Debunking the Alpha dog myth is sadly very hard as the Alpha dog myth is still very much alive – go on any social media and search for it and thousands of hits will pop up – dog trainers who still use these debunked theories, books, television shows (sadly still aired and even more sadly often in prime time) and veterinarians still giving you the advice that you should be “The leader of your pack”.
How can this myth be so resilient?
I am truly stunned by this. The alpha dog believe or more likely strong conviction is derived from an old study made in the 1930s-1940s about a captive wolf pack, and how they gained dominance by fighting each other in the pack and the wolf that won became the Alpha (The study made by the Swiss behaviorist Rudolph Schenkel). This conclusion was then somehow transferred onto dogs and the dominance theory became a training tool.
Now let’s start with the myth about the wolves first. Wolves do not live in a dominance hierarchy, they live in a family unit with a mum and a dad and their offspring. Observe wolves in the wild and you do not find aggressive behavior or someone trying to dominate the other – after all why would you fight your mum or your dad or weaken your own offspring! The offspring then leaves after a couple of years and makes room for new offspring to be brought up (The pack in Yellow Stone National Park is an extraordinary example of many wolves living harmoniously together). In captive wolf packs you see unrelated wolves being put together with no way of escaping, which of course creates tension and can lead to collisions among the members.
However, this has nothing to do with dog behavior and why we should use dominate behavior methods towards our pups. Dogs and wolves descend from the same ancestor but through many years of evolution, not to mention domestication on the dogs side they have evolved into their own species. Dogs have adapted to live among humans and all of our weird habits. Inside our homes navigating through our weird obstacles we put in our home and learning how to read our body language (dogs are waaaay ahead of us when it comes to deciphering body language), so why are we refusing to evolve with them?
Why is it that so many people hold on to that old dominance theory? When new research and positive trainers and behaviorists are standing in line, almost stumbling upon each other to share their knowledge on how you should really work with your beloved fur-ball using positive training tools.
And here comes the believers: “But the dominance model works, I’ve seen it…”. Have you now? Have you also seen how the dogs who this method is used upon are highly stressed out, some even afraid of even getting near a certain person or place cause if they do their owner will correct them with a sharp hit to their ribs. Have you seen their constant lip licking, tensed up bag and effort of avoidance in their body language? (all stress signals I might add)
Now let me give you an example I saw recently. The owner was trying to teach his dog to heal by his side, if the dog, not knowing what to do yet, stepped a little too far out of the heal position she would get a sharp punch in her side. Now, if someone gave you a sharp punch in your side every time you sat beside them, would you want to stay there out of joy or out of fear? Is that something you want to portray to your dog – to be afraid of you or to be afraid to be hit if they do something wrong?
Let’s say you have a careful dog by nature to begin with – very careful, nervous and not too sure about him-or herself – maybe your method will work and create a dog who does obey you, but is living a life in constant fear and with a stress level going through the roof. What if one day this dog snaps, cause lets face it, no one can live like that for long, and bites? You would go get that dog euthanized saying that it cannot learn, right? When in fact you were the one not learning! Or in the other end of the specter where a dog is highly confident and robust, and which may be able to handle this form of treatment for a longer period than the previous mentioned example but one day gets enough and starts fighting back…who would you blame, the dog or you?
Now everyone who has a dog or work with dogs I am sure wants the best for them, but why not treat your dog with the respect and care he or she deserves and educate yourself properly before even owning a dog. Put yourself in the dogs position – is a hit in the ribs the best way you learn or is it through proper guidance, care and positive reinforcement (say you get cake every time you do something good)? I know I would definitely go for the cake option!
You love your dog I am sure so why not make that bond even stronger by being the person your dog can count on, come to for comfort and feel safe with?
The final debunking I will do today is state a very simple fact – dogs are aware that humans are not dogs! Stunning intelligence right, marvelous really! We are unbelievable incapable of even reaching the level of deciphering body language as our dogs have, so let’s stop trying and instead accept the fact that we are by choice living with another species which we need to learn to understand, respect and possibly even learn from in order to co-exist peacefully.