Debunking Alpha Theory Title Image

Debunking Alpha Theory

by Rachel Moseley

If you’ve been in the dog community for very long or watched dog related shows on tv, you’ve likely heard of alpha theory. Alpha Theory is the idea that one dog is considered the alpha in the pack and everyone else is below them. This is followed by the conclusion that you have to make yourself alpha over your dog. If you don’t, you’ll have a horribly behaved dog running rampant. Many years ago, this seemed to be the case. However, research has proven that alpha theory is false and that the original report that seemed to prove alpha theory’s existence was based on inaccurate assumptions.

The Myth

Dominance in animals is generally defined as a relationship established through force, aggression, and submission so as to establish control over resources. In this ideology, the alpha is the dominant one and therefore has control over everything.

The basic idea that alpha theory pushed was that dogs are constantly vying for position as “alpha” in any multi-dog situation and with their human owner(s). It preached that you must establish dominance over your dog, generally through means of intimidation or physical force. If you didn’t establish dominance then your dog would never listen to you or behave at all. Any bad behavior from the dog would be said to be caused by him considering himself dominant over you. If you wanted to change his behavior you would need to force him into submission.

For example, let’s say your dog did not stay when you told him to. Alpha theory would suggest that he didn’t stay solely because he thought he was dominant over you. That he didn’t have to listen to anything you said (rather than general dog training knowledge that says the dog likely wasn’t proofed to stay in that environment or hadn’t learned it properly yet and therefore got distracted and broke the stay).

So you would need to physically intimidate him (or force him into position) and if they still didn’t listen then you should “alpha roll” them by pinning them to the ground to assert your dominance. It included some harmless ideas as well, such as the handler having to be the first one out the door because if you let your dog go first it meant they were dominant over you.

Ceaser Milan, “The Dog Whisperer”, is quite infamous for pushing this belief on television for the past thirteen years or so.

The Origin 

The idea of alpha theory began with an animal behaviorist, Rudolph Schenkel. In the 1940’s Schenkel released a paper based on his study of a pack of unrelated captive wolves from various zoos that he had put together. Naturally, these wolves that didn’t know each other nor did they have any relation so they competed for resources. Schenkel went on to say that the two wolves that “won” control over the resources were the alpha pair.  His conclusions laid the foundations for what became the belief for how wolves behave both in captivity and in the wild. People later further generalized it by attaching it to dogs as well.

Debunking in Wolves

Two WolvesAs it turns out, alpha theory was built entirely on a faulty premise. Animal behaviorist L. David Mech spent several years in the 1990’s living among wolves in the wild in the Canadian Arctic. Watching the interactions between those wolves caused him to doubt the premise of dominance and alpha theory that Schenkel had come out with around half a century earlier.

He didn’t see the wolves functioning in a dominant/submissive hierarchy. Instead, he saw a familial relationship between the wolves with the breeding pair functioning as leaders. Similar to how a mother and father are leaders over their children. The pair lead through experience, respect, and kind leadership rather than through force or intimidation. At this time Mech recanted his book that was released over twenty years earlier that backed up Schenkel’s concept of Alpha wolves. Read about Mech’s research here.

In Dogs

Even without considering the debunking of the original alpha theory there’s a critical flaw in applying it to dogs. It’s really quite simple, dogs aren’t wolves. Dogs have been bred for centuries to work alongside humans. They understand that people aren’t dogs and don’t treat us as though we are. So even if wolves did function in a dominance driven hierarchy (which they don’t) applying it to dogs is a logical fallacy.

Dogs in a group will have a loose hierarchy but it’s not earned through fear, intimidation, or aggression. Pack hierarchies are fluid, different situations will lend to different dogs being more of the leader than others.

What Does It All Mean for You?

Really, all of this is to say one thing. Your dog isn’t behaving a certain way (or not behaving) in an attempt to be dominant. Dogs aren’t constantly vying for the top spot.

Some Examples

If your dog isn’t listening to your cues take a look at the environment and what’s going on rather than blaming it on fictional dominance. Dogs don’t generalize well so they need to be taught everything in different environments with differing levels of distractions. Just because your dog can rock a sit stay in your house doesn’t mean that they can immediately go to a high distraction environment like Petco and do just as well. If your struggling with it then go back to your house and train from scratch. Then move to your driveway, your yard, then the neighborhood. Finally, go to public places starting with lower traffic places and build up to the busy areas. Teach your dog what you want. It’s not dominance that’s the issue, it’s just their inability to generalize and them being too distracted to properly follow through on your cues.

If your dog only listens to you and no one else it’s not because you’re the only person they see as alpha. Again, dogs don’t generalize well. If one person does all the training they’re not going to connect the cues and behavior to everyone who interacts with them. To fix it enlist other people in the family (or friends) spend a few minutes every day training your dog. Within a short period of time, you’ll notice he’s starting to listen to everyone relatively well.

Dogs are allowed to set personal boundaries with other dogs. That doesn’t mean they’re dominant over other dogs, either. The same way you can tell your significant other what you are and aren’t comfortable with some things without being “dominant” over your significant other.

Bottom Line

Don’t buy into the outdated alpha theory nonsense and try to force your dog into submission. Many people create a shutdown, insecure, fearful dog and then try to say that it’s submissive. Don’t pin your dog down or try to intimidate it. You won’t get the results you want and you’ll irreparably damage your relationship with your dog.

Instead, build a partnership with your dog. Train him in humane ways, whether that means you use balanced training or force-free training. Teach him behaviors and reward him when he does them right.

Further Reading

http://content.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,2007250,00.html

https://drsophiayin.com/philosophy/dominance/

https://www.trainingyourdog.ca/single-post/2016/09/16/The-Flawed-Alpha-Wolf-Theory

https://www.whole-dog-journal.com/issues/14_12/features/Alpha-Dogs_20416-1.html