Did you know that the “Alpha Dog” mentality--a theory that says dogs form packs with one “alpha” or leader and that proper training requires a human to instill in their dog that the human is the ‘alpha’ of the pack--is really a myth?
This theory stems from research done on a constructed pack of unrelated young male wolves in a captive setting in the 1930s & 1940s, but more recent studies have shown that wolves do not naturally behave this way. That is because wild wolf “packs” are actually families. The so-called dominant pair are actually parents and the “submissive” wolves their offspring. Young wolves remain with their parents and help raise the pups. When they are ready, they leave to find a mate and establish a new “pack.” In captive settings, the wolves are often unrelated and are not able to leave the pack, so a hierarchy is established to maintain order and prevent bloodshed.
Dr. L. David Mech, a wolf expert who studies wild wolves, is largely responsible for establishing this more accurate structure of wolf packs. Ironically, it was Dr. Mech’s book The Wolf: The Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species which first brought the concept of the alpha wolf to popular culture in the 1970s. This theory was unfortunately applied to dogs and became a mainstream method of dog training.
Alpha roles (such as eating first, being the first through the door, controlling desirable territory such as a bed or couch, forcing the dog to release something from his mouth), alpha rolls (rolling the dog onto his back to force a submissive pose), scruffing (grabbing the fur at the back of the neck and lifting or shaking the dog), and growling or yelling to establish dominance are all based on this flawed theory.
In addition, a 2009 veterinary study found that dominance-based training does more harm than good. “Our study demonstrated that many confrontational training methods, whether staring down dogs, striking them, or intimidating them with physical manipulation, do little to correct improper behavior and can elicit aggressive responses,” said Meghan Herron, DVM, lead author of the study.
So what about dog-dog relationships? The latest scientific research suggests that dog hierarchies (if you want to use that vernacular) are fluid or situational. Dogs make decisions based on how much they desire a particular resource (such as food, water, or territory), how much another dog seems to desire it, and whether they think they could win if a conflict occurs.
Sophia Yin Blog posts:
New Study Finds Popular "Alpha Dog" Training Techniques Can Cause More Harm Than Good
Experts Say Dominance-Based Dog Training Techniques Made Popular by TV Can Contribute to Bites
Dave Mech website
For more information:
Position Statement by the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior
Position Statement by Association of Professional Dog Trainers https://apdt.com/docs/resources/dominance-and-dog-training.pdf
Last week we established that “socialization” is the process of learning how to properly function in a particular environment. This raises the question, “Won't dogs naturally learn what is 'normal' in a human household?” Well, yes and no. Your dog certainly could learn what is acceptable behavior at home and be comfortable with everything and everyone in the household without any effort on your part. But what about everything else? What about visitors, neighbors, neighborhood dogs, the vet office, the pet store, the park, vacations, etc. The list goes on and on. This brings us to another key concept about dogs: they don’t generalize very well.
Generalization is the process of applying a concept to a group. A puppy at home may learn that the humans she lives with or who visit regularly are friendly. That doesn’t mean the puppy will generalize that humans are friendly. Get it? This is why when it comes to proper socialization, nothing at home counts! Just because you have kids at home doesn’t mean your puppy will be comfortable with all kids. It takes planning and structure to introduce your puppy to the concept of coping with novelty.
So what is involved in a deliberate and thorough puppy socialization program? I’m so glad you asked. These are the key concepts that I recommend in a puppy socialization program:
This involves allowing your puppy to explore new and different surroundings in a safe manner. In my classes, this is the one that I find helps shy puppies the most. The process of physically and mentally exploring their world on their own terms helps them to gain confidence in their abilities while also decreasing their inherent fear of the new environment.
There are so many things that I want to share about this topic that I might have to do a separate blog post. For now, I will just say that I want you to think QUALITY over QUANTITY and to remember Laura’s mandate: “Humans don’t meet puppies. Puppies meet humans.” While someone may invite your puppy to say hello, it is up to your puppy whether or not to approach. The person should not approach your puppy.
This is a checklist of all the different people, animals, locations, sounds, substrates, weather….(I could go on ad nauseum) that you should introduce your puppy to before 16 weeks of age. Realistically, you are probably not going to get to them all, but it gives you a great starting point and some goals. Here are some sample checklists:
Dr. Sophia Yin’s Socialization Checklist
Chris Pul’s Socialization Checklist shared in Laura’s book
Pet Professional Guild Checklist
This is what most people think socialization refers to--puppies playing with other puppies and dogs. Just like children, puppies learn through play. Play time can teach your puppy how to properly communicate and read another dog’s body language. It can also help with that ever important bite inhibition (to control the strength of the bite).
While this aspect of socialization is important, it is last on my list. That is because a dog that does not get along with other dogs can lead a perfectly happy, healthy, and full life. Trust me. I know. That doesn't mean you should ignore this aspect of socialization. I’m just not prioritizing it as high as getting your puppy comfortable with strange humans. That is a lot harder to live with.
Now that you know what is involved, why not get some help? Look for a puppy class that is specifically designed for puppies in the critical socialization window.
Puppy Social at Canine Humane Network
Puppy Social is a 4-week class with rolling admission for puppies 8 to 16 weeks old. Sign up at any time. From socialization to potty training, this class covers everything you need to know about training your brand new puppy.
For more information about Puppy Socialization, check out these great resources:
As an adopter of several reactive shelter dogs (dogs that “react” to other dogs, wildlife, or people by barking, lunging, or growling), I am passionate about getting the word out about properly socializing puppies. Unfortunately, while “socialization” is a word that gets thrown around a lot in dog circles, most people don’t have an understanding of what it truly means or how to properly go about it.
Let’s start with what socialization really means. In her book, Social, Civil, and Savvy, Laura VanArendonk Baugh CPDT-KA KPACTP defines socialization as “the acquisition of cultural habits and social communication to equip an individual to live in society.” To put that in layman’s terms, she tells her clients, “I want a dog to think rationally and proactively about any new stimulus or situation, and I want him to act intentionally and with confidence.”
But why is this process necessary? To answer that question, we need to look at how dogs develop socially. After a puppy is born, he will go through socialization periods which are structured to maximize the species’ survival. The first socialization period occurs when the puppies are still in the den and only interact with family members. The second period occurs between 7-16 weeks of age as the pups begin to explore and experience life in the outside world. In the wild, parents would keep puppies away from danger while they are in this stage of learning, so they are only exposed to “safe” areas, animals, etc. Once this window closes, the pups will be leery of anything new or different as this could be potentially dangerous in nature
That last sentence is the key to the importance of the socialization process. An adult dog with too much curiosity could end up dead. Therefore, adult dogs are programmed to avoid unfamiliar animals and environments. In the dog’s mind anything different means danger. For this reason, it is imperative that puppies living with humans are taught how to deal with novelty so that they may function in a constantly changing environment with new dogs, people, and locations.
I hope that helps you to understand a little bit more about the importance of socializing your puppy. Next week I will talk a bit more about HOW to properly and fully socialize your puppy. In the meantime, feel free to check out some of these resources for more information.