An insight into pack behaviour

Find out how pack behaviour affects dogs, to get a better understanding of your dog.

Subtitles: French*, Spanish* or English, click CC on viewer (*translation errors).



Close-up photo of a group of Border Collie sheepdogs close together

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Video Highlights

Learning about the dogs – from the dogs!
All dogs are descended from hunting dogs.
Possibly the earliest form of dog training.
The dog group behaviour we see at home.
The moody interval!
Pack behaviour, and the pack leader.
The big “fight”.
Digging and “dens”.
We learn so much from our dogs.
“Stay close”.

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How pack behaviour affects sheepdogs

This tutorial’s a little different from usual. We’re looking at dog behaviour, rather than training. “An Insight into Pack Behaviour” was originally a chapter on our “Still Off Duty” DVD. It’s 33 minutes of our thoughts about what we see when we’re out and about with our dogs.

We’re not suggesting that it’s the definitive guide to dog behaviour, but it illustrates much that we’ve seen and found useful when training a sheepdog. We’re hoping you’ll find it entertaining, as well as interesting, and we’re also hoping it will stimulate some debate about what we see. All of us are learning, and none of us knows all the answers (except, perhaps our dogs).

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19 responses to “An insight into pack behaviour”

  1. Andrea Rybar avatar
    Andrea Rybar

    Wonderful video … really astonishing to see this behavior together, with each other ….
    and to stay cool when the nearly kill each other ( at least it looks like) …
    I have a young male BC, 9 1/2 month old, just starting a little bit working with sheeps ….so I am happy to see your videos ..Thank you

  2. John Wheaton avatar
    John Wheaton

    My 3 1/2 year old BC Bet and I have spent entirely too much time watching TV today, initially just trials on YouTube and then a handful of your tutorials on Trialing and ending up with “Sheepdogs Time Out“ and “Insights into Pack Behaviour”. Normally Bet just hyperventilates when watching but with the last two she was positively trembling with excitement.
    You may have figured out that Bet is a house pet as well as a very capable herding dog. She’s typically very “busy” and when she lines up in pack she’s often near the back and often moving about. I haven’t found however that her lineup status, the fact that she’s a pet or that we indulge her TV watching habit has negatively affected her ability to get into serious working mode when around sheep. I haven’t put this to the serious test of competition since all our trials are cancelled due to the COVID timeout and maybe I ‘m just rationalizing but I sure am grateful to have this brilliant, complicated little dog who is brimming with personality. I make sure she knows I’m alpha but am so glad to have a companion during this isolating time.
    Have you ever felt that you spoiled one of your dogs by being overly indulgent ?

  3. Janine Newby avatar
    Janine Newby

    Hi again, Andy! Sorry for all of the questions! We went to herding practice today and the instructor told me that I really need to correct my dog anytime she curls her lip towards another dog. She can be reactive towards other dogs and certain people. She curled her lip towards one of the instructors dogs (which, in the past, usually ended up with my dog lunging at the other dog and me pulling her away)…the instructor quickly corrected her with a touch to her side and my dog proceeded to react towards the instructor (I thought she was going to bite her)…once again, the instructor quickly and unemotionally corrected her…this time by pinning her to the ground and waited patiently until she softened. Once she softened, she released her and my dog was very much changed. The rest of the morning she got along well with the 6-8 other dogs (something that never usually happens) and she not only respected the instructor but tried to seek her out for affection. I was amazed. Our two borders are in the house quite a bit of the time and play well together but the one tends to hoard toys and will curl her lip at the other in attempt to intimidate her to give something up. I was told not to allow that to happen as well. Do you have any thoughts on this situation? I’m mixed because they seem to sort it out on their own without problems but that might be because the other border is more submissive naturally. If she were to stand up to the assertive one, it could get ugly.

  4. Janine Newby avatar
    Janine Newby

    Hi and thank you for these wonderful resource videos! I would love to be able to have our dogs loose without fear that they will go chase/work stock on their own. We have cattle and horses and I don’t want the dogs out working them at will for fear of all animal safety. We also have ground squirrels on the property which are a huge temptation for them to chase. I currently keep the two dogs in dog runs when we are not home and one very strong bitch must be on a tie out if not being directly watched as no amount of fencing will keep her in. I’ve had the two borders for about a year and they are both about a year and a half right now. I’ve just started working the strong bitch on sheep but we are not very far along yet. Is there any hope to be able to have them in the yard without wandering off to work stock when I’m not looking?? Also….can you explain how you teach them to stay close when you’re out walking? or is that in a video I haven’t seen yet? Thank you!

    1. Thank you for the feedback on the videos, Janine!
      Being able to have the dogs loose all the time is something that needs a lot of time put into it. You have to have the dogs around you for a large part of the day, and as long as they properly respect you, they’ll gradually become conditioned to not wandering off. It’s all about having a really strong bond with the dog. By “bond” I don’t mean the dog wags its tail when you stroke it, I mean that the dog REALLY respects you.
      If you have the full respect of your dogs, and they know you don’t want them to wander off (or chase stock) at will, then they’ll learn to stay around quite quickly – but you need to introduce it in stages. Leave the dogs for a few moments while you go out of their sight. If they run off immediately, you have a long steep hill to climb, but if they stay there for just a minute or so, you can build on this gradually, until eventually, they’ll just stay around the back door or the yard all day if required.
      We can leave some of our dogs out all day like this, but others (mostly youngsters) have to be kept in their pens, but then we have at least a dozen dogs here at the moment.

  5. We recently adopted a cattledog/kelpie cross who is about one year old. When we first met our existing dog a three yr old kelpie he was very aggressive growling and snarling and trying to get at him from up to 50 metres away. We kept him on a lead and gradually brought them closer every day correcting any nastiness until we could trust him off lead with the other dog. Our kelpie who has never lived with another dog before was quite unsettled and eventually refused to play with any toys unless the new dog is well out of the way because he is worried that the toys will be stolen by the other dog as has happened a few times and when he tried to defend himself the new dog rushed at him and fought him away which terrified him. So now whenever I am playing fetch with the new dog he keeps his distance and covers all of the other dog’s movements as if he is herding him. Do you think he will ever have enough confidence to play happily with the new dog and should I discourage the herding tendency? I think one of these days the kelpie will try to stand up himself again and it will end up in a fight . If this happens should I just let them sort it out or intervene, I don’t want him to be permanently afraid of the new dog but then i think he is capable of coming out on top if he had the chance as he does have a strong character and maybe he just needs to work out how to relate to another dog. Your thoughts on this situation would be very helpful and much appreciated if I have been clear enough in explaining this. BTW this video was most entertaining and interesting to watch, I admire the effort you put in to creating all of the tutorials – they’re excellent!

    1. You don’t say just how long you’ve had the new dog, Anna, and you don’t mention training these dogs to work stock either, so I assume they are pets. When a dog goes to a new pack it will normally (I mean in at least ninety-five percent of cases) go to the bottom of the hierarchy ladder, and work its way up. In our experience, it’s fairly unusual for the new dog to be so aggressive towards an existing pack member, but then I guess (and it is only a guess) that with just one other dog in the pack, things might be different.
      Either way, it’s up to you to control the new dog. YOU are supposed to be the dominant one, not the new dog. When you take the dogs out together, if EITHER of them is aggressive (and means it) you should command it to stop (and REALLY mean it). If the aggressor ignores you, bundle it away somewhere it doesn’t want to be (back in the yard, in its pen or in a cage) and LEAVE it there for the rest of the play session. If you “give-in” and let the dog out again, you’ll undermine your own authority, so only let the aggressor out again on its own, to go to the toilet if you have to.
      The next time you take the dogs out, do exactly the same again. The aggression will stop very quickly if the aggressor gets no reward – and it won’t get a reward if it’s spending play time confined somewhere away from the action.
      The reason I would like to know how long you’ve had the new dog is that often it takes a couple of weeks for things to settle down between the old and the new pack members. Hopefully, this is all that’s happening, but either way, you are in charge and it’s down to you to stop the aggression.

      1. Thanks for the reply Andy. They actually are being trained to be stock dogs and the kelpie is at the point where I am thinking about entering in sheepdog trials but the new dog is just starting. We have had the new dog for just over three weeks. It did take us by surprise that the new dog was so aggressive as by all reports he got along well with other dogs before he came to us but being a rescue his history is a bit doubtful. At first we took them out together on lead and whenever he showed any signs of aggression we sharply said his name and pulled him away and then we praised him whenever he focused on us. If any real aggression surfaces again I’ll try to do as you suggest, the last week or so has been very good though. The only thing is that although the new dog is not being aggressive anymore the kelpie is still too scared to play while the new dog, Blinky, is around. He prefers to keep well out circling around and rounding him up although he’s fine when we are just walking along. I haven’t had any experience with handling more than one dog before so any advice would be helpful. No hurry though, I don’t want to intrude on your time too much!

        1. As I said in my earlier reply Anna, it takes a couple of weeks for the “pack” to settle down when a new dog joins them. They have to establish their hierarchy.

          1. No worries. I’m sure everything will come good eventually. I was just starting to get a bit worried because it has been four weeks now since we got him. And I guess its a big ajustment for a three yr old dog too. But not to worry, I’m sure you know what your talking about.
            All the best to you and your wonderful doggies!

  6. Jonathan Cobb avatar
    Jonathan Cobb

    Wonderful film Andy! I learned so much from watching it about dogs and I think perhaps people as well. ;-)

    1. I know what you mean, Jonathan! Thanks for the feedback.

  7. Saskia Sowers avatar
    Saskia Sowers

    I would like any advice , I have always had dogs never had this problem , Lately my 2 girls are fighting . Mirabelle “bella” my little 8.5 month old is challenging my other girl Lexi 10 months old. . Bella seems very insecure and always has . and she has always growled first and asked questions afterward. she can not beat Lexi as she out weighs bella by 20 lbs and , Lexi does no more than necessary to uphold her position and/or defend herself. and this is getting almost daily especially if they are in a confined space, as today, we were working at the hog pen they got into it between us and the brambles. . They get a lot of exercise. as I am writing this Bella is brooding in the corner. looking over at Lexi who is peacefully napping by the door , after lunch and we go back to work . then she growls again ??? Lexi has been doing very well on her obedience and coming when called etc.. I do not interfere when they fight , I my other dogs wish to pitch in as yours do on the video , but I dont let them, as they are Great Danes and I am afraid they may unintentionally go a.little too far due to simple difference of size 185 and 160lbs to 50 and 30 lbs .. This is getting very disturbing I dont know what to do . If anything , Hope they work it out ? what to do? I should note they do play well and most of the time they are fine . the fight usually ends with Lexi’s paw rested lightly on Bellas back whist she is beside her til Bella stops growling then Lexi moves off. or as in today Lexi just stood looking at her till she quit growling at her. then she moved off. Thank you for any advice ,Saskia

    1. Thank you for bringing this up, Saskia. What you describe is so similar to what we see at home. Even after all the years we’ve kept sheepdogs, we still worry about some of their squabbles because it’s often difficult to know the difference between “pack behaviour” and fighting.

      I have no formal qualifications as a “dog behaviourist” – but having said that, neither have I much faith in the opinions of some behaviourists I’ve met or heard reports of. As with dog trainers (and even vets on occasion) I advise anyone to seek advice from more than one source, and then take the advice of the one that makes the most sense (or a combination of both).

      Any qualifications I do have are based on my own (and Gill’s) observations of the “pack” of dogs we’ve had here for many years.

      I think the problem is that you have two females of very similar age.

      You’ve obviously seen the fight scene in the Pack Behaviour video. That was extremely difficult for me because I was filming the dogs at the time, and of course, I wanted to intervene, but I’m so glad I didn’t. After we really studied it, and then took other behaviour into consideration, we came to the conclusion that what we saw on that occasion was two adolescent males. The aggressor, Max was aware that Kevin was growing in status in the pack, and he wanted to assert his seniority over Kevin. From memory, Max was one year old, and Kevin, nine months…

      From your description you have two adolescent females, one of which is challenging the seniority of the older one. The older female is keeping her dignity and using only enough force to calm the youngster down. This is typical of what we see here. In fact, if you know the Bronwen and Scylla tutorials, you’ll know two of our worst “squabblers”. Just last week, they had an unusually aggressive fight which left Bronwen (the senior of the two) with a bleeding foot.

      For the dogs to damage one another like this is rare.

      Another thing we’ve noticed is that while males will have a “good old scrap” and settle matters, females are more likely to bear a grudge over a long period. This is what I feel you are seeing with your pair.

      You must do whatever you feel is best. I only have your description to go on, and I may not have understood you fully, but if they were my dogs and:

      • This only happened about once a week or less,
      • They weren’t actually harming one another
      • The older dog isn’t distressed by the younger one’s actions

      Then I think I would put it down to petty pack niggles and try not to worry too much about it.

      1. Saskia Sowers avatar
        Saskia Sowers

        Thank you Andy ! That does help. I’m going to watch your video again today to see if I can catch any nuances I may have missed in trying to see these fights coming and to learn more , I did however learn last night as I was drying Mirabelle off from her end of the day rinse off, as they are in at night, She is IN heat! I totally missed this. The fighting other than an occasional squabble , this last week or so has been hugely different. They have not damaged each other before, but yesterday 2 fights,and each has a small tooth mark scratch on their head (no blood.) and Bella has a sore, swollen nose/muzzle today I have them separated them as of today,plus I’m wanting to minimize the “heat” mess in my house. I noticed a drop of blood this morning , I’m not sure how far “in” she is . Can that be a contributing factor in this?? Strange that Lexi is older and no heat yet. I’ve been watching for her to do this first. so no unplanned litters everyone’s different I guess .Thanks again

        1. Saskia Sowers avatar
          Saskia Sowers

          Hi Andy , Well after a small separation of a day . we have been taking their runs together and watching carefully , no more fights I think Mirabelle’s heat also had something to do with this. I would really like your opinion on that. :D . Thankfully they are best of friends again.! and re watching that video really helped see some of the signs I had missed before . You do such a wonderful thing with these videos , nobody else really shows the real things the hard things.. that can happen in training or just life. Like everything is always great in training, if this or that trainers methods are used. My hat is off to you !

          1. Thank you Saskia, it’s great to read your feedback about the tutorials. We try hard to show the difficulties, and hopefully, how to correct them.
            I may be on delicate ground here but yes, in my opinion just as with humans, hormones can definitely play a part in the moods (or even aggression) of some female dogs. Of course, if there are females “in season”, male dogs can be severely affected too.
            It’s good to know that Mirabelle and Lexi have settled down again. Let’s hope you have a minimum of six months of perfect harmony between them!

  8. Gill Evans avatar

    Excellent behaviour filming, & not a shake when the fight started! I’ve always had a strong interest in solving dog behaviour problems & so many are based in misinterpretation of normal behaviour & owners going against established dog hierarchies. It’s great to see real-life, recorded observations.
    Re bitches producing milk spontaneously; about 1980 I aquired a 3 year old Bernese, rehomed from living wild on a farm/kennels for most of her life, as she was very man-& bang-shy – caused by old-fashioned correction for soiling as a pup. When she was 5 (& doing well rehab-wise & obedience training), she found an small, abandoned 6 month terrierx thrown in an industrial bin where I worked, presumably because he was sharp & very noisy til retrained. He had almost identical tri-markings, smooth-haired, & must have seemed like a puppy to Heidi. 24 hours after he joined us, she was lactating, milk dripping everywhere, which lasted 2 weeks or so, though he was too old to be interested. However she enjoyed mothering him, & it served well, as he became ill for a week from the stress of the abandonment & a dislocated shoulder. He became a great 14 ” CDEx trial dog though! Gill

  9. Francois and Yvonne De Brucker-Hollyoak avatar
    Francois and Yvonne De Brucker-Hollyoak

    Wonderful film. My third time watching this great pack of dogs. Yvonne?

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