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Alpha Dog Fallacy

Why the ‘Alpha Dog’ philosophy is flawed

In the 1940s a man by the name of Rudolph Schenkel published a paper on how wolves interacted.  He randomly selected unrelated wolves from different zoos and placed them together in a captive setting. Based on his study of this ‘pack’ he determined that wolves would fight their way to be the top dog in the pack.

About 25 years later L. David Mech (scientist and wolf researcher)  wrote several books based on Schenkel’s study.  In 90’s Mech studied wolves in the wild and realised that the ‘Alpha Dog’ mentality was incorrect.   Wolf packs are more like family’s.   Schenkel’s study reminds me of a TV reality show where unrelated people are put together in a house and studied (like Big Brother).   Here is David Mech recanting his Alpha Wolf term.


More on the myth: Why dominance theory is not true.

If you own a dog, you have probably heard it more than once – you should be a pack leader for your dog, your dog should be at the bottom of your house hierarchy, you should never let him walk in front of you, sleep on your bed, rest on the landing when you’re downstairs, block doorways, eat before you do – the list of these instructions is endless, and all in an effort to ensure your dog does not become dominant over you and start ruling your household.

According to the dominance theory, any dog showing aggression is likely to be defying your authority and therefore in order to fix the problem you need to re-establish yourself as a pack leader by……see the list above.

However, you might have also heard that the dominance theory is a bit of a myth. And here is why……

Dominance theory was created based on observations of (mostly captive) wolf packs, which appear to have a social structure with a pack leader on top and subordinates following the leader’s steps. However, dogs, despite taking their origins from wolves (and we don’t exactly know what their common ancestor looked like as it is most likely extinct now) are not wolves – they occupy a distinct ecological niche (i.e. they live alongside humans) and are not predators (they prefer scavenging) so do not need to form packs in order to kill large pray. Scavenging can be successfully done without any help, and free living dogs (much closer to our domestic pet dogs than wolves) observed in countries where such populations of free living dogs exist do not seem to have a strict social structure at all.

While dogs are social animals and if they live in a multi-dog household you can see differences in their personalities and some can be better in securing resources (such as food, toys, resting spaces etc.) than others, thus appearing to be “alpha” or “top dogs”, there is no evidence that they treat humans in the same way they treat their canine conspecifics. They do realize we are not dogs (after all it would be highly maladaptive not to be able to distinguish between different species) and although they are capable of forming social bonds with humans, these bonds are distinctly different to those they form with other dogs.

While dogs are good at understanding a lot of our social signals (e.g. the tone of voice, hand signals, pointing, looking at something) humans who try to imitate dogs or wolves in order to communicate their “dominant” status over their dog are more than likely to fail in their attempt. Dogs do not know what you mean by grabbing their scruff and rolling them on their back – this isn’t something they do to each other (the rolling is done by an individual who feels threatened in a tense/conflict situation and no help from the more confident dog is needed) and so the physical and confrontation nature of this manoeuvre can be regarded by them as highly threatening – which can lead to your dog becoming aggressive towards you. Similarly, if you try to imitate dog bites by jabbing your dog with your hand, your dog will not equate it with a similar gesture coming from another dog. Again, you might just provoke your dog to bite you if you try this.

Do you think you need to go through doors first and always have your dog walking behind you to make sure he doesn’t think he is a leader? Wolves don’t understand this, and neither do dogs. There are no doors or leads in the wild, and research has showed that any wolf in the pack can lead the pack on a hunt or when migrating – it just depends how experienced they are, so it might be older individuals rather than juveniles on most occasions. But it is not equal with your dog pulling on the lead or walking through the door in front of you – the reason why your dog is doing this is because he is excited to go for a walk and investigate new smells, sights and sounds. You might notice that he is not that eager to rush through the door on the way back home – does it mean he is less “dominant” after he’s had his walk?

If you think letting your dog sleep on your bed is going to make him want to rule the roost, rest assured there is no danger there. Dogs like sleeping on sofas and beds for the same reason we do – they are comfortable! Some dogs will like sleeping on the bed so much that they might start guarding it and refusing to get off, but that doesn’t mean they are trying to become the “top dog” – they are simply protecting something they regard as valuable. Things like teaching your dog to get off the bed/sofa on cue and providing them with an alternative, equally comfy bed can help. But if you enjoy your dog’s company on your sofa or in your bed, and your dog is happy to get off when asked to do so – do not worry, your dog is not going to turn into a dominant beast because of that.

Should you or should you not eat before your dog? The answer is, it is completely up to you. There is no evidence that your dog is going to become “dominant” if he has his dinner before you do. Some people prefer to feed their dogs before eating to avoid being stared at by hungry canines while enjoying their meal, but at the end of the day, it really doesn’t matter who eats first. Observations of wolves have proved inconclusive as to who eats first – often it is the pups that get fed first as they are most vulnerable, and if there is abundant food everybody feeds at the same time. Juveniles can guard from adults if they get a piece of meat first. And of course let us not forget that dogs are not wolves.

We should be very careful when trying to attribute qualities of wolves (animals who live in groups in order to hunt large prey) to domestic dogs (scavengers, sometimes living in loose social groups) as these are not the same animals despite some similarities in looks and behaviour. Behaviour problems in dogs should not be resolved by applying a blanket programme of “re-establishing your leadership” – it is rarely that simple, as inappropriate or abnormal behaviours can stem from many different reasons and being “dominant” and confrontational towards humans is rarely the case. While we would might like the thought that eating before your dog, never letting him sleep on the bed and scruffing him when he’s being aggressive is going to resolve whatever problems we have – after all anyone can follow these simple instructions – quick fixes really don’t work and can be very dangerous if used with dogs displaying aggression.

Written by the team at Pets in Practise, “where positivity and determination works!”