Re-thinking the concept of the alpha dog

A dog who exhibits dominant or aggressive behaviour is often labelled an ‘’alpha dog’’. There is no shortage on information on so-called “alpha” behaviour in domesticated dogs. Pet training books, websites, vets, even fellow pet owners will all tell you that you need to ‘show your dog who is boss’. But what if ideas around the ‘’alpha dog’’ is not a scientific theory but a myth?

Debunkers of the alpha dog theory claim it is based on erroneous assumptions about what drives canine behaviour and how to address it. This has ground-breaking potential to change how we relate to and raise our dogs.

Where does the ‘’alpha dog’’ theory come from?

The idea of the alpha dog stems from the popular theory of a natural social hierarchy that was observed in packs of wolves in the wild. As the dog is a close relative of the wolf, dominant behaviour (particularly in households with more than one dog) is thought to be instinctual in dogs, a sign that they are asserting themselves as leader of the pack.

How ideas of the “alpha dog” influenced training methods

The accepted theory that social behaviour in dogs is closely linked to the “pack mentality” of wolves has had significant implications for dog training methods. Alpha dog behaviour is thought to cause problems in domestic households when the dog attempts to position themselves above their human owner. Unruly, disobedient and aggressive behaviour in dogs is explained as evidence of an alpha dog refusing to accept the authority of their human master. Cesar Millan aka “the dog whisperer” popularised forceful techniques to combat displays of dominance in pet dogs and assist owners in re-asserting themselves as the alpha. Millan and others who ascribe to the dominance models of dog behaviour espouse using aversive training techniques such as the “alpha roll” (where the owner pins the dog on its back and holds them in that position), staring the dog down and other punishment-style techniques designed to teach the dog who is boss.

A different perspective

Stanley Coren, a psychologist and author of books on dog behaviour argues that recent research into wolf behaviour doesn’t support the existence of a rigid, military-like social hierarchy in canines. There is not an alpha in the pack who fights to be ‘top dog’ and rules through force and intimidation but rather a natural leader develops. This can be likened to the way parents assume a position of dominance over their offspring; to protect and nurture rather than to exert power and control.

So what does this mean for pet owners and dog trainers?

It means the theories humans developed on how to train dogs is based on a faulty premise. Maybe it’s time to let go of dominance models of training that are designed to punish and subjugate the “alpha dog” and move towards a reward-based system. A technique know as Positive-Reinforcement Training is earning greater recognition in the dog training world. This approach attempts to modify behaviour through controlling the things a dog needs and wants rather than exerting force. Advocates of this approach believe this will strengthen the human-dog bond and allow for a more natural relationship to develop between pet and owner. So the takeaway message for dog owners out there is to rule with love rather than with an iron fist!

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