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The Myth of 'Alpha Dog'

By: Hsin-Yi Cohen BSc, MA, MSt - Updated: 29 Mar 2013 | comments*Discuss
Alpha Dog Dominance Theory Alpha Roll

One of the most controversial topics in dog behaviour and training is the concept of the “alpha dog” – also known as the dominance theory. Once widely accepted as the model for canine behaviour and how to train them, this theory is now widely criticised as being over-simplified and in many places, downright misleading, leading to training methods that are doing more harm than good. So what is the myth of alpha dog’ all about and just how much of it is true?

Old Ideas

‘Dominance theory’ was developed in the 1970’s based on observations of captive wolf pack behaviour. Researchers concluded that wolves live in a strict linear hierarchy where the “top dog” or “ alpha wolf” gained this position through the use of excessive aggression or physical force to ‘dominate’ the other dogs and so force them to submit.

Since dogs are closely related to wolves, people assumed that dogs would follow the same patterns of behaviour – and so believed that the best way to train them and gain respect and obedience was to intimidate them through displays of physical force, such as the ‘alpha roll’ (flipping the dog forcefully onto his back and holding him down). This form of “dominance training” was widely used by trainers for several decades and led most people to believe that many of the normal behaviours displayed by pet dogs – such as jumping up on people, growling, urinating and pulling on the leash – were all due to the dogs trying to dominate their human owners.

New Observations

Since then, new observations of wolf and dog behaviour have begun to challenge the dominance theory. In fact, many of the things previously thought to be true about wolves and dogs were soon found to be either false or misunderstood. For instance, a wolf pack did not consist of a group of unrelated individuals with a leader who achieved his position through fighting and domination of the other members. In other words, the idea of an “alpha wolf” in a strict, linear hierarchy was a myth. Instead, wolf packs in the wild were in fact family groups with the parents being the “natural leaders” due to their greater age and experience and the offspring ranked beneath them in accordance to age and size, just like in a human family.

Another mistake the early researchers made was to believe that dogs behaved exactly like wolves, just because they shared DNA and could interbreed. In actual fact, dogs evolved in very different conditions to wolves – they are scavengers rather than hunters – and so their lifestyle did not encourage the development of large social groups, i.e. the packs with rigid social structures necessary for hunting successfully. Instead, dogs have a much more fluid, ever-changing and non-linear form of hierarchy.

Therefore for example, where previous a dog was believed to be trying to ‘dominate’ you when it tried to steal your food – now people were realising that this was the natural behaviour of an opportunistic predator and not some big by the pet for world domination!

The Dangers of Dominance Theory

Why should it matter if dogs are misunderstood and the dominance theory mistakenly propagated? Because it promotes the use of aggression and force when dealing with dogs and misinterpreting many of their inherently peaceful actions as signs of active rebellion and even domination, when they are none of those things. It incites people to asset themselves in violent, physical ways. This means that people often end up confronting their dogs and creating violent situations where there is no need to and therefore risking their dogs lashing out in fright and self-defence – a bad situation for everybody.

The real way to become ‘alpha dog’

In many cases, it is just as effective and much safer to assert your leadership through control of resources and by showing your dog clear boundaries and guidelines which are consistently enforced. In many cases, using positive reinforcement methods of training – although taking longer – may be more effective in permanently changing your dog’s behaviour because you will be understanding the cause and influencing voluntary change, rather than suppressing and forcing compliance.

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