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What is Pack Drive

We have found different opinion on what Pack drive is. In fact, some doubt that it even exists.

While dog training is not breed specific, dog drive is heavily influenced by genetics. Hounds follow their noses, terriers catch and kill critters, setters and retrievers are biddable, herding dogs love to herd, and guard dogs are territorial. Everyone agrees that play drive, prey drive, sex drive and food drive influence dog behavior but not everyone agrees that there is such a thing as pack drive. In my experience, not only does pack drive exist, but for many dogs it’s their strongest drive.

Pack drive is not breed specific, it is species-specific. Extensive genetic studies indicate that Canis Familiaris diverged from other wolf-like canids thousands of years ago. Being the oldest domesticated animals, their long association with people has allowed dogs to be uniquely attuned to human behavior. Dogs are social animals.

“Drives” are the natural motivations that help determine dog behavior. “Pack drive” is the basis through which a dog interacts with other members of its pack. “High pack drive” is seen in dogs who have a focused and confident preference (not an insecure clinginess) to be with the pack and to function effectively as a member. Dogs with high pack drive tend to follow their human owners from room to room, prefer being with them rather than being alone, notice when someone leaves the house and likes to sleep in the same room with the owner.

Dogs with low pack drive seem less concerned with the family unit as a “pack.” People sometimes call dogs with low pack drive more “cat-like” in their behavior.

Don’t confuse pack drive with sociability. There is a subtle but important difference. Sociability is a personality trait, while pack drive is a working drive. High sociability means they are friendly to humans in general, while pack drive is a strong preference for companionship with, and proximity to, the dog’s own human pack-family over other humans.

Pack drive is a function of:

  • · The strength of the social bond that the dog has with its family.

  • · The desire to follow, cooperate with and protect the family.

  • · The preference for acquisition of resources through cooperation with the family.

  • · The attention given to the human handler during various cooperative endeavors such as training, playing, working, walking, hiking – which is independent of the motivation created by any of the competing drives.

Anthropomorphically, it is often described as “love, devotion, or a desire to please us.”

When someone tells you that their dog “misses them” or “wants to please them” this is a clue that the dog probably has a healthy pack drive. (Don’t confuse this with the insecure, clingy dog who is not comfortable being alone due to lack of confidence.)

Like other natural drives, pack drive can be suppressed or stimulated, redirected or focused, encouraged or discouraged - through training and repetition (operant conditioning). Attempts to alter a natural drive may only occur within the boundaries of fixed genetic paradigms, e.g. we cannot teach a poodle to track like a bloodhound or a bloodhound to do tricks like a poodle, but we can teach a poodle to track and we can teach a bloodhound to do tricks.


Q) Is there a relationship between pack drive and any of the common behavior problems?

A) Pack drive is a survival mechanism so dogs with higher pack drive tend to function better overall as family pets. However, dogs with high pack drive may also take longer to “recover” from the loss of a pack member (although there is never a reason that this behavior needs to last more than a few days and it is often the behavior of the mourning humans that causes excessive mourning behavior in the family pet). Dogs with higher pack drive don’t do well in shelters, and often do not “kennel” well when left behind for vacations.

Q) Do any of the breeds or groups tend to have higher natural pack drive - the way for example, that terriers exhibit higher prey drive?

A) Yes. The sporting breeds, working breeds and toy breeds tend to have very high pack drive.

Q) Is there a way to build more pack drive in a particular dog, as we might work to build, for example, play drive?

A) Every dog has some level of natural pack drive because all dogs are social animals. In order to build strong, healthy pack drive (and/or harness an existing high level of pack drive and make it work for you) the key components are: structure, rituals, routines, leadership, interactive play, training and control of resources. Some practical things to do include: requiring the dog to earn all resources by picking up toys and food; eliminating doggy doors; teaching rock solid obedience response and excellent leash manners; using a dog crate; controlling physical space (herding) as you move throughout the house; implementing a fixed schedule for all activities; correcting (rather than ignoring) undesirable behavior the moment it occurs, and in some cases, keeping a leash on a dog inside the home.

Q) Can too much pack drive cause fights among family dogs?

A) In a home without rules it can. But in a home with rules, the opposite is true. Under good human leadership, healthy pack drive creates harmony, not discord. Don’t assume that the term “pack drive” is a sort of “struggle to achieve higher rank.” That’s too narrow a view. In broader terms it is more about the desire to understand and function as a member of the pack then a desire to rule it. Most owners spend too much time worrying about rank among the dogs in their multi-dog households. Dogs understand where they rank among other family dogs, and a lot of it is fluid. For example, the strongest and fastest dogs control play time in the yard, but give everyone a new bone inside the home later that evening, and the old, slow dog will be able to protect her bone against the young, strong dog every day of the week. Don’t waste time trying to create a pecking order among multiple family dogs. Instead the key thing for the human family to communicate is this: all the humans outrank all the dogs. Calm, firm, consistent leadership helps harness a dog’s natural desire to fit in with the pack. In contrast, the human family members who do the most yelling, and/or provide gratuitous (free) food and petting – are much less likely to be treated with respect.

Q) Is it difficult to re-home a dog with high pack drive?

A) After an initial period of adjustment, a dog with high pack drive will be strongly motivated to find his place in the new pack. During the early days however, he will be more likely to act aloof and more likely to stray (seeking to be reunited with his original pack). Keeping a new dog on a leash both inside and outside the home, for at least the first few days, is a great way to speed the bonding process.

The ability to understand, acknowledge and harness your dog’s natural desire to fit in with the pack will help you raise an obedient, happy, polite and confident dog.

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