Pack work, using a group of dogs to influence the behavior of an individual dog, is an amazing tool which can create permanent change in a dog and help create a healthy balanced attitude and behavior. There are a variety of ways in which trainers use this concept to assist in the training of a client dog from simply using a senior steady, trained dog to calm a nervous nelly, to having a young dog mingle with a variety of well balanced older dogs. However, a number of trainers are using fascinating varieties of pack concepts to reach to even deeper layers of instinctive reprogramming of our typical modern, disorganized client dogs. Some examples of common modern pack work include: an off leash Working Pack Walk; Large Field Socialization, and its smaller versions; and leashed Migration Pack Walks, to name just a few. And while these are concrete modern teachable models of pack work, it is important to put this in historical context and understand that folks have been using dogs to teach other dogs for milleniums.
As with any training tool whether it is a treat, a retrieve toy, a particular collar, or length of leash or as here, a group of dogs, it is first important to assess what you want to accomplish and why. What is it that you are trying to shift? Is it certain behaviors, is it an overall chaotic organization in the dog, lack of focus, dog/dog aggression, dog/dog fear, insecurity in general, over boldness ,a hooligan puppy, an unstructured rehab case? There are many, many different components to using multiple dogs as an asset to training.
It is not enough to just plunk an untrained dog down with a bunch of other dogs and expect miracles to happen. They could. But you could also have a disaster on your hands that could create a more, not less, unstable dog.
So for e.g. dog parks are NEVER pack work. Pack work has nothing to do with letting dogs run around in high adrenalin with no focus and no interruption. That is 100% always and exclusively high adrenalin prey drive, with a huge component of defense drive thrown in. There is an enormous difference between this chaos and pack work. Multiple dogs does not a pack make. Multiple dogs moving over space does not a pack or pack work make. Multiple dogs moving in a calm, focused and organized way in pack drive makes for pack work. Again, like any other tool, you need to have a game plan and know where you are going and why.
For me, the reason I use a dog pack to train is that it rebuilds a dog’s brain from the inside out. What I see over and over anymore are dogs who are too unstable to even teach a sit, or wait, and have them retain the command, let alone an off leash recall. Before we can train, we have to create a creature who is balanced and stable enough to train, and has the capacity to learn. An adrenalin addicted dog, who has spent the last three years of their life pinging around a house, doing whatever, wherever, and whenever they wanted, is not a creature who is yet ready to really learn. There is homework to be done first.
Pack work can help calm, and organize a dog’s brain so that someone is home when we want to go teach a “leave it” command to the dog racing around the house for your clients’ clothes or dish or toy yet again.
In addition, pack work creates an ever increasing ability to focus under distraction, that mimics the high stimulation nature of modern life with dogs.
It literally teaches dogs how to handle their own adrenalin, how to cope and maintain despite distraction: visual, auditory, sensory, movement distractions. Translated into simple, every day life, it can help your dog learn an “off switch”.
In order to understand the nuances of the different ways in which people use a ‘Pack” to train dogs or influence their behavior, we first need to understand a related concept referred to as “Pack Drive”, as we use a dog’s deep seated pack drive in various ways when we are working that dog within an actual pack. In Dog Training for Dummies, Wendy Volhard defines pack drive as follows: A series of behaviors associated with reproduction, being part of a group or pack, and being able to live by the rules. She goes on to say,
"Dogs, like their distant ancestors the wolves, are social animals. To hunt prey that’s mostly larger than themselves, wolves have to live in a pack. To assure order, they adhere to a social hierarchy governed by strict rules of behavior. In dogs, this translates into an ability to be part of a human group and means a willingness to work with people as part of a team. Pack drive is stimulated by rank order in the social hierarchy."
So, when we train a dog to an offleash “Let’s Go” command, we are building pack drive in the dog. We are building the dog’s ability to move in an organized fashion over terrain, in cooperation with the pack, even if the pack is just you, the handler. When we ask a dog to walk along with us, to follow us, we are asking the dog to be in pack drive. Following is a pack drive exercise. Heeling is not. Heeling is a moving, positional exercise that is not intuitive to a dog, and is often frustrating to both dog and human. Following, moving along with, but not necessarily in that tight box of a heel is a pack drive exercise. “Checking in” (a dog who slows and looks back when off leash), or a full “Come”, are all nuances of communication within a pack, and are all pack drive exercises.
In very loose terms, you might think of pack drive as the desire to please, to work with you, to focus on you, to look to you for a command or the next stage of affairs, to follow you when you move, to come back to you, to accede to your leadership, to move out of your way when you move. As you can see, many of these qualities are the very things that pet owners would like from their dogs and don’t have. One of the common things that clients will see and comment on with dogs whose pack drive has been increased is: “My dog looks at me now, and looks to me for direction.” Aiyupp, pack drive.
In my opinion, there is no faster way to build pack drive in a dog than by using an actual dog pack. For me, it cuts training time of complex canine unbalanced behaviors by months if not years.
Lastly, pack work, which is typically a moving exercise, also teaches dogs how to connect back into their own bodies. Again, an enormously common problem in the modern dog, and one which will always be a clear impediment to learning. So let’s say for example, you have a disorganized dog, who has had chaotic leadership, can’t find his hind feet to save his life, doesn’t even begin to look to see where you are, is on high distraction, and whose adrenalin is on permanent on. It will be tremendously easier to train such a dog to heel if he is actually cued in to paying attention, whose overall vibe level has dropped about ten notches, and who has decided that maybe, just maybe, humans are relevant to more than just distributing food?
There is a reason that the Koehler sequence at its most basic works, over and over and over again. It is because it starts with building pack drive, focus, and connection, and moves on from there, only after there is clear rewardable buy in, and clear threshold of functioning pack drive.
Using an actual dog pack moving in a coherent and structured way to build not only pack drive, but a full and complex pack language, a balanced brain and a balanced body can add an additional powerful tool to the training equation that can rapidly help to bring order to a chaotic soul.
Stay tuned next edition for Part II: How to build a working dog pack. Development concepts of mirroring, perimeter, check-in, ranging, velcro, criss-cross, narrowing and expansion as well as examples of different styles of pack work: migration, mingling, and mingling with distraction.
If you are using your own dog or dogs as a tool, you need to constantly assess their readiness and inclination to do the job asked. Did they just come through two weeks of dealing with a young dog who was constantly testing, testing, testing their boundaries? Have they had some large dogs to deal with who bumped or banged into your pack dogs? Have you had your pack dogs backs checked to make sure they are soft, sound and supple? Do you do digital radiographs every few years to assess encroaching arthritis? Do you work your teacher dogs on a continual basis to assess their steadiness, responsiveness to command, and level of focus and cooperation?
A dog pack is not a tool that once sharpened can be left alone. It is a tool that needs subtle attention on a daily basis. Your working dogs are not robots. They can wake up cranky in the heat. They can have an extra hard job and be tired the next day. They can have too many dogs, too much chaos and need a break. They can get sick. They can age. And they can burn out.
Pack work is exhausting for our dogs. Whether they’re good at it or not, it’s still energetically exhausting. The better the pack dog, the more likely it is that they will work well beyond the time when their personal well needs to be filled up. It’s up to us to continually gage our own dogs and make sure that we have a happy, balanced working partner before subjecting them to yet another plunge into chaos land.