Alpha Dog “Theory” vs Dog Training: A Brief Research

In dog training, it is a common practice using and misusing terms from different fields, creating massive confusion within the audience.

One of the common discussions in dog training is about alpha, packs, leadership, mostly denying it exists on dogs and compares them to dominance theories (unknown to the science), punishment, and violence.

Note: I have an article with a comprehensive list of references on dominance in dogs, you can read it here. 

Other discussions about packs and strange theories also unknowing to the scientists claim that “Dogs are not wolves and don’t form packs.” It isn’t the subject I want to write today, but I’ll give a brief introduction to it.

A pack is a group living together and depending on one another for survival. A group of dogs is called a ‘pack’ (wild, feral or stray) or ‘kennel’ (domestic). A group of hounds is called a ‘mute.’ A group of dogs that meet in the park once a day is not a pack because they do not depend on one another for survival, so it makes sense to call it a kennel. A group of dogs in our domestic set-up may be a domestic pack even if they do not depend on one another for survival. 

About the claim that “dogs are not wolves,” pack functions, and more, I strongly recommend you (1) to research about it, (2) to participate in the  Ethology Institute Facebook Group, or (3) take the “Canine Behavior Course” (get 10% with the coupon code 8c7e5b0a), extensively updated with a comprehensive approach on these subjects. 

Alpha dog “theory” on dog training

I did a brief research on one of the Ethology Institute’s live shows in November 2020 (you can watch it here) about the “alpha dog” and a possible explanation for all its confusion in the dog training.

Alpha’ means the leader, ‘beta’ the ‘second-in-command’ and ‘omega’ the ‘scapegoat’ when these roles are well enough defined. They mean no more and no less. ‘Alpha pair’ designates the leading male-female pair, usually the oldest. The term is related to the dominance hierarchy, first observed in chickens, but most used in the study of primates. Rudolph Schenkel mentioned this term for the first time on wolves in the “Expression Studies on Wolves” (1947) paper on the male-female wolf’s copulation and sexual ritualization process.

The term was implemented on dog training without a proper definition and, in some cases, was a justification for violence and coercion. The most spoken reference I found mentioning this term was the book “How to Be Your Dog’s Best Friend“ from the Monks of the New Skate, 1978. The book describes leadership as an “alpha figure” to whom they look for order and directives.

They describe correction as a light discipline in regular training and punishment as a forceful verbal or physical discipline associated with various behavior problems. They also speak about gentle touch education, food as positive reinforcers, and the importance of socialization, supported by relevant references. However, all the controversy was the “alpha-roll” technique (fig. 1), which they strongly discourage in their 2001 edition book.

Fig. 1. Alpha-wolf roll-over desmonstration. From the book  “How to Be Your Dog’s Best Friend“, Monks of the New Skate, 1978.

My brief research

I did two types of research. I used a “clean” browser and the main search website—statistics for illustration purposes only.

For the first research, I opened 35 random articles from the first five pages results and analyze them in two ways: The correlation with different topics (fig. 2), and the association of the term as a positive or negative relationship (fig. 3). 

Fig. 2. From Roberto Barata.

 

Fig. 3. From Roberto Barata.

 

Some considerations: 

  • The practice of “assertive leadership” was mentioned from both blogs that associate this theory as a positive relationship (PR) and a negative relationship (NR).
  • The direct association of this term with punishment was mentioned only by NR.
  • Both PR and NR blogs have a lack of references for (some) of their statements.
  • Both PR and NR associate it with studies made from wolves and human dominance/pack members. 
  • Only NR mentioned scientific facts without references.

 

For the second research (Fig. 4), I did a quick analysis of the first ten pages through 91 articles from 2000 to 2020. I wanted to know if they agreed and recommended the “alpha theory” (ART) or if they disagreed and didn’t recommend it (DRT).

Fig. 4. From Roberto Barata.

 

Some considerations:

  • The ART never mentioned directly the word “punishment”. Still, some gave recommendations to “correct behaviors” that the owners don’t want, like pulling the leash, jump to the owner or other person, and bite the owner or other person.
  • “Physical punishment” according to one ART article: “Physical punishment- This will just make your dog more stubborn and uncooperative and will not inspire the dog to follow your lead (…) You need to be firm not harsh, and certainly not harsh when there is no reason to be. Be firm with a dog when he has done something wrong, not because you are in a bad mood. Just as there is a reason to reward, there is a reason to discipline.” (Preston, 2004).
  • Both ART and DRT recommend that the owner stay calm, confident, assertive, consistent, and a fair leader.
  • Some ART articles recommended the owners eat first (and control the food and other supplies) and don’t allow the dog to walk in front of him/her during the walking.
  • There was in all the articles a recommendation about the need for training.
  • In all the articles that mentioned the owner’s leadership, they described it as a trustful element that establishes clear rules, boundaries, limitations, and good conditioning behavior.

General considerations

One of the commons arguments against this term is a video from the biologist David Mech regarding a study made with captivity wolves. He states that the term “alpha” wasn’t appropriately used in that study. In the clip, Mech explains some dynamics in wolf packs with different words so that a layperson will understand that. In no time of the video, he speaks or relates it with dogs or dog training, nor he ever denied the existence of alphas. Thus, he wrote an article to Wolf Magazine (2008) stating, “While it is not incorrect to use alpha when applied to packs of multiple breeders, it would be possible and even desirable to use less loaded terminology.”

Interestingly, the “alpha dog” theory is far much more spoken by the groups against it than those that agree with it, which indirectly can have a side effect of their purpose. On the other side, it is clear the most significant amount of articles discourage the term or its possible practice. However, there are no clear definitions or public education on definitions and a scientific context of these terms, only a “point to be made.”

Future articles can improve their scientific standards, giving precise definitions, avoiding following the same argument line of the others with the same opinion, mixing terms, comparing them with violence, or being inaccurate to describe the basic learning theory principles.

Conclusion

There is no such “alpha dog theory” in the academic literature. That concept appeared in the dog training without a proper or consistent definition/explanation. It is a highjacked term mixed with other fields and manipulated by several “for and against” movements, as all the popular articles showed.

I don’t have enough data to argue on the interspecies relationship in these terms, so I prefer to limit myself to the inter and intraspecific communication concepts, which don’t seem to fit in such “theories.”

I will avoid walking on the thin ice of the leadership discussion because both canine training’s ideological extremes seem to agree with it in some terms. However, their speech has so many similarities and discrepancies that the only difference I noticed in their articles is their training ideology.

All the terms are clearly defined in their academical fields. The tendency to highjack terms from different fields and put them all in the same position with meanings that follows different agendas is a disservice to all who want to learn how to have a respectful relationship with the dogs and other species.

I don’t see any problem talking about these terms, explain them, and show that, in most cases, they are wrongly employed in dog training. It is my opinion that only with education and knowledge, we change things, not with emotional outbursts or nonsensical argumentation that discredit any kind of argument in the name of “science”.

 

References for the first research

Alexander, M. 2001. The History and Misconceptions of Dominance Theory Retrieved Nov. 02, 2020 from http://www.clickersolutions.com/articles/2001/dominance.htm

Amanda, C. 2018. Debunking the Dominance Theory in Dog Training. Retrieved Nov. 02, 2020 from https://www.dogsactually.com/dog-training/debunking-the-dominance-theory-in-dog-training/

Amanda, C. 2018. The History of Canine Dominance Theory. Retrieved Nov. 02, 2020 from https://www.dogsactually.com/dog-training/the-history-of-canine-dominance-theory/

Babcock, P. 2010. Dog Training: Positive Reinforcement vs. Alpha Dog Methods. Retrieved Nov. 05, 2020 from https://pets.webmd.com/dogs/features/dog-training-positive-reinforcement-alpha-dog-method#1 

Behan,K. The Dog-Wolf Link and Dominance Training. Retrieved Nov. 05, 2020 from https://dogtime.com/dog-health/general/9242-the-dog-wolf-link-and-dominance-training

Bekoff, M. 2020. Dominant Alpha Humans Don’t Garner Dogs’ Respect and Trust. Retrieved Nov. 05, 2020 from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/animal-emotions/202005/dominant-alpha-humans-dont-garner-dogs-respect-and-trust

Bright Spot Dog Training. Forget About Being Alpha. Retrieved Nov. 05, 2020 from http://www.kathysdao.com/articles/forget-about-being-alpha-2/

Castleberry, J. 2012. Lead Dog or Alpha Dog?. Retrieved Nov. 05, 2020 from https://www.northwestu.edu/president/blog/lead-dog-or-alpha-dog

Cesar’s way. 2015. How To Wolf Up. Retrieved Nov. 02, 2020 from https://www.cesarsway.com/how-to-wolf-up/

Cesar’s way. 2020. 5 ways to handling a dominant dog. Retrieved Nov. 02, 2020 from https://www.cesarsway.com/5-keys-to-handling-a-dominant-dog/

Clark, M. The Alpha Dog Myth: Is Dominance Training Mistreatment?. Retrieved Nov. 02, 2020 from https://dogtime.com/reference/dog-training/48563-alpha-dog-myth-dominance-training-mistreatment

Corey, S. 2010. Canine Dominance: Is the Concept of the Alpha Dog Valid?. Retrieved Nov. 02, 2020 from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/canine-corner/201007/canine-dominance-is-the-concept-the-alpha-dog-valid

D’Abruzzo, M. 2016. “Dominance in Dog Training Debunked” or is it?. Retrieved Nov. 02, 2020 from https://dogtraining.world/dominance-in-dog-training-debunked-or-is-it/

Dog time. Dominance: Dog training’s dirty word. Retrieved Nov. 03, 2020 from https://dogtime.com/dog-health/dog-behavior/1060-dominance-training-dirty-word

Dogs life. 2017. Pack mentality: the ‘alpha dog’. Retrieved Nov. 03, 2020 from https://www.dogslife.com.au/dog-news/pack-mentality-alpha-dog

Dr. Ron’s. The Basics of Alpha Dog Training. Retrieved Nov. 03, 2020 from https://www.drronsanimalhospitalsimivalley.com/blog/the-basics-of-alpha-dog-training/

Etolen, N. 2019. What exactly are Alpha Dog Training Methods?. Retrieved Nov. 05, 2020 from https://alphatraineddog.com/alpha-dog-training-methods-review/ 

Green, S. 2017. Pack it in! the myth of the alpha dog. Retrieved Nov. 05, 2020 from https://www.animalhealthfoundation.net/blog/2017/10/the-myth-of-the-alpha-dog/

Hedges, S. 2017. Social behaviour of the domestic dog, Veterinary Nursing Journal, 32:9, 260-264, DOI: 10.1080/17415349.2017.1333474

Holidaybarn, 2019. Is The Pack Theory of Dominance Hierarchy Debunked?. Retrieved Nov. 05, 2020 from https://holidaybarn.com/blog/is-the-pack-theory-of-dominance-hierarchy-debunked/

Karlsen, S. 2014. What “Alpha Rolling” Is Really Doing To Your Dog. Retrieved Nov. 02, 2020 from https://respectyourdog.com/read/what-alpha-rolling-is-really-doing-to-your-dog

Life with a dog. 2018. The Alpha Dog Myth-Debunking the Dominance Theory!. Retrieved Nov. 02, 2020 from https://lifewithadog.org/debunking-the-alpha-dog-myth/

Lilly, K. 2015. The myth of the alpha wolf. Retrieved Nov. 02, 2020 from https://www.mawer.com/the-art-of-boring/blog/the-myth-of-the-alpha-wolf

Maguire, S.  Establishing and Keeping Alpha Position. Retrieved Nov. 03, 2020 from https://www.dogbreedinfo.com/topdogrules.htm

McConnell, P. 2010. The Concept Formerly Described as “Dominance”. Retrieved Nov. 02, 2020 from https://www.patriciamcconnell.com/theotherendoftheleash/the-concept-formerly-described-as-dominance

Miller, P.  2011. Debunking the “Alpha Dog” Theory. Retrieved Nov. 03, 2020 from https://www.whole-dog-journal.com/behavior/debunking-the-alpha-dog-theory/

Pazdalski, C. 2020. What “Alpha Rolling” Is Really Doing To Your Dog. Retrieved Nov. 02, 2020 from https://animalwellnessmagazine.com/dominance-based-dog-training/

Preston, A. 2004. Secrets to becoming the “Alpha Dog” & be your dog’s pack leader. Retrieved Nov. 02, 2020 from https://foreverhusky.org/images/guides/9AphaDogSecretsSiberian.pdf

Ross, M. NO SUCH THING AS AN ALPHA DOG. Retrieved Nov. 05, 2020 from https://beacondogtraining.com.au/no-such-thing-as-an-alpha-dog 

RSPCA Australia. 2020. What is the RSPCA’s view on dominance dog training?. Retrieved Nov. 05, 2020 from https://kb.rspca.org.au/knowledge-base/what-is-the-rspcas-view-on-dominance-dog-training/

Sport dog training center. Dogs Are Not Wolves – And Why It Matters When Training Dogs. Retrieved Nov. 05, 2020 from http://www.sportdogtrainingcenter.com/dogs-not-wolves-matters-training-dogs/

Stilwell, V. 2014. Pack theory debunked. Retrieved Nov. 05, 2020 from https://positively.com/dog-training/myths-truths/pack-theory-debunked/

Training my best friend. Positive Reinforcement vs. Alpha Dog Training. Retrieved Nov. 05, 2020 from https://trainingmybestfriend.com/positive-reinforcement-vs-alpha-dog-training/

Wikipedia. Alpha roll. Retrieved Nov.02, 2020 from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Alpha_roll&oldid=970340851

Yin, S. 2009. New Study Finds Popular “Alpha Dog” Training Techniques Can Cause More Harm than Good. Retrieved Nov. 05, 2020 from https://drsophiayin.com/blog/entry/new_study_finds_popular_alpha_dog_training_techniques_can_cause_more_harm_t/

Other research references

Arnold, B. 2012. Is My Dog an Alpha?. Retrieved Nov. 02, 2020 from https://www.dogingtonpost.com/is-my-dog-an-alpha/ 

Barham, M. 2019. 4 Ways On How To Become The Alpha Dog With Your Puppy. Retrieved Nov. 03, 2020 from https://www.m-dog.org/how-to-become-the-alpha-dog-with-your-puppy/ 

Bloom, G. 2014. Fifteen Steps to Becoming the Pack Leader. Retrieved Nov. 02, 2020 from https://specialtydogtraining.com/articles/fifteen-steps-to-becoming-the-pack-leader/ 

Cesar’s way. 2020. How To Be The Pack Leader. Retrieved Nov. 02, 2020 from https://www.cesarsway.com/how-to-be-the-pack-leader/ 

Crittenden, C. 2019. How to Establish Leadership Over a Dog (Without Being a Meanie Pants). Retrieved Nov. 02, 2020 from https://www.petful.com/behaviors/how-establish-leadership-over-dog/

Dahlin, H. 2000. How to be a Good Alpha (Pack Leader). Retrieved Nov. 02, 2020 from https://www.forpaws.org/articles/alpha.htm 

De Gruy, V. Who’s in Charge Here?. Retrieved Nov. 02, 2020 from https://www.kevlardobermans.com/index.php/k-9-education 

Dog food insider, 2017. How To Become A Pack Leader To Your Dog. Retrieved Nov. 05, 2020 https://www.dogfoodinsider.com/become-a-pack-leader/

Grogan, A. How Do I Show My Dog I’m the Alpha?. Retrieved Nov. 05, 2020 from https://dogcare.dailypuppy.com/teach-dogs-good-manners-1555.html

Moore, C. 2020. 5 Proven Ways to Be a Gentle Alpha Leader to Your Dog. Retrieved Nov. 03, 2020 from https://www.k9web.com/dog-training/alpha-leader/ 

Steve. 2020. How to Dominate a Dog and Become the Alpha Leader. Retrieved Nov. 05, 2020 from https://www.dailydogstuff.com/how-to-show-dominance-over-a-dog/

Tutor dog. 2020. 5 Expert Tips on How To Be The Leader of The Pack. Retrieved Nov. 02, 2020 from https://tutoryourdog.com/5-expert-tips-on-how-to-be-the-leader-of-the-pack/

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