The ‘Alpha Dog’ Theory debunked

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alpha dog

Believe it or not, some people really think that they have to yell at their dog to gain some respect. They believe in the ‘Alpha Dog’ theory, in a nutshell, they think that they have to be the ‘leader of the pack’ and dominate their dog, so they will have no problems.

Dominance training would have you believe that your pup is in a constant struggle with you to become top dog, and you need to teach your canine companion to submit to your will and be obedient. As usual, that could lead to abuse and what’s worse is that they won’t be aware that they actually abuse their dogs because they believe they are the ‘Alpha Dog’ and that’s ok. No, it is not.  

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The beginning of the ‘Alpha dog’ Theory and what it stands for

The Alpha Dog Theory was born in the early 1930’s, when an animal behaviorist known as Rudolph Schenkel went about conducting studies on the behavior of captive wild wolves. In a ten year span, Schenkel documented that captive wolves co-existed in a pack-based mentality primarily focused on hierarchy and dominance.

The leader of the pack – the wolf with the most resources – was considered the Alpha. Alpha wolves were found by Schenkel to use dominance, fear and force to obtain the best food, the coziest sleeping spots and the submission of other pack members.

Because it is widely accepted that dogs are descendants from wolves, Schenkel’s studies trickled down into the hands of early canine trainers and behaviorists who saw the Alpha Dog Theory as a way to communicate with dogs and assert leadership and dominance. 

The problem with that is that wild wolves don’t behave like our pets. Also, these wolves were captive, so they had to survive. Thus, that’s not a natural plot setting.

The 'Alpha Dog' Theory debunked

Why the ‘Alpha Dog’ Theory doesn’t work

Dogs want to make their owners happy. They seek validation, that’s how they’ve been domesticated. We needed each other. We needed them to hunt with us and they needed us because we had food. We were meant to cooperate, not compete against each other. You don’t have to prove your dog that you’re stronger than him. Considering that you are all they know, we can assume that he already knows he needs you. I think that in the moment when you want to assert dominance, you actually break your bond with your dog. So, you don’t have to be the Alpha Dog.

“Canine behavior is never vindictive, spiteful, resentful, stubborn or cunning. These processes of reasoning do not play a role in the function of behavior. Once an owner understands this, they can begin to understand their dogs’ actions better and will be able to solve behavioral issues in a more pragmatic and efficient manner as opposed to trying to pit their body strength and will against that of their dog. Threat and intimidation in any situation, dog related or not, may briefly interrupt behavior but never serves to treat the root cause of the behavior.”, says trainer and canine behaviorist Lily Reiche. 

The 'Alpha Dog' Theory debunked

Some canine psychology

The best thing you can do is to get to know your dog. One of the best things you can do is learn to read dog body language. Knowing when your dog is uncomfortable or scared can help you avoid negative experiences or use them as a positive training moment. Body language can also tell you when a dog is getting anxious, which is especially useful if your dog has a history of aggression-related anxiety.

Never forget that just like humans, dogs have their own personality, so that means that not all dogs are alike. You should figure out how your dog comunicates. Sensitive dogs, for example, may become traumatized by these dominant approaches, while tougher dogs may retaliate against the people subjecting them to harsh treatments. By behaving inappropriately with your dog, you can seriously damage your relationship with him. Your dog will think you’re unreliable, or you’re being a jerk. You can break the trust you should have with your dog and cause him to simply wish you’d go away.

When a dog doesn’t trust his owner, he becomes aggressive because he feels insecure. You no longer provide him security. You don’t feel like home because you constantly want to prove something. You want to assert your dominance and it feels like you are actually giving them a test. That’s stressful. Many trainers consider relationship based training as going hand-in-hand with positive reinforcement training, since positive reinforcement teaches your dog to associate you with good things.

The 'Alpha Dog' Theory debunked

What to do instead

Positive reinforcement training is all about teaching your dog what you want as opposed to what you don’t want. Setting real boundaries and expectations that your dog can understand and follow will not only give him a sense of understanding and purpose, but will also allow him to build a trusting bond with you. Generally, dog react really good to these kind of positive training. Did your dog do something good? Praise him, have a positive attitude. Did your dog do something bad? Show them what you want from them. Don’t yell, don’t be passive aggressive, don’t abuse him in any way because dogs are smarter than you think and they understand.

Also, be consistent with your dog and be patient. Positive reinforcement training is as much about you learning how to be a good dog parent as it is about your dog learning to be a good fur kid. This process should be fun, so try not to become frustrated and take breaks often. Remember, positive reinforcement training takes time and discipline for both you and your pup, and it’s important to be committed and consistent to ensure the best outcome. Dogs behave according to what is reinforcing to them and will react to what they deem as safe or unsafe in any given moment of time. 

The 'Alpha Dog' Theory debunked

The bottom line

The alpha roll is grabbing a dog by the scruff of the neck and physically forcing him to show his belly to you and forcing him to be submissive, for instance. Usually this is done in response to the dog behaving in a manner the trainer did not approve of. What’s the point?

Dogs are simply not trying to take over the pack or be in charge. Dogs are learning how to interact by assessing what works and what doesn’t with each interaction. Dogs are great students of human behavior and draw conclusions based on your actions. Punishment, deference and fear as training methods do not foster a mentally, emotionally and behaviorally sound dog. A mentally and emotionally healthy dog is not necessarily achieved with obedience training. Families that focus on socialization, positive reinforcement, avoidance-based strategies and clear and predictable interactions will be rewarded by a dog that is an enjoyable member of the family.

Dogs need to feel secure and understood. You are their whole universe. At the end of the day, you are their family, they are dependent on you and usually they really want to please us. Why would someone choose to have this tensed dynamic with their dog? Just love them. That’s all. They see everything.

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