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Dog owners, handlers, trainers still use the term “alpha” incorrectly

If you’ve been around dogs long enough, you quickly learn that while there may be a dominant or “alpha” dog in any given group, the dominant dog does not necessarily “care for” or “protect” the group. Yet even experienced dog owners, handlers and trainers still use the term “alpha” incorrectly.

We borrow a lot of dog training terminology and concepts from wolves and wolf packs. However, misinformation and incorrect interpretations abound.

Dogs are not descendants of wolves

Pop culture abounds with the misconception that dogs descended from wolves. This has been disproven time and time again, however, it has been romanticized and embedded so deeply into our culture it’s difficult to correct. Instead, dogs and wolves both descended from a common ancestor. Dogs evolved to live harmoniously with us and benefit from our success, while wolves developed as a wild species whose very existence depends on staying as far away from humans as possible.

Dogs are to wolves as humans are to gorillas

Dogs and wolves look extremely similar, however the comparison is like humans and gorillas.

In “Alpha Status, Dominance, and Division of Labor in Wolf Packs,” wolf expert L. David Mech writes that, in natural wolf packs, the alpha male or female are “merely the parents of the packs.” that after years of observation he saw no dominance contests among wild wolves.

“Calling a wolf an alpha is usually no more appropriate than referring to a human parent or a doe deer as an alpha,” David Mech writes. “Any parent is dominant to its young offspring, so ‘alpha’ adds no information. Why not refer to an alpha female as the female parent, the breeding female, the matriarch, or simply the mother? Such a designation emphasizes not the animal’s dominant status, which is trivial information, but its role as pack progenitor, which is critical information.”

 

This image is real –– it’s from the BBC’s Frozen Planet –– but the caption is an incorrect interpretation, based on old science, that feeds into the mythology of wolves and dogs that humans really desire to be true. The caption usually reads, “The 3 wolves in the front are either old or sick. They walk in front to lead the way so as to set the pace. The 5 wolves behind them are the strongest. They protect the front in case of an attack. The middle group consists of newborns, pregnant females, and young wolves. They are fully protected from front as well as from back. The 5 wolves, behind the middle group are also among the strongest, they protect the back side. The last and the lone wolf in the back is the leader. He ensures no one is left behind. He keeps the pack tight and cohesive. Also in case of an ambush he remains active to run in any direction to protect his pack.”

The outdated Pack Theory

In our culture, we require consistency in our leaders. Inconsistency is perceived to lack authenticity — or worse, can foster distrust. However, in the scientific world, it’s expected that thinking evolves as we learn new things — otherwise there would be no medical advancements and we would still be using leeches and casting blaming demons for real-life disease. While we used to think Pack Theory was valid, it has been replaced with more current knowledge.

The Alpha is simply the parent

Despite our romantic ideas, wolves do not live in packs where the dominant pack leader keeps all the other wolves in line with displays of aggression and violence. Nor do other wolves battle for the alpha position. Wild wolf packs are families. The alpha pair are indeed in charge but that is because they are the parents and all the rest are guided by them.

Wild dogs do not live in a pack structure

We know now that even wild dogs do not live in packs. Dogs which are left on their own, away from humans, may form loose social groups but definitely not structured packs.

In other words, for dogs, there is no such thing as an alpha dog – or a pack leader.

“Dominant” dogs are usually just frightened or anxious

Dogs that most people say are ‘dominant’ are actually the most scared, frightened, worried, or anxious — often because of some type of weakness. Aggression in dogs (and often in humans) exists for one purpose and one purpose only: to make bad stuff go away. ‘Bad stuff’ for dogs are things that make them feel frightened, threatened, worried or stressed.

  • Dog to Human Aggression: Fear of humans or what they will do
  • Dog to Dog Aggression: Fear of strange dogs or what they will do
  • Resource Guarding (guarding food or anything important to the dog): Fear of someone taking your food, toys, or other possessions away
  • Self Protection: Sometimes aggression occurs because a dog is sick or in pain

The fallacy of trying to cure aggression or dominance with aggression or dominance

Often, dog owners (including some trainers) will try to correct aggression or dominance in dogs by “being the alpha.” However, all they are really doing is mirroring the dog’s behavior — which simply exacerbates things and creates a cycle of aggression. Training dogs requires a kind of mutual respect that has to be earned — not demanded.

Don’t be an Alpha, be a better parent

If you need help with your dog’s behavior, seek out for a trainer who uses positive reward-based methods (where the dogs gets rewarded for doing things right, not punished when they do things wrong).

Just like children, not every dog learns in the same way. Let’s retire the old concepts and phrases of ‘pack leader’, ‘dominance’, ‘alpha’ – and replace them with training modern methods, based on current knowledge and science, that are tailored for each dog and each situation.

 

 

 

Learn more about voluntary, community-defined training and behavior standards for handlers and their Service Dogs at USSDR.org

 

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