Back in the 1930s, behaviorist Rudolph Schenkel studied captive wolves in zoo settings.
These wolves were captured from different portions of the wild, so they all came from different packs and families.
They were placed in sterile zoo environments and forced to interact with each other. This led to fighting, aggression, and a general struggle to form and maintain a harmonious hierarchy.
While watching this unnatural grouping of captive wolves, Schenkel developed a theory about wolf social structure and behavior. And because domestic dogs originated from the ancestors of grey wolves, people believed that wolf social structure was the same as that of domesticated dogs.
With this new theory in hand, people started training their dogs as if they were working with these zoo-dwelling wolves. “Only one can be alpha,” they thought, “and by golly it’ll be me.”
And in some cases, they had success.
By dominating the dogs and being an “alpha,” they were able to find ways to stop their dogs from misbehaving.
What people probably didn’t realize was that “alpha dog approaches” and “dominance training” had serious repercussions to the dog’s emotional, mental, and even physical health — let alone the damage it caused to the special bond between these humans and their canines.
Below, we’ll dive into dominance training and alpha theory, point out the shortcomings in these approaches, and talk about alternatives that are better for you, your dog, and your shared relationship.
Debunking the Alpha Dog Myth: Key Takeaways
- “Alpha dog theory” and dominance-based training methods were initially inspired by observations of an unusual group of captive wolves. These wolves had not formed relationships the way typical wolf packs do, so they exhibited some unusual behaviors. This means that the entire foundation of these training approaches were flawed.
- Alpha-based training approaches often fail to achieve the desired results, and can even result in aggressive behaviors. Sensitive dogs, for example, may become traumatized by these approaches, while tougher dogs may retaliate against the people subjecting them to harsh treatments.
- There are a number of alpha-dog alternatives that will help you train your dog without damaging your relationship. Strategies based around positive-reinforcement are some of the most popular training alternatives, resulting in great success as well as building a better dog-human bond.
What is Alpha Dog Theory?
“Alpha dog” theory is based around Schenkel’s initial study. By observing the wolves fighting for resources, privileges, and “status,” it was assumed that there is only one alpha in a pack, and he rules all the other dogs.
With that in mind, it was assumed that since domesticated dogs are closely related to wolves, they too must only have one alpha. And since domesticated dogs were living in homes with humans, their packs weren’t comprised of other dogs, but the people they lived with.
Thinking their dogs were trying to become “alphas”, people started wanting to ensure that they led the pack rather than Fido.
So, how do you become Alpha?
Well, if you’re a wolf in a captured environment, you do so by fighting, grabbing the other wolves by the neck or throat, and in general becoming “dominant.”
Schenkel also observed that wolves who were subservient to the alpha would roll over and show their belly and genitals. This was a sign that they were submitting to the alpha.
Somewhere along the line, trainers and owners began implementing these behaviors and doing things like rolling their dogs, grabbing them by the scruff, making intense stern eye contact, and so on and so forth.
Essentially, they strived to become the alpha.
What Are Some of the Problems with Alpha Theory?
You know the saying “making an assumption makes an ass out of me and u” (because ass-u-me)?
Well, that’s what happened with the alpha theory. We’ll explain a few of the most notable problems with the theory below.
Suspect Science: Issues with the Study Subjects
Schenkel very well could have had the best intentions in the world, but the scientific observations he based on these wolves had one huge, glaring flaw: He wasn’t studying typical wolf packs in a natural setting.
He was studying wolves from foreign packs, taken forcibly from their homes, and placed in a false, sterile environment with limited space, resources, and no appropriate outlets for energy and other instincts.
It would be like studying a group of people in prison and assuming their behavior was accurately reflecting typical suburban family dynamics.
No offense to Orange is the New Black, but my mom has never threatened to shank me for not doing the chores.
You see the problem, right? The study in and of itself was not based on actual wolf behavior! It was based on wolves in perhaps one of the most stressful, perverse settings possible.
Flawed Foundations: Problems with the Alpha Dog Concept
Aside from the fact that the science wasn’t any good, the concept is pretty absurd as well.
How can we, as humans, behave as wolves and hope that our pet dogs do not notice that we are, in fact, not wolves?
It’s really pretty silly.
If my Chihuahua got up and started trying to pay the bills, I’d be baffled. Thrilled, but baffled — because he’s a dog!
He doesn’t have opposable thumbs, he doesn’t walk on two legs, and he (thankfully) doesn’t have a credit card. If he started behaving as a human, while still looking like a dog, I’d be really thrown off.
That’s how dogs must feel when we start acting like we’re wolves. Worse! If we’re doing alpha dog stuff, like rolling them over to force submission, we’re not acting like wolves normally do; we’re behaving in manner that’s not even normal for wolves except in the worst setting possible.
That’s the worst side of them! Talk about a Doctor Jeckyl, Mr. Hyde routine.
Bottom Line: Alpha Approaches Yield Poor Results for All Types of Dogs
The flaws of the theory started to become glaringly obvious. And with the emergence of easier, kinder ways to train our dogs, people were happy to let alpha approaches fade.
It also soon became evident that these alpha approaches and dominance-based techniques, were having some pretty serious repercussions.
These ramifications can vary a bit depending on the dog’s personality. But no matter how you look at it, the results aren’t great.
The Effects of Alpha Training on Sensitive Dogs
For sensitive dogs, having an owner or trainer grab them by the neck, force them to show their belly, and glare into their eyes is not merely “intense” or “startling,” as advocates propose — it is downright traumatizing.
Research found that dogs subjected to this kind of treatment would shut down, become fearful, or actively avoidant.
My beloved Chihuahua is a particularly sensitive guy. One time I had to shout to keep him from walking across (what turned out to be) a garter snake, hoping to bypass a snake bite. He was so traumatized by his mommy yelling “at him” that he shook for the rest of the day.
I can’t imagine how he would have felt had I gone so far as to do some of the other things alpha theory promotes, such as choking him or bonking him under the chin hard enough to make him yelp.
The Effects of Alpha Training on “Tough” Dogs
At the other end of the spectrum, there are the really “tough” dogs. These dogs aren’t sensitive, but instead take offense when you behave offensively. These dogs are willing to fight back.
In the alpha dog theory, they say you have to fight back harder in these cases. You have to win no matter what.
Basically, this results in escalating the situation. You’re teaching your dog that he has to be aggressive in order to feel safe.
Not only is this ridiculous when we have methods that wouldn’t include a fight to the death with your dog, but it’s seriously dangerous — to you and your dog.
Even “tough dogs” get scared when their owner beings bullying them, and that fear often manifests through aggressive outbursts.
By trying to “alpha” the wrong dog, you can get yourself into a world of trouble.
The Effects of Alpha Training on “Typical” Dogs
Alpha training also causes problems for typical dogs — not the “sensitive” ones nor the “tough” ones, but just normal pets.
By behaving inappropriately with your dog, you can seriously damage your relationship with him. Your dog will think you’re unreliable, or you’re being a jerk. Or, you’re simply insane.
You can break the trust you should have with your dog and cause him to simply wish you’d go away.
That’s not really what I want from my relationship with my dogs. You probably don’t either.
On top of all that, alpha techniques can also cause physical injuries.
For example, some alpha techniques call for “helicoptering” a dog, which means to hold them up by the leash, off the ground, choking them until they submit.
Trachea damages, anyone? And alpha rolling them? That’s no good either — you can end up causing your pooch to suffer neck, back and hip injuries by doing so.
Alternatives to Alpha Dog Theory
If you’re wanting to train your dog, but are struggling to communicate effectively, try positive reinforcement rather than alpha-based approaches.
Training approaches based on positive reinforcement operate under operant and classical conditioning theory.
The general idea is to have a resource your dog likes and wants, usually a toy or high-value treat, and to ask for something in return for the resource.
Positive reinforcement is all about rewarding the good behaviors and ignoring (or simply avoid reinforcing) the unwanted behaviors.
Is your dog barking at squirrels outside? Starting giving him treats when he sees the squirrels and doesn’t bark.
Does your dog jump up on you when you come in the house? Ignore him until he keeps four paws on the ground – then shower him with praise and cookies!
You may also consider another method of dog training commonly referred to as relationship based training. The idea behind this approach is that you build up a relationship of mutual respect and trust, and then when you ask your dog to do something, he is happy to comply.
Many trainers consider relationship based training as going hand-in-hand with positive reinforcement training, since positive reinforcement teaches your dog to associate you with good things.
Is Alpha Training Ever Appropriate?
Alpha theory is often used with a certain type of dog — those that are tough enough to withstand harsh treatment without shutting down, yet not so tough that they’ll end up retaliating.
Typically, this occurs in military or police settings.
These environments already have a culture of tough love and rough treatment, so it’s not a surprise that more aggressive training methods have been popular for so long.
But, it is important to note that these situations involve highly experienced trainers, reducing the chances of traumatizing the dog in the process.
Even then, most military and police training programs have moved away from using alpha or dominance-based approaches exclusively. Now, they rely more on positive reinforcement methodologies during training.
When it comes down to it, alpha dog training is based on debunked science, faulty research, and usually results in traumatized dogs and aggressive outbursts rather than happy, healthy, well-adjusted dogs who trust their owners.
So, follow the science! Modern research has shown that positive reinforcement training methods have better results why being safer and building a better bond between you and your dog.
What kind of learning would you choose for yourself?
Alpha Dog Training FAQs
Alpha and dominance theory are contentious issues, which cause many owners to have questions. We’ll try to answer some of the most common ones below.
Do dogs follow an alpha?
Yes and no. The truth of the matter is, dogs live in social structures much like the hierarchy we humans have within our own families.
Who gets access to resources first changes depending on the setting, the individuals present, and the “mood” of those around.
In general, there will be dogs who tend to be more deferring, and dogs who tend to be more deferred to. But it is all flexible and subject to change — just like it is in humans. Only with more slobber and shedding.
However, it’s important to remember that wolves are not dogs, and even the research initially done to push forward the concept of an “alpha” wolf has since been debunked.
Even David Mech – the man who wrote the 1970 book The Wolf: The Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species that brought the term “alpha wolf” into the cultural lexicon – has since renounced the phrase and his own book, admitting that it has been proven inaccurate and harmful.
Do dogs have a pack mentality?
You could say that dogs have a pack mentality in some ways. It may be more accurate to refer to this as “group think” or “safety in numbers.”
You will see dogs who lack confidence on their own suddenly grow bold when their sibling dogs are present to “back them up.” Or, your will see one dog run to the squirrel tree and the others will follow.
We all tend to fall into these behaviors and thinking processes when hanging out in a group. But it’s not “the alpha says something, therefore I do it.” It’s much more complicated and nuanced than that.
What is alpha-rolling a dog?
Originally called the “alpha roll over”, and then shortened to the alpha roll, this is a technique based around the fact that submissive or insecure dogs will show their bellies and genitals to other dogs or people.
By showing their most vulnerable parts, these dogs are signaling that they are not a threat, nor do they want to fight. In the dog training world we call this behavior of exposing their belly a “tap out.”
The alpha roll is grabbing a dog by the scruff of the neck and physically forcing him to show his belly to you and forcing him to be submissive. Usually this is done in response to the dog behaving in a manner the trainer did not approve of.
Do wolf packs have an alpha?
Yes, but not in the way you may think.
Wolf packs, in natural settings, have a top male and a top female. They are the breeding pair. Usually a wolf pack is actually just one family, consisting of a breeding pair and their offspring (until the youngsters reach about 2 or 3 years of age).
So you’ll see the adults correcting or leading the pups, but not because they are alphas – they’re just being good parents!
Occasionally some packs will have two or three families, but they still fall into the expectations of having specific breeding pairs, offspring, and social hierarchies.
Do you have to be the alpha for your dog?
No, you do not. Instead, you need to be a clear, compassionate leader who makes it easy for your dog to succeed and difficult for him to fail.
But you do not need to behave as a wolf might, trying to gain status and rank. In fact, please don’t.
How can you be the alpha to your dog?
As we’ve explained in this article, there is really no such thing as being an “alpha” to your dog, and it’s not a helpful context for training.
Instead, I’m going to rename this to “benevolent leader.” How can you become the benevolent leader to your dog?
The simplest way to do this is to have rules, consistently follow them, and reinforce the behaviors you do like. I personally really recommend getting a training routine established, so you can more effectively communicate with your dog, and teach him skills that will make him a better family member.
You do not have to be stern, dominant or aggressive to get this kind of relationship. You just have to be persistent, and actually teach your dog what behaviors you do like, so they are less likely to practice unwanted behaviors.
Do dogs think people are part of their packs?
It isn’t entirely clear whether our pets think of us as members of their pack. On one hand, dogs often behave with their humans in a clear social and familial manner.
But it seems unlikely that dogs believe we are dogs. You’re certainly part of your dog’s family, to be sure. But are you one of the deer chasin’, squirrel hatin’, mud bath takin’ posse? Probably not.
Why do some trainers still use alpha theory?
Some trainers still use alpha theory because they are getting the results they want. Isn’t that why anyone continues to do something, whether or not they think it’s the best way ever?
Here’s the thing – alpha approaches can work in that they can achieve immediate positive outcomes. Your dog may stop barking and stop lunging (aka being leash reactive) on walks.
The problem is, the dogs are stopping the undesirable behavior because they are scared. Not because you have taught them that they don’t need to bark at squirrels or that other dogs on walks don’t pose a threat.
These short-lived outcomes rarely last because they are based on fear and solve the symptoms (barking, lunging), instead of treating the underlying issue, which has to do with cognition and how your dog thinks and reacts to certain stimuli.
As you can imagine, working to correct your dog’s cognition requires more patience and effort than scaring him half to death.
But fear tactics only get you so far when it comes to educating anyone. And fear can (unsurprisingly) lead to aggression when that fear and stress becomes too much for a dog to bear.
Of course, there are some outdated trainers who might not know better! They learned it this way a decade ago when we didn’t have as much research on dog-human relationships.
To them – it works sometimes, and this is just the way it’s been done. Not everyone is up to date with the latest canine cognition research (although the best trainers will be – and those are the ones you should work with).
Ultimately, alpha theory is a lemon. It was based on poor science, used with some success and a lot of failure, and makes the relationship between canines and humans worse, not better.
If you have any questions or thoughts about Alpha Theory, please comment below!