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Alphas - is your dog challenging you?

Updated: May 28, 2023

The term ‘alpha’ when talking about dominant males is as pervasive as it is wrong. It has been spread even further in recent pop culture with a variety of ‘dominant’ men selling a particular brand of masculinity. But where does it come from? And how does it relate to your pet?




Debunking the Alpha Theory in Dogs: Why Dominance-Based Training is a Thing of the Past


For decades, the alpha theory was widely accepted as the key to understanding dog behavior. According to this theory, dogs are pack animals that live in a hierarchical social structure led by an alpha, or dominant, dog. In order to train and control dogs, many people believed that they needed to assert dominance over their dogs to establish themselves as the alpha. However, recent research has debunked the alpha theory, and many experts now advocate for a more positive, reward-based approach to dog training.



The alpha theory was first popularized by studies of wolf behavior in the 1940s. First coined in 1947 by Rudolph Schenkel in his paper called Expressions Studies in Wolves, he proposed that wolves fight for the top-dog spot, becoming the dominant ‘alpha’. This term has since been popularised, accelerating once referenced by world-renowned wolf researcher and expert David Mech in his 1970 book The Wolf: Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species. This has since been applied to what we thought about domestic dogs and how to train them.


However, these studies have since been discredited, as they were conducted on captive wolves in unnatural social environments. A group of up to ten unrelated wolves were studied at Basel Zoo, Switzerland. The area they occupied was only 200 square metres (in the wild, grey wolves can occupy up to 250 square kilometres). Unsurprisingly, a hierarchy formed, and a lead male and female pair formed. They controlled competition and resources to defend their positions in an unfamiliar and uncertain environment.


In the wild, wolves live in family groups led by parents, not a dominant alpha. In fact, studies of wild wolves have shown that aggression and dominance are rare, and that cooperation and social bonding are the norm. The theory was eventually retracted by no one other than Mech himself. He has since published research debunking the alpha wolf theory and has asked the publishers of his earlier work including the alpha theory to stop printing. They finally did so in 2022.


And perhaps, most importantly, dogs are not wolves. While they share a common ancestor, dogs have been selectively bred for thousands of years to live and work alongside humans. They have evolved to understand our cues and respond to our commands, and they thrive on positive reinforcement and social interaction. For the simple reason that canis lupus familiaris, the domestic dog, is descended from the wolf (even if it could be as long as 130,000 years ago) the false ideas of pack theory have been imposed on them.


The alpha wolf theory and pack leadership has had a huge impact on dog training.


Once the theory of the supposed strict hierarchies in packs was established, trainers thought it was best to apply the same hierarchies in training. This made them more likely to use physical punishment—to make a point of their dominance as well as to punish.



In recent years, many dog trainers and behaviorists have rejected the alpha theory in favor of a more science-based approach todog training. This approach is grounded in positive reinforcement, which means rewarding good behavior rather than punishing bad behavior. Positive reinforcement can take many forms, such as treats, praise, or playtime, and it has been shown to be highly effective in shaping desirable behavior in dogs.


By contrast, dominance-based training, which relies on punishment, intimidation, and physical force to establish control over dogs, has been shown to be ineffective and potentially harmful. Studies have shown that dogs trained with punishment-based methods are more likely to show signs of fear, aggression, and anxiety.



Instead of trying to establish dominance over their dogs, experts recommend that owners focus on building trust and positive relationships with their pets. This means spending time with their dogs, providing them with plenty of exercise and mental stimulation, and rewarding good behavior with treats and praise.



TL;DR

The alpha theory has been debunked by modern research. Studies have recently shown that real wolf packs are family groups led by parents. Alphas are the parents, not the wolves who fought their way to dominance.

Pack theory has led to misunderstanding how our pet dogs should be trained. Strict 'pack leader' style training often uses fear or intimidation to control dogs. Studies have since shown that aversive training methods do not minimise aggression in dogs is no longer considered a viable approach to dog training.


Instead, positive reinforcement and building trust and positive relationships with dogs are the keys to successful training and a happy, well-behaved pet. By understanding the true nature of dogs and their behavior, we can create a more positive and effective approach to dog training that benefits both dogs and their owners.



References:



Kristoffer Nordli , Barbara Zimmermann, Petter Wabakken, Ane Eriksen, David Carricondo-Sanchez, Erling Maartmann, Håkan Sand & Camilla Wikenros: “Ulvevalpers flokksamhold og områdebruk i Skandinavia” (Wolf pups’ pack relationships and areal use in Scandinavia) Høgskolen i Innlandet, 2019.


Ane Møller Gabrielsen: “Makt og mening i hundeholdets konfliktsoner” (Power and meaning in the conflict zones over keeping dogs), PhD dissertation, NTNU, 2015.


Rudolph Schenkel: Expression Studies on Wolves, 1947. Available here.

L. David Mech: “Alpha Status, Dominance, and Division of Labor in Wolf Packs”, Canadian Journal of Zoology, 1 November 1999. Summary.


L. David Mech: “Leadership in Wolf, Canis lupus, Packs”, Canadian Field Naturalist, 2000.

L. David Mech and Luigi Boitani (Eds.): “Wolves: Behavior, Ecology, and Conservation”, 2003. Excerpt available here.

L. David Mech: “Whatever Happened to the Term Alpha Wolf?”, International Wolf, winter 2008, International Wolf Center.

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