Perhaps the most die-hard myth about dogs is the belief that humans must dominate and constantly prove to their dogs that the human is the Alpha, the pack leader, the one in charge. Dogs must be convinced they’re the subordinates. If humans don’t do this, the myth warns, their cute yet cunning dogs will immediately sense the leadership vacuum and act swiftly to fill it.
According to the alpha dog misconception, this canine power grab, if allowed to occur, leads to all sorts of behavior problems and conflicts between hapless owners and their dogs. The dogs will then push their titular owners around and seek to control them with their newly acquired “Alpha” status.
The concept of being the alpha used to be the accepted explanation, backed by scientifically gathered evidence, for canine behavior and for constructing behavior modification techniques, particularly for addressing undesirable behaviors. The wolf researcher David Mech was among the first scientists to apply the term “Alpha” to wolf packs, publishing his supporting research nearly 50 years ago. His early research was largely based on captive groups of wolves, rather than naturally formed packs in the wild, as it is today.
His early research using captive wolves, who interact differently from packs formed in the wild, observed a rigid wolf pack hierarchy established and maintained by displays of force to keep all the pack members in line. These observations, though they did not take into account the effect that captivity would have on the pack, strongly influenced dog behavior concepts at the time. The logic was that if dogs evolved from wolves, and much of their physiology is extremely similar to that of wolves, their behavior and learning must also be very similar. Because the prevailing models of wolf behavior showed that the pack leader, or “Alpha male,” had to fight his way to the top and then continue to assert his alpha status by shows of force and dominance, many people training dogs adopted the alpha wolf model in an attempt to explain how humans should control dogs’ behavior.
Proponents of the alpha method recommend such techniques as always going through doorways and gates before your dog does, walking your dog only on leash and never letting your dog get ahead of you or pull on the leash, only allowing your dog to sniff and urinate one time on walks, eating before your dog eats and pretending to eat from their bowl, always occupying a higher position in relation to your dog, and never playing tug-of-war with your dog. It’s a long list which must be enforced at all times, otherwise you risk immediately surrendering your alpha status to the dog.
Some of the techniques recommended in the past were downright dangerous, such as telling owners to force a dog onto his or her back in the so-called “Alpha wolf roll-over.” That technique has been largely abandoned after so many unwitting humans were bitten in the face while doing that to utterly confused and terrified dogs.
Fortunately for dogs and humans everywhere, the concept of the alpha wolf–and with it the alpha dog–has become obsolete in light of the evidence that’s been accumulating for some years now. In fact, David Mech stopped using alpha terminology in his own work not long after first publishing in support of it. You can see him discussing his more recent work and read his studies on wolf pack behavior in the wild here.
Not only have research findings on wolf behavior dramatically changed in the last 5 decades, and by extension the related notions about dog behavior, but also the entire evolutionary understanding of where dogs actually came from is, well, evolving. It used to be considered established scientific fact that dogs evolved directly from the gray wolf. However, recently published and ongoing research using genome sequencing is challenging the existing position that dogs evolved from the gray wolf. These new findings offer alternative hypotheses with a growing body of supporting evidence, and of course, calls for much more research.
In addition to these changes in our understanding of the influence of wolf behavior and pack dynamics on domestic dog behavior, learning theory as applied to dogs heavily supports methods and techniques that use positive reinforcement and cooperation between humans and dogs. Animal behaviorists, veterinary behaviorists, and canine behavior consultants who consider themselves modern and who practice evidence-based methods of behavior modification reject the alpha dog/pack leader model as obsolete and ineffective at best, dangerous and inhumane at its worst.
We’ve seen that the idea of humans attempting to control and train dogs by setting themselves up as alphas or pack leaders is a misconception based on outdated research about wolf pack behavior. We’ve also seen that the biological relationship between dogs and wolves is more complex and less direct than scientists once thought. In addition to arguing these points, in future posts I will present a series of videos in which I break all the most important rules for establishing and maintaining one’s alpha status over a dog. I’ll show that I can still get full and willing cooperation from my dog in situations where I am supposedly surrendering my status and influence over him as the so-called pack leader, because behavior modification is the result of the proper application of ABC principles of animal learning and not by being the Alpha.