No, Your Dog isn’t Alpha

Alpha Dogs are NOT a Thing

Hey people – your dog isn’t a wolf and he/ she isn’t trying to dominate you. Really. And the sooner we stop believing in those lies the better our dogs’ lives will be.

Among the recent comments on a post I wrote about shock collars, there were several folks who espoused dominance theory or showing a dog who the alpha is in the relationship.  Boy, do those people have it wrong.            

Almost all behaviorists and most trainers who have formal education are aware of that fact.  But the myth of canine dominance has a life of its own and has proven difficult to stomp out.  Unfortunately, shows like the Dog Whisperer keep this debunked theory in the spotlight, even though it has been disproven with time and research.

So, for those who might not be aware: there is no such thing as canine behavioral dominance, and the alpha theory is based on two total erroneous beliefs:

  1. That wolves in the wild live in packs where there is constant shifting of the pack hierarchy, as wolves struggle to become the alpha male/ female.
  2. That dogs are descended from wolves; therefore, we should look to wolf behavior to understand canine behavior.

In the 1930’s and 40’s a Swiss behaviorist, Rudolph Schenkel, spent his days studying a pack of unrelated captive wolves in Switzerland’s Basel Zoo. He witnessed constant struggles among the wolves, with the strongest of them earning the best of the resources available.  He erroneously took this behavior and applied it to wolves in the wild.   However, wild wolf packs are a tight-knit family group of mom, dad and various aged offspring.  As the young wolves grow up, they do not battle their parents for control of the “pack” they simple leave to start families of their own.  The wolves in the zoo didn’t have the ability to strike off on their own.  Their behavior was no more a reflection of “normal” wolf behavior than prisoner behavior is of normal family dynamics.

Dogs are not wolves.  The two species split evolutionarily 15,000 years ago when man began to domesticate the dog.  Dogs never live in a pack the way wolves do. At best they will travel in a loose social group when running at large.  In a household with multiple dogs they tend to take turns deferring to each other based on the day, the circumstances and how they feel. 

Multiple articles, research studies and books have been written debunking the alpha theory, so why does it remain so prevalent? Why can’t people let it go?  Because sometimes the training methods that go along with dominance theory work.  So, there is just enough reinforcement to keep the theory alive in the mind’s of people who haven’t learned better.  The problem is, dominance theory-based training can make a shy dog permanently frightened, and a confident dog aggressive.  It works best with happy go lucky, emotionally balanced dogs who learn despite our bad behavior. 

Many behaviors considered to be dominant are actually based in fear and aggression. If a dog is frightened of something he’s going to act out to get it away from him. It’s our job to help figure out how to make a situation less fear invoking. If we use a dominant base training method we may actually compound the issue.

Dogs are remarkably opportunistic and amoral.  They don’t do things to prove they are in charge, they do things to reward themselves.  They jump up on the furniture because it is comfortable and close to the people they love.  They counter-surf because the food they find there rewards their behavior.  They aren’t trying to supplant us as head of the family.  They know we aren’t dogs.  They are just trying to get what they want when they want it.  A dog who refuses to do as we ask isn’t trying to show he’s the boss. He’s telling us we haven’t made the behavior rewarding enough to perform.

Rather than subscribing to the heavy-handed training philosophy that defines the alpha movement, take the time to research and learn about applied behavioral analysis and relationship-based training. Your dog loves you and trusts you to do what’s right.  Don’t stress that trust by acting like a dominant jerk.

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