Alpha Schmalpha: Exploding the Dog Dominance Myth

We humans love to put everything into hierarchical order. It’s what we do (I feel a GEICO insurance commercial coming on . . .).

As we struggle to make sense of a chaotic world, ordinals give us a sense of comfort and control. And so much of our definition for success is wrapped up in the idea of coming out on top. This ideology frequently spills over into our relationships with our canine companions; and nothing could potentially damage that relationship more.

The label “alpha” is often applied to the person in a human-dog relationship to whom the dog displays unflagging obedience. “Daisy follows her master from room to room and always listens to him so he’s her ‘alpha!’”

In the dark ages of dog training (about 35 years ago), it was believed that anything short of complete canine deference to human commands warranted stiff discipline. This belief spawned the sale of medieval devices such as choke chains, prong and shock collars and propagated the use of that old standby, The Alpha Roll, which the Monks of New Skete have since recanted.

While trainers boasted of “real” behavior changes, they were not aware (or didn’t care) that the cost of such implements and techniques was inter-species trust. Any being can make another comply with his wishes through violence or sufficiently stern threats. But such a relationship is based on subjugation, not love. Fear-based tactics eventually backfire on the taskmaster. This just increases the chances that the dog will be surrendered, possibly never to be adopted again. Fortunately, most proponents of this Marquis de Sade school of dog training have gone the way of the Gestapo.

There are many reasons why dogs "misbehave." Dogs get nervous. They may be trying to get our attention. Perhaps they’re bored. Could be that they’re frustrated because they don’t understand what we want (after we unwittingly reinforce undesirable behaviors). When they jam their butt into our thigh, maybe they just want to be close to us. What they’re not doing is exerting dominance over us. Why? Because dogs - social creatures that they are -  do not form hierarchical relationships with humans.

Dogs may have a preferred person or two that they like to hang with or “listen to” more than others. But this has everything to do with familiarity, bonding and compassionate training. It has nothing to do with an inherent drive to crown us king of their species.

Even our romanticized concept of “alphas” and “pack hierarchies” among wild wolves has been debunked. Long before wolves and humans collided in our ancestral garbage heaps, wolves within a group fully cooperated with one another to survive. Migrations and hunts were organized collectively and executed via a deft volley of signals between pack members.

It was our study of wolves in captivity that led us astray. When an environment is constrained and resources become limited, wolves - and dogs - will vie for title of supreme leader whose “word” is law. Under these circumstances, the “alpha” gets first crack at any resource and hold “lower” pack members at bay with a single snap of the jaw.

We humans then chose to apply our observations of wolf behavior in captivity to the domesticated dog’s attitude toward us, the gatekeepers of all things good. We interpret “disobedience” or exuberant assertions of want or need from our dog as insubordination or attempts to dominate us. 

It is our reaction to this perceived infraction that speaks volumes about the human-canine bond. Do we feel driven to declare dominion over our dogs? Or do we simply choose to employ a more loving, consistent and ultimately more effective training or behavioral approach?

In other words, do we use sticks or carrots on our best friend?