Alpha Dogs

May 04, 2022
Alpha dogs

Alpha dog?  Dominant dog?

Dominance theory in dogs is based on a study of captive zoo wolves conducted in the 1930s and 1940s by Swiss animal behaviourist Rudolph Schenkel, in which the scientist concluded that wolves in a pack fight to gain dominance, and the winner is the alpha wolf.

What Schenkel found was that if you put groups of unrelated wolves together in an artificial captive environment, they do, indeed, engage in often-violent and bloody social struggles. The victor will be the dominant wolf! And Schenkel wasn’t the only one, loads of other behaviourists tried similar studies on captive wolves and came to exactly the same conclusion.  So it seems obvious that as our pet dogs are descended from wolves they will exhibit this behaviour with other dogs and even with us humans.  Right??

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Weeelllllll, no…

There are a few problems with all these studies.

The first one is that it’s not normal wolf behaviour.  As David Mech stated in the introduction to his study of wild wolves (Mech, 2000), “Attempting to apply information about the behavior of assemblages of unrelated captive wolves to the familial structure of natural packs has resulted in considerable confusion. Such an approach is analogous to trying to draw inferences about human family dynamics by studying humans in refugee camps. The concept of the alpha wolf as a ‘top dog’ ruling a group of similar-aged compatriots (Schenkel 1947; Rabb et al. 1967; Fox 1971a; Zimen 1975, 1982; Lockwood 1979; van Hooff et al. 1987) is particularly misleading.”

What Mech is saying in a slightly confusing way here is that in the wild wolves live in family groupings so studying groups of unrelated wolves is misleading.

Mech studied wolves in their natural environment (as did many others) and found that in the wild wolves live together in families with a mated pair and any pups from the previous one to three years.  Occasionally two or three families may group together.

As the pups get older they will leave the pack so the vast majority of the pack is only there for up to three years, with the only constant members being the breeding pair.  Whereas in zoos unrelated wolves are forced to live together for many years, creating tension between mature adults that doesn’t happen in a natural, wild pack

But anyway, how many of us have pet wolves?  Not many I’m thinking.  Our dogs are different from their wolf ancestors due to thousands of years of living alongside and with us and selective breeding.

How did it happen that dog owners and trainers started thinking that information (and misinformation) about wolf behavior had anything to do with dogs and dog behaviour? The logic went something like, “Dogs are descended from wolves. Wolves live in hierarchical packs in which the aggressive alpha male rules over everyone else. Therefore, humans need to dominate their pet dogs to get them to behave.”

There is a long line of well known advocates of alpha dog theory – Cesar Milan is the prime example, however popular trainers on UK screens such as Graeme Hall on Dogs Behaving (Very) Badly also use techniques such as “checking” (in other words pulling sharply on, causing damage to the delicate structures in the neck) the lead, or labelling the behaviour of frightened and anxious dogs as “diva” behaviour which needs to be stopped rather than diverted and understood.  These techniques are firmly rooted in the learning of almost a century ago!

Fast-forward  to 1978 and the emergence of the Monks of New Skete as the new model for dog training, asserting a philosophy that “understanding is the key to communication, compassion, and communion” with your dog. Sounds great, yes? The Monks were considered cutting edge at the time – but contrary to their benevolent image, they were in fact responsible for the widespread popularisation of the “Alpha-Wolf Roll-Over” (now shortened to the alpha roll). Reviewing the early observations of captive wolves, the Monks concluded that the alpha roll is a useful tool for demonstrating one’s authority over a dog. Unfortunately, this is a complete and utter misinterpretation of the submissive roll-over that is voluntarily offered by less assertive dogs, not forcibly commanded by stronger ones.

The Monks also advocated the frequent use of other physical punishments such as the scruff shake (grab both sides of the dog’s face and shake, lifting the dog off the ground) and cuffing under the dog’s chin with an open hand several times, hard enough to cause the dog to yelp.

While professing that “training dogs is about building a relationship that is based on respect and love and understanding,” even their most recent book, Divine Canine: The Monks’ Way to a Happy, Obedient Dog (2007), is still heavy on outdated, erroneous dominance theory. Immediately following their suggestion that “a kindly, gentle look tells the dog she is loved and accepted,” they say “But it is just as vital to communicate a stern reaction to bad behaviour. A piercing, sustained stare into a dog’s eyes tells her who’s in charge; it establishes the proper hierarchy of dominance between person and pet.” (It’s also a great way to unwittingly elicit a strong aggressive response if you choose the wrong dog as the subject for your piercing, sustained stare.)  

Despite the strong emergence of positive reinforcement-based training in the last 20 years, the Monks don’t seem to have grasped that the “respect” part needs to go both ways for a truly compassionate communion with your dog. Perhaps one of these days . 

Finally, the very presumption that our dogs would even consider we humans to be members of their canine pack is simply ludicrous. They know how impossibly inept we are, for the most part, at reading and understanding the subtleties of canine body language. We are equally inept, if not even more so, at trying to mimic those subtleties. Any attempts on our part to somehow insert ourselves into their social structure and communicate meaningfully with them in this manner are simply doomed to failure. It’s about time we gave up trying to be dogs in a dog pack and accepted that we are humans co-existing with another species – and that we’re most successful doing so when we co-exist peacefully.  These types of techniques are at the root of so-called “balanced” training whose theory is to use a carrot and a stick and that the stick’s OK as we use a carrot too.  However any punishment and intimidation based training method risks increasing fear, and therefore negative behaviours in our dogs, plus 

If you’re still not convinced, just watch a group of dogs and their body language rituals.  They use social body language rituals to avoid conflict and confrontation, not to cause it. You’ll see dogs repeatedly backing down from a confrontation with each other, and which dog backs down depends entirely on the situation rather than on the dog.

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Our dogs are not on an evil mission to dominate and take over.  Which is a huge relief!  However they do have patterns of learned, repeated behaviour.  So effective training relies on breaking the chain of rehearsing unwanted behaviours, and rehearse the behaviours that we want to see more.  You probably have heard people say that the best way to train a dog is to use negative methods like choke chains, shaking bottles of stones, rattling chains, shouting “NO!!” and, yes, often these techniques will get some of the desired results through fear.  However research shows us that using positive methods, or better still concept-based training has at least as good results.  So if a trainer uses methods which cause distress and fear when there is an alternative which is at least as good, is that ethical?  Does that trainer have the best interests of the dog and owner at heart?  You may have used a trainer who suggested those methods.  Perhaps you feel really guilty now?  DON’T!  You were doing the best thing you possibly could for your dog by finding a trainer to help with training struggles.  You are the best owner your dog could wish for, and you have LEARNED!  So put any feelings of guilt strictly behind you – time to move on!

Dogs become more of what they do every day.  If your dog is frightened and on the defensive every day, they will grow into a frightened and defensive dog.  If our dogs live mainly in calm, with regular rehearsal of focus on their humans, optimism about ambiguous situations and disengaged from distractions then we end up with incredible, happy companions.

Drop us a message at to see how we can use concept-based force-free methods to get closer to your dog-owning dream.

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