Temperament, Personality and Behaviour: It’s a Fine Dividing Line!

A conundrum faced by the lay-psychologist is the difference between temperament, personality and behaviour. In the dog training world behaviour is much discussed, temperament sometimes, and personality rarely. Temperament is inherited – it is something we HAVE and can do little to change. For example a person – or dog – may be described as a socialite or a loner. Personality we acquire with age and is a combination of one’s experiences, education, socialisation, culture, and to an extent, temperament. Behaviour, on the other hand, is something we DO – we CAN change this in most cases, though animals (including humans) may find this challenging due to, for example, heritable traits, poor role modelling, poor training, lack of mental stimulation, bad experiences including abuse or received aggression, poor health, stress and anxiety, poor diet, mindset/lack of motivation and/or encouragement/incentive, surroundings and the environment, change of routine, lack of exercise, poor housing/kenneling, the weather; the list is almost endless!

Possibly the most important trait in the family dog, but potentially the most difficult to breed for, is temperament. The adjectives ‘character’ or ‘personality’ (as discussed) also come to mind but these are perhaps more subjective. They may imply a level of consciousness more appropriate to humans, primates, elephants, dolphins and others! Dogs are, however, sentient beings with a range of emotions and sensitivity. Breeding for temperament is paramount when later training for assistance dogs, be these dogs for the blind, hearing assistance dogs, police dogs, search and rescue dogs, explosive and drug detection dogs, herding dogs and so forth. Companionship however – if that’s what we are looking for – is not as clearly defined! Due to the intermingling and coupling of genes of different content from both parents, not all dogs, even from the same litter, will attain the required standard. They are all individuals. Breeding for temperament or behaviour is far more complex genetically than breeding for looks as there are many more genes involved and do not code readily for temperament. Because of this, there is no chance that the same combination will occur twice. Selecting the top pedigree, therefore, is essential in this scenario. Notwithstanding, the way we train and treat our dogs will also have a profound and lasting effect on their temperament and behaviour.

The American cynologist Clarence Pfaffenberger, a respected figure in the mid 1940s in the training of assistance dogs for the blind, confirmed that temperament traits, including the willingness to work with humans, are carried genetically (The Intelligence of Dogs – Coren, 1994). He further concluded that temperament was not enough and that this, combined with ‘intelligence’, was paramount. Measuring intelligence in dogs and the ability to problem solve is another subjective and moot point. To measure this, we need to compare against something else. Do we compare with humans, a primate or another dog? IQ tests have been designed for dogs but what exactly does this prove? According to Pfaffenberger a more appropriate term would be ‘ability’, but let’s not forget also ‘aptitude’ or ‘inclination’!

Dogs live in the moment, with no concept of the future (McGrath, 1998). Their short term memory is thought to be a matter of minutes – though they do appear to remember a bad experience from long ago. They do not possess the cognitive ability to acknowledge the threat of a bad outcome for unwanted behaviour although MAY learn – or more importantly may NOT learn – from the repeated experience of bad (and good) outcomes. This could be, for example, single or multiple punishers including verbal/physical threats or actual abuse, frustration due to the withholding of a treat or other reward, negative reinforcement, for example, the removal of pain (as with a chock chain), release from confinement etc. However, all the dog learns potentially is how to cope with and manage the threat and avoid the perpetrator rather than learn the desired behaviour, resulting possibly in an unhappy and unbalanced dog able to ‘snap’ at any time. ‘Leash pulling’ is an example. Some handlers, and alas trainers, advocate ‘correction’ by jerking the leash. If this punishment method worked, why do we see the behaviour being repeated over and over? Teach the dog what IS required rather than what is NOT required!

This related blog may be of interest: https://richardthedogtrainer.com/2020/04/29/dog-breeders-need-to-pay-more-attention-to-behaviour-and-health-traits-not-simply-looks/

The sweet tempered Canaan dog but an
independent thinker with a strong
survival instinct.

Bears now behaving like dogs!

Young black bears in California have now been showing uncharacteristic signs of friendliness towards humans, and wildlife experts fear that a brain disorder may be the cause of this ‘dog-like’ behaviour. The phenomenon has been noticed since around 2014; videos have appeared on social media showing strange encounters in the state and neighbouring Nevada. In one clip, a black bear cub approaches a snowboarder at the Northstar ski resort and steps onto the board; in another, a dazed-looking bear wanders into a residential back yard and sits in the porch munching apples fed to it by curios onlookers. In still another, a bear walks into a classroom and sits down at the back.

Other symptoms include tremors and a tilted head (an endearing behaviour any dog lover appreciates!). Unlike grizzlies, which have a fierce reputation, black bears tend to be timid and avoid people. Scientists who conducted a post-mortem on one euthanised cub say it was suffering from encephalitis, a brain inflammation usually caused by a viral infection. Vets have identified five new viruses while examining the affected bears, but have yet to identify a direct link to the erratic behaviour.

This type of synurbic behaviour is now common amongst polar bears which are increasingly forced, due to loss of habitat, to live alongside humans in urban environments in order to get food by scavenging. In the UK this behaviour is evidenced amongst foxes and the common pigeon as examples. Indeed, it is thought that this is how dogs became domesticated originally, with estimates varying from between 12,000 and 40,000 years ago or more.

Passive Training vs. Active Training

Training, whether it be a dog, cat, child or sports person must be consistent, ongoing and continual. An obvious statement perhaps, but how many people (I’m thinking specifically about dog trainers here) practise the ‘continual’ element. Positive reinforcement is an EXTREMELY powerful MOTIVATOR. For example we can reward our dog for lying quietly in bed; appearing to the outsider, for no apparent reason! We can reinforce the wanted behaviour of lying quietly with a few kind words of ENCOURAGEMENT and a chin rub. Here we reinforced the behaviour passively – we are not actually encouraging a behaviour, rather, waiting for it to happen and capturing the moment. This is continual training; we offer rewards at random for a wanted behaviour – not only in ‘formal’ training sessions.

Conversely, we can employ ‘active’ training, in a more formal setting, whereby we set the dog up to succeed, cue the wanted behaviour, followed by the behaviour itself, then the reward (known as the ABC of training ‘Antecedent, Behaviour, Consequence’). However, in the early stages of training it will be necessary to reverse the ABC to BAC – the behaviour BEFORE the antecedent as the dog has not learnt the word/s yet. The idea of setting the dog up to SUCCEED cannot be overstated. Failure will not do and we must always end any formal training session on a high note. I also believe that many trainers overly rely on food and mechanical aids, ‘clickers’ for example (I’m not suggesting that clickers do not serve a purpose – they have their place in the correct situation). Better to rely on communication with our dog using EMOTIONS and body language. Dogs are able to pick up on the slightest nuances, ones which humans would not notice in a thousand years!

Instruments of torture on sale in Britain’s High Streets! NIs vs. PIs.

The UK’s pet industry is worth £6.5billion including food, accessories, grooming and veterinary. Accessories alone amounted to £1billion of this total in 2020!

Pet stores, so it appears, will happily sell you a negative (aversive) interrupter (NI). These are in the form of water pistols, compressed air horns, choke chains, ultrasonic zappers, citronella sprays, shock collars etc. What they won’t sell you is a positive interrupter (PI) – there must be an opportunity there!

NIs are based on the principle of positive punishment (P+). It interrupts an unwanted behaviour, for example barking, jumping up or ‘humping’. The problem with punishment is it does not teach the dog (cat, horse, chicken etc) what to do instead. There is also the potential for fallout in the form of learned helplessness and/or a relationship breakdown – not to mention the ethical question.

Positive interrupters (PIs) work on the principle of classical (reflexive) conditioning. The interrupter here could be a click, whistle, shaking of a kibble box, the theme from ‘Colonel Bogey’, or “Yippee”! The PI is previously paired with something the dog finds pleasurable. This could, for example, be a piece of kibble, piece of liver cake or a game of tug. He/she will learn this within about thirty seconds but will need proofing in different environments and with varying distractions. Once the unwanted behaviour is interrupted, the pleasure ensues followed by “look at me – sit – stay – good dog”, followed by – another piece of liver cake! In the words of John Rogerson, “Communicate”.

I should point out that interrupters are used as an exception rather than the rule. Correct training in the first place will negate their use.

NB – Addendum 30.05.21 – Since the time of writing, the sale of electronic shock collars is now illegal in the UK. The Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Act (2021) tightens up the law on animal abuse. Judges now have the power, upon indictment, to impose a custodial sentence of up to 5 years, as opposed to the the previous 6 months.

This Collarless Ultrasonic Pet Trainer (instrument of torture by another name), sold by Pets At Home, claims to have both a
PI and an NI. The question is can the dog tell the difference?

Has dog training become overly complicated?

“Over the years, dog training has become overly complicated, time consuming, technical, mechanical and impersonal – lacking in communication, interaction and relationship. I feel that dog training has lost its way, its voice and its soul. We simply have to get things back on track before dog training……(dare I say it?)……..goes to the dogs” (Dunbar, 2015). So wrote the renowned dog trainer and clinical behaviourist Dr Ian Dunbar some six years ago. Does he have a point?

“Throw away any preconceived ideas you may have about how to train a dog using words of command, mechanical clickers, whistles and hand signals, and understand the universal language of emotions. It is your emotions, when coupled with the giving or withholding of rewards, that will enable you to communicate with your dog better than most academically trained behaviourists ever could. Welcome to the real world of dogs” (Rogerson, 2010). Emotive words indeed from the renowned dog trainer, behaviourist and author John Rogerson.

A mere twenty years ago the idea that dogs are capable of feelings and emotions would have been laughed at by the academics. In 2012, Dr Gregory Berns trained dogs to enter an MRI scanner. The scans confirmed what owners already knew, that dogs are able to recognise faces and emotions thereof. Activity in the caudate nucleus region of the brain causes the release of hormones, as with humans, responsible for certain emotions. These include vasopressin linked to aggression, oxytocin, often referred to as the ‘love hormone’ and dopamine known to enhance the experience of pleasure. It appears then, that your dog IS capable of falling in love with you, and not simply because you are the provider of basic needs!

Until about the early 1970s, dog training was the preserve of police forces and the military. Pet dogs were left to get on with it; any apparent ‘misbehaviour’ or aggression being dealt with, by ill-informed owners, in the form of beating into submission, chaining up or euthanasia. As I recall, the first ‘celebrity’ dog trainer, with her own TV series, was Barbara Woodhouse in the early ’80s. Training was in the form of dominance with ‘yanks’, reprimanding, bullying………..the lot! Some of her Youtube videos are difficult to watch! To this day, Cesar Millan espouses similar techniques with pinning down, kicking and all. This is also evidenced on his Youtube channel. It would appear that things have not moved on greatly, with Channel 5’s ‘Dogs Behaving (Very) Badly’ promoting the use of dominance and punishment, thus setting reward based training back by many decades.

The point is that, even now, some dog guardians may treat their pets as objects of desire rather than sentient beings. For example, one of the most common ‘problem’ behaviours guardians encounter, and one which I am often asked to help resolve, is pulling on lead. Ironically this is also one of the easiest problems to deal with. Every day I witness handlers yanking and pulling back in resistance. Punishment does NOT work, period. If it did, why do we see this behaviour over and over? The temptation is to escalate the punishment, potentially with dire consequences; an unhappy, withdrawn dog and a relationship breakdown, not to mention long term damage to the neck and throat area – thyroid glands (dogs have two), muscle and blood vessels. This abuse has to end somewhere!

The other side of the same coin is to COMMUNICATE with our dog, explaining exactly what we want him/her to do using plain English. Yes, plain English; dogs are capable of understanding up to 1,000 words. Of course this is over simplistic as three or four words strung together may be their limit, even then failing to comprehend the literal meaning – but you get my drift! As far back as the ’40s, William Campbell devised the ‘jolly routine’ of singing and dancing to ENGAGE the dog. He was way ahead of his time! The dog should WANT to walk alongside rather than in front. How about a game of tug on the go until the dog gets the message. Why simply ‘manage’ the behaviour when we can actively train for an alternative behaviour? – that of walking WITHOUT pulling. This is known as ‘differential reinforcement of an alternative behaviour’. It is far easier to teach a positive (R+) than it is to teach a negative (R-)! My mentor, Steve Mann, shows this eloquently on his Youtube channel.

So, to answer my own question – training a dog may APPEAR complicated but science has truly shown us the way forward. This all started in the late 1800s when J B Watson, the father of modern behaviourism, was of the opinion that we (mankind) needed to take an objective view of behaviour by observing rather than relying on emotions. The ‘science’ of behaviour was thus founded. But don’t be disheartened, the best form of training is COMMUNICATION, ENCOURAGEMENT, and LOADS of REINFORCEMENT for the wanted behaviour!

Engagement and relationship building!

Some thoughts on the current crisis in dog training.

As a kid in the ‘50s I lived in the Camden Town area of London. Now it has been regenerated and gentrified. Children and dogs would take themselves off for the day and play on the bomb sites. They would return in the evening for their tea. The dogs were invariably mongrels and today we would call them ‘street dogs’ (except they don’t exist in the so called ‘developed’ world). Behavioural problems were non existent so something has happened in the intervening years to change this. I suspect it is to do with the population explosion, overcrowding, poverty (or peoples’ expectations) and, in general, peoples’ lack of respect for each other. Of course this has impacted on dogs’ behaviour – you can only put so many rats in a cage before they start to fight!

Today’s boom in ‘breeds’ has led to a reduced gene pool and consequent health issues and, dare I say, behavioural issues. Yes, people today lead busy lives and may underestimate the time and work needed to bring up a dog successfully. Choosing the right breed plays a big part. A client of mine acquired a Welsh sheepdog from a working line and was surprised when the dog was anxious and restless during the day unable to settle in his crate. The dog was eventually returned to the farm. (NB the Welsh Sheepdog Society does not allow the sale of its registered dogs to non-working homes – this one slipped through the net).

For a lesson in dog training, observe the behaviour of a dog with a homeless owner. They are as close to the wild as ever, will follow their guardian everywhere quite happily, off lead and with no ‘misbehaviour’. They rely on their guardian for everything and he/she has assumed the role of family leader, all without any formal training. Lesson learned!

A typical London scene in the early ’50s

Your dog will appreciate analogue feedback!

As responsible dog parents it behoves us to ensure that our pet behaves according to acceptable standards both indoors and when out meeting other dogs, people, cats, etc. How we deal with a ‘situation’, for example lunging on lead and barking, will depend on our understanding of the dog’s emotions and of the steps necessary to resolve the situation and ensure it does not happen again – or at least take baby steps in the right direction. A dog acting in an aggressive way does not mean the dog is aggressive per se – something else may have caused the display. Very often this is fear-aggression. Why, and what is the dog fearful of will need to be addressed to placate this. The lead itself may exacerbate the dog’s anxiety in the sense that there is no escape!

Behaviours have consequences, a pleasant one will likely mean repeat of the behaviour, whilst an unpleasant one will likely mean the behaviour will NOT be repeated. Of course this is the fundamental theory of training and of the subject’s learning.

This then raises the question: to punish or not to punish. “Of course not, I would never punish my dog”, I hear you say. According to behavioural psychology something as apparently insignificant as the word ‘no’ constitutes punishment – perhaps not so in every-day usage. Degrees of punishment will fall on a continuum with extremes at both ends. The withholding of a treat/reward is technically punishment, albeit negative punishment (P- something is withheld or withdrawn to help decrease a behaviour, for example, jumping up at a visitor [time to get back to basics]).

There is a school of thought that we simply ignore an unwanted behaviour. Well fine, as a rule of thumb. This may work if the dog, for example, ‘lays’ instead of ‘sits’ – it’s fairly benign! It’s a question of context and if there is any imminent danger. If your dog is jumping up in excitement at a visitor whilst mouthing (but why is your dog/puppy doing this in the first place?!) or is about to run into a busy road, would you ignore this? Of course not. The dog must be aware that this is not acceptable and, ideally, offered an alternative behaviour. In other words we teach a positive rather than a negative.

Your dog WILL appreciate feedback rather than being ignored or left in limbo. But, how and what feedback do we give. Positive punishment (P+) would be punitive and, in any event, depends on consistency and precision timing – which of course most people don’t have. Punishment may appear to show instant results but does not teach the dog what to do instead. It is reinforcing for the trainer who is tempted to repeat this. However, if the punishment does not work there is a further temptation to increase it and where would it all end? With an unhappy dog, a battle of wills and, potentially, a relationship breakdown. The goal of training is to produce an internally-reinforced and self-motivated dog that is under reliable verbal control when off-lead, at a distance and with distractions. Understanding the science and theory is one thing but let’s not forget feeling and communication – feedback.

Analogue feedback is a term borrowed from electronics. Feedback can be either analogue or digital. As with dog training there is also both negative and positive feedback. Imagine digital as an on/off light switch – there are two poles, there is no in-between except a nanosecond’s time delay between the two. Now imagine a dimmer light switch as analogue – it is continuously variable and instantaneous. With dog training the aim is to give the dog appropriate and instantaneous feedback. Hence we have ‘analogue feedback’. As with voltage (input) and current (output), input from the trainer = output from the dog!

Furthermore, feedback needs to be unambiguous, binary, precise and instructive. The dog needs to know if he got it ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ – binary feedback. But what about the grey area in-between, the intervening variables of thinking it through, attention, perception, and decision making (known as cognitive psychology)? What happened between the initial stimulus and the response (more broadly known as S-R psychology or cause and effect)? Did he get it ‘almost’ right or ‘completely’ right? He needs to know how well he did. The DEGREE of feedback and praise – differential reinforcement – reflects this. Verbal feedback, therefore, becomes effortlessly analogue. Differential reinforcement allows us to concentrate on the positives rather than the negatives insofar as the dog succeeds whatever the scenario! A previous blog further discusses this concept:

What’s on the dog’s mind? Notice the raised paw, soft eyes,
yet raised and forward pointing tail – will he or won’t he?
The handler is showing empathy, awareness, reassurance and great leadership skills.

Dog Training in and around Topsham, Exeter & Exmouth

For home consultations please call: 07582 645580 : Testimonials

Welcome to my website and our Facebook group which may be viewed here. Topsham, Exeter & Exmouth Dog Training is for those in the area seeking tips and advice on all matters of dog training. The group advocates totally force free training. We do not practise any forms of dominance or punishment based training. Please feel free to ask any questions and get involved in the discussions. The various blogs below are on general aspects of dog training rather than dealing with specific issues or training problems.

One-to-one home consultations include problems with: general skills training for puppies and adult dogs; anxiety, fears and phobias; separation anxiety; loose lead walking; resource guarding; poor recall and others. Consultations are followed up by a full written assessment and training plan. Please follow the links in the menu bar for further information or to make contact. I look forward to hearing from you.

The Group’s link is: www.facebook.com/groups/topshamdogtraining

My personal Facebook business page may also be viewed here: https://www.facebook.com/richardthedogtrainer

Mentor Dog or Teacher?

Calming signals and more obvious body language are examples of conspecific communication in the animal kingdom. There are far more nuanced and subtle signs that humans will inevitably miss. For example, a dog ‘sees’ the world through sense of smell and can decipher another dog’s intent via pheromone signaling. A mature dog will build up a reservoir of knowledge and experience and learn, often the hard way, how to deal with a situation. An on-looking, less mature dog may, through intuition, pick up on this and mimic the other’s behaviour – allelomimetic behaviour. Thus, our senior dog has unwittingly evolved into a ‘mentor dog’.

Dogs will form readily into a hierarchy in a conspecific ‘pack’, ‘group’ or ‘family’ (different adjectives meaning much the same but used in different contexts). However, in a heterospecific family the hierarchy is more fluid – if it exists at all. Accordingly, one dog ‘reprimanding’ another may be a natural occurrence; on the other hand a human ‘reprimanding’ a dog may be thought of as abuse!  Whilst we may disagree with many of Cesar Millan’s methods, he is an advocate of introducing a newly arrived dog to his ‘Dog Psychology Centre’ via the existing pack and that many problems, actual or potential, are resolved this way (Millan, 2008).

Turid Rugaas is of the opinion that it is not possible to train a dog to become a mentor to other dogs but we can reinforce subtle ‘calming signals’ (Rugaas, 1997). This assumes that we, the human, is capable of recognizing them in the first place. These include head turning, softening the eyes, blinking, paw lifting, turning away, lowering tail, licking the nose, shake off, sneezing, freezing, walking slowly, pacing, scratching, using slow movements, play bow, stretching, sitting down, down, yawning, sniffing, curving on approach, ‘mirror, matching and balancing’, splitting up (two or more dogs), and tail wagging…….. These signals fit into a complex self-organizing system and are used to achieve stability within a group rather than dominance. When two or more dogs meet they quickly arrive at a point where they are able to interact yet maintain their own integrity. They are also capable of doing this with other species. Interestingly, Turid does not mention the ‘head tilt’. Perhaps this is not considered a calming signal, rather an appeasement gesture (to OUR eyes) fine tuned after millennia of domestication! This is also known as ‘triangulation’ or ‘orientation reflex’ – in an attempt to accurately pin-point a sound. A primeval reflex when out hunting. The converse, of course, is threatening signals, perhaps not so subtle and more obvious to the human eye!

A mentor dog can be any size or breed; more importantly they will display calm assertiveness, authority and, the all elusive ‘energy’. They will invariably possess ‘A’ type personality (see previous blog) and will instinctively aid another dog which is showing difficulties in a given social situation (Duno – Modern Dog, 2010). Some mentor dogs will work with aggressive dogs, simply through having no choice and are ‘used’ to it; but many will not.

Mentor personality types may be described thus: 1. Monitor: Quietly confident and assertive.  2. Constant: Confident and calm but showing little interaction. 3. Nanny: Gentle, confident, relaxed and playful. 4. Clown: Confident, exuberant, highly interactive. Four very different personalities but note the recurring word: CONFIDENT – one emotion over which we, as the dog parent, can exert much influence!  

Millan, Cesar (2008) – Cesar’s Way, Hodder & Stoughton (UK).
Rugaas, Turid (1997) – On Talking Terms with Dogs, Dogwise Publishing (Wenatchee, WA).

Mentor or teacher?

Type A Personality Behaviour (TAPB) vs. The alpha dominance theory – Alpha, Beta, Omega (ABO)

TAPB is taken from human psychology, whilst ABO is from Ethology. They may, however, be considered as similar, and in many ways, parallel continuums.

TAPB – Type A Personality Behaviour

TAPB continuum

Type A<———————————>Type B<———————————–>Type C

Type A personality is highly competitive, dominant, unaccepting of any faults though often self-critical, and characterized by a constant feeling of working against the clock. Individuals generally experience a high stress level, hate failure and find it difficult to stop working, even when they have achieved their goals, oftentimes resulting in sleep disruption and insomnia. They strive toward goals without feeling a sense of joy in their efforts or accomplishments.

Interrelated with this is the presence of a significant life imbalance. This is characterized by a high work involvement. They are easily ‘wound up’ and tend to overreact. They also tend to suffer from hypertension.

Type A individuals tend to be easily aroused to anger or hostility, which they may or may not express overtly. Such individuals tend to see the worst in others, are highly critical, displaying anger, lack of compassion and sometimes show envy. When this behaviour is expressed overtly it may involve bullying, even aggression.

Individuals in this group tend to be naturally dominant and display high levels of energy and charisma – nature over nurture has intervened here. History shows this. Think of the Blair / Brown relationship. Brown may have been the ‘power behind the throne’, with the necessary qualifications, but was he a natural leader, or did he display the aforesaid qualities to be so? More recently, think of Trump / Pence. Trump’s mindset led to him achieving the highest post in US politics (possibly the world), rather than academic qualifications or intellect. He was a natural ‘No. 1’. Pence, on the other hand, a natural ‘No.2’, or Type B personality – though he may not agree with this definition!

Type B personality is characterized by a relaxed, patient, and easy-going nature. Individuals with a Type B personality work steadily, enjoying achievements, but do not tend to become stressed when goals are not achieved.

People with Type B personality tend to be more tolerant of others, are more relaxed than Type A individuals, more reflective, experience lower levels of anxiety and display a higher level of imagination and creativity.

Type C personality has difficulty expressing emotions and tends to suppress them, particularly negative ones such as anger.  This means such individual also display ‘pathological niceness,’ conflict avoidance, high social desirability, over compliance and patience.

Interestingly, Lewis Goldberg, in 1993, developed the Big Five Personality Traits theory. These are: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism – (OCEAN). Of course, we all lie at varying points on the continuum; it’s never unequivocal! Various surveys may be found online and a useful link is here: https://openpsychometrics.org/tests/IPIP-BFFM/

ABO – Alpha, Beta, Omega
This generally refers to a hierarchical structure in the animal kingdom. This is illustrated in the continuum:

ABO Continuum


‘Ranking’ may be considered a fluid state with different species achieving rank in different ways. For example, gorillas achieve high status using force and aggression, chimpanzees by using a combination of aggression and intelligence – forming alliances, and some species of birds often working in unison with a male ‘beta’ helping the male ‘alpha’ in finding a mate. Here we are concerned with canids and in particular the grey wolf (Canis lupus).

Classification of wolves into dominance hierarchies of alpha, beta and omega, were based on studies, in the late 60s/70s, of unrelated wolves in captivity. Dr David Mech et al, author of the studies, later rescinded the findings as incomplete, indeed, irrelevant. Alas, this terminology still endures today for the sake of convenience and disambiguety! Furthermore, due to the negative connotations of certain words, today the ‘alpha pair’ is often referred to as the ‘breeding pair’ and the ‘pack’ as the ‘family’. Common usage, however, means the terms are often used interchangeably. It rather depends on the context: for example we talk about wolves ‘hunting as a pack’ but ‘living as a family’. Of course, in modern day dog training, the word ‘pack’ is rarely used, except in certain genres and by certain people!

This blog is not intended as an explanation of wolf and family life, but as a brief summary of the notation ‘ABO’. There is a fluid hierarchy with the alpha at the top; usually, but not necessarily, male. At the behest of anthropomorphising, think of a chain of command. There may be an alpha pair or breeding pair – the only family members allowed to breed. The alpha will have attained his/her position through cheer force of character and energy, not necessarily through strength. Second in command (the sergeant) is the beta – also a diplomat and collaborator, ensuring deference in the lower ranks. The beta may, but not necessarily, assume the alpha role in the event of abdication or death of the current incumbent. All other family members are the omegas who show complete deference and submission to the alfa/s. The family lives as a cohesive entity, relying on cooperation rather than dominance. Unlike dogs, the male is fully involved with care of pups as well as heading hunting expeditions. In lean times, pups will be given preference to food. Second generation siblings, aunts and uncles will also share in caring of the young. First generation siblings by now will almost certainly have left the pack in search of a mate or another pack.

An omega personality is not necessarily the smallest or weakest animal. A study of the Sawtooth Pack in Idaho, identified Lakota as being the largest and strongest wolf. This proto-omega type personality – the ‘lone wolf’ – is more self-reliant, less collaborative than a beta, and less focused on leading a family. They will hunt smaller prey independently but may rejoin the family in lean times as larger packs tend to bring down larger prey. The ‘Allee Effect’ – safety in numbers.

As the result of the 70s wolf studies, the mid 70s/80s saw dog training at its worst, using dominance and punishment based theories. Think of Woodhouse, Fennell and, to this day, Millan and Daniel Abdelnoor aka ‘Doggy Dan’. Comparative psychology and zoology can help up to a point. However, a dog is not a wolf; even if the theory were correct, why would we, humans, use these methods? It’s akin to studying bonobo behaviour to understand that of humans!

There may be some truth in the theory that a person’s personality and appearance is in sync with that of their dog’s (or their wolf’s for that matter!)

Shaun Ellis the Wolfman in his Cornish hideaway!