If you’ve been around dogs long enough, you quickly learn that while there may be a dominant or “alpha” dog in any given group, the dominant dog does not necessarily “care for” or “protect” the group. Yet even experienced dog owners, handlers and trainers still use the term “alpha” incorrectly.
We borrow a lot of dog training terminology and concepts from wolves and wolf packs. However, misinformation and incorrect interpretations abound.
Dogs are not descendants of wolves
Pop culture abounds with the misconception that dogs descended from wolves. This has been disproven time and time again, however, it has been romanticized and embedded so deeply into our culture it’s difficult to correct. Instead, dogs and wolves both descended from a common ancestor. Dogs evolved to live harmoniously with us and benefit from our success, while wolves developed as a wild species whose very existence depends on staying as far away from humans as possible.
Dogs are to wolves as humans are to gorillas
Dogs and wolves look extremely similar, however the comparison is like humans and gorillas.
In “Alpha Status, Dominance, and Division of Labor in Wolf Packs,” wolf expert L. David Mech writes that, in natural wolf packs, the alpha male or female are “merely the parents of the packs.” that after years of observation he saw no dominance contests among wild wolves.
“Calling a wolf an alpha is usually no more appropriate than referring to a human parent or a doe deer as an alpha,” David Mech writes. “Any parent is dominant to its young offspring, so ‘alpha’ adds no information. Why not refer to an alpha female as the female parent, the breeding female, the matriarch, or simply the mother? Such a designation emphasizes not the animal’s dominant status, which is trivial information, but its role as pack progenitor, which is critical information.”
The outdated Pack Theory
In our culture, we require consistency in our leaders. Inconsistency is perceived to lack authenticity — or worse, can foster distrust. However, in the scientific world, it’s expected that thinking evolves as we learn new things — otherwise there would be no medical advancements and we would still be using leeches and casting blaming demons for real-life disease. While we used to think Pack Theory was valid, it has been replaced with more current knowledge.
The Alpha is simply the parent
Despite our romantic ideas, wolves do not live in packs where the dominant pack leader keeps all the other wolves in line with displays of aggression and violence. Nor do other wolves battle for the alpha position. Wild wolf packs are families. The alpha pair are indeed in charge but that is because they are the parents and all the rest are guided by them.
Wild dogs do not live in a pack structure
We know now that even wild dogs do not live in packs. Dogs which are left on their own, away from humans, may form loose social groups but definitely not structured packs.
In other words, for dogs, there is no such thing as an alpha dog – or a pack leader.
“Dominant” dogs are usually just frightened or anxious
Dogs that most people say are ‘dominant’ are actually the most scared, frightened, worried, or anxious — often because of some type of weakness. Aggression in dogs (and often in humans) exists for one purpose and one purpose only: to make bad stuff go away. ‘Bad stuff’ for dogs are things that make them feel frightened, threatened, worried or stressed.
- Dog to Human Aggression: Fear of humans or what they will do
- Dog to Dog Aggression: Fear of strange dogs or what they will do
- Resource Guarding (guarding food or anything important to the dog): Fear of someone taking your food, toys, or other possessions away
- Self Protection: Sometimes aggression occurs because a dog is sick or in pain
The fallacy of trying to cure aggression or dominance with aggression or dominance
Often, dog owners (including some trainers) will try to correct aggression or dominance in dogs by “being the alpha.” However, all they are really doing is mirroring the dog’s behavior — which simply exacerbates things and creates a cycle of aggression. Training dogs requires a kind of mutual respect that has to be earned — not demanded.
Don’t be an Alpha, be a better parent
If you need help with your dog’s behavior, seek out for a trainer who uses positive reward-based methods (where the dogs gets rewarded for doing things right, not punished when they do things wrong).
Just like children, not every dog learns in the same way. Let’s retire the old concepts and phrases of ‘pack leader’, ‘dominance’, ‘alpha’ – and replace them with training modern methods, based on current knowledge and science, that are tailored for each dog and each situation.