Alpha Dog - The myth that never dies


Imagine you and a friend are at a party and you approach the dessert table to discover — horror of horrors!!! — there’s only one piece of cake left.  You both want cake, but your friend gives you The Look.  She really wants it, so you let her have it.  Next, you wander over to the bar and there’s only one glass of wine.  You both want that wine, but, hey, she’s not the only one who can pull off The Look.  The wine is yours.

Certified Pet Dog Trainer Denise Mullenix, who founded Behave Canine Solutions in Portland, likes to tell this story to point out our flawed understanding of dominance.  “At that party, who’s dominant?”  From this story, we know you and your friend both like cake and wine.  We also know this isn’t the greatest party ever.  But we don’t know which one of you is the boss of the other.  “It depends on the situation and the motivation,” says Mullenix.

Dog culture works the same way.  Social structure is fluid, with individuals taking charge in some situations and backing down in others.  Dog life is not a never-ending competition over dominance.  Behaviorists have known this for decades, but word is slow to get out.  It seems the outdated concept of alpha dogs refuses to die.

Perhaps nobody knows this better than the guy who inadvertently planted the idea in everyone’s head with a book he published in 1970.  Dr. David Mech, who studies wolves for the US Department of Interior, explains in an online video, “I labeled the top wolf the alpha, because that’s all that science knew.  In the years since, we’ve learned a lot.”  Mech has spent decades trying to get the genie back in the bottle.

Before scientists knew any better, Mech and others were influenced by a fatally flawed study.  In 1947, a researcher named Schenkle put unrelated wolves together in a fenced enclosure.  Disoriented and separated from their original family groups, the poor wolves got locked in an often-violent struggle to establish a hierarchy.  Mech likens the study to “trying to draw inferences about human family dynamics by studying humans in refugee camps.”

Mech’s field studies of wild American wolves offer better insights.  Wolf families establish a peaceful division of labor that only changes when a female is caring for pups.  Then papa’s job is to keep mama happy: approaching with the submissively playful “wiggle walk” we would all recognize in our own dogs, following mama’s orders, relinquishing his food, saying a lot of yes, ma’ams.  Once the pups are raised, however, the relationship equalizes.  Wolves rarely even vie for dominance with competing packs, preferring to stick to their own territory.  They battle for dominance if they’re forced to live near other breeding pairs, but this unusual circumstance rarely happens, according to Mech.

While Mech fights the dominance myth that’s plagued the long-persecuted wolf, dog trainers everywhere try to convince well-intentioned people that their pet dogs are not, in fact, domesticated wolves bent on being the alpha and achieving total world domination.

“We’re comparing our dogs to wolves all the time,” says Daphne Robert-Hamilton, a Certified Pet Dog Trainer based in Monroe, Washington.  “We also think about pecking order with chickens and apply that to domestic dogs.  Other social constructs have been applied to dogs just trying to explain what domestic dogs were doing and it sort of stuck.”  

As a veteran of the old heavy-handed dominance-based training, Robert-Hamilton is now a Victoria Stillwell Certified Trainer who says she’s glad to see the science evolve.  “When I work with families I want to teach them to have a win-win situation.  The win-lose situation — the dominance approach — that ain’t so good,” she says.  Dog-human relationships are simply happier when humans understand their dogs’ motivations.

“Dominance is real,” says Dr. Christopher Pachel, a veterinary behaviorist in Portland, Oregon.  “It’s a social construct that allows animals to exist in social groups and have relations without resorting to violence or aggression.”  The dogs that get labeled “dominant” often are simply insecure or pushy.  “The truly dominant dog is usually calm and nonreactive and generally nonaggressive, and when he or she does show aggression it’s an appropriate level.  When I give that explanation, people say, ‘That’s not my dog.’”

Dominance in dogs has been fundamentally misunderstood for so long that countless common behaviors have been labeled dominant behaviors.  “Jumping up, pulling on a leash, going through a door first, puppy mouthing and nipping, dogs intolerant of people handling their ears and paws” are a few Robert-Hamilton lists off the top of her head.  Dominance-based thinking can leave people overly focused on putting the dog in his place, but a good trainer or behaviorist can redirect that focus and give people tools to address the undesired behavior instead.

“Whenever we talk about stopping a behavior we have to think immediately about what the dog should be doing instead,” says Dr. Pachel.  So if the dog is jumping up, you ask him to sit instead.  If she’s chewing your arm, you offer a chew toy instead.  The truth is we all like to get our way  — dash through the door first, eat the last piece of cake — and so does your dog.  But it doesn’t mean you need to show him who’s boss.

It's a valiant battle, this fight against a myth that refuses to die. David Mech has passionately fought for 40 years. So who are we to stop after a few column inches? Next month, we continue to explore this dominance myth. Can people subscribe to these flawed notions and still be pretty good dog parents? Stay tuned. 

Intrigued? David Mech has the entire Schenkel 1947 wolf study on his website.

See Mech’s video discussion of wolf social structure: