To Be Alpha or Not To Be Alpha

While visiting with my sister on Easter weekend, she commented that she could not believe I allowed my dog to dominate me. She insisted that I needed to show him who was boss. Really!?!

Where do I begin? My dog was not trying to dominate me. He was telling me he was not happy about what I was asking him to do. So maybe it is my fault. Maybe he is not trained well enough for that task. Perhaps, he has a personality like a teenager who feels he has to do everything and moans about it. I think this is what is happening.  Or perhaps he mumbles for another reason. What I am sure of is he was not trying to dominate me. I need to conceivably, be a better trainer, but I do not think I need to be bossier.

The alpha myth is everywhere. Google “alpha dog” on the Internet and you get more than 17 million hits. While not all the sites are about dominating your dog, there are oodles of resources instructing you to use force and intimidation to overpower your dog into submission. They say that you, the human, must be the alpha. And one person with such a belief is my sister!

Researchers have studied wild wolves form hierarchical packs in which individuals vied for dominance. However, these were captured wolves whose group structure was non-natural. After a broad review of the scientific literature and thirteen summers spent observing free-living wolves on an island in the Northwest Territories in Canada, wolf ethologist L. David Mech concluded that social interactions among wolf-pack members are nearly identical to those among members of any other group of related individuals. Essentially, the typical wolf pack is a family in which parents guide activities of younger members. Vying for dominance in the pack hierarchy is not a priority. Care-taking and teaching of younger pack members by adults is.

That research was about wolves, not dogs. 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.” From an ecological perspective, dogs and wolves are indeed distinct species because they are adapted to different niches. That is, they earn their livings in different ways. Wolves kill large prey, while dogs live in partnership with humans.

Despite data to the contrary, many people still believe dogs follow a pattern of alpha (dominant) and omega (submissive) individuals. Many trainers have capitalized on this belief system by arguing that you can solve behavior problems in your dog only when you have established yourself as Alpha dog.  Alpha owners have had and continue to find some success. They are especially good at shutting down behaviors – convincing a dog that it’s not safe to do anything unless instructed to do something. And yes, that works with some dogs; with others, not so much.

My dog is a very “soft” dog that could be easily psychologically damaged by one enthusiastic and inappropriate assertion of rank by a heavy-handed dominance act. He would quickly shut down – fearful and mistrusting of anyone asking him to try something new. That person would be me and I DO NOT want to change my dog in that way.

If a dog repeats an inappropriate behavior it is not because he is trying to be your boss. It is because he’s been reinforced by offering that behavior. My challenge is to figure out how to prevent reinforcing the behaviors I do not want, and to reinforce liberally for the behaviors I do want.

What I mostly want is a relationship with my dog that is based on mutual love, respect, communication, and companionship that brings joy by being in the others’ presence.

Have you ever felt a need to dominate your dog?  Are you solely a positive reinforcement trainer? Do you use a combination of training methods? I do believe there is more than one way to train a dog. I do not believe my dog (or any dog) wants to dominate me. Have its way, yes – dominate, no.

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