wolf pack

Dominance, Pack Leader, and Alpha

It seems that every year there are new corporate slang words that are added to the already overloaded list. Some that irritate me the most are “reach out”, “resonate”, “organic”, “empower”, “leverage”. Most of these have been around for years and most are often misused. 

In the canine world, there also seem to be terms that just won’t go away. These are dominance, pack leader, and alpha. I completely understand why this came to be since at one time dog training was based on these terms and the mindset that goes along with them. Just like the foods that are good for us or bad for us change as more research is conducted, the same holds true for dog training as we find out more about how dogs think.

So let’s look at dog relationships and what we know in the current day – but first a little history – the short version. In the 1930’s and 40’s Swiss animal behaviorist Rudolph Schenkel conducted a scientific study on zoo wolves. In this study, he concluded that wolves in a pack gain dominance by fighting and the winner is the alpha.

Here’s the problem. Wolves are not domesticated dogs and domesticated dogs are not wolves. Schenkel’s findings were incorrect; however, other scientists studied wolves in captivity and concluded the same thing as Schenkel.

Thanks to David Mech and his study of wild (not captive) wolves, we have learned that a pack of wolves is in fact a family. The wolf family consists of the mother and father pair and one to three years of offspring. This completely debunks the earlier dominance/alpha theory.

Unfortunately, many dog owners and dog trainers still believe in this outdated form of thinking and apply harsh and disrespectful training techniques to dogs. A few of the most common techniques include: Rolling the dog on their back and forcing them to stay belly up in order to interrupt bad behavior, glaring directly into a dog’s eyes to show dominance, leash jerking to show who the “pack leader” is, using a prong collar to get the dog’s attention and keep the dog from pulling, and using a shock collar to interrupt barking and reactive behavior. All of these techniques are completely unacceptable and do more harm than good. For instance, putting a shock collar or using a leash jerk on a dog who is reactive only causes a dog to be more fearful and anxious than he already is. In addition, it may appear to temporarily correct the problem, but it is only putting a patch on the symptoms – not correcting the actual problem.

In 1985, Karen Pryor, a well-known trainer, wrote Don’t Shoot the Dog. This was the turning point when positive modern dog training was born. The new era of dog training was blossoming and becoming more popular until 2004 when Cesar Millan became popular with his Dog Whisperer show. Showing “miraculous transformations” with the same outdated way of training, he became vastly popular, creating a surge of dog owners reverting to the dominance theory.

Today there are many trainers using the same outdated methods; however, there are many trainers who have moved to positive dog training. We call them crossover trainers. The reason? They have found that positive dog training is both a very successful way of dog training and it provides a more satisfying feeling of accomplishment.

There is no such thing as Dominance, Pack Leader, and Alpha when it comes to dogs. It is time that these words are removed from everyone’s canine vocabulary. It simply isn’t a thing.

Think of how you learn best. I know for me, I learn if something is explained to me and I am allowed to do it myself. If someone is standing over me talking loudly, I’m going to shut down or tell them to be quiet. The same holds true for a dog. For specific skills, you can lure a dog into position, give it a name (cue) and allow him to repeat the skill several times. Yelling at a dog when he makes a mistake doesn’t accomplish anything but make him want to run away or cower in fear.  In positive dog training, we use rewards, but we also allow the dog to figure things out too. If we train in this manner, he will have a more solid understanding of what is being asked of him.

Have respect for your dog. Imagine being in a foreign country and no one speaks English. Everyone is much taller than you and you have no idea where anything is. Someone waves their hand at you to come over. They ask you a question in their native language but since you don’t understand you don’t respond. Since you don’t respond, they assume you are being rude so they punch you in the nose. Do you see where I’m going with this? You and your dog speak two different languages. Why would someone expect that a dog would miraculously understand what they are asking of them? They don’t! We have to show them in a kind and respectful way.

If you would like to find out more about Positive Modern Dog Training or would like to schedule a consultation or training, please contact me today at  762-218-3708.