Alpha Dog - Lost in Translation


Dogs and humans go way back – 15,000 years, give or take.  Our hunter-gatherer ancestors discovered that not only were dogs handy for guarding stuff and keeping them warm at night, but also that clever canines were willing to cross over from the wild side, possibly enticed by the shelter and reliable food the gig offered.  Aside from the relative ease and security of domestic life, dogs seem naturally intrigued by people.  In short: dogs like us; and the feeling is mutual.

After this millennium-and-a-half partnership, it’s potentially embarrassing to consider how little we understand about our companions.  Human misperceptions about dogs range from the comical to the tragic.  One of the most enduring is the idea that a dog’s life is a never-ending competition for dominance – a myth we discussed in the June issue.  The theory arose from a wolf study that was so flawed it scarcely shed light on wild wolf behavior, much less domestic dogs.

Dominance theory has been misinterpreted and misapplied – maybe not for a millennium and a half, but for a long, long time.  Behaviorists have known this for decades.  Unfortunately, word is slow to get out.  “For some reason our culture is just married to it,” says Daphne Robert-Hamilton, a Victoria Stilwell Certified trainer in Monroe, Washington.  Like many trainers and behaviorists, Robert-Hamilton encounters clients who are motivated to train their dogs but are “totally infused with dominance theory.”

So what’s a trainer to do?  Robert-Hamilton says some clients are interested in learning about the latest behavior science, and this can make them more insightful dog parents.  Others have a harder time, and she’ll hear them repeatedly blaming any undesired dog behavior on dominance.  “They’re just using terminology that makes sense to them,” she says.  To work past this potential barrier, “I just try to get them to describe the behavior itself instead of using a term like, ‘He’s being alpha.’”

Dr. Christopher Pachel, veterinary behaviorist and owner of Animal Behavior Clinic in Portland, is accustomed to working around different mindsets as well.  Rather than long conversations about theory, Pachel says most sessions focus on giving people the practical skills they need to address their dogs’ behavior.  “Whenever we talk about stopping a behavior we have to think immediately about what the dog should be doing instead.  If we can’t define it or have some clear explanation of what we want the dog to do, the chance of the dog being successful is really, really low.”  So, if a client wants to teach his dog to stop humping guests’ legs, Dr. Pachel shows him how to redirect the dog’s attention to a toy or reward the dog for doing a more desired behavior, such as “sit” or “shake.”  The technique is likely to be successful, even if the client incorrectly believes that the humping behavior is an expression of dominance.


At the end of the day, we probably don’t have to bone up on the latest behavior science to be good dog parents.  That should be a relief to anyone without loads of spare time and ready access to research libraries.  With some practical know-how, you’ll do just fine.  For proof, just take a minute to consider how well you understand the inner workings of your partner’s psyche, or your kids’, your co-workers’, or even that neighbor who mows the lawn in his robe.  Yes, the mind is a mysterious thing.  Even still, we mostly manage to fumble our way through and create mutually-satisfying relationships.

We can fumble our way through to some good dog training, too, as long as we approach it with an attitude of fairness and consistency.  Theory can help, but if it’s misunderstood or misapplied it can also hurt.  That’s been the unfortunate track record of dominance theory, which inspired decades of heavy-handed coercive training in the name of establishing dominance over dogs.  Roberts-Hamilton concludes, “I’m just there to make sure people aren’t abusing their dogs because of dominance theory.  I want to teach people to have a win-win relationship with their dogs.”

A 15,000-year-long relationship is a clear sign that there’s enough win-win to warrant sticking it out that long.  That, and we chose the right critter to share the millennia with.  In Roberts-Hamilton’s words, “Dogs are an extremely forgiving species.  They’re very tolerant of us.”