The Myth of the Alpha Dog

The Myth of the Alpha Dog

Story at-a-glance -

  • Helping dogs with behavior problems is a multi-step process that doesn’t include showing the animal who is boss.
  • The idea dog owners must dominate their pets in order to achieve desired behavior is based on misinterpretation of the results of canine behavior studies.
  • Normal dog behavior doesn’t include a drive for dominance. The desire to dominate is a human trait, not a canine trait.
  • Dogs with aggression-related behavior issues have an anxiety disorder which is only made worse by techniques designed to assert control over them.

By Dr. Becker

Most behavior problems in dogs involve either normal canine behaviors owners don’t like or understand, or undesirable behaviors rooted in anxiety.

In order to improve any type of dog behavior issue, the steps must always include:

  • Learning what ‘normal’ means in the canine world
  • Identifying and minimizing risks associated with the behavior
  • Effectively communicating with the dog
  • Learning to read the dog’s signals
  • Meeting the dog’s needs

Unfortunately dog trainers, veterinarians and other canine experts have been conditioned over the years to believe ‘bad’ behavior is driven by a dog’s desire to be dominant over his humans.

So owners receive the message that exerting control over their dog – showing him who’s ‘boss’ – is the key to improving behavior.

This is an anthropocentric focus on the relationship between people and dogs which considers only the needs of the human.

The Merriam-Webster definition of anthropocentric1:

  1. considering human beings as the most significant entity of the universe
  2. interpreting or regarding the world in terms of human values and experiences

According to Dr. Karen Overall of the University of Pennsylvania, an Applied Animal Behaviorist,

“The entire concept of dominance as applied to pet dogs is almost always based on a profound misunderstanding of the shared history of dogs and humans.”

Dog-Human Relationship History

Canines have relationships with humans that stand alone among all relationships between people and domestic animals.

Anthropological evidence shows that dogs have lived closely with humans for at least 30,000 years, and have been engaged in different tasks alongside humans for at least 15,000 years.

And for the past 2,000 years there have been specific breeds of dogs of varying shapes and sizes that engaged in specific tasks helpful to humans.

In fact, many of the physical differences among dog breeds developed as a deliberate effort by humans to match desired behaviors to physical attributes. Dr. Overall uses the example of field trial or working English springer spaniels and show dogs of the same breed. These animals look like completely different breeds because they’ve been bred for different behaviors and ‘jobs.’

She theorizes the relationship between humans and dogs developed initially to take advantage of the power of collaboration. Then over time, changes in actual brain function may have occurred with the result that today’s humans and dogs truly rely on each other.

Normal Dog Behavior Doesn’t Include a Drive for Dominance

To be dominant is to have the ability to control access to resources, and to keep that control by winning out over competitors who also want to control access to the same resources. Dominance is often expressed as aggression.

Dominance shouldn’t be confused with having a higher status in a relationship. A higher status individual achieves the ranking not by his own behavior, but by the behavior of the lower status individuals in the group who subordinate themselves to him.

In a social hierarchy where there are higher and lower status individuals, dominance rarely leads to aggression or fighting – just the opposite.

Flawed Theories of Canine Behavior

Early studies seem to have misinterpreted the concept of dominance in canine social hierarchies.

The dogs in early experiments formed rank hierarchies based not on their own natural social tendencies, but on how the studies were designed. Further, researchers assigned dominant traits to certain dogs based on their behavior with a bone as puppies.

The way puppies interact in a natural setting is actually much more fluid than study results indicate, and it changes over time as they mature.

Unfortunately, these early ‘forced hierarchy’ studies led to the erroneous assumption that in healthy human-dog relationships, canines subordinate themselves to their owners. This led to the theory that owners must exercise dominance over their pets in order to elicit acceptable behavior.

The ‘show them who’s boss’ approach is flawed, according to Dr. Overall, because:

“Our historic and evolutionary relationship with dogs is one of cooperative and collaborative work. A hierarchical relationship like that formerly recommended would not have allowed dogs to work with humans in the ways that they have because humans would have had to make all of the work decisions.”

Dogs who do display dominant tendencies have in the past been diagnosed with ‘dominance aggression.’ But given our improved understanding of canine nature, that behavior problem is now more often referred to as ‘impulse control aggression’ or ‘conflict aggression.’ This rightfully distances us from the concept of dogs as naturally striving for dominance over other animals and people.

Aggressive Dogs are Anxious Dogs

Among the many shared behavior traits of humans and dogs is a tendency to suffer from maladaptive anxiety – anxiety that interferes with normal functioning.

Dogs with behavior problems involving aggression have an anxiety disorder. They are, in Dr. Overall’s view, troubled, needy and pathological. One of the worst methods for handling such a dog is to attempt to dominate him – especially when it involves hitting, hanging, ‘dominance downs,’ ‘alpha rolls’ and other similar techniques intended to show the dog who’s boss.

Dogs with anxiety disorders have trouble processing information and making accurate risk assessments. The actions dog owners take to demonstrate dominance over a misbehaving pet actually result in an already troubled animal feeling betrayed, terrified, threatened and backed into a corner by his human.

As you can imagine, this only results in a worsening of the dog’s condition.

In a future article I’ll discuss how we can change our thinking away from the concept of dominance-submission and toward more productive relationships with our canine companions.


+ Sources and References