The Myth of the Alpha

The Myth of the Alpha

By Colleen Demling, Dogtopia Canine Behaviorist

 

Words like “alpha,” “dominance,” “pecking order,” and “leader of the pack” are everywhere in the dog world. What most people don’t know is that the theory (Dominance Theory) that dogs operate on a strict social hierarchy and are constantly fighting to establish their place in the pack has been debunked, and even the original scientist who did the study agrees. Dogs do not naturally seek to establish social status.

Dominance Theory was developed in the 1970s, when Dr. David Mech conducted several behavioral studies on a pack of unrelated wolves in captivity (The Wolf: Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species. 1970). Through his research, he witnessed many fights and what he perceived was a strict social hierarchy. However, subsequent studies of wolf packs in the wild showed vastly different behavior. In the wild, the large family units would rotate who was in charge and how resources were shared.  There were few disagreements and the pack operated as a cohesive team.

Why were these wild packs acting so differently than the one Dr. Mech studied? Further scientific investigation discovered the original pack Dr. Mech studied was under extreme stress due to their captivity. The wolves weren’t fighting to be alpha; they were fighting for survival in a limited resource environment.

In group settings, some dogs may be more confident or insecure than others. Some may be pushy and others more reserved. But the main goal of most dogs in open play is to manage disagreements without conflict; not jockey for position in the pack or fight to become the alpha in the room. Most scuffles result from one dog totally ignoring another dog’s social cues.

When a dog is acting up, he isn’t trying to control us. He is receiving some benefit for his behavior. Did he try to push by you when you opened the door? He wasn’t trying to dominate; he was simply excited to get outside. In turn, when the pet parent makes the same dog wait as she opens the door, it doesn’t make her alpha, but it does help the dog understand that he needs to listen to her.

So how do we make sure that every day is the MOST EXCITING DAY EVER for the dogs in our care here at Dogtopia? We believe in fair leadership, consistent boundaries, and positive reinforcement – not dominance.

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  1. This is odd since I clearly see one of my dogs trying to constantly establish leadership over the other. Could be anecdotal evidence, but what would I attribute this behavior to if not for a natural instinct to be the “alpha?” Neither of my dogs is insecure (from what I can tell… I’m no dog whisperer afterall…) Both, however, can be pushy.

    1. Alpha or dominant behaviour can be written off as your dog simply being a bully or trying to play too rough for the others in my opinion….

  2. This was an incredible read! Absolutely amazing to find out that the alpha syndrome is no longer a theory. My dog has always been allowed to walk ahead of, beside or behind me… I never taught him how to ‘heel’ and I have no issues whatsoever with him because of that!

    I’m not saying that ‘heel’ isn’t a useful command but I just think it’s slightly unnecessary if your DOG isn’t walking YOU hahaha

    Thank you for sharing!

  3. Having worked professionally with dogs for over 10 years, I’ve had my share of well intentioned but misinformed owners try to explain why their dog “needs more dominance,” is “trying to be the alpha,” and other statements mistakenly relating their corgi’s behavior to that of a wild wolf. It’s very refreshing to see more and more dog care professionals work to dispel this myth which has lead to a litany of less than desirable training techniques, and focus on more progressive and educated forms of doggy behavior and modification!