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The Dominance Theory | Debunked?

Updated: May 16, 2022

Why does the alpha (pack leader) theory still exist?

We all grew up with the same idea of how dogs work: they use physical force to fight to be the alpha, to submit to competing dogs in the pack. This notion is so engraved in our psyche that in English, being the top dog means that you are the most 'dominant' around. Even people who have no interest in anything dog-related will have undoubtedly heard about the importance of being dominant, the pack leader, the alpha.

Even now, when it has been so completely disproven, so much so that most trainers will stare down their noses at anyone who dares to utter the term "dominance" or - worse! - "alpha roll", this idea that dogs are trying to take over the world one owner at a time is still a sadly prevalent thought among dog enthusiasts.

Everything from pulling on the leash and jumping up, to eating something you dropped on the floor and chasing the cat, has been blamed on a dog's search for supremacy or an owner's lack of leadership skills.

It really is a wonder that we call dogs man's best friend at all, what with this supposed friend's constant attempt to overthrow us. You feed them, bathe them, care for them, and in some cases even put clothes on them, you take them to the vet when they are sick and give them a comfy place to sleep when they are tired, and how do they repay you? By staging a coup d'état! The nerve! But how did this misguided notion of rank come to be?

We all know that wolves dominate one another, they have a strict hierarchy where subordinates are denied prime resources and individuals are constantly battling for dominance, right? Well, no, that's not exactly how it works. It turns out that our previous notions of lupine social behavior were based on captive wolves. Individuals from different packs were forced to live in close proximity to each other, a highly unnatural condition for them, leading to highly unnatural behavior, the bloodbaths over resources were the result of stress, whereas, in the wild, there are no rival packs because space is not an issue.

In the wild, a wolf pack is made up of a monogamous pair and two or three generations of offspring, who leave the pack upon reaching sexual maturity (at around two years of age). Free-ranging dogs, especially those in a more urban setting, prefer a solitary life. They are opportunistic scavengers eating bits of food here and there, they don't need to hunt in groups because they don't hunt large prey.

In wolves, all members of the pack are involved in one way or another in rearing the young and obtaining food, whereas dogs are not monogamous and only the mother is responsible for raising her pups. In certain areas (typically rural) where dogs have been found to roam in loose groups ('membership' is only temporary), a pregnant female will separate herself from the rest of the group to give birth and care for her young. I've witnessed this personally on my many trips to Guatemala. So, you can see the obvious flaw in applying wolf behavior when studying dogs. Dogs and wolves are distant relatives (despite being of the same species) and thus not ethnologically interchangeable. It's not that these groups lack any semblance of structure, it's that hierarchy is only important in a few situations, much like it is for us humans.

Since it has been "common knowledge" for decades that wolves are constantly battling for dominance, it's easy to understand how so many dog owners could mistake a simple lack of manners for an attempt to climb up in rank, but the truth is that your dog is no more dominant when he dashes out the door than the person who just zipped by you in order to secure that last little spot in the elevator you were about to walk into. He's no more alpha when he lunges for the food you dropped than the lady who snatched up that sweater you just put down for a moment. These individuals aren't trying to assert their dominance, they're just plain rude: they've put their needs ahead of the needs of others. Dogs, like people, who aren't taught to behave properly cannot be expected to know how to do so.

Does this mean your dog shouldn't be taught any boundaries or rules? Of course not. But adhering to the dominance theory is not the way to achieve this. It is very flawed and used to justify the use of compulsion in dog training. A dog will not fulfill a request for three main reasons: she is frightened, unsure of what to do, or simply more motivated to do something else... Not because she is dominant! Just like humans, dogs do better with a benevolent role model and leader, rather than a tyrant.

Before I go on, I must acknowledge the slew of indignant trainers who are itching to point out that, altogether now: "dogs are not furry humans!" Very true, but as far as the brain is concerned we are very similar, despite the obvious difference in appearance. Animals are hedonistic by nature; thinking first of oneself is a primordial survival tactic that has stuck with us and will likely never leave.

The dog that sits before being let out or waits for something to be offered to her is not showing some sort of subordination, she's just a 'polite' dog. Obviously, she has no actual concept of social etiquette, but she's been taught that certain behaviors (sitting, staying, ceasing to whine or bark... ) are the only way to get what she wants (treats, affection, freedom... ).

It is a common misconception that dogs try to 'take control of the walk' by pulling on the leash, as only the leader walks in front. Dogs, even those that are the best of friends, do not walk side by side. Dogs are not pack animals, but even in wolves, status is not determined by where an individual walks, each animal minds their own business. It's no different when they're out on a walk with you: a dog that pulls is just trying to mind her own business as best she can while tethered to a sluggish human! To ask a dog to spend the duration of a walk ambling frustratingly slowly next to you is asking a lot; this is not to say that it is impossible, but it takes a lot of restraint to not chase the cat, bird, or jogger that has caught her eye, or investigate that pee, treat or carcass a foot from her nose!

A large problem arises when we consider that, as humans, we have this expectation that our dogs are able to understand our spoken language. Most dogs go their whole lives not knowing what the word 'no' means, even though they hear it repeatedly throughout the day. First of all, dogs pick up on tones more than individual words, which is why I can call my dog 'Silly Billy' and he'll run right to me. Secondly, telling a dog not to do something is generally unproductive because in all likelihood he's doing many things at once, and you've just told him 'don't'. Don't what, exactly? It is much more productive to tell him what he should be doing, it leaves no room for interpretation. This common source of miscommunication is what causes so many dog owners to believe that their dog is either dominant or just plain stupid.

Apart from "no", "quiet" is the number one word people seem to expect their dogs to know. The funny thing is that yelling will actually get most dogs to bark even more! On the off chance that a sharp "quiet!" actually startles the dog into silence, the owner's response usually isn't to communicate that the cessation of noise was what they were asking for (with the use of a reward), but to go back to what they were doing, which tells the dog nothing. Actually, in some cases, they'll even be unwittingly rewarding the dog for barking: he barks and they give him attention, he's quiet and they ignore him.

A discussion on canine dominance just wouldn't be complete without a shout-out to the alpha role: the ridiculous practice of pinning your dog to the ground in order to establish yourself as his superior. Submissive dogs show their bellies all the time, as do wolves. If they do it in nature, why can't we exploit and mimic it?

First off, it isn't a submissive gesture, it's an appeasement gesture. A dog exposing his abdomen is expressing complete inoffensiveness, he's found himself in a perceived tense situation, and is attempting to make it very clear that he means no harm.

Second, never ever will you see a dog flip another dog on his back (except in cases of inappropriate play). This gesture is offered, not forced. Forcing a dog to the ground will do nothing for your relationship, at best it will scare her, and at worst it can leave you with part of your face missing.

The alpha role was perpetuated by the Monks of New Skete and immensely popularized by Cesar Millan, all of whom have since claimed to regret both using and popularizing said practice.

Another time you may see a dog go "belly up" is during play. Even during play, it is the dog on the ground that initiates the behavior, his body language will be engaged but free of tension (no shaking or tail between his legs) and he is free to get up when he pleases.

Knowing the reasons dogs do what they do may seem like a triviality, but it can radically affect the outcome of your training. A dog that destroys the house because he has separation anxiety will likely not benefit exclusively from having something more interesting to do, while a dog who destroys out of boredom oftentimes will. In the same way, punishing a dog for being a dog will do nothing but yield frustration and scarce results. Trainers who demonize dogs by making erroneous claims about hierarchy and dominance do so to justify less than humane training techniques, but - thankfully! - that's not the way many dog owners choose to see their canine friends.

The most common criticism I hear in regards to the use of non-conflictual training methods is that it will cause the dog to become dependent on treats, refusing to do anything you ask without the certainty of a reward. Trainers that use compulsion claim that a dog should want to obey because the owner said so, not because he has treats. It is very human to want an individual (dog, human or otherwise) to comply out of respect and love, rather than the anticipation of a pay-out, so I can't say I completely blame them for this mindset, but what I've never understood was how these advocates of coercive methods could possibly oversee the double standard in their words: how is doing something solely for treats any different from doing something solely to avoid punishment? Personally, I would exclude such an egotistic notion from my training altogether, as it will only lead to frustration and resentment when you hit a training roadblock. Remember: dogs need to learn manners, not mindless submission.

A dog that is taught the notion of punishment will likely only comply when the threat of said punishment is present. I'm not implying that this method is completely ineffective (although, for all of dog-kind, I wish it were) but it is much more effective in the long run to teach a dog that if he complies, the best thing in the world will happen to him, and a skilled trainer will know exactly what that is for the dog in question.

With competence, calmness, and consistency you'll never go wrong!


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