The "Alpha Dog" Is a Canine Myth

If certain TV dog trainers are to be believed, dogs will only respect your authority if they see you as the "alpha" — a fearsome, dominating pack leader. We've got good news (for your pup) and bad news (for dog-training TV shows): The so-called "alpha dog" is a myth. What your dog really needs, according to most animal behaviorists, is reinforcement, consistency, and love.

Crying Wolf

Animal behaviorist Rudolph Schenkel spent much of the 1930s and 40s studying wolves. He spent days at the Basel Zoo in Switzerland watching them, trying to determine what governed their social interactions. In 1947, he published his findings in a paper called Submission: Its Features and Function in the Wolf and Dog. In it, he reported that the group naturally competed for status until a male and female emerged as "first in the pack group." He wrote: "By incessant control and repression of all types of competition (within the same sex), both of these 'α animals' defend their social position." With that, the idea of the "alpha wolf" was born.

Unfortunately, his entire paper was based on a faulty premise: The idea that a bunch of unrelated animals brought together in captivity would behave the same way they would in the wild. As the modern wolf researcher David Mech has been quoted as saying: "Such an approach is analogous to trying to draw inferences about human family dynamics by studying humans in refugee camps." According to Mech's research, wild wolves actually live in family units that are strikingly similar to those of humans. The parents guide the family's activities and split the "chores" of feeding, pup-rearing, and protection. As the pups get older, their social status is based on birth order, with the oldest at the top.

What This Means for Training Your Dog

The fact that so-called "dominance training" is based on faulty science means that the approach used by celebrity trainers like Cesar Millan is ineffective at best. The host of "The Dog Whisperer" relies on dominance tactics as mild as "quick smacks on the flank" to get the dog's attention, to those as extreme as the "alpha roll," in which the owner forcibly rolls a dog over on his side or back and pins him until he submits. The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) released a statement against the use of punishment for modifying your pet's behavior, and Bonnie Beaver, the former president of the American Veterinary Medical Association, told TIME, "We are on record as opposing some of the things Cesar Millan does because they're wrong."

Instead, most experts advise training that focuses on positive reinforcement, or as AVSAB says, "reinforcing desired behaviors, removing the reinforcer for inappropriate behaviors, and addressing the emotional state and environmental conditions driving the undesirable behavior." Give treats for good behavior, and pay attention to your own behavior — when you react to a yipping dog with attention, for example, you're inadvertently reinforcing that action. In the end, the risk of too many treats is much lower than a stressed, insecure dog. As certified trainer Pat Miller writes, "Figure out how to prevent [your dog] from being reinforced for the behaviors you don't want, and reinforce him liberally for the ones you do, and you're well on your way to having the relationship of mutual love, respect, communication, and communion that we all want to have with our dogs."

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Learn more about what makes your pooch tick in "Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know" by Alexandra Horowitz. The audiobook is free with an Audible trial. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Ashley Hamer March 14, 2017

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