Abolishing The Alpha Dog Myth

It’s so wonderful that we no longer believe that we need to take charge and make our dogs submit in order to feel like a successful dog owner! The old “show them who’s boss” attitude is truly off the mark.


To be fair to all of us that have been training dogs for decades, we were very misinformed about dominance theory relating to wolves and then dogs.


It always has been common knowledge that dogs evolved from wolves, but we rarely focused on the concept that it occurred 14,000 years ago! Today’s family companion is nothing like a wolf. In fact, those who suggest that we be “alpha” over our dogs often know very little about wolves!Optimized-Slide1 3

In the 1940’s, when no one had actually studied wolves in their natural habitat, a study was performed where wolves from different zoos were put in a captive colony for observation. A behaviorist named Rudolph Schenkel published his findings which described the wolves as competing for hierarchy, thus the notion of alpha pairs.This theory stood unchallenged when L. David Mech wrote his book in the late 60’s titled The Wolf: Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species. His writings included many references to Schenkel’s study and was widely publicized (over 120,000 copies now in print)!


Mech himself later spent much time living among the wolf packs near the North Pole and studying their behavior. He realized that the information that he had helped to spread was erroneous. In their natural habitat, wolves live more like cooperative families rather than in a social structure where there are individuals competing for rank and position.


What had been observed in the 1940’s study was that wolves who were already living out of their element were then placed in still another unnatural captive group. It was living in this artificial colony which caused the wolves to resort to competing for rank where they normally would have been relaxed agreeable citizens squabbling only occasionally over food or breeding rights.


Around the year 2000, Mech authored articles attempting to correct the misconceptions that had been accepted as truth.


All the while, dog trainers and owners were convinced that they needed to be alpha over their most non-confrontational pet canines! In the 60’s, positive reinforcement training was gaining ground with the advent of clicker training. Unfortunately for the general public, a certain TV trainer slowed the trend with his popular show depicting the dog/owner relationship to be one of control and dominance.


Realizing the fallacy about wolf behavior combined with the thousands of years since the evolution of the domesticated dog, we can begin to understand how ludicrous our alpha approach to dog training has been!


Taking a dog down as in performing an “alpha roll” on them only serves to intimidate. Many dogs will shut down and some already fearful dogs may resort to biting.


Today, the many studies on “man’s best friend” prove that dogs learn most effectively throughout he use of positive reinforcement and encouragement. Much has been taken from the study of human behavior by B.F. Skinner. Dogs want to please us and if there is abnormal behavior, we seek to discover the cause rather than attempt to dominate.


The shift has made dog training so liberating and fun for dogs and owners. It is true that we need to be the leaders for our dogs, but we should strive to guide with love and patience. It’s up to us as humans to learn about dogs and what motivates them to work for us. It’s only then that we will have laid the foundation for the partnership we all seek.


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