We are often asked the question from owners: How do I establish myself as the head of the pack, or alpha dog, with my dogs? “Head of the pack” is a buzz phrase made popular by trainers, handlers, and even TV personalities like Cesar Millan who fundamentally misunderstand dog behavior. The well-meaning owners are trying to do the best by their dogs, but it is easy to get confused, especially when most trainers continue to advocate traditional training methods that are punitive and dominance based.
If we believe that our dogs are trying to dominate or control us, then our first resort could be dominance-based training methodology. In fact, research indicates that dogs do not behave out of dominance. Furthermore, dogs learn best in a positive state of mind, not a “submissive” state.
At LECA we use research-validated social cognitive learning to train dogs, basing training on a strong relationship and effective communication, rather than dominance and punishment.
Dogs are Social Animals, not Pack Members
Dominance theory has been debunked by the same group of scientists who conducted the original study on which the alpha dog urban legend is based (Lee-ST. John 2010).The original 1940s studies captured wolves and forced them to compete for resources. Scientists claimed that the resulting aggressive, dominance seeking behavior was the way in which wolf packs were naturally established. In fact, following research has found that wolves live in family groups, in which the young willingly follow the lead of their parents. Dogs are separated from wolves by thousands of years of evolution and have many clearly observable differences in behavior, especially with people and other animals.
When you consider all of the scientific research about dog behavior and psychology, the lasting enthusiasm for dominance training says more about people than it does about dogs or wolves.
Perhaps it shows that too many trainers have been more focused on displaying their own dominance than understanding and helping dogs. Trainers that care about treating the dog fairly and achieving lasting results have better tools.
Dogs don’t collaborate like wolves
Unlike wolves and other group hunters like lions, who serve deliberate functions within organized hunts, dogs do not organize themselves to hunt as a pack. When it comes time for wild or feral dogs to hunt, they scatter and scavenge, or hunt for small game, on their own.
While dogs can work together to complete a task with a human or alone, like flushing game or herding livestock, they work out their tasks as partners in a mutual goal, not in a top-down management style in which tasks are delegated downwards by the dominant members.
Dogs are uniquely social, able to bond with and learn from all sorts of species. Research has found that dogs are more able to work cooperatively with people and other dogs than other species (Ostojic 2014). Examples of dogs bonding with all sorts of species is abundant. It is hard to imagine where hierarchy fits in when you watch a dog who has befriended a deer, cat, bird, duck, or wide range of other animals.
Traditional trainers focus on dominance
It can be easy to be sucked in by trainers that encourage you to demand recognition as a leader and absolute obedience from your dog. While dogs may seem loyal and obedient when trained in this way, if you look closely, you will see indications that dogs are showing extreme anxiety. Rather than being “calm and submissive” these dogs are so anxious that they have shut down.
Dogs that have shut down are not learning, but merely in a state that any animal can reach with sufficient stress. Like an animal in a trap, a dog will return to its previous way of behaving as soon as it is released from this state. The trauma of the experience is likely to cause dogs to display more of the problem behavior, since aggression is so often fear based.
American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) even reprimanded the methods of the Dog Whisperer as terribly traumatizing to the dog, the owners, and the occasional pig. In their letter they say, “Punishment-based training methods may be advocated by those without an appreciation of the current status of science in dog training. Although such methods can be effective in the short term, science tells us they are likely to exacerbate an animal’s fear and actually increase aggression in the long run.” They go on to say, “Research in canine behavior is continually evolving through lab and field research trials. Behavior professionals continually further their knowledge of behavior in order to offer the best treatment plans to pet owners. AVSAB recommends you choose a trainer who understands and uses reward-based training, and who keeps abreast of developments in the field (AVSAB 2016).”