©Scott Sheaffer, CDBC, CPDT-KA, USA Dog Behavior, LLC
There are three words that make me cringe when used in the context of dog behavior or dog training. When dog owners use these words, they normally do so because they are simply not fully informed. When dog trainers use these words, it can indicate an out-of-date, uneducated, or even harmful, approach to training dogs.
Dr. L. David Mech published a book in 1970 entitled, The Wolf: The Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species. In this book he first proposed the idea of alpha wolves. These were wolves that he imagined were quite literally pack leaders by their sheer strength and leadership abilities.
"I am constantly amazed how many people think it is almost noble to virtually abuse their dog in the name of dominance."
Thirty-five years later, in 2005, Dr. Mech recanted this alpha concept. With further research he realized that alpha wolves were actually just mom and dad. That’s right; wolf packs are made up of a breeding male, a breeding female and the pups (i.e., kids). Just like with human families, there is no power struggle in this family model. Mom and dad run the show by default. See “Alpha” Wolf? for a short video on Dr. Mech’s current thinking on the subject.
Sadly, the alpha concept has caused a lot of misunderstanding between dogs and humans – even causing abuse toward dogs. One of the best (or should I say worst?) examples is the alpha-rollover. This involves a human forcing a dog into a supine position to demonstrate “who the boss is.” There are two big problems with this practice: 1) wolves have never been observed doing this in the wild, and, 2) it can cause all kinds of unwanted behavior issues. Cesar Millan’s many harmful and naive training concepts, including instruction on how to perform alpha-rollovers, are at least partially responsible for the reemergence and promulgation of this nasty practice over the last decade.
As a result of Dr. Mech’s book in 1970, many dog trainers and dog owners in the early 1970s quickly applied the concept of wolf packs and alpha wolves to domestic dogs, including making people part of the pack too.
While this may not have been obvious in 1970, it's a big stretch to assume that intraspecies wolf behavior in the wild is comparable to how human dog owners relate to their Golden Retriever dog named Max. For starters, dogs aren’t wolves and people aren’t wolves (or even dogs for that matter). Dogs aren’t anything like a wolf; wolf behavior is dramatically different than domesticated dogs.
We must not assume for a second that dogs think we are dogs or wolves. It’s safe to say that dogs know the difference. No one is fooling Max.
Dr. Mech has done a lot of legitimate canine research to be sure. However, his misstep in 1970 created yet another problem word – “dominant.”
I guess the thinking in the 1970s went something like this, “Strong alpha wolves are in charge of their packs. Since my dog is nothing more than a wolf and sees me as a wolf too, he is therefore part of my wolf pack. I must completely dominate my dog in order to be in charge.”
Since the 1970s we’ve learned that dominating or subjugating dogs doesn’t work too well in the long run. Non-punishing dog training techniques that use positive rewards create better training results, more behaviorally healthy dogs and better relationships with owners.
I am constantly amazed how many people think it is almost noble to virtually abuse their dog in the name of dominance. I want to assure these owners that their dog is not trying to take control.
The truth about wolf packs is less exciting than the fanciful and misguided tales from almost 50 years ago. Unfortunately, much of this incorrect information lives on in popular culture and made-for-TV dog training.
Our role as dog owners is that of guardians or pet parents who provide rules and boundaries just like loving human parents provide their children. The idea that dogs are essentially wolves that need to be tyrannized by their wolf-pack human ruler is antiquated science that needs to finally be discarded.