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The idea that you should “be the pack leader” is one that is so ingrained in our community that it is considered by most of the general public to be an incontrovertible fact. We have all grown up with the concept of the “top dog” or the “alpha”, and most people believe statements like “he’s a dominant dog” without question.

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NO SUCH THING AS AN ALPHA DOG

A History On The Origin of Dominance Based Training

by Beacon Dog Trainer Maddie Pryce

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The idea has been so universally accepted by our culture that telling somebody “there’s no such thing as an alpha in dog training” is met with a knee jerk reaction of denial. Most dog owners hear that statement with the same kind of scepticism they’d feel if they were told the Earth was flat or fire was cold.

The idea of the “alpha dog” has its roots in research from the 1930s and 40s, where scientists studied captive wolves living zoos. The majority of the wolves in the studies were unrelated animals who didn’t know each other prior to captivity. The scientists observed the captive wolves fighting over resources, with the biggest, strongest and most aggressive animals winning the fights – and hence the concept of the “alpha wolf” was born.

The next part of history is where we began to make the mistakes that led to where we are today. The behaviourists of the time made the assumption that wolves in the wild behaved the same way as captive wolves; that all wolves engaged in violent power struggles, where the top position was held by aggressive means. Not only did we apply the concept to wild wolves, we also began to paint domestic dogs with the same brush.

In reality, the dynamics of a wild wolf pack are much different from what the scientists had observed in the captive wolves. Wild packs are quite similar in makeup to human families, usually consisting of an adult male and female wolf, and their newborn and adolescent offspring. Assuming that wild wolves act like captive ones is like assuming that the average human family treat each other the same way that a group of strangers in prison would.

The mother and father wolf provide for the needs of their young in the much the same way that we provide for our children. There is no competition to “take over” the pack; the family works together to survive, with the mother and father leading due to age and experience, rather than aggression. Once the pups have grown up they don’t try to unseat their parents; they move on to start families of their own.

When we apply the concept of the “alpha” to our domestic dogs, not only are we basing our actions on research done on wolves (which is about as useful as a human taking parenting advice from a monkey), we’re also relying on outdated research that isn’t even applicable to a real wolf pack, let alone a human family with a dog.

Luckily, the current climate in dog training is one of change for the better. While there are still trainers and other professionals encouraging owners to strive for “dominance” over their dogs by using violence, fear and intimidation, there is an ever-growing number of advocates for training methods based on mutually beneficial relationships between dogs and people.

Trainers who use modern, science-based methods encourage owners to use humane, reward based methods to teach their dogs good manners. The result of this style of training is a dog that gets what they need to be happy – food, shelter, physical exercise, mental enrichment and love – and humans who get what they need from the dog – a polite dog who responds happily to their owner’s requests, and follows the rules they have been taught.

The next time you hear somebody say, “you need to be dominant over your dog or they won’t listen to you,” consider sending them a link to this article. The more people advocate for modern and humane training methods, the sooner that cruel and violent dog training methods will become a thing of the past.

REFERENCES AND FURTHER READING

“Why not dominance?”
by Carol & Dana Byrnes - Diamonds in the Ruff

http://www.diamondsintheruff.com/why-not-dominance

“De-Bunking the "Alpha Dog" Theory”
by Pat Miller - Whole Dog Journal

https://www.whole-dog-journal.com/issues/14_12/features/Alpha-Dogs_20416-1.html?zkPrintable=true

“Dominance and Dog Training”
Association of Professional Dog Trainers

http://docs.wixstatic.com/ugd/8d4174_ebbef4af9561466d8efe3c2d459724af.pdf

“Position Statement on the Use of Dominance Theory in Behavior Modification of Animals”
American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior

https://avsab.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/Dominance_Position_Statement_download-10-3-14.pdf

“Whatever Happened to the Term ALPHA Wolf?”
by Dr David Mech

http://docs.wixstatic.com/ugd/8d4174_8d46629eaf254b2083b9a32a3e8bbeb3.pdf

If you would like to do your own research into the studies on wolf behaviour mentioned, the key scientist from the original research was Swiss behaviourist Rudolph Schenkel. Of note too is David Mech, the American scientist whose book The Wolf: Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species, published in 1970, was largely responsible for the concept of the alpha wolf entering popular culture. Dr Mech has expressed his regret that the book is still in circulation, and is an advocate for science’s updated understanding of wolf behaviour.

REFERENCES AND FURTHER READING

“Why not dominance?”
by Carol & Dana Byrnes - Diamonds in the Ruff

(LINK)

“De-Bunking the "Alpha Dog" Theory”
by Pat Miller - Whole Dog Journal

(LINK)

“Dominance and Dog Training”
Association of Professional Dog Trainers

(LINK)

“Position Statement on the Use of Dominance Theory in Behavior Modification of Animals”
American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior

(LINK)

“Whatever Happened to the Term ALPHA Wolf?”
by Dr David Mech

(LINK)

If you would like to do your own research into the studies on wolf behaviour mentioned, the key scientist from the original research was Swiss behaviourist Rudolph Schenkel. Of note too is David Mech, the American scientist whose book The Wolf: Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species, published in 1970, was largely responsible for the concept of the alpha wolf entering popular culture. Dr Mech has expressed his regret that the book is still in circulation, and is an advocate for science’s updated understanding of wolf behaviour.

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