The Myth of the Alpha Dog, Part 2: Abandoning the Dominance Theory

The Myth of the Alpha Dog, Part 2: Abandoning the Dominance Theory

Story at-a-glance -

  • Neither a drive for dominance nor “dominance aggression” are typical canine traits. The theory of dominance in human-dog relationships has been debunked in light of new scientific evidence about the nature of canines.
  • Dogs interact socially using a system of deference and negotiation. Violence has no role in normal canine interactions.
  • The idea of human-dog “packs” is flawed. True canine packs are of a very different nature than the relationships dogs and humans share. You as “pack leader” is also a faulty concept. Your dog knows you’re not a dog. He expects a different relationship with you than he has with other dogs.
  • Dogs don’t attempt to control their owners. They ask questions and hope for answers about what is considered appropriate behavior. Successfully correcting a dog’s behavior doesn’t involve exerting control – it involves a simple 3-point pattern applied consistently.
  • Threats, yelling, physical punishment and other punitive actions taken against a dog will not ultimately change his behavior. They will only injure him – physically, emotionally, or both.

By Dr. Becker

In a previous article I discussed the idea that contrary to what we've been led to believe about dog behavior, the drive for dominance is primarily a human trait – not a canine trait. So it follows that the concept of "dominance aggression" as a way to explain certain types of conduct among dogs also misses the mark.

Violence Among Dogs is Not Normal

It is very rare for wild dogs to fight for social status or to assert control. When dogs fight, it's because something is causing them to feel stress. Violence among dogs is not normal – it's a sign something is wrong.

Under normal, non-stressful circumstances, both humans and dogs interact in social groups using deference and negotiation rather than dominance. To show deference is to consider the needs and desires of others in the group and adjust your behavior as necessary. When we negotiate, we confer with others in the group to arrive at an agreement.

Applied Animal Behaviorist Dr. Karen Overall of the University of Pennsylvania explains the concept this way:

In deference-based systems, hierarchies are fluid and flexible depending on context and the information received within it. The individual to whom others defer may differ depending on the social circumstances; and status and circumstances are not absolute.

For example, a human child may defer to his or her parents' requests but then be the individual on the playground to whom other children defer. Dogs are similar: A dog may always adhere to instructions given by one spouse but not the other. This is because the dog has different relationships with each spouse.

This cooperative, non-violent way of getting along in the world comes naturally to dogs. That's why showing your pet "who's boss" to improve his behavior is unfair, unkind, and can even be dangerous.

Letting Go of the Notion of Human-Dog "Packs"

Many of us use the word "pack" to describe how our dogs view us -- their human family members. But in real canine packs, all members are born into the social group and are closely related to one another.

By contrast, family dogs are usually not related to other dogs in the home or to the humans in the household, nor were they born into your social group but instead arrived as youngsters or even adults. The relationship between your dog, other dogs in the home, and the humans in the family was imposed on him. He was not born into it. It is therefore not his "pack."

We also use the term "pack leader" to describe a dog's human owner or caretaker. And we've been led to believe we must exercise our "leadership" by dominating our pets. But here's the thing – your dog knows you're not a dog. And he expects to have a different relationship with you than he does with other dogs.

In order to have better relationships with our dogs, Dr. Overall feels we should let go of the concept of packs and pack leaders.

Your Dog is Asking You Questions

Your dog learns appropriate behavior by asking questions and receiving clear, consistent answers from you. Canine questions come in many forms.

Some dogs perform behaviors and wait to see how we respond. The behavior is the question; our response to it is the answer.

Some dogs use vocalizing to ask questions. Others may paw at us. Others will sit very still and study us intently. We might not recognize a certain behavior or barking or pawing as our dog asking us questions. But most of us get that we're being questioned if our pet sits still and simply looks at us.

Productive interaction with your dog isn't about dominating him. It's about understanding that almost everything he does in your presence is a form of questioning. And it's knowing that the more clearly and consistently you answer, the more he will learn about desirable and undesirable behavior.

Correcting Your Pet's Behavior Using a Simple 3-Point Model

According to Dr. Overall, when we understand the evolutionary history of dogs and their interdependent, cooperative relationship with humans, we do a much better job managing behavior problems. She offers these three strategies:

  • Strive to avoid all circumstances that will provoke your dog. What you want to avoid is inadvertently reinforcing inappropriate behavior or placing him in a situation in which he feels threatened.
  • Humanely interrupt problem behaviors – without unintentionally rewarding and reinforcing them – as early in the behavior as possible.
  • Be vigilant about catching your dog behaving appropriately of his own free will, and reward him immediately. This is how dogs learn which behaviors are acceptable. Don't leave your pet to guess. As Dr. Overall says, "It's utterly unfair to the dog to have it try to guess what it is that will stop the yelling and start the loving."

If you understand your dog is a thinking creature who asks questions, and if you practice this simple 3-point pattern consistently, your dog can learn desirable behavior quickly in the absence of threats of violence.

To Change Your Dog's Behavior, Answer His Questions

As I often point out here at Mercola Healthy Pets, positive reinforcement – not punishment – is the way dogs learn appropriate behavior for a lifetime.

The idea that you must show a misbehaving dog who's boss, more often than not involves the use of physical punishment – another reason the concept of dominating your pet is misguided.

Correcting your dog's behavior requires giving him an incentive powerful enough that the behavior is extinguished – meaning the likelihood he will repeat it in the future is diminished. If you punish without providing that incentive, all you're doing is injuring your dog.

We need to not only understand but internalize the idea that improving a dog's behavior isn't about winning a battle for control over him. It's about finding opportunities to get his undivided attention to clearly and consistently answer his questions and reward desirable behavior.

For more information on the fallacy of the dominance theory:

+ Sources and References