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Who is Alpha, you or your dog? Common ‘alpha theory’ myths debunked

Are you, or your dog, the ‘Alpha’ of the house? The answer is, it’s neither! 

It was once believed that it was necessary for us to show dogs that we were at the top of the dominance hierarchy. General acceptance was that being the ‘Alpha’ of the household would give us better control of our animals, and that this alone would be sufficient to stop them performing unwanted behaviours through respect and obedience. 

Through study and practice, we have learnt more ethical and effective ways to help our dogs coexist peacefully with us in this world. There are methods available that mean we can give them the best life possible, whilst nipping those unwanted behaviours in the bud!

Separating dependence from dominance

From a logistical perspective, humans are in charge. But, that is simply because our domesticated dogs depend on us for access to all of their basic needs. The moment our new furry friends walk through the front door, a promise is made. A commitment that we will make sure they receive everything they need to live a safe, enriching life. 

The five most important categories we must meet as dog guardians to ensure their welfare are:

  • Food/water – all animals should have access to fresh water and a suitable diet
  • Shelter – all animals should have a safe and comfortable environment 
  • Medical – all animals should be free of pain, injury, suffering and disease  
  • Behaviour – all animals should be free to express normal behavioural patterns
  • Socialisation – all animals should be housed with, or apart, from other animals

Where does the ‘alpha’ mindset come from?

The concept of dog hierarchy comes from the understanding that domesticated dogs originated from wolves, suggesting that dogs naturally form hierarchies and require a dominant leader. This has since been discredited by modern research.

This concept originated from a study undertaken by Rudolph Schenkel, a Swiss animal psychologist, in 1947, who studied wolves in captivity and learned that they formed social hierarchies with a dominant individual (the alpha) who held the highest rank, controlling access to all valuable resources such as food and mating opportunities. 

Later studies, however, found that social dynamics between wolves in captivity were different than wolves within the wild. In captivity, resources such as food and space are generally limited, which can result in conflict through competition among individuals. 

In the wild, it was found that wolves do not form strict social hierarchies, but instead are found within familial ‘packs’, with the parents generally taking on leadership roles and social bonds being made based on kinship, cooperation and mutual aid. 

The ‘alpha’ theory originally described through the study of captive wolves cannot be attributed to our domesticated dogs. We now understand that our dogs do not form natural hierarchies like those shown in captive wolves, and they do not have an innate drive to dominate over humans or other dogs. 

This way of thinking has led to harmful training techniques such as physical punishment, dominance-based training and aversive tools being used, such as prong collars and electric shock collars. Today, most qualified experts in animal behaviour and training agree that the ‘alpha theory’ is not scientifically accurate for our domesticated dogs, and that the social dynamics between our dogs are more complex and nuanced than a simple hierarchy. 

In most dog-to-dog relationships, we may see examples of dominant and submissive traits. Some individuals will engage in acts of dominance whereas others may exhibit more submissive behaviours, and this can change depending on the resource that is at play, and the value placed upon that resource by each individual dog. 

Common ‘alpha’ myths 

Busting some of the most common myths surrounding the ‘alpha-theory’:

1: Your dog should eat after you

You’re sitting at the table, eating a meal and your dog is staring at your food longingly. This is not because they are wondering why they aren’t eating the same food as you, or why they haven’t been fed first, and is certainly not an act of dominance.

For our dogs, we are the providers of food, and our dogs are natural scavengers. They may sit and wait for your food as they’re waiting for potential scraps. If you’ve ever sneaked a sausage to your dog while at the table, then through some unintentional reinforcement of unwanted behaviour, they’re going to come back for more!

2: Your dog should wait while we pass through a doorway

When we clip on our dog’s lead as we’re about to go for a walk, their eagerness to get through the door first is unrelated to dominance. Your dog is not thinking “I am the boss, so I will go first.” Your dog is merely excited for their walk and access to the outdoors. With amazing sniffs and social interactions awaiting, they really don’t care who goes first!

3. Your dog is not allowed on the furniture or the bed

Allowing your dog to be at the same level or higher than you will not spark thoughts of superiority. If they are trying to join you on the sofa or in bed, they are most likely looking for comfort and affection. However, if you prefer for your dog to not sit on the sofa or sleep on the bed, setting this boundary can be done without exerting dominance. Through good training, arrangements can be found that keep both you and your dog happy and comfortable. 

4. Your dog shouldn’t walk ahead of you

Whilst walking our dogs they may pull on their leads. This pulling is not because they believe they should be in front of you because they’re ‘alpha’. Instead, we see pulling on the lead for many different reasons; our dog’s have four legs, so naturally they walk at a much quicker pace than we do. When we ask a dog to walk on a lead, we are asking for extremely unnatural behaviour from them – to walk slower, in a straight line, right by our side. If we examined how a dog would naturally move through nature, it would be lots of zig-zagging motions, following their noses and moving at much quicker pace. Again, excitement and eagerness is one of the main reasons for pulling on the lead, and if we want them to walk in a different way, we have to teach them! 

If you are concerned about the relationship you have with your dog or you’re experiencing some unwanted behaviours, we can help. Please reach out to info@positivestepsdogtraining.co.uk for help and support in your dog training journey! You can also complete our online behavioural questionnaire and we will be in touch.  

Written by Abigail Mattingley, IMDT Trainer at Positive Steps Dog Training

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