***Alpha Theory: Why it doesn’t work
In the dog world we always tend to hear about a dog or wolf as being alpha. Many times this kind of thinking can create problems and in a household. However the alpha theory has been flawed since the begining due to incorrect conclusions made while observing wild and captive wolves. This page describes why the dominance theory doesn't make sense and why it can be damaging for dog owners and trainers.
The Alpha Theory
Probably one of the popular theories that is connected with dogs and training/raising dogs is the alpha (dominance) theory. At times we hear it from people that train dogs as a profession or even from people that may not even own dogs, it is well known and widely accepted. This theory implies that dogs, very much like wolves, have strict linear hierarchies with one dog being the highest rank (alpha) above all others. This ‘top dog’ is said to reach his position through aggressive behavior and suppression of others through actions such as the “Alpha Roll” ( flipping a dog on his/her back). It is also said that in the human household, if we don’t dominate our dogs then they will find a way to take over this high ranking position and that we should be wary of behaviors such as jumping on people, lead pulling, growling, or urinating because these are ways that they demonstrate their dominance over us.
Dominance training was commonly used 15-20 years ago at a time when it was common knowledge that dog trainers should use a heavy hand to teach dogs that their only option was to obey us. After some rethinking, the more aversive techniques were slowly abandoned. In spite of this, recent celebrity dog trainers have made the dominant model much more prevalent at a time where it was slowly starting to be replaced by more positive methods such as clicker training. Early observations of captive wolves gave the impression that wolves live in groups dominated by the “alpha wolf” which got its position through fighting and aggressive behaviors. However these initial observations were hasty and faulty. Early publications, such as The Wolf: Ecology and the Behavior of an Endangered Species. published in 1970, relied on the flawed observations and since little information existed to challenge it many other publications relied on those initial books to provide information unknowingly spreading incorrect assumptions. After biologists, such as L. David Mech, studied wolves in their natural habitat some ideas were revised including the one about a strict linear hierarchy. In 1999 and 2000 articles like “Alpha Status, Dominance and Division of Labor in Wolf Packs” and “Leadership in Wolf, Canis lupus, Packs” were published (respectively) to correct the misinformation.
However the alpha theory was already popular and because of dog’s close relation to wolves, the concept was later applied to them. Unfortunately in the media violence sells, which is why a broadcasting station would opt to show a trainer using dominance training as a pose to showing a trainer that takes the time to figure out what the problem is and that uses a steady pace to solve it. Another problem is that people usually want something fast and something easy, dominance training doesn’t take much thinking, just some dominating; whereas positive training methods take time and one has to really understand the dog’s point of view to fix a problem.
We now know that those first studies also contained a bit of bias when forming their conclusion. The linear hierarchy strongly resembles the structure of human society. Those that prospered in the competitive market were those that were unafraid and more dominating against their competitors. In short, everything was about competition; it is interesting how the dominance model also was about competition for a ‘top rank’. Even though dogs and wolves are highly intelligent in their own respects, they lack the capacity for thinking in abstract terms such as ranks. They would have to know their rank and that of others and evaluate their own rank against others in the pack. Also at times new wolves came into packs and some left, not to mention that there have been packs that contained a great number of wolves. All that comparing and contrasting would be difficult even for a human!
Before we move on to some of the other reasons why the alpha theory doesn’t work it is important to define some terms in order to avoid confusion.
Let us start with dominance and leadership. Those two word sound almost synonymous but the fact is that they are not the same thing. Dominance is defined by the ‘relationship between two animals established by force/aggression and submission to determine who has access to resources’ (Bernstein 1981, Drews 1993), while leadership is defined by the ‘ability to influence others to do things they wouldn’t normally do’. Leadership can indeed be gained without the use of force or aggression. By creating clear boundaries and guidelines which are regularly enforced and making it clear that you are in control over the resources you give (e.g. food, attention, etc) one can start to establish leadership. We would also have to stop reinforcing bad behaviors and remove anything that is remotely reinforcing them. (More information on this in the Establishing Leadership Page).
At times we might notice that even though a trainer/owner uses dominance techniques the behavior is stopped just the same had the trainer/owner had used positive methods. This is only true on a cursory glance. There is a clear difference as to why and how the problem is stopped with the two methods used. Dominance training causes suppression of the problem behavior while positive techniques (if used correctly) causes behavior modification. Suppression implies just that, it only temporarily suppresses or masks a problem, the underlying cause is not addressed. The problem with suppression is that it is usually caused by fear or anxiety and that it can only be used to temporarily stop the problem. Behavior modification is much different, this means that a behavior is stopped because the root of the problem is solved. This removes the reinforcement or motivation to do the unacceptable behavior. Behavior modification is also much less stressful and its effects are (if not permanent) much longer lasting.
People, Dogs, Wild Wolves, and Captive Wolves
In the dominance theory some of the above mentioned are usually grouped as being similar when if fact all four of them (people, dogs, wild wolves, and captive wolves) are very much different.
Even though wild wolves and captive wolves might be of the same species and might look the same, their social structures vary greatly, this was a fact that was overlooked when observing captive wolves and forming conclusions about all wolves. Some recent observations of wild wolves have taught us that wolf packs live in a social structure much like that of a family. Two wolves meet and have their offspring, in this group the two parents would naturally fall into the leadership role because they have more experience and more knowledge. After some time the two breeders might have another litter which would then fall under the guidance of their older brothers and sisters and of course their parents too. The two parent wolves are still both the leaders but contrary to what the dominance theory states, they have not had to fight to get this top position. At some point or another the younger wolves will split from the pack to find their own mates and create their own packs, on average young wolves will leave their pack when they are anywhere from 9 months to 3 years. Biologist first theorized that wild wolves gathered together during winter to better their chances of catching prey during those hard months. With this in mind it seemed plausible to take random wolves from various zoos and place them together in an artificial pack. The problem with this is that, again, the initial observation was faulty and that these unrelated and mature wolves would indeed form a true dominance hierarchy. Because they were unrelated the wolves would have to fight/bicker to get to the alpha position and because other wolves constantly wanted to move up the social ladder they would challenge the alpha. There would also be discord when it came to breeding rights, these were mature wolves after all, whereas in a natural pack the younger wolves aren’t fully sexually mature so there really is no fights over mating. In the wild if a wolf was constantly getting into fights with the others he/she had the choice to break off and try and form his/her own pack, this ability is not granted to wolves within artificial packs. Another thing that increased tension in captive wolf packs is that they couldn’t redirect aggressive energy towards hunting. In the wild all this energy is used up in the hunt, in the absence of being able to hunt large animals they aimed this aggressive energy towards each other. Taking this into consideration its no wonder that early biologist thought that wolves live in dominance hierarchies, when in truth wild packs are much more harmonious and organized.
It is often said that dogs and wolves are really similar. Genetically speaking that is correct, there is hardly any difference between the two. The problem lies when people start to think that because of this genetic similarity the two also follow similar social structures. Thinking logically, to say that dogs and wolves follow similar models because their genetic material is alike is a weak argument; after all our DNA is very much like chimpanzee’s yet our social structures are not the same. Dogs and wolves have evolved in completely different environments; dogs (which is to say, the early dogs) prospered around human civilization and lived as scavengers, while wolves lived (or tried to live) far from human activity and formed packs to help with hunting. Their environments greatly influenced how they lived and how they interacted with conspecifics, much like captive and wild wolves differ behaviorally even though there might not be any difference in their genetic makeup. Most of these dogs only formed loosely structured groups because in truth a scavenging animal wouldn’t benefit greatly from having to share his/her food with others. Wolves on the other hand formed more rigid social models and profited from living in groups because this would actually increase their chances of survival. Some advocates of dominance theories will say that a dog is being dominant if they steal your food while you aren’t looking. Granted that those aren’t the best of manners but the dog isn’t being dominant, being a scavenger by nature, it is normal for a dog to take food if the opportunity arises. This example isn’t to say that food stealing is ok or that it shouldn’t be corrected but rather to give an example of how people are hasty to label an action as dominant even though it might have its roots elsewhere.
Sometimes it is said that we have to do things the way that dogs or wolves do, so that they get the message. Problem with this is that we aren’t anything like them and we lack the anatomical structure to communicate ideas the same way that canines do with the use of body language. Two commonly taught correction methods that use this idea are the alpha roll and scruff shaking. Fact is that we are not dogs and our dogs know it, our interactions are solely interspecific. Actions like the latter two mentioned only confuse dogs and make them think that we are unpredictable. Instead we should be calm and composed, running things like a responsible leader and as a family.
The dominance model doesn’t work because…
….in the wild wolf leaders are seldom aggressive.
In the wild, the leading wolves are seldom aggressive, there is no need to be. As any parent would, the male and female breeders (or what would incorrectly be called the ‘alphas’) are completely sure of their status and they know they don’t need to go around bullying everyone else to make sure they know too. On the occasion where true dominance hierarchies are formed (such as in captivity) the leaders that use force to back up their status are usually quickly disposed of. This is because aggressive behaviors are a waste of energy, energy that they could well be using for the benefit of the pack such as hunting. Peace is maintained in packs through submissive behavior rather than dominant behaviors. For example, if there is a bone that two members want, the less assertive wolf (most likely one of the younger offspring) would willingly give it up to the other wolf (such as an older sibling or parent); instead of being a fight (waste of energy) the peace is maintained through an act of submissiveness. This is why peace at home can’t really be maintained through constant bullying.
It has been noted that in large packs which consist of more than one breeding pair, the middle ranked wolves may occasionally bicker to establish themselves as more dominant; however the breeding male and female still don’t bicker because they are secure about their position, and neither do the lower ranking wolves as they know that others are higher ranked than they are. Taking this into consideration, what does this tell you if you are constantly having to ‘establish your dominance’ over your dog? You are belittling yourself because a leader doesn’t bicker, not only that but you are giving your dog a reason to engage in even more squabbling because you seem insecure about your position as head of the family.
…punishment is not a suitable tool for average owners.
Dominance training and punishment isn’t a suitable tool for many dog owners to use for many reasons. First, many lack the correct sense of timing, a behavior must be admonished immediately so that a connection is made between the correction and the unwanted behavior and not attributed to the owner. However some people still punish their dogs after they come home and they find a mess on the floor. Another reason is that when people give punishment it is too full of emotions and quite often too dramatic. Dog to dog corrects (such as when an older dog corrects a misbehaving pup) the correction is fast and effective and everything moves on. When people correct an unacceptable behavior they usually stay angry for a while and scorn at the dog. What many fail to notice is that they are punishing a behavior that has already been rewarded or may be rewarding the behavior with the punishment. A good example of the former is when a dog barks at someone walking by, even though the owner may punish the dog, the barking was already rewarded the instant the person walked away, and an example of when punishment is the reward is when dogs are seeking attention, the punishment (even though negative) is still a form of attention which is exactly what they wanted. The last and most common cause why punishment is not an effective tool for average owners is inconsistency. This can be a problem whether the owner is conscience of the inconsistency or not. If the behavior is rewarded in some occasions and at others it is punished then the dog not only becomes confused but the behavior will continue. Also when the owner is away from home and the dog isn’t admonished for the unacceptable behavior, this can also be considered inconsistency.
…the behavior is not caused by dominance.
There are many behaviors that our dogs do that are all too quickly connected to dominance. Jumping on people, pulling on the lead, urinating in the house, barking, growling, and even coprophagia to name a few. Let us remember what the definition of dominance is: relationship between two animals established by force/aggression and submission to determine who has access to resources. How is leash pulling determining who has access to resources? Fact is that it isn’t, therefore this couldn’t be a form of dominance.
Most of these unacceptable behaviors exist because they have been inadvertently rewarded. To solve them one must really think and reflect about what can possibly be reinforcing the unwanted behavior. There are of course other causes to some of these behaviors such as fear/anxiety, insufficient socialization, boredom, lack of exercise, little companionship, or lack of training. Finding out what the root of the problem is and eliminating it should be a priority. In many cases of aggression, such as aggressive behavior towards men or other dogs, the usual cause is fear and anxiety. To help those problem one must address and reduce the fear. At times growling at other dogs may not be dominance or fear motivated. We tend to think that communication between dogs is a bad thing when in fact it helps keep peace. If a dog growls at another when the other dog jumps on him/her this doesn’t show dominance it simply lets the other dog know that he doesn’t like others jumping on him/her. This communication helps establish a balance and has little to do with trying to dominate one another (for more information on this see the article Myth 11: Retake: Dogs live in a dominance hierarchy)
Something we hear often is that to establish our dominance we must not allow our dogs to get on our beds or couches, we must eat before them and we have to go through doors first. The fact is that these actions don’t teach a dog that we are more dominant, simply teaches them what to expect in those situations. This doesn’t mean that these are bad guidelines, remember that one part of leadership is to establish rules and enforce them. If not having the dog on the beds suits you, then by all means set that rule. At times one might establish these rules for safety reason such as having a dog wait for everyone to go through a door to avoid having someone trip over them.
The last reason a behavior might occur is because of a medical condition. For instance, sometimes urinary inconsistency may be caused by urinary track infections, however some may label the urinating as a dominant action. How bad would you feel if you constantly punished your dog for urinating in the house and later found out that it was caused by an infection? Imagine the poor dog’s frustration. On one occasion one of my friend’s dog growled at her when she tried to take the dog off the couch. At first anyone may have thought this was a dominant growl, however after veterinary inspection they found out that their dog was suffering from pancreatitis a very painful condition. These two examples show that we shouldn’t be hasty and jump to conclusions but instead explore all other possibilities and be proactive when trying to solve a problem.
…the negative effects outweigh the positive ones.
Unfortunately many aversive methods have created very aggressive and unreliable dogs, because of this many have had to be put down. The reason for this is that when people try to dominate their dogs, the dog’s natural reaction is to resist (such as with the alpha roll), the next thing is that this resistance is met with force on the part of the owner and in some cases the struggle may lead to serious injury either to the human or the dog, but in either case the dog suffers.
A classic example of a dominating technique is the alpha roll. The concept behind this is that if you roll a dog on his back, in the similar way an alpha wolf rolls other wolves, you are showing him that you are more dominant. Those that advocate this method couldn’t be more wrong. The alpha roll also has its basis in a faulty observation, initially biologist thought that an alpha would roll another on his back to demonstrate dominance; now we know that the so called alpha roll is not forced upon the offending wolf but rather the lower ranking wolf is willingly rolling over to show submission. Again this is an example of how submission and not dominance is used to keep the peace in a pack. The only cases recorded where a wolf (or feral dog) rolls another over on his/her back forcefully was in order to kill it. If this is the intent of the forceful alpha roll, then what are you telling your dog when you roll him/her over? A logical comparison would be a boss pointing a gun at you and asking you not to repeat a mistake!
Any dominating technique that uses force is better to avoid for another reason. When you implement alpha rolls, harsh leash checks, scruff shaking, etc you are teaching your dog that aggressive struggles for dominance is fair play. A dog that mistakenly thinks this way may use force to try to dominate other people such as elderly or young members of the family and such a dog could be a health hazard. All in all its best simply to avoid these methods because you gain a lot less than you loose.
To sum it all up
If dogs are mans best friend, then why do we treat them like our worse enemies? Saying that all they think about is how to dominate us. It really shouldn’t be like that but this is exactly what is implied with the alpha theory. For those that dismiss this as simple semantics, as L. David Mech put it, its not so much about the terminology but rather what it falsely implies: that dogs and wolves operate using a strict and aggressive hierarchy. There is no use in turning an aggressive dog into a fearful one, they are both hazards for the human household. Dr. Ian Dunbar excellently said “What’s the point of winning the battle when you lose the war?”. Using more positive methods give similar if not better results and it avoids having to stress the dog, but one shouldn’t think that positive means permissive. You can solve a problem using positive methods and at the same time be viewed by your canine companions as a leader provided you put forth on your part. Debunking the alpha theory doesn’t imply that there is no such thing as dominant dogs or hierarchies, they exist for sure but they are grossly exaggerated in the dominance theory. This being said, we should all hope that people and trainers alike discard this way of thinking and make training and living with a dog a positive experience rather than a stressful one.
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References and Further Reading
Alexander, Melissa. The History and Misconceptions of the Dominance Theory.< http://www.clickersolutions.com/article ... inance.htm >
Alexandra Semyonova. Myth 10: Dogs live in a dominance hierarch...< http://www.nonlineardogs.com/100MostSillyPart1-2.html >
Alexandra Semyonova. Myth 11: Retake: Dogs live in a dominance hierarchy.< http://www.nonlineardogs.com/100MostSillyPart1-3.html >
AVSAB. Position Statement on the Use of Dominance Theory in Behavior Modificationof Animals.< http://www.avsabonline.org/avsabonline/ ... tement.pdf >
Buitrago, Carmen. Debunking the Dominance Myth.< http://www.4pawsu.com/DebunkingDomMyth.pdf >
Dominance, Submission and the Alpha Roll.< http://www.dogtrickacademy.com/members/ ... -role.html >
Dunbar, Ian. Macho Myth.< http://dogstardaily.com/training/macho-myth >
Hendrickson, Anne. Being the Alpha: The Truth about Dominance.< http://wcco.com/petcorner/Anne.Hendrick ... 73905.html >
Kelley, Lee Charles. If your dog Dominant or just feeling Anxious?< http://www.professorshouse.com/pets/dog ... inant.aspx >
McConnell, Patricia B. Beyond the "Dominance" Paradigm.< http://www.4pawsu.com/pmdominance.htm >
McKay, Shannon. Dominance Theory - Convoluted & Confusing.< http://www.showdogs.co.za/articles/wag_ ... inance.htm >
Mech, L. David. Alpha Status, Dominance, and Division of Labor in Wolf Packs.< http://www.4pawsu.com/267alphastatus_english.pdf >
Mech, L. David. What Happened to the Term Alpha Wolf?< http://www.4pawsu.com/alphawolf.pdf >
NonlinearDogs.< http://www.nonlineardogs.com/ >
Ryan, Terry. Assessing the Alpha Roll.< http://www.4pawsu.com/alpharoll.pdf >
Siegfried, Leigh. Diving or Disaster for Dog Owners.< http://www.4pawsu.com/divine.htm >
Spector, Morgan. Moving Beyond the Dominance Myth: Towards an Understanding of Training as Partnership.< http://www.4pawsu.com/dominancemyth.pdf >
Wilkes, Gary. Alpha Schmalpha.< http://apromisepluskennels.com/21401/33201.html >
Yin, Sophia. Dominance in Dogs: Debunking the Myths of Dominance Training.< http://www.askdryin.com/dominanceindogs.php >
Yin, Sophia. The Dominance Controversy and Ceasar Millan.< http://www.askdryin.com/dominance.php >
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