By guest author Pat Miller, owner of Peaceable Paws and author of Beware Of The Dog and The Power of Positive Training
Why Every Mention of “Alpha Dogs” or “Dominant Dogs” is Dangerous to All Dogs
The alpha myth is everywhere. Google “alpha, dog” on the Internet and you get more than 16 million hits. Really. While not all the sites are about dominating your dog, there are literally millions of resources out there – websites, books, blogs, television shows, animal care and training professionals – instructing you to use force and intimidation to overpower your dog into submission. They say that you, the human, must be the alpha. They’re all wrong. Every single one of them. As a professional dog walker, you need to know why this myth is so damaging to your client’s dogs, why it’s unprofessional and unethical to use it with any dog, and why its unfortunate popularity has been fatal to far too many unfortunate canine companions.
A History of Dominance Theory
The erroneous approach to canine social behavior known as dominance theory is based on a study of captive zoo wolves conducted in the 1930’s and 1940’s by Swiss animal behaviorist Rudolph Schenkel, in which the scientist concluded that wolves in a pack fight to gain dominance, and the winner is the alpha wolf .[i] Schenkel’s observations of captive wolf behavior were erroneously extrapolated to wild wolf behavior, and then to domestic dogs. It was postulated that wolves were in constant competition for higher rank in the hierarchy, and only the aggressive actions of the alpha male and female held the contenders in check. Other behaviorists following Schenkel’s lead also studied captive wolves and confirmed his findings: groups of unrelated wolves brought together in artificial captive environments do, indeed, engage in often-violent and bloody social struggles.
The problem is, that’s not normal wolf behavior. As David Mech stated in the introduction to his study of wild wolves (Mech, 2000), “Attempting to apply information about the behavior of assemblages of unrelated captive wolves to the familial structure of natural packs has resulted in considerable confusion. Such an approach is analogous to trying to draw inferences about human family dynamics by studying humans in refugee camps. The concept of the alpha wolf as a “top dog” ruling a group of similar-aged compatriots is particularly misleading. (Schenkel 1947; Rabb et al. 1967; Fox 1971a; Zimen 1975, 1982; Lockwood 1979; van Hooff et al. 1987)”[ii]
What we know now, thanks to Mech and others, is that in the wild, a wolf pack is a family, consisting of a mated pair and their offspring of the past one to three years. Occasionally two or three families may group together. As the offspring mature they disperse from the pack; the only long-term members of the group are the breeding pair. By contrast, in captivity unrelated wolves are forced to live together for many years, creating tension between mature adults that doesn’t happen in a natural wild pack.
But that’s all about wolves anyway, not dogs. How did it happen that dog owners, and dog care professionals started thinking all that information (and misinformation) about wolf behavior had anything to do with dogs and dog behavior? According to an article in the July 30, 2010 issue of Time, somewhere along the line the logic went something like this: “Dogs are descended from wolves. Wolves live in hierarchical packs in which the aggressive alpha male rules over everyone else. Therefore, humans need to dominate dogs to get them to behave.”[iii]
Cesar Millan, the darling of the dominance crowd, is only the latest in a long line of dominance-based trainers who advocate forceful techniques such as the alpha roll. Much of this style of training has roots in the military – which explains the emphasis on punishment. As far back as 1906, Colonel Konrad Most was using heavy-handed techniques to train dogs in the German army, then police and service dogs.[iv] He was joined by William Koehler after the end of World War II. Koehler also initially trained dogs for the military prior to his civilian dog-training career, and his writings advocated techniques that including hanging and helicoptering a dog into submission (into unconsciousness, if necessary). To stop a dog from digging, he suggested filling the hole with water and submerging the dog’s head in the water-filed hole until he was nearly drowned.
Fast-forward several years to 1978 and the emergence of the Monks of New Skete as the new model for dog training, asserting a philosophy that “understanding is the key to communication, compassion, and communion” with your dog.[v] The Monks were considered cutting edge at the time, and were in fact responsible for the widespread popularization of the “Alpha-Wolf Roll-Over” (now shortened to the alpha roll), in a complete and utter misinterpretation of the submissive roll-over that is voluntarily offered by the less assertive dog, not forcibly commanded by the stronger one. They also advocated the frequent use of other physical punishments such as the scruff shake (grab both sides of the dog’s face and shake, lifting the dog off the ground) and cuffing under the dog’s chin with an open hand several times, hard enough to cause the dog to yelp.
Even their most recent book, Divine Canine; the Monks’ Way to a Happy, Obedient Dog (2007), while professing that “training dogs is about building a relationship that is based on respect and love and understanding” is still heavy on outdated, erroneous dominance theory.[vi] Immediately following their suggestion that “a kindly, gentle look tells the dog she is loved and accepted,” they say “But it is just as vital to communicate a stern reaction to bad behavior. A piercing, sustained stare into a dog’s eyes tells her who’s in charge; it establishes the proper hierarchy of dominance between person and pet.” (Author’s note: It can also elicit a strong aggressive response if you choose the wrong dog as the subject for your piercing, sustained stare.)
Enter the Clicker
Just when it seemed that the dog world had completely stagnated in turn-of-the-century military-style dominance-theory training and handling, marine mammal trainer Karen Pryor wrote her seminal book, Don’t Shoot the Dog.[vii] Published in 1985, this small, unassuming volume was intended as a self-help book for human behavior, the author never dreaming that her modest book, paired with a small plastic box that made a clicking sound, would launch a massive paradigm shift in the world of dog training and behavior and other fields of professional dog care and handling. But it did.
Forward progress was slow until 1993, when veterinary behaviorist Dr. Ian Dunbar founded the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (now the Association of Professional Dog Trainers). Dunbar’s vision of a forum for trainer education and networking has developed into an organization that now boasts more than 5,000 members worldwide.[viii] While membership in the APDT is not restricted to positive reinforcement-based trainers, included in its early guiding principles was this statement: “We promote the use of reward-based training methods, thereby minimizing the use of aversive techniques.” The establishment of this forum facilitated the rapid spread of information in the dog training world, enhanced by the creation of an online discussion list where members could compare notes and offer support for a scientific and dog-friendly approach to training, dog-walking and handling.
Things were starting to look quite rosy for our dogs. The positive market literally mushroomed with books and videos from dozens of well-educated, quality training and behavior professionals, including Jean Donaldson, Dr. Patricia McConnell, Dr. Karen Overall, Suzanne Hetts, and others. With advances in positive training and an increasingly educated and growing corps of animal care professionals embracing the science of behavior and learning and passing good information on to their clients, pain-causing, abusive methods such as the alpha roll, scruff shake, yanking on leashes, hanging, drowning and cuffing appeared to be headed the way of the passenger pigeon.
Then, in the fall of 2004, the National Geographic Channel launched its soon-to-be-wildly-popular show, The Dog Whisperer, over the protests of several degreed behavior professionals to whom they had sent a review clip months earlier. Nat Geo was clearly informed in advance of that first airing that the star of the show, Cesar Millan, was using methods that were outdated, unscientific, and potentially dangerous. “Don’t do it,” the experts warned. The show aired anyway. Dominance theory was back in vogue, with a vengeance. While Millan has lost credibility in recent years, been bitten numerous times on his own show and even been investigated for animal cruelty on at least one occasion, today, everything from housetraining mistakes to jumping up to counter surfing to all forms of aggression is likely to be attributed to “dominance” by persistent followers of the alpha-resurgence. Incredibly and tragically, there are still legions of animal care professionals who follow Millan’s misguided practices. Their clients, human and canine, all too often suffer as a result.
Why Not Alpha
“But,” some will argue, “look at all the dogs who have been successfully trained, walked and handled throughout the past century using the dominance model. Those professionals can’t be all wrong.”
In fact, harsh force-based methods are a piece of operant conditioning (positive punishment, in which the dog’s behavior makes a bad thing happen and as a result that behavior decreases), and as the decades have proven, those methods can work. They are especially good at shutting down behaviors – convincing a dog that it’s not safe to do anything unless instructed to do something. And yes, that works with some dogs. With others, not so much.
My own personal, unscientific theory is that dog personalities lie on a continuum from very soft to very tough. Harsh, old-fashioned dominance-theory methods can effectively suppress behaviors without obvious fallout (although there is always behavioral fallout) with dogs nearest the center of the personality continuum – those who are resilient enough to withstand the punishment, but not so tough and assertive that they fight back. Under dominance theory, when a dog fights back, you must fight back harder until he submits, in order to assert yourself as the pack leader, or alpha. Problem is, sometimes they don’t submit, and the level of violence escalates. Or they submit for the moment, but may erupt aggressively again the next time a human does something violent and inappropriate to them, or when the dog anticipates violence. Under dominance-theory training, those dogs are often deemed incorrigible, not suitable for the work they’re being trained for nor safe as a family companion. Humans get bitten in the process (as Millan has shown, time and again), and dogs who bite humans are often sentenced to death. Many, most, or perhaps even all of them, had they never been treated so inappropriately in the first place, could have been perfectly fine. Instead, they are euthanized, after a prolonged experience of failed abuse.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, a very soft dog can quickly and easily be psychologically damaged by one enthusiastic inappropriate assertion of rank by the heavy-handed dominance handler – trainer, dog walker, owner… This dog quickly shuts down; fearful and mistrusting of the humans in his world who are unpredictably and unfairly violent. While this dog may not meet an early demise, his quality of life has been permanently damaged.
Most crossover professionals (those who originally used old-fashioned coercive methods and now are proud to promote positive reinforcement-based relationships) will tell you they successfully worked with lots of dogs the old way. They loved their dogs and their clients’ dogs, and the dogs loved them. I’m a crossover trainer, and I know that’s true. I also know that I would dearly love to be able to go back and redo all of that training, to be able to have an even better relationship with those dogs; to give them a less stressful life, and one filled with even more joy than the one we shared together. Where’s a DeLorean and a flux capacitor a la Back to the Future, when you need one?
Finally, the very presumption that our dogs would even consider we humans to be members of their canine pack is simply ludicrous. They know how impossibly inept we are, for the most part, at reading, understanding and responding appropriately to the subtleties of canine body language. We are equally inept, if not even more so, at trying to mimic those subtleties. Any attempts on our part to somehow insert ourselves into their social structure and communicate meaningfully with them in this manner are simply doomed to failure. It’s about time we gave up trying to be dogs in a dog pack and accepted that we are humans co-existing with another species – and that we’re most successful doing so when we co-exist peacefully.
The fact is, successful social groups work because of voluntary deference, not because of aggressively enforced dominance. This is true of any social species – canine, human, equine… The whole point of social body language rituals is to avoid conflict and confrontation, not to cause it. When aggression erupts it’s a failure of social communication. Watch any group of dogs interacting. Time and time again you’ll see dogs deferring to each other. It’s not even always the same dog deferring:
Dog B: Hey, I’d really like to go first. Dog A: “By all means, be my guest.” Dog B passes down the narrow hallway.
Dog A: “I’d really like to have that bone.” Dog B: “Oh sure – you obviously want it more than I do.” Dog A gets the bone.
What we know now is that yes, social hierarchies do exist in groups of domesticated dogs, and in many other species, including humans. We also know that hierarchy can be fluid. As described above, one dog may be more assertive in one encounter, and more deferent in the next, depending on what’s at stake, and how strongly each dog feels about the outcome. There are endless subtleties about how those hierarchies work, and how the members of a social group communicate – in any species.
We also know that canine-human interactions are not driven by social rank, but rather by reinforcement. Behaviors that are reinforced repeat and strengthen. If your client’s dog is pulling on leash or jumping on you, it’s not because he’s trying to take over the world – it’s just because he wants to get places faster than you do, and he’s reinforced by getting there as quickly as possible. Behaviors that are reinforced increase, so every time jumping up gets your attention (and gets the leash clipped on) or pulling gets him where he wants to go, he’s more likely to jump up again or pull harder the next time. Figure out how to prevent him from being reinforced for jumping up (turn your back and step away) or pulling (stop moving!). Reinforce him liberally for having four paws on the floor (give him attention/attach the leash) or walking politely (treats, toys, praise and play, as well as moving forward). Do that and you’re well on your way to having client dogs who greet politely and behave well on leash, thanks to a relationship of mutual love, respect, communication and communion. Isn’t that what we’d all like for the dogs we live and work with?
COMMENTS AND RESOURCES ON “ALPHA” DOMINANCE THEORY
There is a growing body of information available to anyone who wants to learn more about why dominance theory is so outdated and incorrect. Here are ten resources to get you started:
- The American Society of Veterinary Animal Behaviorists Position Statement on Dominance (excerpt): “The AVSAB recommends that veterinarians not refer clients to trainers or behavior consultants who coach and advocate dominance hierarchy theory and the subsequent confrontational training that follows from it. (https://avsab.org/resources/position-statements/)
- The Association of Professional Dog Trainers Position Statement on Dominance (excerpt): “The APDT’s position is that physical or psychological intimidation hinders effective training and damages the relationship between humans and dogs. Dogs thrive in an environment that provides them with clear structure and communication regarding appropriate behaviors, and one in which their need for mental and physical stimulation is addressed. The APDT advocates training dogs with an emphasis on rewarding desired behaviors and discouraging undesirable behaviors using clear and consistent instructions and avoiding psychological and physical intimidation. Techniques that create a confrontational relationship between dogs and humans are outdated.” (http://www.apdt.com/about/ps/dominance.aspx)
- Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist Kathy Sdao (article excerpt): “But even if dogs did form linear packs, there’s no evidence to suggest that they perceive humans as part of their species-specific ranking. In general, humans lack the capability to even recognize, let alone replicate, the elegant subtleties of canine body language. So it’s hard to imagine that dogs could perceive us as pack members at all.” (http://www.kathysdao.com/articles/forget-about-being-alpha/)
- Patricia McConnell, PhD – ethologist (article excerpt): “People who argue that ethology supports “getting dominance over your dog” are not only focused on an issue more relevant 50 years ago than today, they are misrepresenting the findings of early researchers on social hierarchy. Social hierarchies are complicated things that allow animals to live together and resolve conflicts without having to use force every time a conflict comes up.” (http://www.patriciamcconnell.com/dominance-theories)
- Meghan Herron, DVM (article excerpt): “Our study demonstrated that many confrontational training methods, whether staring down dogs, striking them, or intimidating them with physical manipulation such as alpha rolls [holding dogs on their back], do little to correct improper behavior and can elicit aggressive responses.” http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0168159108003717
- Sophia Yin, DVM (blog excerpt): “Experts say dominance-based dog-training techniques made popular by TV can contribute to bites.” http://drsophiayin.com/blog/entry/experts_say_dominance-based_dog_training_techniques_made_popular_by_televis
- Study –University of Bristol (article excerpt): “Far from being helpful, the academics say, training approaches aimed at “dominance reduction” vary from being worthless in treatment to being actually dangerous and likely to make behaviours worse.” University of Bristol (2009, May 21). Using ‘Dominance’ To Explain Dog Behavior Is Old Hat. ScienceDaily. (https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/05/090521112711.htm)
- Jean Donaldson: The Culture Clash (James and Kenneth Publishing), 1996, 2005 “The dominance panacea is so out of proportion that entire schools of training are based on the premise that if you can just exert adequate dominance over the dog, everything else will fall into place. Not only does it mean that incredible amounts of abuse are going to be perpetrated against any given dog, probably exacerbating problems like unreliable recalls and biting, but the real issues, like well-executed conditioning and the provision of an adequate environment, are going to go unaddressed, resulting in a still-untrained dog, perpetuating the pointless dominance program.”
- Barry Eaton: Dominance in Dogs; Fact or Fiction, (softcover book) 2011, Dogwise Publishing. “…the alpha wolf is not the dictator of a pack, but a benevolent leader, and domestic dogs are not dictatorial and are unlikely to try to raise their status to rule over other dogs in a pack environment.” “I believe it’s time to open our minds and consider the concept of pack rules as a thing of the past and recognize that dogs are not constantly trying to dominate their owners.”
- James O’Heare: Dominance Theory and Dogs, (softcover book) 2008, Dogwise Publishing “…while the notion of social dominance holds potential for value in a social psychology and ethology context, it is an insidious idea with regards to explaining and changing behavior between companion dogs or dogs and people… it should be abandoned completely in that context in favor of a more efficient, effective and scientifically defensible behavioral approach.”From an APDT interview with James O’Heare: “The most significant problem with viewing dog-human relationships in the context of social dominance is that it implies and promotes an adversarial relationship between the two. It sets up a win-lose scenario, that actually ends up in a lose-lose scenario (as most win-lose scenarios do). It is incompatible with cooperation by its very nature, cooperation being something you need to promote an effective bond and training environment.”
WHAT YOU CAN DO
- Educate yourself about the fallacies of dominance theory so you’re not taken in by those who might try to convince you to forcibly coerce dogs into submission.
- Share your information with your clients, colleagues and dog-owning friends so they, too, can avoid inflicting inappropriate and dangerous training techniques on their canine companions.
[i] Schenkel, R. 1947. Expression Studies on Wolves; Captivity Observations. The Zoological Garden, Basle, and the Zoological Institute of the University of Basle, http://www.davemech.org/schenkel/index.html
[ii] Mech, L. David. 1999. Alpha status, dominance, and division of labor in wolf packs. Canadian Journal of Zoology 77:1196-1203. Northern Prairie Publication 1078. Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center, Jamestown, ND. See at < http://www.npwrc.usgs.gov/resource/2000/alstat/alstat.htm >. May 16, 2000. Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center, 8711 37th Street SE, Jamestown, ND 58401-7317 http://www.mnforsustain.org/wolf_mech_dominance_alpha_status.htm
[iii] Lee-St. John, Jennine. 2010. Dog Training: Animal Experts Debunk the Alpha-Dog Myth. Time Magazine: July 30, 2010. http://www.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,2007250.html#ixzzlc03KUJ5C
[iv] Most, Konrad. 1910. (1954, English) Popular Dogs Publishing Co. Ltd. , London
[v] The Monks of New Skete. 1978. How to be Your Dog’s Best Friend; A Training Manual for Dog Owners. New Skete Monastery, Cambridge, NY. Little, Brown and Company, Boston-Toronto
[vi] The Monks of New Skete. 2007. Divine Canine; The Monks’ Way to a Happy, Obedient Dog. New Skete Monastery, Cambridge, NY. Hyperion, New York, NY
[vii] Pryor, Karen. 1985. Don’t Shoot the Dog. Bantam Books, New York, NY
[viii] Association of Pet Dog Trainers. 1993.
Pat Miller is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer and Certified Canine Behavior Consultant. She offers classes, behavior modification services, training clinics and academies for trainers at her 80-acre Peaceable Paws training facility in Fairplay, Maryland (US), and presents seminars worldwide. She has authored The Power of Positive Dog Training, Positive Perspectives, Positive Perspectives, Play With Your Dog, Do-Over Dogs, How to Foster Dogs, and most recently (2016), Beware of the Dog. Miller is training editor for The Whole Dog Journal, and writes for several other publications. www.peaceablepaws.com