I remember reading books years ago that talked about the need to be the “alpha” in your house in order to keep good control of your dog. I read about the importance of “alpha rolling” the dogs to show dominance, to always go through doorways first, and to always eat before feeding the dogs. It was considered important for humans to show dogs that we were in control, we were dominant in the relationship, and we were the “alphas” in our households.
This was important, we were told, because our dogs would seek to take that “alpha” role from us. Now, after years of scruff shaking and “alpha rolling” our dogs unnecessarily, we have learned the truth. “Alpha Dominance” is one of the most persistent lies in all of what we know about dogs.
It’s amazing to me how a culture like ours, so rooted in science and technology, can hang on relentlessly to myths and half-truths that have an allure but no basis at all in fact. This belief that dogs have an instinctive drive for what is called a “dominance hierarchy” in their social structure has caused unnecessary conflict between humans and dogs and has, no doubt, resulted in the unnecessary death of many dogs. We commonly hear about “alpha dogs” and their problem behaviour and the stern, punishing methods, including death, that need to be employed to deal with them.
Having been around dogs most of my life, I have heard dog owners, breeders, and even trainers say things like “you can’t let the dog have control” or “you shouldn’t let the dog dominate you like that.” Before I took the time to catch up on current science about dogs and canine behaviour, I too believed that dogs had an agenda — not world domination necessarily, but that they jockeyed constantly for positions in some sort of hierarchical social structure that included both dogs and humans in a household or social situation. Imagine my surprise to discover that recent research shows the modern domestic dog is not a pack animal at all like its ancestor the wolf!
In their book Dogs, authors and researchers Raymond and Lorna Coppinger describe a compelling theory of the genetic evolution of wolves into the modern dog. Their theory describes the success of wolves with the shortest “flight distance” — the tolerance for the closest proximity of humans — in gaining access to the rich food sources in the garbage of early human settlements.
This evolution of dogs from packs of hunting predators to opportunistic scavengers is an important change. It is a change of survival tactics that seems largely responsible for the highly flexible and creative social capabilities of dogs. Dogs are a species that seems to be able to easily adapt to life, not just with other dogs but with other species too; not just with humans but cats, horses, livestock and a host of other animals they encounter in natural environments and in their lives with humans.
Observations in multi-dog households quickly reveal that “dominance” of one dog over another is not absolute. There is no one dog that always controls all situations all the time. It appears that resources, not instinct, dictates this behaviour we call “dominance.”
It is simply a question of which dog wants a particular resource more at any give moment. Those of you with more than one dog have seen your own dogs sharing toys. One day, one dog plays with a toy; one day, a different dog plays with it. The same is true for food. On a given day, your “food dominant” dog may not be feeling well or not hungry and will not push to the front to maintain his “alpha” position in the “pack.” It seems the social dynamics of dogs are much more fluid and based on access to resources, rather than any sort of hard-wired need for a position in a perceived social hierarchy system.
So why are we so hung up on this whole “alpha dominance” business? Part of the answer lies in some research performed by behaviourist Rudolph Schenkel in the 1940s. In his research, Schenkel put forward the notion of “dominant” and “submissive” wolves. This research has been largely replaced by more thorough and accurate research done in the past three decades.
Prominent Canadian wolf researcher David Mech offers a wonderfully in-depth look at the myth of the “alpha” even in wild wolf packs in his 2008 article “What Ever Happened to the Term Alpha Wolf?”. It turns out that the structure of wolf packs much more closely resembles human family units than the competing status seekers portrayed in the fictional stories of Jack London (Call of the Wild, White Fang).
What’s interesting to me is that human societies have always placed a high value on status systems and it’s quite possible that we have been projecting this onto our dogs. People keep pets for all kinds of reasons and it seems reasonable that we want to organize them into our own human conceptions of social hierarchies. It’s common to find trainers and books on dog training talking about “control” and keeping your dog in their place within the “pack.” As we now know, there isn’t really a “pack” – it’s more like a family. That’s a very different dynamic.
Perhaps if we focused on integrating our dogs into our families, rather than focusing on outdated and incorrect concepts like “pack leaders” and “asserting our dominance”, we might find more cooperative and satisfying relationships with our dogs. Do our dogs really have to be shown that they are our dependents? We put their food down, we let them out to do their business, we take them out for walks. In fact, every good and bad thing in their lives comes from us.
That said, our dogs are clever scavengers. They will try to get what they want. They will develop behaviours and strategies to get us to give them more of the things they want and to keep us from doing the things they don’t want. But isn’t that more like being an opportunist than a power-mad status climber? And if we fall for their strategies, isn’t that more our fault than theirs considering we have control of all of the resources?
Our dogs don’t want to be “pack leaders.” I have yet to meet a dog who cares when I eat or when I go to bed. They care very much when THEY eat or go for a walk. But that’s a different thing. A leader would want to control my actions, not just the ones that serve their desires and wants. That’s just a clever scavenger trying to get their stuff (e.g., food, water, exercise, play, attention, etc.).
With all the talk of “pack leadership” and “calm assertive energy” these days, I would suggest that we need to look at the facts about the social dynamics of dogs and treat them as they really are: members of our households who are very much our dependents. They are not competitors for any kind of status position in some imagined hierarchy. If we can turn our relationship with our dog from one of contention to cooperation, a whole new world of possibilities opens up.
We owe it to our dogs to take the time to understand who they truly are. They are with us every day and give us all they have. The least we can do is be good stewards and give them what they need too. Clarity, understanding, and a place in our family where they can feel safe and appreciated.
“Zilla Smiling” Vagabond Shutterbug @ Flickr.com. Creative Commons. Some rights reserved.
“Dog Portrait 2” Tambako the Jaguar @ Flickr. com. Creative Commons. Some rights reserved.
Interesting article, and I totally agree. I have always had dogs in my family, but never my “own dog” until I was 41 and we got a lab puppy. We got a second dog three years later, a 1YO lab mix. Sophie, terrorized my 3YO lab Lester, and I looked everywhere for help on how to calm them down. Most of the books, forums, trainers, etc. espoused the Alpha Dog theory. I had to prove that I was the Alpha in command of them both, and I was supposed to let them work out who was dominant between them, step in only if they drew blood. I tried all the nonsense about going through doors first, making them sit before feeding them, figuring who was the Alpha dog and feeding that one before the other…nothing made any difference.
They finally worked it out on their own after a few months of craziness, and they became best buddies for the next 12 years. I tried to figure out, but never could, who was the Alpha between them. I like your description of multiple dogs as a family rather than a pack, because I saw them as a happy couple, putting up with each other’s quirks and teaching each other how to get one over on me!
Lester recently passed away, and now the 12YO widow Sophie has a new 4YO crazy man that she has to fit into her life. I could say it was payback for how she first treated Lester, but I don’t think she sees it like that at all. I think we both see him as a work-in-progress, a new member of our happy family.
Eric Brad says
What a wonderful story, Katy! And very similar to my own. I’m so sorry to hear about the passing of your dear Lester.
I’m sure Sophie will teach your young one the ropes in no time. Your experience with Sophie and Lester will have, no doubt, taught you to be a more calm and effective “parent” when you need to deal with squabbles. I’m sure you are also a better manager today than back when Sophie first came to stay.
All I can say is GREAT JOB for being a mindful and caring parent. Not every dog owner takes the time to truly examine their situation and evaluate their options as you have done.
To me, being “Alpha” is just too much work. I would rather just be “Dad”, that seems to be a LOT more fun!
Thanks for reading.
I’m wondering if you have links to the research you read to make this article. I totally agree with your points and I’m looking high and low on google for reliable scientific research on the subject! any info you could provide would be awesome! Thanks!
Eric Brad says
Hi Heidi –
Thanks for reading!
There are several source links embedded in the article itself. A great source for a lot of science on dogs and the myth of alpha and packs is John Bradshaw’s book “Dog Sense.” In it, Bradshaw spends a lot of time looking at the evolution of the dog, it’s behaviour in the modern context, and cites his sources for further reading. It’s a great read if you haven’t read it.
Thanks for your comments!
Here is what I’ve witnessed while training dogs:
If your dog trusts you, she will do anything you ask. If you eliminate fear of certain things: lack of food, for example, your dog will not growl when you try to take it away. She knows you will give her more. Same with toys, taking things out of her mouth etc.
In this instance, acting aggressively and taking away your dogs resources will directly effect how she will act towards you doing it in the future. Aggression breeds aggression.
I had an issue with my dog for a while. She would ‘steal’ things off the coffee table and run away with them. I soon realized when I stepped back and looked at the situation objectively (I was pretty mad at her) that she only took things when I was sitting at my computer desk…. she was bored. And what did I do when I noticed she had taken off with another hair scrunchie? I ran into the other room chasing her and yelling! I was teaching my dog that taking things=excitement.
So, basically, I submit that dog training is all about cause & effect. If you try to look at a situation objectively and rationally and leave emotions out of it, you’ll likely find that your dog simply does what feels good to her, or what gets her what she wants, whether that something is attention (negative or positive), a treat, or a pet on the head.
I honestly haven’t seen a single thing that had to do with dominance theory.
I have only been working with dogs for three years, but I have already run across several cases of dogs who confidently (i.e., not fearfully or in response to prior abuse) threaten and intimidate other dogs and sometimes their owners in conflict-of-interest-over-resource situations. For example, a dog who reliably will not give up desired items or a dog that reliably refuses to moved from a desirable sleeping place such as the sofa.
I agree that dogs do not display a de-facto strict social hierarchy. However, in an attempt to promote a specific agenda in dog training, some people have exaggerated this fact to mean that dogs have no sense of order or hierarchy at all. In fact, I would argue from experience that pairs or even small familiar groups of dogs frequently ARE aware of which dog among them will usually take priority or “win” the resource in a conflict-of-interest situation. I would also argue that it’s possible for a dog to be confident enough to think that he or she has priority over a human as well — especially when a person demonstrates that they can be easily chased away or intimidated by gestures such as growling.
‘Dominance’ used to be the correct term not for the constant, micromanaging ‘leadership’ of a group of social animals, but as a term to describe who usually ‘won’ in conflict of interest situations. Maybe it still is, outside of the highly-politicized dog training never-never land. OK, fine, so I won’t use that forbidden “d-word” to describe a dog who confidently attempts to take priority over other dogs or people. So, what is the correct, politically acceptable term for this situation?
Eric Brad says
I would think the answer is simple – call them what they are: Resource Guarders. The aggressive dogs you describe are defending their resource whether it be territory, their human, a bone, or a bed. Dominance is a very different thing. I have yet to meet a dog who cares what I do with my stuff on my time provided they don’t actually want it. For example, my dogs never force people to go to bed at any certain time. Because they don’t care.
In his book, “Dog Sense”, Animal Behaviourist John Bradshaw suggests an alternative behaviour theory to our common use of Dominance. He calls it Resource Holding Potential. It’s a system we are all familiar with – a dog decides how much they want a particular resource (e.g., toy, food, space, etc.) and then assesses their ability to take and hold that resource versus any competition for the same resource.
Will dogs fight for what they want? Hell yes! Does that make them want to be my “leader”? I hardly think so. This article was not intended to make the claim that aggressive behaviour doesn’t occur in dogs. That would be absurd. My intent, instead, was to stop over-simplifying what is happening in relationship to dogs in the hope of finding better ways of resolving, or better still, avoiding conflict through behaviour modification. To do that, I think we should understand what we’re dealing with first before applying a solution.
This is not about jargon or political correctness. It’s about accuracy and dealing with the REAL issues with our dogs and not finding convenient explanations and imposing half-baked solutions.
That’s my view of things. Your mileage may vary.
I wish instead of blindly following every new theory that comes along from “experts” that people would do their own research. People need to educate themselves from both experience AND differing theories and use what works, NOT including cruelty or harsh punishment which never does. Dogs are not human, so it’s important to learn THEIR language. Having worked in animal care for some time, it seems that everyone has their own ideas of how to live and communicate with animals and refuse to entertain any theories that differ from their own. Learning to communicate with your animals is an ongoing process. One thing that I have learned is that “calm assertiveness” DOES work. It doesn’t mean being “dominant,” it just means showing your dog that they can trust you. Your confidence feeds your dogs’ confidence, and that seems to help them trust you and feel safe with you, just as anger and frustration feeds your dogs’ anger and frustration. Gain an animals trust, and they will look to you for guidance.
Interesting article Brad.
I find myself really taking a look at the way I manage my household of 11 dogs, 2 kids and 2 adults. I term all my dogs “family”. However, I also manage them as what I call a “pack” and me as the “leader”. However, I wonder if I interpret my terminology in the way that you are describing.
The dogs do have a heirarchy within their “pack” and I do everything to maintain that order within that. I think that is why I can have so many dogs living in such close proximity without too many interpersonal problems. I really don’t consider me part of their pack. I could not care less whether they go through a door before or after me.
Some of my dogs are more dominant than others and it is entirely situational. Some of the dogs need more “leadership” than others. And I do have dogs that would “run the house” if I let them.
I remember about 10 years ago when I took my new puppy to the vet (not my usual vet) to have him microchipped. The vet, who did not know me, proceeded to tell me how to estabolish and maintain my “dominance”. He told me that periodically I had to take the dog by the neck scruff and look in his eyes until he looked away. I thought to myself then, what a bunch of bunk. My dogs do look to me as the leader, but they will also look me right in the eye with love. If I caused them to look away in thoughts it would estabolish my “dominance” I think I would loose much of the loving relationship I have with each and every one of them. I feel very sad when a dog cowers and people think that they need to instill this fear in their dogs.
Eric…..Darn, can’t edit post and I don’t check before I post. Sorry, I know you are Eric and not Brad.
Please forgive me;
Eric Brad says
Hi Natalie –
No worries at all! It’s happened to me my whole life…curse of having a “First Name” as a “Last Name”.
Regarding your response to my article, I think we agree completely with what’s going on with the dynamics in your busy home. Although the terms we use may differ, it is the humans in the house who maintain the “hierarchy” by determining what is or is not acceptable behaviour. Sure, some dogs are pushier than others and will be a bit more clever or forceful in pursuit of what they want. But that’s not status seeking, that’s simple greed…”more for me!”
And it does take a firm and consistent “leader” to maintain order and make sure that things run smoothly. Does your bunch constitute a “pack”? Well, if David Mech’s wolf research is to believed, then yes, it does. And there is no status seeking within wolf packs either. Only wise and caring adults who maintain order within the group.
Sounds like you have it pretty much together over there!
Thanks for reading!
Unfortunately ‘dominance theory’ continues to proliferate the dog training world. I see many dogs abused in the name of training. – dogs labeled as ‘dominate’ or ‘alpha dogs’ that are simply confused or scared because the humans of the world haven’t done a very good job communicating what the rules of the household are.
I applaud you efforts to educated dog owners on a more relevant, accurate and kind approach.
Suzanne Webb CPDT-KA
I’ve seen too many people… particularly men try to dominate their dogs and end up turning them into fearful and aggressive animals. I hope your message reaches all dog owners!
while i agree that there has been by far too much emphasis placed on humans being ‘the alpha’, i think there is still a grain of truth in dogs needing leaders. i don’t think that all dogs want to lead or would try to be ‘alpha’, but i do think that all dogs feel safer and more comfortable when they do have a leader or person that makes them feel as though they can relax and not have to be in charge. i am not an expert, haven’t done any studies, and my knowledge comes from my own experience with dogs.
i think that people like ‘the dog whisperer’ have taken the ‘pack’ theory to a whole new, ridiculous level. most things are not one way or another, they are somewhere in between.
I agree, Marissa.
Dogs do need leadership – but that’s not the same as dominating them! Like you said, I think too many folks are “over the top” on this issue. Leadership is making sure your dog feels safe in all situations… something many people are not good at doing (myself included in the *old days* of not understanding the difference between leadership and dictatorship!).
Like the author said in the article dogs are our dependents. From the time that we started to domesticate the dog we began to see the switch from wild to tame. Dogs thrive like children with rules order and consistency. that is not to say they need a pack leader but a provider. I think a lot of people are confused on the vocabulary and I am thrilled the author stated the clear difference between pack and family…. that I believe is the grey part of the debate! Dogs decoded and The Science of dogs are both great educational films on Netflix! I’d highly recommend watching them if this is a topic that interests you!
Eric Brad says
Hi Marissa –
Thanks for reading!
And I agree with you! While the “myth” this article takes on is the unproven genetic predisposition of dogs to seek status within a “pack”, as members of our households, dogs need the same kinds of guidelines and boundaries that children do. They need to be taught what is ok and what is not ok. Jean Donadlson says in her book Culture Clash that our primary responsibility as dog owners is to show our dogs what they need to know to be successful in our lives.
That means setting boundaries, keeping them safe, teaching them, and to a large degree being good parents and stewards for them. That’s our role. Not dictators, but people who watch over them and give them what they need to be happy and safe and successful in our world.
Thanks so much for your comments – Marissa and EVERYONE!
I was just mentioning to my fellow dog groomers the overlap between children and dogs (I’m studying early childhood psychology)! they laugh at me but I see it like this. We expect dogs to live and function in a HUMAN world. They are dogs and though they’ve evolved to read people quit impressively they still aren’t prone to our rules and regulations unless they are taught like a child would be!
Thankyou so well put!
Our loveable dogs dont want to control us!
Nice job, Eric. I really enjoy reading your articles, well done.
Lindsay Curry says
Great article! Your summary of how the “dominance” myth started is excellent!
Great job, Eric. Thank you for putting the facts out there. Alecia
Mary Zacharatos says
Okay, so when does the book come out? I know of many, many people who need to read it.
DITTO! I would totally read/buy that!
Terry Hume says
Enjoyed your entire series, Eric. Boomer and I both thank you.
Way you explain things in writing make so much sense and easier to me to understand . Thanks .
Really enjoying your articles Eric…. fantastic!
Well said, Eric!
It makes so much sense when you explain it in layman’s terms.
Did I just see dogs PACK together to stop what was going on !! Dogs act like this in a pack to attack another dog as well !! https://www.facebook.com/video.php?v=791337717571856
Eric Brad says
There are many alternate explanations for the behaviour in this video. “Pack Hunting” behaviour as seen in wolves would not be anywhere near my first choice to describe what I see in this video.
Thanks for your post.