Dominance in training

It’s very likely that you will have heard and read many observations over the past few years about the importance of dominating your dog and being the ‘Alpha’ in your family. The belief is that your dog is a domesticated wolf in your home waiting for the opportunity to take over your family pack.  Where do these ideas come from and are they right?

Over decades scientists have studied wolves in captivity to learn about their social behaviour and have observed all sorts of appeasing and aggressive behaviours which are necessary to allow the wolves to live together and for the leading adult pair to retain their authority. Rudolf Schenkel was one such researcher who wrote about social structure and body language among wolves in 1947. Schenkel studied wolves at the Basel Zoo in Switzerland, where up to ten wolves were kept together in an area of 10 by 20 metres. These wolves were not necessarily related and were kept in a limited, restricted area. They were forced to get on with one another in this unnatural environment and resorted to extreme behaviour and fighting as they couldn’t otherwise avoid serious conflict.

Wolf and cub

It was this belief and the assumption that dogs are directly descended from the Grey Wolf, that gave rise to the concept of the need to be the ‘Alpha’ in dog training. The theory was that dogs have strict pack hierarchy needs deeply embedded in their genes and must be kept in place for fear of them trying to oust and replace the pack leader – their owner. Sadly, it also led to the use of more negative training methods and direct punishment as it wasn’t just that the dog was punished when it did something wrong, owners were encouraged to show the dog that they were the ‘alpha wolf’ all the time,

More recent research into wolf behaviour has been conducted on wild wolf packs rather than captive packs.  In 1999 and 2000, David Mech published two articles in which he tried to correct the popular misunderstanding about how a wolf pack is organised, having spent 13 summers living near and with wolves on Ellesmere Island in Canada. He was able to acclimatise one of the wolf packs to his presence allowing him to study the pack up close over several years. His studies confirmed that most wolf packs consist of two parents and their puppies, maybe also with an older generation of offspring under three years or so of age who hadn’t yet struck out on their own. So the adults are simply the parent figures, maintaining authority, educating and taking care of their cubs without conflict. During all the time he spent with wolves David stated that he didn’t witness even one fight for dominance.

Our domesticated dogs not only do not form packs with strict hierarchies, we now know that they are not directly descended from the Grey Wolf after all. Canine evolution split away from that of proto-wolves many generations before wolves as we know them today evolved. 

Incidentally, the assumption that a dog might consider a human as a part of a dog pack is highly dubious. We don’t behave like dogs, don’t have their skills in body language communication and do a poor job at pretending to be the same as them. Dogs accept that we are two different species co-existing successfully and our relationships are best nurtured positively and with understanding of their different needs. 

We can do our best for them by acting as their parent figures in a positive way, offering them security, rules and love to help them to navigate this life that we have created with them. Dogs learn quickly and happily when they feel secure and loved 

Trainers are increasingly aware that canine-human interactions are not driven by social rank, but rather by reinforcement. Whatever behaviour your dog performs that gives him a good result is something he will want to repeat. He may keep jumping up on the sofa because you cuddle him when he does or force his way through the doors first because he remembers that next door’s cat like to sit on the wall just around the corner.  Your dog is an opportunist, and when you figure out how to prevent him from being reinforced for the behaviours you don’t want, and reinforce him liberally for the ones you do want  you’ll be well on your way to having the relationship of mutual love, respect, communication, and communion that we all want to have with our dogs.