Dominance will get you nowhere: What's wrong with the concept of the Alpha Dog in dog training?

Thanks to popular culture, the concept of dominance in dogs has become widespread. Your dog won’t come when you call? Well he must be dominant. Your dog always sleeps on the bed? He’s showing you he’s dominant. You dog rushes ahead of you when you open the front door? Dominant.

But dogs, as individuals, are not “dominant”. Dominance is not a personality characteristic (as in, my dog is energetic and dominant), it is found in relationshipsbetween individuals. By definition, dominance refers to an individual’s ability to take charge of or influence others but to be dominant requires the presence of those other individuals; I can’t just walk around by myself being dominant.

Let’s apply this concept to some beloved friends. Take Lassie, Rin Tin Tin, the Taco Bell Chihuahua and Spuds Mckenzie, the Bull Terrier spokesman for Budweiser in the 80’s. On their own, these dogs are noble (in the case of Lassie and Rin Tin Tin, at least), loveable, and obedient. Now put all four of them in to an empty room for 24-hours with only one food dish delivered 12 hours in to the experiment. It is highly likely that one or more of these dogs will dominate the others in order to eat as much of the food as possible but I’m not sure I could place a reliable bet on which dog that would be. That’s because in this specific context, Lassie may be the first to get to the food and protect it from the others or Spuds McKenzie might bully the others and fight them off. Does that mean Lassie or Spuds are dominant dogs? No. It means that in this specific context, one dog gained the upper hand and wielded power over the others in order to get what it wanted. In this context that dog “dominated” the others. Dominance in dogs is based on a loose hierarchy that may be established when two or more dogs interact. But this is an unstable and constantly shifting hierarchy. Let’s go back to our empty room. What if we suddenly throw two more dogs – Goofy and Pluto – in to the mix (ok, I realize these are not actual dogs, but bear with me here…)? Suddenly, the relationship that was established among our original four dogs changes to take Goofy and Pluto in to account. Even if Lassie acquired the food before, now it may be Pluto who is the most adept at securing resources for himself. Does this mean Lassie is a submissive dog? No. It just means that in this new context she is no longer the individual with the power.

If a dog can never be described as “dominant” how did this idea of a dominant or alpha dog become so entrenched in modern-day dog training? The concept was first developed by Austrian animal behaviorist and Nazi Party member, Konrad Lorenz, in 1949. Lorenz made many contributions to the understanding of dog behavior, but he was also highly influenced by the times in which he lived when dominance and submission applied to dictators and peons, to violent victors and overcome nations. Lorenz’s theory of canine dominance and submission closely mirrored these historical patterns of human action: submissive dogs will roll over (literally and figuratively) under the aggressive leadership of a dominant dog. In the relationship between humans and dogs, he believed, humans are dominant and should express that dominance any way necessary, including through physical means.

Over the following decades, the concept of dominance became standard in dog training and generations of dog owners were taught that the only way to produce an obedient dog was through punishment that proved the dog owner had the power. After the identification of “pack leaders” in the 1970s, research on wild wolf packs was used to support the theory. Unfortunately, this was a case of interpreting the data to fit the theory instead of the other way around. Wolf packs are family groups which are naturally led by wolf moms and dads. Just as in human families, when offspring mature, they leave to go and begin families of their own, they do not stick around to challenge their parental figures for leadership status. “Leaders” emerge in the pack not because one is more dominant or aggressive than another, but because parents must take charge over their children to keep the whole family happy and healthy.

Free ranging dog packs (when they form packs, which is not a given as in the wolf world) differ from wolf packs in that individuals may not have familial ties. But even in this case, dogs fail to establish and cede all power to one “leader.” Instead, as shown in research by Roberto Bonanni (2010), adult individuals take turns in the leadership position according to which dog can contribute most to the pack at any given time. In the pack he studied, Bonanni witnessed at least half of the dogs taking the “lead” at some point (with six individuals in regular rotation at the head of the group) according to which dog could make the strongest contribution to the pack’s welfare in any given context.

So if the idea of canine dominance is invalid, and establishing yourself as the “alpha” in your relationship with your dog is unnecessary and, in many cases, cruel, how should we approach dog training? Luckily, there is not only an alternative, but one that has been proven to be more effective in training dogs. This method – positive-reinforcement training or reward-based training – is in many ways the polar opposite of training that uses physical dominance, pain, and intimidation as a tool. In positive-reinforcement training, the dog is rewarded with something it loves (food, toys, or even praise) when it does something good. This basic tenet opens up tons of possibilities for training a dog to do something positive to replace a behavior you dislike (instead of punishing the “bad” behavior) and for shaping a dog to do fun tricks. Instead of instilling fear in your dog which may lead or exacerbate aggression, reward-based training (in both operant and classical forms) can decrease fear, build a dog’s confidence, and strengthen the human-canine relationship.

With positive-reinforcement training’s record of incredible results in obedience and behavior modification, there is absolutely no reason to use intimidation to train your dog. Really, wouldn’t you rather have your dog love to work for you than fear your presence?