This installment: The Term "Alpha Dog"
Once upon a time, way back in the day, there was a zoo that had a wolf pack. "I will use this pack to study wolf behavior!" said a man*. And so he watched them, and after watching them went on his way and wrote a book about what he saw and how they acted. And then some other folks came along and said "Hey...dogs are a lot like wolves, aren't they? Let's just assume this wolf behavior study will translate to dogs. I'll bet there's a lot of good stuff in there."*
Okay, so what's wrong with that? Some guy wants to study wolves, and he does, big deal. And domestic dogs DID descend from wolves, right? Well, there are a few problems. One, and most glaringly, is that this is not a natural grouping of wolves. Back in the day, it was common practice to capture wild animals and stick them in zoos, and that's what happened with the wolf pack. Only they didn't capture an entire wild pack- they caught individuals, and stuck them into a small enclosed space together. Ever watch The Real World? Know what happens when a bunch of unrelated animals gets stuck together and none of them are allowed to leave? Yeah...something like that.
So what was observed in this captive group of unrelated individuals was a sort of pecking order, with constant conflict and a lot of aggression. And thus the idea that a wolf pack is led by the strongest individual, or Alpha, who then has to fight to keep his position as the head honcho was born. And then it was adopted into the dog training world because people thought they were pretty much the same thing.
Wanna know what really happens?
Wolf packs are a lot more like nuclear human families than hierarchical dictatorships. A male and a female come together, mate, and produce offspring. The juveniles stay with their parents for between two and three years, and then go off to find mates of their own (and thus begin their own packs, usually on adjoining territory). At any one time, a wolf pack is usually comprised of two to three litters of pups, each learning from mom and dad how to survive. Submission is offered willingly, and violence towards packmates is seldom seen. Interestingly, these new observations were made by the same person who had written the first captive wolf study. Nice to know that some people can still admit they were totally wrong.
The term Alpha, as it applies to wolves, means "the pair that mate"...when it's used at all. It doesn't mean "the strongest". It doesn't mean "the most aggressive". It doesn't mean "the one who eats and goes through doors first". Modern wolf researchers have tried to stop using the term because of all the misconception surrounding it. Unfortunately, dog trainers and the general public are a little slow to get the memo.
There was a time, about 30 years ago, when this Alpha Dog theory was all the rage. It was THE way to train. People were using Alpha Rolls (flipping the dog onto its back and pinning it until it stops struggling) left and right, jerking dogs around with choke chains, and explaining this, that, and the other thing as the dog trying to be Dominant- to usurp the human's position as the head of the household and make himself (or herself) the Alpha. There are some trainers out there who took those theories and methods, ran with them, and never looked back (or forward, for that matter).
Since that time, a lot of time and effort has gone into studying the domestic dog, its social behavior, and its learning style. And what has come out of all that research is that this whole Dominance Alpha theory is pretty misguided. There are a few reasons for that.
One, dogs aren't wolves. They might look similar in some cases, but hundreds of years of selective breeding and evolution separate dogs from wolves. Dogs are about as similar to wolves, socially speaking, as humans are to chimpanzees. That is to say- not very. As trainer Ian Dunbar once said, "Looking to wolves for dog training guidance is like looking to chimpanzees for child-rearing advice."
Two, we humans aren't dogs. I know, pretty obvious, right? Despite being animals, dogs are pretty smart. They're fully aware that we're not a big, two-legged Mexican Hairless. Most dog communication is non-verbal, through posture and position of the ears and tail. Well, a human might be able to mimic a posture to some extent, but we're lacking in the ears and tail department. So right off the bat, our ability to "communicate like a dog" is very limited. A dog will never perceive a human as another dog no matter how much "acting like a dog" one does. And the thing about dominance is that it doesn't translate between species. A dog isn't out to dominate a human any more than it is to dominate a squirrel or bird that happened to wander into its yard.
Three, as mentioned previously, in wolves (and dogs), there is MUCH more emphasis on submission than on "dominance". The adults in a wolf pack rarely use force because there's no reason to. Like human parents, they are secure in their knowledge that their offspring are not out to overthrow them. They don't need to bully their young into submission- respect for the parent and teacher is there naturally. In a wolf pack, where teamwork and cooperation are vital to hunting and therefore survival, a constant struggle for who's in charge would waste valuable time and energy. Instead, there is an emphasis on peace-keeping through submission. If there's only one deer leg and two wolves want it, the more submissive wolf (generally younger) will willingly give it up without a fight. It's worth noting that there has never been a documented case of a wolf forcefully Alpha Rolling another wolf- when a wolf (or dog) shows its belly, it's a willing gesture of submission.
Four (and connected to the last point), aggressive displays are reserved for individuals who are insecure in their position. Using the wolf pack example again (I know, I'm using that a lot after saying that dogs aren't wolves), wolves in the middle do occasionally squabble over a particular resource or to assert themselves over a sibling. The leaders, though, don't need to get involved with the squabbling because they're confident in their place as the leaders (also worth noting that the youngest generation don't quarrel with their elders either). So what does it say when an owner feels the need to physically assert themselves over their dogs? That they're not confident in their position as a leader, and that they see the dog as A) an equal and B) a threat to them.
Which leads to reason five: By trying to establish themselves as "Alpha", owners begin a cycle of conflict that is completely unnecessary. By giving the message that they're insecure in their leadership, they miscommunicate that there IS no leader- and so the dog begins to act accordingly, ignoring commands and engaging in other behaviors some trainers are quick to label "Dominance". That, of course, leads the human owner to go to harsher extremes to "be the Alpha", and the cycle continues. A leader secure in his or her leadership doesn't NEED to constantly reaffirm it.
Six, dogs really aren't out to usurp our position as head of the household. What on earth would they do when they got there? Their lack of thumbs alone would surely be a detriment to getting their own food. Humans control all of the vital resources of the house- food, water, and attention- and therefore are ALREADY the leaders. It's just that in many cases, the owners don't know that, or don't know how to use those resources to their advantage. See point five.
Seven (and I think maybe this is the last one...for now) is that most behaviors that some trainers want to label "Dominance" have other causes. They have absolutely NOTHING to do with the dog trying to "gain status" over the owner. A puppy doesn't jump up because he wants to be your boss- it's vying for your attention. A dog doesn't pull on the leash because he has dreams of subjugating you- he just hasn't been taught to walk nicely. Just about everything has been explained by "Dominance" by some trainer or another- from housetraining troubles to a dog barking at a lightbulb. Yes that's right. A certain famous television "trainer" once said that a dog was barking at the bulb because he wanted to "dominate the light". If that doesn't sound utterly ridiculous to you, it really should.
The truth is, aggression begets aggression. In a recent study, 1/3 of all dogs responded to physical punishment (being hit, kicked, grabbed, or rolled) with an aggressive response (growl, snap, bite). Compare that with more positive training methods, which resulted in aggressive response in less than 1 in 200 dogs. By getting physical with a dog, the owner sends the message that such displays are completely acceptable. Which can be a problem when dealing with children or elderly individuals, who are unable to use physical force to "dominate" the dog.
So if we aren't dogs, and dogs aren't wolves, and wolves don't use force to communicate anyway...why do some people still insist on being the "Alpha"? Seeing as it's true meaning is "one of the breeding pair", I think I'd consider using a different word.
And that's why I hate the term Alpha Dog.