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Misconceptions of the Mythical Alpha Dog

Written by Dr. Ian Dunbar
Taken from the Dog Star Daily blog and can be found here.

People are fond of extrapolating popular, but misunderstood and bowdlerized accounts of wolf-behavior to dog-human interactions and training methods. The assumption is that the dog is out to dominate us and as a result, far too much training advice is unfeeling and adversarial with a sickening reliance on physical domination. So many pop-psychology training books have been written as if people are wolves, rather than humans with supposedly superior brainpower. If only the fall-out from this absurd view were not so unpleasant, the whole premise would be utterly laughable. People seem to be hung up on the questions, “But WHY did he do it?” “Why does he act that way? Why don’t we simply teach dogs how we would like them to act. If we find a dog’s behavior to be inappropriate or unacceptable, we must take a little responsibility here because we are the dog’s teacher and so, why don’t we just change the dog’s behavior to our liking.

Notions of a “dominance hierarchy” with an “alpha wolf” being the all-powerful, supreme leader are simply incorrect. Such a muddled and simplistic view is a bit of an insult to the wolves’ most complex and sophisticated social system. This is not the way that wolves live together. Wolves live together in large groups based on family units — in fact, not that much different than the way large groups of humans live together.

Moreover, dog behavior is very different from wolf behavior, especially in terms of their social interactions with people. In fact, few dogs live in packs at all. When dogs do live in groups, certainly they organize themselves in hierarchies ranked from topdog to underdog, but the hierarchies are neither created nor maintained by physical dominance. Very young puppies may play-fight when establishing hierarchy within their litter, but when the puppies enter the group there is simply no contest — developmental nolo contendre. The mere thought of a competition between an eight-week-old puppy and a six-year-old adult male would be too silly for words. All puppies enter an adult group on the bottom rungs of the social ladder and there they remain until older dogs pass on. In groups of domestic dogs, hierarchies are not created or maintained by physical domination and aggression, rather the hierarchies are created to prevent aggression, disagreements and dogfights.

My dogs have informed me that they would like similar relationships with people. Dogs would much prefer to just get along. Dogs don’t want to be physically bullied all the time; they very much wish that physical aggression and domination be excluded from their social relationships with people. Dogs simply cannot understand why some people want the relationship to be so adversarial.

Today the Family — Tomorrow the World!

From an assortment of books, I have discovered the following cautionary “advice” for owners. Never let a dog stare or jump-up, never stand, crouch or kneel down in front of a dog, never look a dog in the eyes, or reach over his head, never loom over a dog and reach down around his neck, never get down on the floor or allow a dog to stand over you, never give a dog food treats or human food, never allow a dog to eat before the family or go out of a door first, never allow a dog on furniture, upstairs, in the bedroom, or on the bed, never let a dog mount your leg, never let a puppy mouth or bite, and never play chase, tug o' war, or play-fight with a dog. Instead, novice owners are routinely advised to enforce “elevation dominance”, “dominance down-stays”, physical restraint and discipline and especially, the “alpha-rollover” — grabbing a dog by the jowls and forcing him onto his back.

All of these recommendations destroy the fun and enjoyment of living with a dog, most recommendations are just too silly for words, some are counterproductive and others are downright dangerous.

The above behaviors and actions were misconstrued as the dog's intention of dominating people even though these behaviors and situations have absolutely nothing at all to do with social rank or aggression during dog-human interactions. Basically, if an owner is OK with the dog’s behavior, then there is no problem, whereas if the owner is worried about the dog’s behavior and can neither prevent nor control it, then there is a problem.

Misconceptions of the Mythical Alpha Dog

A number of dog training texts cite pilo-erection, prolonged barking and growling, snarling and snapping, food protection, and otherwise threatening people as examples of aggression and alpha-status. Usually though, these behaviors are indicative of insecurity and may be easily prevented or resolved by comprehensive socialization, desensitization and oodles of classical conditioning. Dogs feel the need to threaten people because they themselves feel threatened by people. In terms of dog-dog interactions, threatening, growling and fighting are characteristic of middle-ranking male dogs that lack confidence of their social standing. Top dogs seldom growl or threaten, they don't need to. Underdogs seldom growl or threaten, they would be silly to. In our study of dog social hierarchies, the two top male dogs were pretty cool customers — they seldom threatened and growled and hardly ever fought. Instead they were perfectly happy to share a bone with other dogs, whereas the middle-ranking males protected the bone with extreme machismo — a noisy and embarrassing advertisement of their lack of confidence.

Counterproductive Advice

No handling and gentling? No puppy-biting? But physical restraint and dominance instead? This has to be the most time-consuming, difficult, and potentially dangerous way to “train” any animal! Many of the above cautions are not without reason. However, whereas they may be sound advice when dealing with an unfamiliar dog, and good advice for children interacting with any dog, such recommendations are just too silly for words when generalized to living with a dog that you know.

Puppy biting is normal, natural and necessary. In fact, it is the puppy that doesn't mouth and bite that augurs ill for the future, since he has never had the opportunity to develop bite inhibition. Of course puppy biting has to be eliminated before adolescence, but via a specific four-step process, whereby the pup first learns to inhibit the force of his biting before he is taught to stop biting (now modified to gentle mouthing) altogether.

Similarly, if played correctly, games of tag, tug o' war and play-fighting all serve to maintain the dog's bite inhibition, to teach specific rules and to practice control at times when the dog is excited. If the owner does not play by the rules and is out of control, the dog will become out of control and overly excited. Since many people (especially men and children) are going to play these games with the dog anyway, we should teach them how to play with the dog properly in a controlled fashion so that the games become both beneficial and enjoyable.

The dog's supposed desire for domination offers a convenient excuse to psychologically and physically abuse the dog under the guise of training. These misconceptions prompt procedures in which people are recommended to physically dominate and/or intimidate the dog, rather than building the dog's confidence and teaching him that there is no need to feel threatened by people and therefore, no reason for biting them. For the general dog-owning public, the very concept of physical domination is as ridiculous as it is dangerous. Certainly, an experienced trainer might be able to flip the majority of dogs into supine restraint (although I fail to see why), but few novice dog owners would be silly enough to try, and no child and few adults could possibly succeed. How can a dog possibly view a four year-old child as an alpha animal, and how can a child possibly physically dominate any dog. The very concept is preposterous pop-psychology. Sillier yet, is when adult humans try to impersonate dogs during training — trying to reprimand dogs with open-gape pins, scruff shakes and “alpha rollovers”.

Certainly there is no more effective reprimand than a bitch chastising her pups; unfortunately, less than one owner in a thousand could match the sheer speed, the precise timing and the gentleness of a bitch's rebuke. It is important for dog professionals to recommend training procedures and reprimands that are within the skill-set of all dog owners, especially children, i.e., to teach control methods, to teach compliance — happy and willing compliance.

Come on, let’s wise up and train this dog properly, rather than citing dominance as an excuse to vent our frustrations on the poorly educated critter. Reading a dominance motive into the dog's behavior and responding with physically aggressive control measures severely restricts the dog from enjoying life as a dog, just as it inhibits dog owners from enjoying life as owners.

No Fun for Dogs?

No barking, urine marking, stealing food, jumping-up and mounting? But all these are signs of a perfectly normal, healthy dog. Excessive barking may be controlled by feeding the dog only from chewtoys and by teaching the dog to “Woof” and "Shush" on cue. In-house scent marking is the signal for some basic housetraining. Stealing is indicative of an ill-trained dog living with an owner who continues to leave tempting items within reach. Dogs jump-up as a natural greeting and friendly appeasement gesture that has been unintentionally reinforced since puppyhood. Train your dog to "Sit" when greeting people and maybe to "Give a Hug" on request, when and if appropriate. Not coming when called has absolutely nothing to do with dominance, rather it simply advertises insufficient training by an owner who continues to let the dog off-leash in distracting and potentially dangerous settings. Mounting is the result of a misdirected sexual urge — but the dog is trying to “love us to death” not kill us. The dog wants to mount something and a cat, a cushion, or a great aunt's left leg, are sometimes the best options at hand. I wouldn't dream of allowing my dog to mount an unfamiliar dog, let alone a person. Mounting other dogs may lead to dog-dog fighting and owner-owner aggression. But the point is, we manage to control our equally vibrant, human sexual impulses in public and dogs can do likewise, if so educated. Simply request your dog to sit or lie down. Check out amorous Dolce, who is about to mount another dog until his owner requests him to sit. End of problem. (SIRIUS® Adult Dog Training DVD)

No Fun for Owners?

No hugs, no pats, no treats, no gazing in the dog's eyes? I mean, what on earth is the point of owning a dog if you cannot enjoy his company? It’s as silly as not being alloed to hug your spouse. At times I love Dune to jump-up and give me a canine clinch on request but I would never let him jump-up on me or anybody else of his own accord. Dune is happy, he can sometimes jump-up and I like the occasional happy hug. Many times he stands over me, when I'm lying on the floor, sacked-out on the couch, or when he checks to see if I am awake in the mornings. I play with him on the floor. We have a lot of fun together. Of course, he doesn't realize that much of the play (patting, gazing, hugging) is gentling and other anti-aggressiveness exercises (reaching/grabbing, staring and restraint). He has to feel secure and confident standing over people and staring in their faces because he looks down on many children when they are standing up. And anyway my niece and nephew seem to spend most of their time playing on the floor. I allow him (and little Hugo) to settle on the couch with us and watch nature programs on the telly. I allow him to rest his chin on the bed for an early morning nuzzle and once I am truly awake, every morning, I invite each dog up on the bed for a wakey-time smooch. They are happy for the comfort and the privilege and I am happy for the companionship.

Rules for Rules' Sake

It would be severely negligent not to build up the dog's confidence regarding the actions of family members, friends, children and strangers, or not to perform essential bite-inhibition and confidence-building exercises. However, whether or not to allow the dog indoors, in the living room, on the couch, upstairs, or on the bed, whether the dog should have an armchair for to himself (as Claude does), or whether to play specific controlled games should be left to each individual dog owner. If the owner wants the dog on the couch — Fine! If the owner thinks that the dog's place is on the floor, downstairs, or outside — Fine! (Although most Dobermans and Greyhounds would have a dim view of the disparity between human luxury and canine Spartan existence.) Each owner should make there own rules and teach them to the dog. That specific rules and regulations will vary considerably between households is of little concern; what is important though, is that the dog has been taught the relevant rules and the owner is always in control. We allow our dogs to enjoy many activities. Our philosophy is to allow our dogs a lot of comforts and a lot of freedom, but with lots and LOTS of rules.

Personally I allow my dogs to do all the things listed in the first paragraph. Nonetheless, in an endeavor to make our dogs as trustworthy as possible, I always make sure that I am in control. I would never allow the dog to initiate or engage in most of these activities without my OK and I would never allow a dog to engage in any activity unless I knew that I could control the dog with a single command, for example: "Sit", "Shush", "Outside", "Downstairs", "Off", "Look at your paws" (look away), "Bow" (playbow), and "Say Hello" (wag your tail), etc. And of course, let's not forget the Omega-Rollover — "Bang!" i.e., to supinate for a tummy rub for a dog that is eagerly and happily compliant.

To be in control is the key — to try to understand and respect a dog as a dog and as much as possible, to meet his needs and establish a mutually enjoyable household.

This article is based on Dr. Dunbar's Behavior column in the August 1990 issue of the American Kennel Gazette. Reprinted with the permission of the author and the American Kennel Club.

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