Alpha/Dominance Theory: Fact or Fiction

Mar 17, 2023 | Interesting Articles

natural setting, symbolizing the concept of Alpha_Dominance Theory in dog training.

The Alpha/Dominance Theory, which suggests that dogs naturally form hierarchies and require a dominant leader, has been discredited by modern research. Studies show that dogs do not form hierarchies like wolves and respond better to positive reinforcement rather than punishment. The “alpha” term, initially used to describe the leader of a pack of wolves, is not applicable to domestic dogs. The Alpha/Dominance Theory has led to harmful training techniques such as physical punishment, dominance-based training, and aversive tools. Science-based, positive reinforcement methods are more effective and ethical for training dogs, as they promote trust and a positive relationship between the dog and the owner.

Alpha/Dominance Theory: Fact or Fiction

Key Takeaways: Debunking the Alpha/Dominance Theory

  • The Alpha/Dominance Theory in dog training, suggesting dogs require a dominant leader, is discredited by modern research.
  • Dogs do not naturally form hierarchies like wolves, making the “alpha” term inapplicable to them.
  • Dominance-based training methods, including physical punishment and aversive tools, stem from misapplied wolf behavior theories.
  • Science-based, positive reinforcement methods in dog training are more effective and ethical, promoting trust and positive relationships.
  • The Alpha/Dominance Theory led to harmful dog training techniques, now replaced by reward-based approaches.

Debunking the Alpha Theory in Dog Behaviour and Training

In the following article, we delve into the Alpha Theory in dog training, discerning its basis in fact or fiction. Central to this theory is the belief that dogs are driven to assert dominance within a hierarchical structure, compelling owners to establish themselves as the alpha. However, this perspective is increasingly scrutinised under the lens of contemporary research:

  • Dominance-based training, advocating physical discipline and aversive tools, is rooted in the idea of an “alpha dog” leading the pack.
  • Contrary to Alpha Theory, recent studies indicate dogs do not naturally form strict hierarchies and lack an inherent drive to dominate.
  • Positive reinforcement is proven more effective, with learning theory highlighting reward-based training to encourage desired behavior.
  • Using dominance tactics can lead to fear, anxiety, and aggression in dogs, who do not grasp human language or social norms, resulting in detrimental long-term impacts on their behaviour and welfare.

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Where did the term “Alpha” and “Schenkel Dog Hierarchy” come from:

The term “alpha” was first used to describe the leader or dominant individual in a group of animals by Rudolph Schenkel, a Swiss animal psychologist, in his 1947 paper, “The Behavioral Study of Wolves at the Zoological Garden of Basel”. He observed that wolves in captivity formed a social hierarchy, with one dominant individual, the alpha, who held the highest rank and controlled access to resources such as food and mating opportunities.

The term “alpha” was later popularized by the ethologist L. David Mech in his book “The Wolf: The Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species” in 1970, who studied the behaviour of wolves in the wild and proposed the concept of the “alpha wolf” as the dominant individual in a pack.

It’s worth noting that the term “alpha” was first used to describe the leader of a pack of wolves, and it was later used to describe the leader of a group of domestic dogs, but the behaviour of wolves and dogs are different, and it’s not accurate to assume that domestic dogs form the same kind of hierarchy as wolves do.

The application of the term “alpha” to domestic dogs has been widely discredited by modern research in animal behaviour, as it has been shown that dogs do not form natural hierarchies like wolves do and that they do not have an innate drive to be dominant over humans or other dogs.

The training method of an alpha dog trainer may include harsh techniques like rank reduction and the use of punishment to establish a hierarchy.

Flaws in the Alpha/Dominance Theory?:

David Mech and Rudolph Schenkel’s theory of the “alpha wolf” was based on their observations of captive wolves in a zoo setting and later on wild wolves. However, later studies and research have shown that their conclusions about the “alpha” wolf were incorrect for several reasons. When asked later in his career the question of whether Alpha/Dominance Theory is Fact or Fiction? He said “for the past 30 years I have trying to get my research taken down. We got it wrong…”

  • Observing captive wolves: The wolves observed by Schenkel and Mech were living in captive environments, where the conditions and dynamics of their social groups were vastly different from those of wild wolves. In captivity, the availability of food, space, and other resources is often limited, which can lead to competition and aggression among individuals, that may not occur in the wild.
  • Natural behaviour: Wolves in the wild do not form strict hierarchies or “pecking orders” like Schenkel and Mech proposed. Instead, they form complex social bonds based on kinship, cooperation, and mutual aid. The role of the “alpha” wolf is not a fixed position but rather a fluid one that changes depending on the circumstances and the needs of the group.
  • Lack of scientific evidence: Studies have shown that many of the behaviours that Schenkel and Mech attributed to the “alpha” wolf, such as physical aggression, dominance displays, and submission, are not as frequent or as intense as they had described.
  • Misinterpretation of behaviour: Some of the behaviours that Schenkel and Mech attributed to dominance, such as wolves rolling on their backs or exposing their bellies, are actually submissive behaviours, indicating a willingness to submit rather than assert dominance.
  • Influence on dog training: The alpha theory had a big impact on dog training and behaviour, where it was often used to justify the use of physical punishment, dominance-based training, and aversive tools, which can be harmful to dogs and can cause fear, anxiety, and aggression.

Today, most experts in animal behaviour and ethology agree that the theory of the “alpha wolf” is not scientifically accurate, and that the social dynamics of wolves and other animals are more complex than a simple hierarchy. So it terms of Alpha Theory Fact or Fiction? Nearly all researchers would agree that it was flawed from the outset and therefore fiction.

The misuse of Alpha Theory in training:

The “alpha dog” or “dominance” theory of dog behaviour has been used to justify various training techniques that can be harmful to dogs. Here are some examples of the misuse of the alpha theory in dog training:

  • Physical punishment: Some trainers advocate the use of physical punishment, such as hitting, kicking, or hitting dogs with objects to assert dominance and show the dog who is in charge. This can cause fear, anxiety, and aggression in dogs and can damage the trust and bond between the owner and the dog.
  • Dominance-based training: Some trainers advocate the use of dominance-based training techniques such as alpha rolls (forcing the dog onto its back and holding it down), scruff shakes (shaking the dog by the scruff of its neck), or other forms of physical manipulation to assert dominance over the dog. These techniques can cause fear, anxiety, and aggression in dogs and can damage the trust and bond between the owner and the dog.
  • Aversive tools: Some trainers advocate the use of choke chains, prong collars, and other aversive tools to control and train dogs. These tools can cause physical pain and discomfort, and can lead to negative side effects such as aggression and fear.
  • Forcing submission: Some trainers advocate for forcing dogs into submission by using physical force, such as pinning them down, to show them who is in charge. This can lead to dogs feeling fearful and anxious, and can damage the trust and bond between the owner and the dog.
  • Dominance-based behaviour modification: Some trainers use dominance-based behaviour modification techniques such as confinement, isolation, or other forms of punishment to suppress unwanted behaviour, rather than addressing the underlying cause of the behaviour. This can lead to dogs feeling resentful, anxious and can damage the trust and bond between the owner and the dog.

It’s important to note that these methods can be harmful to dogs and can cause fear, anxiety, and aggression. They can also have negative long-term effects on the dog’s behaviour and well-being. Instead, trainers should use positive reinforcement and science-based training techniques that are humane and effective.

Embracing Science-Based Training: Positive Reinforcement vs. Dominance-Based Methods

In exploring whether the Alpha Theory is fact or fiction, it is clear that science-based training methods are not only more effective but also more ethical compared to dominance-based approaches. Here’s a breakdown of the core arguments:

  • Science-based training adheres to learning theory, emphasizing positive reinforcement to encourage good behaviour, thereby fostering a strong, positive relationship between dogs and owners.
  • Dominance-based training, rooted in the outdated “alpha-dog” concept, uses physical punishment and aversive tools, aiming to establish the owner’s dominance over the dog.
  • Research indicates that dominance methods can lead to fear, anxiety, and aggression, potentially harming the dog-owner relationship and the dog’s well-being.
  • Positive reinforcement methods result in fewer behavioural issues and a greater eagerness to learn, as shown by studies like Herron et al., 2009, which link punishment-based training with increased aggression in dogs.
  • Choosing a professional dog trainer or behaviourist who subscribes to science-based, positive reinforcement techniques is crucial. Their stance on the Alpha/Dominance Theory can be revealing of their training philosophy.

About Me

Jim Gillies, a Certified Dog Behaviourist and Trainer in Glasgow with over 10 years of experience, prioritises canine well-being through modern, science-backed methods. Handling 4000+ cases of 1-to-1 behaviour training, Jim is fully accredited, insured, and recognised for addressing various behavioural issues including aggression, separation anxiety, and more. Jim holds qualifications in level 5 (merit) Advance Diploma Canine Behaviour Management and level 6 Applied Animal Behaviour. Explore his insightful blog and podcast, sharing expert knowledge on dog training and behaviour. Certified by the IAABC, Jim’s expertise makes him a reliable choice for addressing your dog’s needs.

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Alpha/Dominance Theory: Fact or Fiction

FAQs on Alpha/Dominance Theory

What is the Alpha/Dominance Theory?
The Alpha/Dominance Theory suggests that dogs, akin to wolf pack dynamics, require a dominant leader and establish hierarchies. This perspective has influenced some trainers to use physical punishment and other dominance-focused techniques.
Is the Alpha/Dominance Theory accurate?
Current research has largely debunked the Alpha/Dominance Theory for dogs, indicating that dogs do not form strict hierarchies nor seek to dominate humans or other dogs. Dog behavior is more accurately interpreted and influenced through learning theory, which prioritizes positive reinforcement.
Where did the term “Alpha” originate?
The term “alpha” stems from a 1947 study on captive wolves by Rudolph Schenkel and gained prominence through the work of L. David Mech in the 1970s. Its application to domestic dogs has since been discredited.
Why is Dominance-based training harmful?
Dominance-based training can lead to negative outcomes such as fear, anxiety, and aggression in dogs. It employs intimidating techniques that can erode the trust and bond between dogs and their owners.
What is the alternative to Dominance-based training?
Positive reinforcement and other science-based training methods are ethical alternatives to dominance-based training. These approaches encourage rewarding desirable behaviors, enhancing the dog’s willingness to learn and strengthening the owner-dog relationship.
How does the misunderstanding of Alpha/Dominance Theory impact dog training?
Misapplying the Alpha/Dominance Theory in dog training perpetuates the use of damaging techniques that can incite fear, anxiety, and aggression. It also fosters widespread misconceptions about dog behavior, leading to ineffective and potentially harmful training methods.

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