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Alpha...? I Don't Think So...

Dominance theory, or “social dominance” is a concept found in traditional ethology and is used to describe features of a social relationship. It addresses the management of social relationships, and an individual’s ability to maintain access to a resource through the exertion of control and influence. These resources could be food, resting places and or mates. Dominance is not necessarily about gaining a ‘higher status’ than another individual through physical control, but more about keeping these desired, and highly valued resources from being taken…resources that may very well contribute to the survival of the animal.


Unfortunately, this has not been the common understanding of the term ‘dominance’ and it has instead been used incorrectly as it pertains to dogs for many years. The mis-use / mis-understanding of the term as a personality trait has lead to many physically and emotionally harmful techniques being used in dog training that are now being deemed as inappropriate, ineffective and in some cases, inhumane, as more and more people are becoming aware of what dominance theory actually means and where the mis-understanding came from.



The idea that humans should exert physical control over animals was first widely-popularized to the general public back in the 1970’s by the Monks of New Skete who recommended the “alpha roll” to deal with undesired behaviors in dogs. They asserted that by flipping the dog onto its back and pinning it there until it showed submissive behaviours, humans would gain dominance over the dog, the dog would respect them and the undesirable behaviours would end. This technique came out of studies done on populations of captive wolves in the 1960s, where wolves were observed using this ‘alpha roll’ on one another during conflicts. It appeared that the stronger wolves exerted their dominance over the others by using confrontation and force and when successful, were met with submission and so maintained their ‘alpha status’. People assumed that since wolves and dogs share a common ancestor, that if wolves behaved this way within their ‘pack’ then dogs must as well. Konrad Lorenz also described a dominance/submissive relationship between dogs and humans and based it on the fact that if he hit or threatened one of his own dogs, they would act submissively towards him. He was influenced by dog training procedures that were being carried out by the German military at the time that involved strict discipline and force that was also based on those studies of the captive wolf populations.


Over time, research began to be conducted on wild populations of wolves. David Mech, a research scientist for the United States Department of the Interior, was one of the first people to carry out research and study wolf behaviour in the wild. What he found contradicted the earlier research findings on the captive wolf populations. Although a pecking order developed within the captive wolf populations, this was likely due to the fact that this was a population of unrelated wolves who had been captured and thrown together to form a ‘pack’ in an artificial environment that restricted many of their natural behaviours. In the wild it was observed that wolves actually live in family groups consisting of a mother, father and their young. They work together to survive and aggressive displays within the family would actually hinder their chance at survival.There are times where wolves do not actually ‘pack’ at all and it is highly dependent on the habitat within which they are living. Alpha rolls do not exist in wild family groups, and it is now thought that perhaps a young wolf had been observed voluntarily laying down and offering a submissive behaviour and that this led to the belief that this ‘act of dominance’ occurred. It has been determined that all members of a wolf family eat at the same time, that it is normal to guard food that is within reach and that at one time or another all members of wolf packs lead the pack.


Thanks to these findings, and research that has explored the domestication of dogs and their evolution away from their wolf ancestors alongside humans, we now have updated views on dominance and what this means for our relationship with our dogs. The assumption that dogs are motivated by a desire to dominate and control people is outdated and underestimates their highly complex ability to communicate and learn. It is now more widely accepted that using methods based on outdated ideas of what dominance within wolf populations means results in damage to the human-dog relationship, compromises the welfare of our dogs and will cause more behavioural problems in the long run than it will fix.


Subscribing to the ‘you must be the pack leader / alpha’ mentality when it comes to our dogs can lead to problems. It causes one to use punishment, which may suppress aggression without addressing the underlying cause and directly make the problem worse by adding to a dog’s fear and/or anxiety. Hitting, yelling, rolling/pinning etc. only serves to create a very antagonistic relationship between a person and their dog. This theory fails to recognize the actual feelings that are driving the behaviours in our dog and everything a person deems a ‘problem’ is lumped into the category of ‘the dog is just being dominant’. Depending on the resiliency of the dog, over time it may shut down entirely or resort to increasingly aggressive displays towards the person utilizing these methods.


Dogs who have learned that they can maintain access to things in the home, such as toys, bones, a spot on the chesterfield etc. may resort to threats of aggression that can escalate quickly if not noticed and dealt with appropriately by their owners. It could be said that these dogs are asserting dominance over the resources. Proper training can help avoid these kinds of issues from ever starting and help solve them if they do develop. A dog may also begin to demonstrate ‘dominance aggression’ in response to punishing techniques that may be used on them. In order to avoid the punishment and associated pain, a dog may lash out in defense. Again, this is something that can be avoided through positive training.


If true dominance relates to the desire to control a resource, then for most issues that people need to resolve with their dogs being ‘alpha’ will not help. Barking, jumping at guests coming in the door, ignoring a recall and pulling on lead are not related to resources and usually do not involve aggressive displays. These are behaviours that have likely just been rewarded inadvertently by owners who did not even realize they were doing it at the time. We can change these behaviours by understanding the underlying emotional state of the dog, considering any medical and/or genetic contributors and by teaching and rewarding alternative, more appropriate ones…not by becoming dominant. Becoming a strong leader who has clear and consistent expectations, manages situations that help set our dogs up for success and who trains and rewards desirable behaviours will lead to a relationship built on trust and one in which our dogs can thrive.




References:

“Dominance Theory in Animal Training” The Pet Professional Guild: https://www.petprofessionalguild.com/dominancetheorypositionstatement


“Position Statement on the Use of Dominance Theory in Behaviour Modification of Animals” American Veterinary Society of Animal Behaviour:


“Use of ‘Dominance’ to Explain Dog Behaviour is Old Hat” Science Daily (May, 2005): https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/05/090521112711.htm


“Canine Dominance: Is the Concept of the Alpha Dog Valid?” Stanley Coren (July, 2010): https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/canine-corner/201007/canine-dominance-is-the-concept-the-alpha-dog-valid


“Your Dog: The Sofa Wolf” Simone Muller (2020): https://www.canineprinicples.com

“Dominance in Dogs: Fact or Fiction?” Barry Eaton , Dogwise Publishing (2010)

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