The Alpha Dog Myth

“In order to train your dog, you have to show him who the boss is.” This statement is an example of what is known as the dominance theory.

Dominance theory assumes that most undesirable behaviors are due to the dog trying to be “dominant” or to be the “alpha”. It originated in the 1930s thanks to a Swiss animal behaviorist who, after observing wolves in a zoo, concluded that their frequent fights were the result of every wolf trying to gain dominance and the “alpha wolf” to become. This theory was later applied to wild wolves and eventually the domestic dog.

The problem is, the theory was wrong. You simply cannot look at the behavior of animals in captivity and automatically apply it to the behavior of those animals in the wild. It would be like looking at the behavior of prisoners of war or people in prisons and concluding that their behavior applies to all people.

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In fact, wolves behave very differently in captivity than they do in the wild. Wild wolves live in packs of extended families consisting of a couple, their offspring, and sometimes other families. When the pups are fully grown, they leave the pack, leaving the mated pair as the only long-term members.

Captive wolves, on the other hand, have been forced to live together in groups of unrelated individuals with no ties, an arrangement that inevitably creates adult conflict that simply does not exist in the wild.
In addition, dogs are not wolves. They may share the same evolutionary lineage, but dogs were domesticated eons ago and have developed species-specific adaptations for their constant interaction with humans.

And yet, the alpha myth lingers thanks to the multitude of websites, books, blogs, TV shows, veterinarians, and even trainers promoting the use of violence and intimidation to force your dog into submission. They say that you, the human, must be the alpha.

The mistaken assumption that an owner must assert dominance over the dog in order to “cure” their behavior problems is the exact opposite of what dogs really need to be able to overcome their behavior problems. Punishment, coercion, and intimidation are the hallmarks of this approach and rarely result in permanent change. In fact, it can sever the bond between you and your dog and cause the dog to have serious emotional issues that include shutdowns, constant fear, confusion, and even aggression.

If our goal is to establish real communication with our dogs so that they understand what we want – or not – from them, fear is not the way to go. For example, if your boss kicks you in the shins every time you make a mistake at work, you might find it difficult to do your job for fear it might happen again. The same goes for your dog.

Positive reinforcement, on the other hand, rewards good behavior and simply withdraws the reward if the dog ignores the command. A variety of studies dating back decades show that dogs that were trained with positive reinforcement had a much higher level of obedience and were much less likely to exhibit aggression than dogs that did punishment-based training – the kind that were under the Dominance theory is represented.

Respected professional animal behaviorists and trainers such as Pat Miller, Dr. Ian Dunbar and the late Sophia Yin directly reject the principles of dominance theory. Why? Because it doesn’t work. Period. This can result in a more forgiving dog, at least for a while … but indulgence isn’t synonymous with safety, satisfaction, or confidence. Buying into the alpha myth means your dog may be the loser at some point.

About Clayton Arredondo

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