.html [Accessed 17 Dec. 2014].
Burch, M. and Bailey, J. (1999). How dogs learn. 1st ed. [Kindle for PC] New York: Howell Book House, Ch.5. Available at: http://www.amazon.co.uk [Accessed 17 Dec. 2014].
Coppinger, R. and Coppinger, L. (2001). Dogs. New York: Scribner, pp.294.
Eaton, B. (2010). Dominance in dogs. 1st ed. [Kindle for PC] Wenatchee: Dogwise Publishing, Ch.4-6. Available at: http://www.amazon.co.uk [Accessed 17 Dec. 2014].
Linda, C. (2011). New research explains why dogs aren't wolves. [online] Canidae. Available at: http://www.canidae.com/blog/2011/01/new-research-explains-why-dogs-arent-wolves.html [Accessed 17 Dec. 2014].