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