The simple answer to this question is: no. There are many misconceptions regarding dominance (or Alpha-dog) theory and it has misled many owners and trainers over the years. Dominance theory is now a huge part of pop culture and because people see it every day on TV shows, in magazines, and other media it has become almost universally accepted. We’d like to use the opportunity given during National Train Your Dog Month to explain some of the reasons why this theory has been debunked and how is not relevant for our pet dogs.
Dominance theory was popularized in 1970, when scientist and researcher, David Mech, published a book, The Wolf, on his findings regarding his observations of a group of adult gray wolves who were caught in the wild and put together in captivity. Mech’s suggestions boiled down to the belief that there was one “Alpha wolf” in each pack and that the Alpha was determined through violent displays of aggression between pack members. Years later, after studying a wild pack of wolves in the late 1990’s, Mech came to the realization that his original theory and publication had been flawed since natural wolf packs are family units, not adult wolves forced to live together. Natural wolf packs demonstrate a striking lack of violence and aggression. In 1999 Mech published “Alpha Status, Dominance, and Division of Labor in Wolf Packs” in the Canadian Journal of Zoology which corrected the previous misinformation. Read an article Mech wrote in 2008 by clicking here. He was met with much of the same controversy that we, as force-free trainers, are met with today when we question or argue against dominance theory. The public has been so convinced of its validity that they can’t see another way of training their dogs. It is so very unfortunate…for us and for our dogs.
Another significant point to make in this debate is the fact that all studies from which came dominance theory were written after observing gray wolves, and science has since shown us that dogs are not descendants of gray wolves. Dogs, if they are indeed descended from a wolf species at all, which is arguable at this point as well, are descended from a species of wolf which has been extinct for tens of thousands of years (read one study by clicking here). To compare our pet dogs to modern gray wolves is like comparing apples to oranges, and it does our dogs a great disservice. It follows that by continuing to base our training methods on something so outdated and incorrect would be a mistake.
So how can we train our dogs if the dominance theory is invalid? Science has shown that all animals learn the same way. Reinforced behaviors will continue or increase in frequency. Behaviors that are not reinforced will extinguish. All animals, from fish to crabs to aquatic mammals to birds to large predators to dogs, even people, all learn the same way. Let’s think about this. We do things that pay off. If an action doesn’t pay off, we stop the action. Think of your job as a prime example. Would you continue to work if there was no reward? No paycheck? No feelings of accomplishment or pride?
We all want to build a strong relationship with our dogs. There are ways to do this through more scientifically sound and humane methods. We can use positive reinforcement to encourage behaviors we want, like sitting politely or walking loosely on a leash. If we want the dog to stop performing a specific action we can manage this in a couple of ways. We can avoid reinforcing the unwanted behavior. (Example: The dog wants to get on the counter to sneak food. His payoff is the food on the counter. The solution: Don’t leave food on the counter.) We can avoid giving the dog the opportunity to perform the unwanted behavior. (We can simply not leave food unattended in the kitchen or restrict the dog’s access to the kitchen when unsupervised.) Another option is to teach an incompatible behavior. (The dog cannot jump onto the counter if he is lying down quietly on his mat.)
If you want to build up your relationship with your dog, teach him basic manners, or help him learn what to do instead of jumping, counter-surfing, barking, etc. the most reliable and positive way to accomplish your goals is by talking to the experts. A good trainer will guide you to many resources such as websites, books, and blogs which can help you find better, more humane ways to address your concerns. If you need additional help, hiring a force-free trainer will be the surest route to success for you and your dog.
Remember, if you talk to a trainer and they mention that your dog is “probably just dominant”, or tell you that you need to “be a better Alpha”, thank them kindly, hang up the phone and call someone else.