For Multiple-Dog Households Out On A Walk, It's A Pack Mentality

By Gabrielle Jonas on January 23, 2014 5:15 PM EST

Follow the Leader
Dogs who live in the same household tend to naturally follow the dog who dominates at home, but not because they have to, but because they want to, researchers say. (Photo: Courtesy of Shutterstock)

A single breeding pair among wolves are the unmistakable leaders of the pack, but who leads the pack of unrelated dogs in the same household, especially when none of them are breeding? Is it a democracy, or does one dog rule with an iron paw? That's what some zoologists from Oxford University, Eötvös University, Budapest, and the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (HAS) wanted to know, so they rigged a group of six Vizslas (Hungarian hunting dogs) of the same household which with a 14-gram GPS on their harness, and set them on walks with their owner on a field in Budapest to find out. The resulting study, published in PLOS Computational Biology Thursday, is part of a larger European Research Council project setting out to describe the motion of a wide variety of life-forms, from cultures of migrating tissue cells through flocks of birds, to man's best friend.

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The zoologists monitored the Vizslas, ages one to seven, known for their good-natured temperament and trainability, on 14 off-leash walks lasting about 35 minutes each, over the course of seven months. "Some dogs are followed by peers more often than others," wrote study co-author Dr. Máté Nagy of Oxford University's Department of Zoology, writing that one dog took the lead between 50 and 85 percent of the time. "This ratio is of similar magnitude to the case of wild wolf packs with several breeding individuals," noted co-author Dr. Enikő Kubinyi, of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. Unlike the wolf pack dynamic,the dogs always followed the alpha dog voluntarily: Dogs chose who to follow and the leaders did not compel other dogs to follow them. "Wolves are different," Nagy told the International Science Times in an e-mail interview. "If the leader wolf initiates group movements, others should follow him or her: Otherwise the group will break up. In dogs, the main leader is the owner, who was not included in the analysis. If dogs do not want to follow each other, but follow the owner, nothing happens with the group's integrity: They stay together."

It wasn't surprising that those dogs that tended to lead the pack on those walks were also the same ones that dominated at home. They were the more aggressive dogs as well as the oldest ones (at least according to what thier owners wrote in two detailed questionnaires). The dogs that barked first and more vigorously when strangers entered the home, ate first at meals, and won dog fights were the dominant canines. "Conversely, dogs that lick other dogs' mouths more often are less dominant as this is a submissive display," Kubinyi wrote. But what was surprising was that the dogs' owner described her dominant dogs as being more responsive to training, as well as being more controllable — contradicting well-established theories about dogs, said Dr. John Bradshaw, a leading animal expert who reviewed the study for the International Science Times.

Bradshaw, an anthrozoologist whose 2011 book, Dog Sense, drew heavily on scientific and behavioral research, was surprised that the dogs' owner described the more subservient dogs in a detailed survey as being the leaders of the pack. "The owners identified these dogs as being 'dominant,' Bradshaw wrote, "but, paradoxically, also as being the easiest to train and control: A dominant dog should, by definition, be difficult to control." The journal article's writers argue that controllability has to do with a dog coming immediately when called and leaving food or objects alone when told to. Trainability has to do with response to corrections and commands or focusing on a task despite distractions. "There is no paradox in being more dominant and also being the easiest to control by the owner or a human," Nagy told the International Science Times. "In this particular group, responsiveness to training seems to be correlated with leadership. The interactions we found are more like a social preference who to follow, then a strict and brutal leadership relation." Nagy compared free unleashed walks to "art" for dogs, where without any pressure to fulfill a task, they could do as they pleased. "However, even in this free scenario their social dominance status seems to shape their behavior," Nagy added. 

Bradshaw attributed the differences not to dominance, but to light-heartedness. "This paper describes a completely new way of examining how dogs relate to one another, giving a fascinating insight into how playful dogs can be," he told the International Science Times. "All of the six dogs in the study took turns to lead when exploring away from their owner, showing just how co-operative dogs are.  However, some did take the lead more often than others, reflecting their more outgoing personalities."              

For their part, Nagy and Kubinyi plan to conduct research with dogs of different breeds, but because different breeds move at different overall rates, they'll have to get creative. "We plan to conduct experiments with biking or running owners to overmount this problem," he said.

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