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Most dog owners have heard the terms “alpha,” “pack,” or “alpha dog theory” at some point in their dog ownership journey. Did you know that this theory, the alpha dog theory, has actually been debunked?
Despite ongoing research and scientists re-evaluating hierarchy models, these terms and concepts of a human being alpha and a dog being the subordinate continue to be discussed among both dog owners and dog trainers.
So the question is – does your dog see you as the alpha?
This concept of the alpha dog theory and the idea of needing to assert dominance over your dog has been debunked. However, since dogs love to be around us, they’ll inevitably do some behaviors, or some situations will come up where humans will misinterpret their dog as being dominant.
In this article, we’re going to discuss this alpha dog theory so that you can better understand how to communicate with your dog to build a better relationship.
A Brief Overview of Alpha Dog Theory and Dominance Theory
Alpha dog theory, or dominance theory, is an approach to canine social behavior based on a study of captive zoo wolves conducted in the mid-1900s. The Swiss animal behaviorist, Rudolph Schenkel, concluded wolves in a pack fight to gain dominance, and the winner of the fight is considered the alpha dog.
In the 1960s, David Mech, a wildlife research biologist, reinforced and perpetuated this concept of wolves fighting to become alpha or dominant. However, in 1999, David Mech published a paper renouncing this idea.
He stated that the previous studies were erroneous, focusing only on non-natural assortments of captive wolves. After further studies on free-living wolf packs in nature, he concludes that “wolves who lead packs achieved their position simply by mating and producing pups.”
While current research supports that dogs do not respond to any alpha dog or dominance theory, these concepts continue to persist, especially regarding dog training.
The Current Science of Dogs
Perhaps the biggest problem with dominance theory is that it entails using outdated training methods to “show your dog who’s boss.” Thanks to current research, we know that dogs are sentient beings and have emotions.
Outdated training methods, like alpha rolls or scruffing, are often counterproductive and can be traumatizing, damaging your relationship with your dog.
Thankfully, science is proving to us repeatedly that dogs are happier and better trained using more humane and effective training techniques rooted in science, like learning theory and operant conditioning.
All in all, dogs are hard-working, loving animals that just want to be by our sides and earn rewards for good behavior.
Now let’s dive deeper into some common myths about this theory and discuss how dogs really think, learn, and live their lives as we know them today based on science.
Myth 1: Don’t Let Your Dog Walk in Front of You
According to the outdated dominance theory, dogs should never walk in front of you. It’s believed alphas are the ones leading the pack, and that should fall to the dog owner.
When a dog trails behind a dog owner, that indicates he’s following your lead. Leaders of the pack inherently enter areas first to ensure their safety.
Fact: Dogs Pull on Leash for Several Reasons
Dogs pull on leash during a walk primarily because they’re excited and want to play and explore. Plus, loose leash walking is one of the most important things you can teach your dog.
So, if you don’t train your dog how to walk nicely on a leash, they won’t naturally learn it on their own.
Myth 2: You Should Always Eat Before Your Dog
The idea behind this outdated myth based on dominance theory is that you should always eat before your dog because that shows him that you’re the alpha and in charge.
Fact: Dogs Are Naturally Scavenging Carnivores and Associate Food Rewards With Good Behavior
Simply put, dogs get hungry! Dogs only eat the food that we give them. Dogs enjoy tasty food as much as we humans do, so if you give your dog something to eat, they’re going to eat it.
Your dog isn’t going to sit and stare at his food bowl, waiting for you to eat first, wondering where he sits in the pack. A dog brain simply isn’t capable of that level of thought!
While you can train your dog to wait until you give them a release cue to eat their food, they’re doing that because you’ve trained them well, not because they’re establishing a pack hierarchy.
Plus, have you ever seen a photo of wolves eating in the wild? They all eat together!
Myth 3: Allowing Your Dog Onto Your Furniture or Bed Will Elevate Their Status Above You
Whether or not you allow your dog onto your furniture or bed is a personal decision everyone must make for themselves. But, this idea that you can’t let your dog on your bed because then he’ll see himself in a higher position of authority over you isn’t accurate and is based on the outdated dominance theory.
It’s believed that elevated dogs would see themselves as rulers and leaders and continue to take over.
Fact: Dogs Like to Be Comfy Too!
On a serious note, did you know that the Mayo Clinic conducted a study that showed people actually find comfort and a sense of security from sleeping with their pets?
Of course, if your dog is on the bed nudging you throughout the night, then the quality of your sleep may degrade. It’s important to note that letting your dog sleep on the bed has everything to do with your comfort and sleep quality and nothing to do with your dog’s status.
Myth 4: Your Dog Should Always Break Eye Contact First
Since dogs are nonverbal, they rely heavily on body language to communicate. Eye contact is an important aspect of nonverbal communication.
Those who believe in outdated dominance theory may think that if your dog breaks eye contact first, he’s challenging you. Breaking eye contact signifies obedience and submission.
Fact: Dogs Break Eye Contact to Prevent a Challenge
The truth of the matter is that most dogs are non-confrontational. Since dogs rely on their body language to communicate, eye contact is a massive component of that communication.
Prolonged eye contact and staring can be seen as “rude” or a confrontation or challenge. A dog choosing to break eye contact signifies that he doesn’t want any trouble.
Myth 5: Your Dog Should Always Go Through a Door After You
With dominance theory, it’s believed that dogs should allow you to enter through a doorway first and then will follow you. After all, this would show that you’re the leader, and they’re simply following your lead.
Fact: Your Dog Rushes Through a Doorway Because He’s Excited
Many trainers recommend teaching your dog to sit at a doorway and wait for your cue to be released. In most cases, this has everything to do with safety and nothing to do with dominance.
Your dog isn’t rushing past you because he thinks he’s the alpha, which is the fear with dominance-based thinking. Instead, your dog is rushing past you simply because he’s excited to get to whatever is on the other side of the door, like the backyard.
For many reasons, a dog rushing through a doorway can be a significant safety concern. They could accidentally rush past someone standing nearby and knock them down, or they could be tempted to run through an open door into a dangerous situation, like when the front door is left open, and there’s a street nearby.
How Do Dogs Choose an Alpha Human?
We’ve established that dominance theory is debunked, and alpha isn’t a great way to communicate and describe people’s relationships with their dogs. Despite this, if you’ve ever owned a dog, then you do know that, in many cases, dogs do choose a favorite person!
Similar to how humans have best friends or favorite people in their life for a variety of reasons, dogs are the same! Dogs can have a favorite human based on several factors. In a nutshell, dogs are more likely to choose their favorite person based on positive experiences and positive associations with that person.
If one person in the household is the primary person to walk, feed, and play with the dog, then there’s an increased chance the dog will pick that person as their favorite. In this scenario, that person is doing all of the fun and exciting things with the dog while other humans in the household aren’t.
Why Is Dominance Theory a Problem?
Now that you understand that dominance theory and alpha theory have been debunked, the next consideration is to discuss how perpetuating this idea could be a concern.
When someone approaches dog training, dog behavior, or just everyday interactions with dogs with the mentality of dominance theory, a lot of behavior, particularly aggression, gets misinterpreted. In dogs, aggressive behavior is most often created from fear, anxiety, confusion, and stress.
It’s essential to understand the root of aggression because if aversive techniques, like an alpha roll, are applied, that could actually cause your dog to be more fearful. This could potentially cause your dog to shut down, or worse, it could cause an escalation of behavior and result in the dog biting someone.
The video below does a great job of explaining why alpha pack theory isn’t a great way to interact with our dogs and how there are better methods available now that still lead us to well-trained and happy dogs!
How To Train Your Dog
When training dogs, following positive reinforcement methods and techniques is crucial. With positive reinforcement methods, the general concept is to reward and reinforce the behavior you want to see more of.
It’s important to set your dog up for success by preventing unwanted behavior from happening in the first place, but when it does, it’s best to redirect your dog to something it should be doing instead.
Not only has dominance theory been debunked, but there is concern that it could even be damaging to your dog.
We all love dogs and have dogs to share a life with, so it’s essential to train them and interact with them in safe and appropriate ways shown by science, to create positive outcomes.