Canine Dominance ‘Alpha’ Theory Debunked
Nearly every dog owner has heard of the ‘Alpha dog’ theory, the idea of a hierarchical ‘pack’ system, and even worse- trainers, such as the infamous Cesar Milan, promoting their ‘dominance theory’ ideas for millions of home viewers to try out (to his minor credit, programs always advised viewers ‘not to attempt this at home’- we know how well that went).
Why ‘Dominance’ Gets Short Term Results
‘Dominance’ methods, such as the Milan’s ‘alpha roll’ work for one reason only; no intelligent species on the planet (other than humans, ironically) is going to choose to confront a larger and possibly dangerous species if not absolutely necessary for survival.
In other words, dogs submit to avoid further discomfort or injury, not because their human is the ‘Master Pack Leader’. At least, until these poor training methods cause the animal to fear for his well being. When that happens, the ‘flight’ option unavailable due to the giant human pinning him down, the dog might decide to lash out against the larger tormentor.
We all know the story. Dog bites human in defense, dog is labeled a ‘Bad, Damaged Dog’, and is often destroyed. All the while, ignorant human owner, thinking he can’t go wrong because he saw it work on TV, continues to go through the same problems with future pets.
Truth Behind the Dominance Theory
The surprisingly popular approach to canine social behavior known as ‘Dominance Theory’ (two million-plus Google hits) is based on a study of captive zoo wolves conducted in the 1930s and 1940s by Swiss animal behaviorist Rudolph Schenkel. Schenkel concluded that wolves in a pack fight to gain dominance, the winner being the Alpha wolf.
Unfortunately, this one study wasn’t compared to others; there wasn’t anything else to compare it to at the time. Like poorly conducted marketing research, this one group represented the entire Canine population.
No one considered this single group of captive animals might be acting completely different than a non-captive wolf would, or even other captive animals in similar situations.
● How were these captive wolves being treated at the time? That would bear a drastic effect on the behavior of any Canine.
● Was their environment any different than that of the domestic dog of today? Nearly 100 year old zoo captivity- certainly, without a doubt.
All in all, it was very poorly conducted research, compared to today’s standards. Sadly, as a direct result, trainer after trainer thought it was a good idea to cause their dogs to fear, even suffer, bodily harm and painful techniques continuously to get them to ‘submit’.
The Progression of Modern Research
There weren’t many studies to go on in the past, which is why ‘aggressive training techniques’ were so popular. Thankfully, with the progression of scientific research we know now a wolf pack resembles something closer to a human family structure.
Is it the best answer?
In the end, yes- this practice of ‘dominance’ will often yield very quick but short term results, usually much faster than the technique I am about to illustrate. Which makes perfect sense; make an animal fear for its’ well being and it will choose whatever path is best for survival.
Of course, you also run the risk of not only severely damaging your relationship with your pet, but creating a fearful animal prone to defensive aggression. Not a dog you want around your children.
The popular theory today suggests it is much better to cause a dog To Want To behave through enjoyable situations, rather than fear the result if it doesn’t.