Dominance Theory & the Alpha Myth

I want to preface this post by saying I know that what I’m going to say regarding dominance theory will likely upset some people and may be seen as blunt. I’m ok with that because the reality is that dominance theory has done more damage to dog training than any other theory I can think of off the top of my head.

In 1934 Rudolph Schenkel, a Swiss animal behaviorist, began a study of captive wolves living in the Basel (spelled Basle in the study) Zoological Garden in Basel Switzerland. Based on his observations he theorized that wolves in packs fight to gain dominance and the winner becomes the alpha wolf. The concept was then extrapolated and applied to both wild wolf packs and domestic dogs. You don’t need to be a scientist to see the problem with applying that theory to animals in the wild or to a completely different species.

The idea really took off when wildlife research biologist David Mech wrote about it. Here is what he has to say about it now:

“The concept of the alpha wolf is well ingrained in the popular wolf literature, at least partly because of my book “The Wolf: Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species,” written in 1968, published in 1970, republished in paperback in 1981, and currently still in print, despite my numerous pleas to the publisher to stop publishing it. Although most of the book’s info is still accurate, much is outdated. We have learned more about wolves in the last 40 years than in all of previous history.

One of the outdated pieces of information is the concept of the alpha wolf. ‘Alpha’ implies competing with others and becoming top dog by winning a contest or battle. However, most wolves who lead packs achieved their position simply by mating and producing pups, which then became their pack. In other words they are merely breeders, or parents, and that’s all we call them today, the ‘breeding male,’ ‘breeding female,’ or ‘male parent,’ ‘female parent,’ or the ‘adult male’ or ‘adult female.'” 

Here’s a clip where Mech talks about the misconceptions surrounding the term Alpha and how it’s typically only a term that would be appropriate to apply to wolves in captivity or in the rare case where there are multiple breeding females in a wild pack.

In recent years we’ve seen the idea of being an “alpha” with your dog or maintaining “dominance” pushed by popular trainers like Ceasar Milan. It’s also something you’ll probably see or hear referenced, in some form, in almost every movie or tv show that has a dog in it. Here’s a couple classic examples from the movie “Snow Dogs”

There are lots of key words, concepts, and phrases commonly used by trainers who prescribe to this style of training. I’ll list some below:

  • Alpha roll (when someone forcefully rolls a dog onto it’s back and forces them to stay there till they stop moving and give up)
  • Leadership
  • “Consequences for behavior”
  • Pack
  • “Be the boss of your dog”
  • “Let your dog know who’s in charge”
  • “Hold your dog accountable”
  • “Your dog needs to respect you”
  • Boundaries

Some concepts that aren’t bad on their own have also been co-opted. Particularly things like “structure” and “relationship based training”.

Providing your dog with a regular routine is a good thing and dogs who are anxious will certainly benefit from knowing what to expect. The problem with the term structure comes in when it’s used to force a dog to remain in a position while stressed. For example making a dog sit or stay on “place” while their trigger gets closer and closer. Choice is a critical part of helping dogs through reactivity and demanding that they maintain a certain physical position can exacerbate their level of distress. It can also make it harder to identify discomfort.

While “relationship based” seems like a good thing it can be used by people who believe that the human dog relationship is inherently rooted in being an “alpha”. It’s a shame because it’s a term I would have loved to use to describe my own training style but it can be a red flag that indicates a trainer uses outdated methods.

The reality is that dogs do what works for them. If a behavior is rewarded by humans, the environment, or if it’s inherently rewarding a dog is likely to continue performing it. If a behavior is not rewarding the dog is likely to stop performing it. We over complicate things when we assign ideas like respect to dogs. Their minds work on a strictly cause and effect equation system.

At this point many people have questions about behavior that they’ve seen in dogs that they believe proves that a dog is trying to be “dominant” or the “alpha”.

The first thing that people often talk about is a dog who takes other dogs toys, resource guards, pushes other dogs around, etc… They believe that dog is an “alpha” when in reality the dog is just being a bully. Again they are working on a cause and effect system, what they’re doing gets them what they want so they keep doing it. In these situations it’s the owners responsibility to intervene so that a pattern of behavior doesn’t develop.

Another example is a couple who owns a dog with behavior challenges. The dog does much better for the the husband but frequently “acts up” with the wife. The husband says it’s because the dog senses the wife isn’t a “pack leader” or “dominant” enough.

The reality is there can be lots of reasons a dog acts differently with different people. It could be the husband works with the dog more and there’s more of a reward history (play, treats, attention, walks, etc). It could be that the wife has had bad interactions with the dog and is now nervous when they’re around each other. ***This creates a feedback loop of anxiety between the owner and dog which makes their behavior worse.*** The dog might have been adopted and before coming into the home it had bad experiences with women. None of those things have anything to do with being the “alpha”.

***Note: An owners anxiety is not to blame for a dogs behavior challenges. The reality is that if they had a breed not prone to feeding off handler emotion that was temperamentally sound it likely wouldn’t be an issue. There are many factors to consider when looking at things like reactivity or aggression. A mix of individual temperament, genetics, early life experiences, family dynamics, other animals in the home, medical conditions, medications, and more typically combines to create the behaviors we see.***

When we use “dominance” based training methods it automatically puts us in conflict with the dog. This increases the risk of escalating aggression, it can result in learned helplessness or a dog who stops giving stress signals and then “bites out of nowhere”. It’s also unnecessarily stressful for both dogs and humans.

Instead of assigning lots of emotion and intent to a dogs behavior it’s far more productive to look at it from the standpoint of reinforcing vs not reinforcing. Analyzing that is how you can come up with a strategic plan to shape the behavior you want to see more of and eliminate or channel the behavior you want to see decrease.

Resources & References:

Featured image by Eva Blue on Unsplash

One Comment on “Dominance Theory & the Alpha Myth

  1. Pingback: How to Find a Reputable Dog Trainer – Paws on the Plains

Leave a Reply