A Wolf in Dog’s Clothing?

We often casually refer to dogs as “Dominant” or the “Alpha”, and it’s common to hear people loosely throw these terms around when talking about dogs. “He’s the Alpha. See how he runs through doorways before me? He likes to jump up on the bed and he also pulls on leash.”

Much of this terminology, however, has been extrapolated from what is called “Pack Theory”, based on the studies of wolf packs in captivity and in the wild. Over the last 20 years, there have been many training techniques that promote being the “Alpha”, asserting your dominance over your dog and being the leader of the pack. What pack? In the last ten years, behaviorists and scientists alike have questioned this line of thinking. After all, are dogs really wolves in dog’s clothing?

“He’s Dominant”- the Common Answer

According to Author, Barry Eaton,  “When dog training and behavior counseling in particular, became fashionable during the 1980’s and 1990’s, many books were written about how to treat behavioral problems by using pack rules as a “rank reduction program”- i.e., kicking the Alpha dog off his high horse, (your couch).  At that time, many professionals jumped on the bandwagon and many behavioral issues were due to the dog being ‘dominant’.”

Below is a list of “Pack Rules” that have been passed down through the ages. You may have read these in a book or have been taught in a class. They are in place to ensure that Fido won’t become the dreaded “Alpha dog”. Read on!

  1. “Eat something before feeding the dog.” *

Based on the “rule” that the Alpha eats first. Even when wolves have a big kill, they let all members, regardless or rank, feast at the same time.

  1. “Do not allow your dog on the furniture (bed, chair, couch)” *

Ah! We’re elevating our dog to the same status as us! Not really, in fact, if you have a concern about your dog possibly guarding resources like a bed or couch, invite them up on and frequently reward them for jumping off.

  1. “Don’t let the dog lay at the top of the stairs” *

Again, higher ground and status seeking “pack rules”. Many dogs may like a higher vantage point, to look out a window or lay in the sun. Is the dog being dominant?

  1. “Never let you dog through a doorway first”*

The Alpha has access to all resources first. Well, heck, even I like to train a dog to wait at an open door and be invited through, but that’s because I don’t like getting jerked down the front stairs, not because I’m being the “Alpha”. As Barry Eaton says, “I’m not sure how many doorways there are in the wild”.

  1. “Dogs that pull on the lead are dominant”*

What about under exercised or not trained to walk on a loose leash?

  1. “Never tug with your dog”*

If the dog wins, then they are “dominant”. Not the case. Most dogs enjoy a good game of tug, it’s a relationship building game, not a competition, plus it exercises the jaw and it’s fun!

  1. “Pin your dog in a down position”*

The old “Alpha Roll”, involves pinning your dog on their back and holding them down for several minutes to show them who is “boss”. The lower the wolf is, the more “submissive they are”. Submissive behavior is innate, you don’t make a dog submissive; however, you can traumatize your dog by using such old school methods.

Dominance Has Nothing to do with Status

“Many people believe that if a dog is showing aggression to his owners it is being calling dominant and thus trying to raise his status. There is a term called “dominance aggression”, but this does not imply that a dog is trying to raise their status,” says Eaton.
We all know dogs that are pushy and they test the waters and see what they can get away with.  According to Dr. Karen Overall, “There is no evidence that even these pushy dogs are anything other than a variant of a normal dog, and there is no association with any kind of rank hierarchy.”

What we frequently call “dominant” or the dog being the “Alpha”, can be a pushy dog at best. And even serious aggression issues, have little to do with the dog seeking a higher status. If you’re seeking training help with your own dog, make sure that your trainer is using only the most modern, positive methods. Building a working relationship with your dog should be one based on mutual respect, not asserting dominance.

*Dominance: Fact or Fiction by Barry Eaton (2005) page 20-28.

by Leigh Siegfried, CPDT
Leigh Siegfried is the owner of Opportunity Barks Animal Behavior & Training, offering private lessons and behavior consultations in Washington, DC, Northern Virginia. For more information, please visit www.opportunity-barks.com, email info@opporunity-barks.com or call 703-946-3094.