You may have noticed that at AWLA we do not use terms such as “alpha” or “dominant/submissive” dogs…and that’s because those concepts have long since been debunked!
These theories were first introduced in the 1930s by animal behaviorist Rudolph Schenkel. He studied two groups of captive wolves at the Zoo Basel in Switzerland, attempting to identify the “sociology of the wolf”. He theorized that alpha wolves (the leader of the pack) was the wolf with the most resources, and used dominance, fear, and force to obtain those resources. In his research, Schenkel drew frequent incorrect parallels between wolves and domestic dogs.
The major flaw with Schenkel’s study was that it did not include any observations of wolves in the wild. Despite this, his study and the validity behind it was believed for decades. The idea of an “alpha” or “dominant” wolf was initially reinforced in the 60s by wildlife biologist David Mech. However, after Mech and other animal behaviorists spent more time studying wolves in the wild (observing behaviors occurring in the animal’s natural environment), they drew a different conclusion. Mech wrote in a published paper; “One of the outdated pieces of information is the concept of the alpha wolf.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.”
We need to remember that dogs are not wolves. Dog Behavior Consultant Pat Miller, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, states, “Most of our canine companions don’t live in stable familial groups, but are randomly adopted into various homes, sometimes multiple homes over their lifetimes. Trying to apply conclusions about wolf behavior to our understanding of dog behavior is simply an exercise in futility, guaranteed to lead to inappropriate and ineffective training methods. Dogs are not wolves.”
Unfortunately, the concept of the “alpha dog” and “being the dominant one” still persist, particularly in the realm of aversive dog trainers that use these terms as catch phrases and techniques that can actually damage the relationship between pets and their people. Normal dog behaviors that can be modified and managed, like pulling on walks, resource guarding and growling, are mis-labeled as “dominant” behaviors and guardians are encouraged to “show them who’s boss”.
Thankfully, modern studies and theories of dogs’ social structures and their needs have ushered in newer and more humane training methods. In 1985, marine mammal trainer Karen Pryor wrote a book titled “Don’t Shoot the Dog”, which made a huge shift in the world of dog training and animal behavior. Then in 1993, Dr Ian Dunbar founded the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT), who’s guiding principle is: “We promote the use of reward-based training methods, thereby minimizing the use of aversive techniques.” As time has passed, reward based training has become an increasingly popular dog training method because of the ease and effectiveness that it entails, embracing the science of behavior and learning theory instead of using methods that use force and incomplete communication like “alpha rolls”, prong/choke collars, etc.
Behaviors are fluid and can change at any time. Dogs mistakenly labeled as “alphas” are often insecure about a particular situation(s) or they just do not know what is expected of them. Their actions may include competing for resources, posturing or showing threatening behaviors to simply increase distance – the last thing they would want would be to be ‘in charge’! Remember that behaviors that are reinforced are repeated and grow stronger. If your dog is a counter-surfer or jumps up on house guests, it’s not because they want to be “the alpha”, it’s because that behavior has been reinforced in some way – there is food on the counter, or they get attention every time they jump up. Learn more about reward based training here.
So what do you do about more serious behaviors like resource guarding or dog reactivity? We recommend finding a CPDT-KA, KPA-CTP, CDBC, or CBCC-certified trainer to help you and your dog. You can learn more about how to find a reward based trainer here.
~ Chelsea Jones, Amy Schindler, CPDT-KA, and Samantha Wolfman, CPDT-KA